Defenders of Wildlife’s California field experts tallied several success stories this past year in Defenders' decades-long fight to protect wildlife and wild spaces.
In 2022, we prioritized the protection of the southern sea otter, Sierra Nevada fisher, gray wolf, Chinook salmon and other freshwater fishes, desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, migratory birds and other species that need immediate conservation action.
Working for Wolves in California
Defenders continues to advocate for gray wolves as they reoccupy their historical territories in the state. This year saw the Whaleback Pack in Siskiyou County produce its largest litter of wolf pups. At the same time, the Lassen Pack maintained a healthy reproductive rate for the sixth consecutive year.
California Program Director Pamela Flick is working with conservation partners, ranching representatives, federal wildlife specialists and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to finalize a pilot program to incentivize coexistence between livestock and wolves sharing the landscape.
The program will compensate ranchers for livestock losses caused by wolves and reimburse livestock producers for the purchase of nonlethal conflict reduction tools and strategies.
Expanding the Range of Sea Otter Recovery
In September, the California Assembly recognized Sea Otter Awareness Week and Defenders’ 20 years of sponsoring the event. For one week each year, Defenders joins partners, such as the Elakha Alliance, Sea Otter Savvy and Monterey Bay Aquarium, to raise awareness of the plight that sea otters face through events highlighting sea otter natural history, behavior, health and management.
Our California team hosted the Sea Otter Reintroduction Summit in mid-October, during which experts discussed restoring this iconic species across its historical range. Sea otters once inhabited a 650-mile stretch along the West Coast—extending from the San Francisco Bay to the Oregon-Washington border—until the the explosion of the fur trade in the 19th century decimated sea otters in this region.
Andy Johnson, California Representative and sea otter expert, is currently working with a team of conservationists and academics along the coast to monitor sea otter habitat, hoping to expand the current sea otter population along northern California and Oregon.
Central Valley Wetlands and the Bay-Delta
California Water Policy Advisor Ashley Overhouse worked diligently this year with federal, state and non-governmental partners for smart water management plans for the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary and the Central Valley. Overhouse stepped into Defenders’ board seat on the Central Valley Joint Venture, a partnership among conservation organizations and state and federal agencies. This partnership works to make sure wildlife refuges, such as the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, receive enough water to support the wetland habitats.
Over the summer, Defenders fought for the full implementation of Central Valley Project Improvement Act water allocations to the state’s wildlife refuges. Despite a congressional directive, refuges in California’s Central Valley are not getting their fair share of water. Defenders also advocated against the state’s Delta Conveyance Project, also known as the Delta Tunnel Project, that could devastate fisheries and the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Defenders (together with partner NRDC) called on the California Department of Water Resources to substantially revise its non-compliant draft environmental impact report on the project.
The California team is proud to have helped spark a monumental contract renegotiation over water use. Thanks to requests by Defenders and partners, the U.S Bureau of Reclamation and the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority revised its agreement on distribution of waters from the San Joaquin River. This marks a positive step toward more sustainable water management and protections for endangered species that depend on a healthy San Joaquin River.
Working to Protect the Desert Tortoise
Defenders continued its ongoing campaign against unrestrained use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) within habitats of protected species.
This year, Senior California Representative Jeff Aardahl compelled the California State Parks' Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division to investigate the mortality rates and other detrimental impacts OHVs have on desert tortoises in the Western Mojave Desert. Desert tortoise populations in the Western Mojave Desert have declined sharply since 1979 to numbers that are so low that the species is on a path to extinction. The Division is now contracting a multiyear study on OHV impacts on lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the desert tortoises. Defenders hopes that the results of this study will help the Division determine if changes are needed in its activities in order to avoid further OHV-caused mortality of desert tortoises.
Energy Land Usage in Golden State
In her early days on the job, Senior California Representative Sophia Markowska traveled from the Mojave Desert to Fresno, visiting proposed and existing renewable energy projects in the Central Valley and desert areas. While on this trip, she learned more about three proposed solar projects sites in Imperial, Kern and Tulare counties and, upon her return to the office, she submitted comments that advocated for stronger mitigation measures to address impacts by these projects on imperiled species. Her recommendations included measures such as reducing traffic speed, conducting adequate biological surveys and coordinating with government entities to compensate for losses of wildlife habitat.
Defenders believes the state must balance its energy policies with those that protect species such as the burrowing owl, desert tortoise, San Joaquin kit fox and Swainson’s hawk. While we support California’s goal to be carbon-free by 2045, Defenders will continue to encourage smart-from-the-start initiatives that direct renewable energy infrastructure to areas that do not impact imperiled wildlife.
Wins in Court
Defenders joined partner organizations in a federal lawsuit against BLM, who issued a permit to the Cadiz Corporation for a groundwater pipeline from the Cadiz Valley to southern California. BLM did not require any environmental analysis on the impacts of pumping 75,000-acre feet (24.5 billion gallons) of groundwater per year (for 50 years) upon springs and riparian areas in Mojave Trails National Monument. These ecologically- significant areas are fed by the same groundwater that the Cadiz Corporation proposed to remove.
The federal court reversed the BLM decision due to the agency’s failure to require an environmental assessment as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). BLM admitted its NEPA violation and asked the federal court to approve the cancellation of the right of way for the water pipeline.
In another significant win for wildlife, California’s Third District Court of Appeal ruled in September that terrestrial invertebrates can be protected under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA), including four species of imperiled native bumble bees Defenders and partners organizations had petitioned the state to list. Bees and other insects are key to maintaining biodiversity and sustaining agricultural systems. For example, many are essential for pollinating crop plants. As a result of this ruling, other terrestrial invertebrates threatened with extinction in California are eligible for protections under the CESA.
We are proud supporters of the proposed legislation to create the Western Riverside National Wildlife Refuge in Riverside County, which is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. Between 2001 and 2017, California lost more than one million acres of wildlands to construction projects, underscoring the increasing value of open space. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla put forward the bill that, if enacted, would create a national refuge in southern California to protect important wild places.
On the heels of last year’s successful passage of Assembly Bill 1183, we celebrated the establishment of the Desert Conservation Program within the Wildlife Conservation Board. Defenders’ ongoing advocacy this year secured $30 million in funding plus dedicated staffing for this important program, which will bring much-needed new conservation investments to the desert region.
Defenders Making Moves in California
In 2022, we said goodbye to, and celebrated the work of, our longtime Water Policy Advisor, Rachel Zwillinger, and California Program Associate, Monica LeFlore. We continue to appreciate their contributions to the conservation of imperiled species and habitat in California. We also welcomed two new California staffers this year: Senior California Representative Sophia Markowska, and Water Policy Advisor Ashley Overhouse. Both have hit the ground running.
In the coming new year, Defenders’ small but mighty California team will continue to advocate for at-risk species and the habitats needed for wildlife populations to recover. And we will diligently work to pass protective policies and ensure best practices by the state and federal government for biodiversity conservation.