April 7, 2023 - After a record-breaking rain and snow year in California, Tulare Lake has reformed. I write this just as below-average cold temperatures across the Western U.S. are ending and a warm-up approaches. I worry about communities and towns in the San Joaquin Valley which are already inundated by rain floods, and now may be experiencing even more floodwaters as the 300% of average southern Sierra snowpack begins to melt. 

Some links about Tulare Lake reforming:



I am partly fascinated at how Tulare Lake is reforming, as this shows how natural processes such as floods are still something Californians are grappling with. I wrote about this in 2010 in my book. Nothing has changed except to see this happen on a mega-gargantuan level as the winter season of 2022-2023 breaks all records since modern record-keeping began.

History repeats itself as levees break, and floodwaters seek to disgorge into primeval natural channels and basins that have existed for thousands of years before industrial agriculture and massive state and federal water management projects in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

I have seen this over the years of observing the natural world: water will flow where it wants to go, eventually, forcefully, despite modern attempts to block it.

Following is my original manuscript written in the 1990s and 2000s, and heavily edited for my 2010 book. I have received email requests to re-publish this material on this website during this remarkable water year in California. 

One title I thought of long ago for this chapter was Water's Edge. But the name Tulare evokes much more of the local history, Hispanic contributions, and endemic habitats of California's vast inland freshwater world, so much of which has disappeared. 

But these watery habitats are always trying to return. 

Since I wrote this chapter decades ago, I have come to appreciate ever more how crucial water is, and how abundant surface water environemnts were before European colonialism. Inland California was a water world almost beyond conception. And this contributed significantly to the state's rise as an economic superpower globally, as surface and ground waters were pumped, diverted, dammed, diked, and channeled for industrial agriculture on a grand scale. 

This came at a cost, however, as groundwater pumping lead to subsiding lands in the San Joaquin Valley, and the pursuit of profits caused farmers to grow ever more water-thirsty crops such as almond trees for export to Europe. This was literally shipping California water off to luxury markets, unsustainably. The extreme drought of 2020-2021 showed this. Central Valley water-starved orchards were bulldozed down by the hundred-acre. I saw it. There simply was not enough water for the agricultural boom.

Yet California's natural processes persist, despite markets and development projects to try to conquer and control water. This last winter season brought the drought to an extreme halt, and then the winter proceeded to dump a record amount of rain and snow on the state. Nature is unpredictable. I tried to convey this message in my book, that humans will have a hard time controlling natural processes until they understand them better and learn to live with them sustainably. I hope the residents of Alpaugh and other towns being flooded in this basin stay safe and get the help they need to survive this.

Tulare Lake before European contact: Yokuts hunt waterfowl in a tule balsa as snow geese fly overhead. The Sierra crest is visible in the distance. Oil on cotton rag paper.

The Manuscript

One idea for a chapter title and illustration.



Living With Your Landscape


Inland Marsh

     As we move from the mysterious sea onto more familiar land we encounter a transitional place, a summer-green sward of freshwater plant growth and associated faunas. Many of the same rules that apply to salt marshes apply here too, but it is a landscape where modern city people seldom go. Moving from the broad methods of historical ecology, in this chapter I’d like to talk about the local place; how people related in the past to their land, and how we can again learn to live locally. Finding out the history of your place informs how you work with it – because historical ecology should not be some abstract theory you simply read about, but ideally part of a way of life.   

     Marshes are not places you usually think of as local homes, but people have lived alongside them for ages because of the presence of all-important freshwater. And lately, marsh conservation and restoration projects have become common because of the rich biodiversity found in these habitats. We will see how the inland marshes of California have changed over time, what animals used to live in these jeweled oases, and how we can help bring these places to health. Think of it as cultural historical ecology.

Getting Your Hands Dirty


     The morning was hot already, but we persisted in cutting tall bulrush and cattail stems from the shallow pool. After testing different kings of cutting tools we found that curved sickles worked best, holding the plants in one hand and swinging the blade with the other – I began to realize how medieval peasants felt harvesting wheat. I live near a small desert wetland, full of cattails, tules, and bulrushes along the Amargosa River, a linear oasis full of endemic fish, amphibians, and rare birds that cuts across artificial political boundaries from western Nevada into eastern California. Quite a few of my jobs and volunteer activities have taken place along this river and other desert streams, the Owens and Mojave Rivers, and much of the work revolved around clearing “excess” marsh vegetation to make open water for various rare pupfish (Cyprinodon spp.), tui chub (Siphateles bicolor), Speckled dace (Rhinichthys osculus), and even isolated toad populations. The little artificial refugium pond that held these colorful blue pupfish was crammed full of dead old cattail stems, years of growth piled higher and higher, leaving only crevices of water for the fish to swim through. I often wondered how they survived before we came to cut the marsh growth. What was pupfish habitat like a thousand years ago? 

