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Vineyards in California are expanding into habitat for birds, foxes, bobcats, and other native animals

June 3, 2005

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas, Wildlife Conservation Society

Deal of the Week-Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Vintner's Reserve: $12.99-reads a red flag announcement in a local supermarket.

But 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.

The 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.

The 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 the waters?

The answer is clear. Wide setbacks are much better for wildlife.

"Field-based 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.

To 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).

"We 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."

Mandated 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.

Vineyard 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."

A 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.

But 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."

"Our 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."

Caitlin 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."

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 wildlife corridors."

In 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."

But 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.

Under 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.

Elsewhere 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.

After 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.

The 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.

While 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 herons.

Robert 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 flycatcher.

Before 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.

Mondavi 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.

Controlling 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 Taco Creek.

Not 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."

Kendall-Jackson 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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