in California are expanding into habitat for birds, foxes, bobcats,
and other native animals
By Cheryl Lyn Dybas, Wildlife Conservation Society
of the Week-Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Vintner's Reserve: $12.99-reads
a red flag announcement in a local supermarket.
the real price of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay and other wines
made from grapes grown in California's Sonoma County is much
higher than the grocery store's list price, according to Jodi
Hilty of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Adina Merenlender
of the University of California at Berkeley.
two scientists contend that California wines have become so
popular (to wit-the run on pinot noir made fashionable by the
movie Sideways) that vineyards are rapidly replacing natural
riparian, or streamside, ecosystems. Grapes, they say, are being
grown too close to the water line. "The practice is costing
native animals habitat needed for food, reproduction, and seasonal
migrations. It's also leading to increased erosion from barren
riverbanks and more sediments in streams," explains Hilty.
results of the ecologists' research have added fuel to a raging
California Wine Country debate: How far should vineyards be
set back from rivers, creeks, and streams to allow wildlife
access to these channels and prevent sediments from muddying
answer is clear. Wide setbacks are much better for wildlife.
studies are instrumental in figuring out how extensive stream
buffers need to be," says Andrea Mackenzie, general manager
of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space
District. In many areas of Sonoma County, she adds, riparian
zones provide the only viable wildlife corridors between fragmented
landscapes. "It is estimated that Sonoma County has already
lost between seventy and ninety percent of its riparian habitat.
Streamside areas support more than half of the reptiles and
three-quarters of the amphibians in California." All told,
349 animal species rely on California oak woodlands with creeks
running through them.
see how setback size might affect wildlife use of riparian corridors
in California grape-growing regions, Hilty and Merenlender positioned
remotely triggered cameras along 21 streams in six Sonoma County
vineyards. Five of the corridors were "wide" (more
than 1,080 feet on each side of a creek); seven were "narrow"
(65 feet on each side); and nine were "denuded" (vegetation
covered only 20 feet on each side).
detected bobcats, gray foxes, and striped skunks most often
in wide corridors," says Hilty. "Native animals were
detected in wide corridors twice as often as in narrow ones,
and more than three times as much as in denuded ones. Overall,
mammals were eleven times more likely to travel alongside creeks
than in vineyards."
vineyard stream setback in Sonoma County is 25 to 100 feet on
each side of a waterway, depending on its location. The widest
setbacks flank the Russian River, home to threatened species
of salmon. According to Greg Carr of the Sonoma County Permit
and Resource Management Department, "One of the biggest
issues in Sonoma is riparian corridor protection. Grape farmers
are generally opposed to making the setbacks larger.
land is extremely valuable in this county. With literally thousands
of miles of streams, we need to find a balance between vineyard
expansion and riparian protection."
proposal under consideration by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
would increase stream setbacks for housing and other types of
development to 200 feet along the Russian River and 100 feet
on all other Sonoma County perennial and seasonal streams identifiable
on a U.S. Geological Survey map. Agricultural, including vineyard,
setbacks would be approximately 50 percent less. However, in
vineyards with slopes of more than 20 percent, which would be
more likely to have significant erosion, 100-foot stream setbacks
would be required. The recommendations could affect 3,700 miles
of Sonoma County streams, and create 89,000 acres of protected
riparian land in the county.
even this increase, Hilty and Merenlender maintain, would not
be big enough to protect some species. Predators, for example,
need larger territories in which to hunt. Grizzly bears and
wolves disappeared long ago from northern California, says Merenlender,
"and the survival of other native animals such as bobcats,
foxes, and coyotes could be threatened if vineyards are allowed
to plant close to rivers and streams."
nation's network of rivers, lakes, and streams originates from
a myriad of small streams and wetlands," states the 2004
report Where Rivers are Born: The Scientific Imperative for
Defending Small Streams and Wetlands, sponsored by American
Rivers and the Sierra Club. "Yet these headwater streams
and wetlands exert critical influences on the character and
quality of downstream waters. Small, or headwater, streams make
up at least 80 percent of the nation's stream network. Changes
that degrade these headwater systems affect streams, lakes,
and rivers downstream."
Cornwall, a biologist with the Sonoma Ecology Center, can list
dozens of benefits that streams with wide borders provide-from
flood protection to good groundwater quality to flourishing
fish and wildlife populations. "Stream protection,"
she adds, "is everybody's business."
is at the root of the issue. Reactions of vineyard owners to
the proposed wider setbacks vary from open hostility to welcome.