     Back home, the environmental organization The Nature Conservancy (TNC) had been working hard to restore Amargosa toad (Bufo nelsonii) habitat in the local spring system, an area impacted by livestock grazing, alfalfa irrigation waterworks, and invasive Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), and crayfish that were devouring the toads’ eggs and tadpoles. In addition, the cattails, tules, and bulrushes were, as usual, spreading densely and filling all the open water that the toads used to breed in. TNC constructed new pools and channels with tractor-hoe machines. Plastic liners were spread over the bottoms of some waterways to prevent new growth of the marsh vegetation after digging. The restoration project was designed to reshape the former irrigation ditch system into a more natural form. But after a few years the bulrushes began poking through and shredding the liner. Light fluffy floating cattail seeds quickly colonized the other open-water channels and pools, and within one season a green dense hip-high thicket of stems and leaves had grown up.


Owens tui chub

Again, we went out to parts of the shallow marsh edge with shovels and hand clippers, and dug small open pools a few inches deep. The toads did not need much to be happy – that night they discovered the new open water and began calling their soft piping songs; the next morning the pool glittered with strings of tiny black eggs encased in clear “jelly.” The toads seemed to favor disturbance, and I pondered on what sort of natural processes created such disturbances before we came along with our shovels and metal blades to annually dig new pools.

     Clues came when TNC began to manipulate the habitat in different ways, based on historical ecological studies of what the valley may have been like before Euro-American development. The local Paiute and Shoshone elders advised biologists that long ago their people had regularly burned the marshes to open up waterfowl habitat and renew useful plants. After a long permit process and careful planning, TNC carried out a control burn on a selected part of the marsh. Tall dry grass, rush, and bulrush singed off in the low orange flames, revealing a big patch of blackened charcoal ground. The hidden sinuous water channels and pools suddenly appeared from underneath the vegetation mat. Within a week toads found the open water and laid their eggs. The spot had not seen toad breeding in years because of the mono-culture of dense marsh vegetation. Six months later in spring, luxuriant new green grasses, rushes, and bulrushes grew over the burned ground, and a new generation of toads hopped about the underbrush (see more in the fire chapter).

Miwok man using cultural fire methods to manage marshes hundreds of years ago. Oil on cotton rag paper.

     The question of the past came up: disturbance must have been a regular part of this valley ecosystem. The Indians regularly set fires, they dug marsh plants with digging sticks, and trimmed willows and mesquites to increase the quality of new growth for basketry material or to increase edible mesquite beans. Native grazing animals, although not present in larger numbers in these desert river valleys, did graze marsh plants and trample open water in spots – elk in the Central Valley, Bison in northeastern California, and deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, and rabbits added minor grazing effects in other parts of the state. 

     In addition, the rivers flooded periodically, scouring away areas of vegetation, flattening dead plant material, and even transporting fish and toads into new areas. When I lived in Bishop (Inyo County), along the Owens River working for the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), I used to discuss prehistoric pupfish with Steve Parmenter, fishery biologist and expert at ridding weedy cattails from fish habitat. The Owens River today is heavily controlled for water storage and transport via pipeline to Los Angeles, and for sport trout angling. But hundreds of years ago, trout were not native here, and the river probably held thousands of Owens pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus), thriving in its shifting channels and overflow pools. Pupfish may have taken advantage of new marshes formed by floods that later dried up, stranding some of the fish. But other new habitats formed in a shifting disturbance mosaic of marsh destruction and re-creation. 

     Now the pupfish must be carefully tended in pools away from the river to keep them from the hungry mouths of the introduced trout, and to reproduce the habitats they desire – not the cold fast-flowing deep river channel, but the warm, shallow edge marshes and pools of open water. Excessive growth of tules and cattails must be removed by hand. Steve developed various cutting tools, such as rice-knives attached to long poles to reach into deeper ponds. From him I learned that the best conservation biology involved getting mud on your hands, the willingness to try different methods and see what works.

