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THE OUTDOORS : The Call of the Riled : State Wildlife Officials Trying to Ward Off Rising Cost of Management, Development

Times Staff Writer

Wildlife officials are proud of their work at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Their herd of tule elk has grown to more than 100 since seven from the Owens Valley were introduced to the area in 1977. And the herd is still prospering.

River otters still swim playfully in the meandering waterways, home also to giant white sturgeon and striped bass. Eagles and hawks soar over sprawling wetlands that support millions of giant-sized jack rabbits, all wide-eyed and alert to the dangers of the territory.

Nature’s ways are evident. But man’s are becoming increasingly evident, too, which concerns officials.

They say rampant development results in overcrowding and pollution. Furthermore, the growing inability of hunters and fishermen to provide adequate funding for wildlife management and land acquisition makes it more difficult to protect the fragile areas.

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“We have 28 million (people in California) going to 40 million by the year 2010,” Director Pete Bontadelli said. “Clearly the pressures on wildlife are greater than anything we’ve seen before.”

Given these projections, Bontadelli said the state’s ability to manage existing wildlands, and the opportunity to make future land acquisitions, is becoming more restricted. In short, revenue isn’t keeping up with the rising costs of wildlife management.

The grizzly bear, California’s proud symbol of strength, is long gone, and officials fear more species native to the state might also become extinct. The kit fox, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon, to name a few, are endangered.

Fortunately, through bond issues over the years, Californians have helped the state set aside about 400,000 acres of precious wildlife habitat, which Bontadelli said supports many of these endangered and threatened species. He claims, however, that such land is becoming more difficult to maintain.

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Another problem DFG officials might have to address in the near future involves a proposed cap on federal aid to the various states for wildlife management. If the proposal--included in the Reagan administration budget for fiscal 1990--is passed by Congress, there would be $100-million caps on both the Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson funds, federally relegated funds that support the states’ wildlife agencies.

The fund, which began in 1937, raises money through taxes on sporting firearms and ammunition. In the last fiscal year, it raised $119 million for state agencies involved with wildlife restoration and hunter safety. The Pittman-Robertson fund is credited with creating modern game management agencies in the states.

The Dingell-Johnson program, which began in 1950 and was expanded in 1984 under the Wallop-Breaux Act, raises money by taxing fishing tackle and boats. It raised $179.5 million last year.

Among other things, the money is used to acquire and improve habitat and restock species wiped out by excessive hunting or poor land-management practices.

The comebacks of the whitetail deer, wild turkey and wood duck, as well as the native brook trout and the cutthroat trout, can be traced to the two programs.

In a statement released by the White House, President Bush said he would recommend to Congress that “the funds be used for the purposes intended.”

Said Bontadelli: “We’re hopeful that Congress will not allow (the cap) to take affect. At this point, it’s in Congress’ hands.”

In any case, Bontadelli emphasized that the department needs more money to assure the quality of wildlife for future generations.

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Some help has come through the California Wildlands Program.

It was dedicated at Grizzly Island Feb. 13 under the slogan: “Save Our Wild Places,” and is expected to be in full operation by April 1.

Aimed at increasing the state’s revenue by charging visitors--not just hunters and fishermen--to nine major wildlife areas, the program is being hailed by conservation groups.

“Habitat loss is the greatest overall threat to California’s wildlife,” said Richard Spotts, California representative of Defenders of Wildlife. “Traditional hunting and fishing revenues have not kept pace with the mounting conservation challenges.”

Tim Egan, president of the California Waterfowl Assn., said: “We’re hoping that with this new program, and others like it, the rest of the public is going to make their contribution or else we’re going to lose a lot of resources we don’t want to lose.”

Egan said only about 290,000 acres of wetlands are left in California, down from millions years ago. Suisun Marsh, which surrounds the DFG-managed Grizzly Island, has shrunk--through erosion, reclamation and agricultural and industrial development--from 750,000 acres to 85,000.

“Through the North American (Waterfowl Management) plan (a joint United States-Canada effort) we’re trying to reestablish wetlands area in California and North America,” Egan said. “Now they’ve got a money stream that’s going to help us create more wetlands.”

Most of the support, however, will come from sales of annual and daily wildlife passes, at $10 and $2, respectively, and native species stamps, which can be bought at DFG offices and sporting goods stores.

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The passes will enable visitors at any of these wildlife areas “to see first-hand, enjoy, watch and photograph such wildlife as tule elk, bald eagles, river otters, white pelicans and flocks of waterfowl in a natural setting.”

As George Gamble of the California Trappers Assn. put it: “It’s time for nonconsumptive users to lend their support.”

Wildlife interpreters, as well as photography blinds, nature trails and posted descriptions of wildlife are included in the price.

The eight other reserves are:

The Lake Earl Wildlife Area in Del Norte County; Ash Creek Wildlife Area on the Modoc-Lassen County line; Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Sutter and Butte counties; Los Banos Wildlife Area in Merced County; Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve on the Monterey Peninsula; San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Riverside County; Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve in Orange County and the Imperial-Wister Wildlife Area in Imperial County.

The Grizzly Island Wildlife Area lies in the heart of Suisun Marsh, named years ago by the Patwin Indians who used to hunt and fish here. The “Land of the West Wind,” as it is appropriately called, is home to 200 species of birds, 45 species of mammals and 36 types of reptiles and amphibians. The sprawling tidal wetlands are one of the country’s most important. As much as 25% of the state’s wintering waterfowl might be concentrated here at one time.

Short-eared owls, ring-necked pheasants and ducks of all varieties--there are 150 private hunting clubs in the area--are part of the scenery, as are numerous birds of prey, including the majestic golden eagle.

The tule elk, one of 20 herds in the state, graze on prickly lettuce and grasses and, being excellent swimmers, can at times be seen crossing with grace the many sloughs and waterways that wind through the wetlands. During mating season, the bulls put on an impressive display of bugling and knocking horns in competition for their prospective harems.

Though prospering now, these animals serve as a reminder of how reckless disregard for wildlife can lead to the inadvertent extermination of a species. Tule elk are native to this area, but were wiped out during the Gold Rush by the 49ers, who, according to wildlife supervisor Dennis Becker, “took away their habitat and used the animals for hides and food.”

The present herd is but one example of how, with proper management, a species can be saved from extinction and managed effectively.

The question now, however, is whether the Wildlands program will gain acceptance among the public and provide the necessary funds.

“We are very comfortable that in the first 18 months we can generate at least $5.6 million,” Bontadelli said.

To do that, the department must sell 200,000 outdoor passes and 100,000 native species stamps, a goal Bontadelli believes is realistic.

“In the long term, I think that’s where we need to be,” he said. “It will also provide a funding base for the marine mammal program, threatened and endangered species programs, fisheries (management) and much of our non-game program in wildlife management. So this is critical for our wide variety of species’ needs and management objectives for the department.”


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