Nick Frey of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association sums
up the sentiments of the majority: "The scientific basis
to justify the recommended setbacks, and the economic costs
for landowners, have not been well considered. The setbacks
will reduce grape farmers' income-producing acres, and are likely
greater than needed to filter sediment from runoff and preserve
Sonoma, the grape is king. At last count, Sonoma County boasted
190 wineries. More than 50,000 acres of grapes worth $375 million
grow within its 52-mile-wide, 47-mile-long environs. "With
the value of vintners' collective investment in land here,"
says Jeff Lyon, a viticulturist at Gallo Vineyards, "we
need to plant grapes on as much of that land as we can. Although
not all of Gallo's holdings are being used to grow grapes-we
don't farm fifty percent of our land at any given time-our primary
business is making wine."
as a result of legal action, stream protection now is on Gallo's
list of priorities. Gallo of Sonoma owns much of the land at
the mouth of Porter Creek, which empties into Russian River
salmon habitat, including nearby acreage known as the Twin Valley
Ranch. In March 2003, the office of Sonoma County District Attorney
Stephan Passalacqua reached a settlement on a civil enforcement
action against Gallo Vineyards, a result of sediment discharges
into the waterways at Twin Valley. According to Lyon, Gallo
had developed approximately 350 acres of grapes on Twin Valley
Ranch. Two small sections where the vineyard cleared hillsides
of vegetation created an erosion runoff problem. But other hillside
vineyard segments at the site already had established groundcover
in place, he adds.
the terms of the settlement, Gallo was directed to mitigate
the impacts of stream pollution by paying $161,000 for watershed
enhancements, undertaking other environmental improvements valued
at $350,000, hosting a sediment control workshop for grape growers,
and adopting a policy to establish groundcover plants on sensitive
hillsides. "Protecting our natural resources is one of
our top priorities [in Sonoma County]," said Passalacqua.
in Sonoma County, salmon are reaping the benefits of land ownership
by grape growers. Henry and Holly Wendt, of Quivera Vineyards,
are restoring Wine Creek in the Dry Creek Valley. Fifty years
ago, salmon were so plentiful along the creek that fishermen
pulled them out by the dozens. Now the fish are almost gone.
buying the vineyard in 1980, the Wendts learned that the Pomo
Indians once smoked salmon at fishing camps along Wine Creek's
banks. The vintners subsequently installed seven dams to provide
nursery pools for young fish, and helped rebuild the gravel
beds salmon need for spawning.
They also shored up the steep banks to keep them from collapsing
during heavy rains, and removed rows of grapevines along a quarter
mile of the creek. The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped
finance the effort, as did the California Fish and Game Commission,
which matched restoration funds invested by the Wendts.
Wendts say their neighbors have undertaken similar restoration
projects, and that improvements to the habitat have increased
winery visits, especially in February and March when salmon
numbers reach their peak.
the Wendts are protecting fish, Sonoma County vintner Sam Sebastiani
has turned his attention to birds. Each year in the Carneros
region, more than a million birds visit a 90-acre waterfowl
preserve at Sebastiani's Viansa Winery. He purchased the land
on which Viansa grapes now grow, he says, despite the fact that
more than half the winery's 175 acres are flood-prone and too
wet for grape growing. With a grant from Ducks Unlimited, Sebastiani
constructed wetlands there in 1993, digging a mile-long canal
to keep water depth at about 18 inches, to establish marsh plants
for food and cover for birds. He also added five islands to
give birds places to retreat from predators. Sebastiani now
shares the property with more than 156 bird species, including
golden eagles, tundra swans, canvasback ducks, and tri-colored
Mondavi Wineries has taken steps to better protect stream sides.
Mondavi signed a "Safe Harbor" agreement (see "Safe
Harbor," June 2001) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
(FWS) to restore the forest buffer along Taco Creek, a seasonal
stream that runs through its vineyards. According to FWS officials,
the creek is prime habitat for the federally protected California
red-legged frog, least Bell's vireo, and southwestern willow
the restoration efforts, riparian conditions along Taco Creek
had been severely degraded, says Diane Noda of the FWS, likely
due to grazing practices. The stream channel was not shaded,
and where willows once lined both sides of the creek, its banks
had very few overhanging trees.
Wineries planted willows all along the creek and more than 400
oak trees-including coast live oaks, valley oaks, and blue oaks-on
the flats directly above the banks. The goal, explains Noda,
is to establish a forest buffer of at least 50 feet on each
side of Taco Creek.
yellow starthistle, an invasive Eurasian species, is crucial
to the survival of these newly planted trees. As the density
of yellow starthistle is reduced, additional species native
to the region, such as creeping wild rye, coffee berry, and
native bunch grasses, will be planted among the willows. And
to increase the likelihood of success, parking and eating areas
for vineyard crews have been moved to upland areas away from
far from Mondavi land, as the bobcat roams, is Alexander Valley
Vineyards, one of the vineyards on which Hilty placed the cameras.
"Jodi was here conducting research for two or three years,"
says Mark Houser, vineyard manager. "She showed me foxes,
quail, and even a mountain lion along Hoot Owl Creek, which
runs through our property. The philosophy at Alexander Valley
is that while we're here to make a living by growing grapes,
we're not here to 'scorch the earth' in the process."
Wine Estates makes a similar claim. "Recall the respect
for the Earth that preceded your enjoyment," states Jess
Jackson, the vineyard's founder, on bottles of its wine. Kendall-Jackson,
one of the largest landowners in Sonoma County, did not respond
to inquiries about stream setbacks in its vineyards. #
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