“I’ve found that the cattails don’t grow back if you cut them below the water surface,” he told me as he rubbed his reddish beard and looked out over the fish lake. “Bulrushes are trickier, though.” 

     DFG also carries out other methods for optimizing the desert fish communities, like control burns at Fish Lake Slough. “Managed disturbance” has replaced the natural disturbance of flood and fire.

     But as I learned pulling cattails for toads at my home, we humans have always been a part of the landscape. For thousands of years people have been changing, caring for, and manipulating marshes and other habitats. And I do not think it is a bad thing. The idea of “wilderness” may be the artificial one. At Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park one day, Timbisha Shoshone elder Pauline Esteves explained to me that people needed to take care of the springs around here, tend to them. “We are related to the springs, to the water,” she said.     

     Land management agencies and organizations have not reached that depth of connection to the land, but locals like me are beginning to develop more personal relations with our springs and marshes and willow groves, learning to live with them in an ongoing way. Quick fixes are not going to work – the land must be included as a part of our daily life. Historical ecology includes humans, and even our cultural ways of making a home on the land.

Speckled dace habitat restoration notes.

Marsh Foods and Fibers


     As I dug out extra cattails from the toad marsh by my house, I sometimes washed a few root-rhizomes and ate pieces of them—the cream-colored marsh food tasted slightly sweet and starchy. Marshes were the storehouses of raw materials, foods, and medicines for native people for thousands of years. Cattails roots were also roasted on hot coals or dried and ground into meal. The "fluff"-covered seeds were also collected for food, and the new stems peeled and eaten raw like bamboo shoots. The tall stems and flat leaves were sewn together as floor mats, bundled as roof thatch, made into cordage, used as the interior of duck decoys, as lining for the inside of storage and roasting pits, dried for kindling, and the young stems were woven into baskets. All parts of the cattail plant were dried and stored for year-round use.

     Basketmakers still visit the marshes to collect plant fibers, although today these storehouses are rarer. The tall round stems of tules were important to people in a variety of ways: they wove floor mats for sitting and sleeping on and for covering willow-pole houses; bundles were tied together to make boats; women pounded tule strips until soft to make apron skirts; and rope was fashioned from tule stems. The roots were edible.

     Through the marsh mud sedges (Carex) spread their long rhizomes -- horizontal roots -- that basket-makers searched out and tended, as they still do. The four- to five-foot long rhizomes were revealed with a digging stick and cut with a clam shell, coiled up and placed in a burden basket to be taken home. There they would be split, dried, and stored, and finally made into beautiful baskets of all kinds, with strands of white, yellow, tan, or brown roots fibers. 



     Overcast skies and cold air blew on my cheeks, tan-colored tules rose against the silver-gray clouds -- November in a freshwater marsh, far inland from the sea. A Song sparrow chirped loudly from the depths of the round tule stems, and Red-winged blackbirds flew about, calling, gathering for the night. As I turned a bend in my raft a group of Ring-necked ducks and Mallards exploded out of the water with gurgling splashes, some strongly rising out of the water, others running along the surface, feet pattering, wings flapping loudly. Silhouettes of ducks in lines and groups smoothly flowed overhead. Three hundred years ago the sky might have been blackened by them.

     In contrast to the minute desert springs and ribbons of river-fringe I worked in, the Delta and low parts of the Central Valley that received flooding from the great rivers was once a vast freshwater marsh. The Delta was 1,000 square miles of wetlands, and at high tide 600 square miles went under water (Bohn 1969). Dominated by Tules (Schoenoplectus acutus and californicus), it was a world of summer-green stems standing higher than a man, where masses of rhizomatous roots decayed into rich organic soils, and where in the winter river waters rolled over the dead graying stems to create an enormous waterfowl feeding ground. 

     “Tulare” was the land of tules to the Spaniards who first saw it. Pedro Font in April 1775 traveling east from San Francisco looked over a low hill and saw an immense plain, “immeasurable,” with few trees and a confusion of water and tules. Many islands and rivers branched through it, and Font saw large elk herds near the water and an Indian village by a river, with the great Sierra Nevada on the other side. A few days later Font’s party followed the numerous well-beaten elk trails down to the water leading into boggy mires. They came to a track of a man leading to a little village within the tules, but the trail got marshy. Treading on ashes of burnt tules, Font noticed piles of snail and turtle shells left in the silt from a past river-flood event. They finally gave up trying to reach the Sierra after meeting a man who had spent the whole day getting around a tule marsh, only to see many more tule marshes ahead of him (Bolton 1930a).

The old vast Delta full of tulare marshes, on the edge of a grassy plain with vernal pools, riparian strip, and oak savanna. The snowy Sierra Nevada lies in the disance. Pastel on gray paper.

     What an amazing world this must have been. From my own explorations of the marsh remnants, I could tell that tules and cattails (Typha latifolia) probably dominated deepwater fresh marshes, while shallower marshes were a riot of American threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), Alkali bulrush (S. robustus), Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), Spikerush (Eleocharis palustris), sedges (Carex nebrascenisis and others), and Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum). Common reed (Phragmites australis) , called “cane” or carrizo  in Spanish, choked wet places especially along the margins of rivers, and helped to prevent the banks from washing away in floods (Watson 1880). 

     Many streams emptying into Sacramento Valley from the surrounding hills were blocked by natural levees built up by sediments carried by the river (some levees were as large as 20 feet high and one was 10 miles wide); the stream waters pooled up into “sinks” full of tule marshes. Putah, Cache, and Butte Creeks are examples (Katibah 1984).

Threesquare bulrush

Common reedgrass

South Delta scene from the past along the San Joaquin River. Colored pencil on paper.

     Members of the San Joaquin Agricultural Society boated around the muddy sloughs of the Delta, noting the reclamation, diking, cattle and horse grazing, hay-making, grain crops and orchards in 1861. They saw an Indian rancheria by Bear Creek after leaving Stockton, and passed by camps of Chinese fishermen on the banks netting perch, trout, salmon, and “slough-fish,” to salt and send to the gold mines, as well as catching beavers, otters, and muskrat. They met hermits such as “Whisky Bill” living in the quiet riparian woodland depths, and workers stripping the bark off trees to ship to San Francisco for use in tanning. They noted the “millions of blackbirds” (Tricolored blackbirds -- Agelaius tricolor?) that nested in the tules and circled overhead musically warbling. Mount Diablo dimly rose above the broad level landscape. They happily commented on the “improvement” of thousands of acres of tule lands as they saw flags of the levee-builders, but with a fleeting note of recognition of the disappearing  “charms of solitude” and strange beauty of the freshwater marsh. As they drifted down Georgia Slough from the Calaveras River, they wrote about the “wide expanse of sky and land” that,


“carried the weary eye away into the hazy limits of the tule world, where the mingled tints of green and blue formed rainbow galaxies of Earth’s creation” (Kooser, Seabough and Sargent 1861).   


     Only 10% of California’s wetlands remain since European colonization (Anderson et al 1998). Before contact the Central Valley as a whole may have had 5 million acres of marshes (Leopold and Dasmann 1985), and in some places the marsh may have been 50 miles across (Dasmann 1981). Two million acres of overflow land were reclaimed starting with the Swamp Land Act of 1850 (Woodward and Smith 1977). Dikes and levees were built, canals dug, and waters were drained or redirected out of the fertile bottomlands for agriculture. Some inkling of the ancient and vast Tulare may be gained by traveling to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. Although some species and climatic factors differ from those of central California, and the whole wetland region is artificially managed by dikes and channels for controlled flooding and drying, some semblance of a natural order can be seen, including common fires caused by lightning. A complex mosaic of lakes, pools, bands of marsh, islands, and interfingering upland vegetation presents itself to the viewer, and the birds are abundant at any season.

Field notes investigating relict habitats at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

Vanished Lakes 


     To try to imagine with some accuracy a completely vanished landscape takes study. Driving Highway 5 from the Bay Area into the San Joaquin Valley I passed such a landscape, a flatland covered with thousands of acres of cotton and wheat, especially visible as the road leaves the low hills out of Kettleman City in Kern County. There it is -- the old Tulare Lake bed, an ecosystem gone. Before draining, it was a fabulous system of sloughs, a maze of channels, a sea of tall waving sedges, grasses, and cattails, and a vast open water inland sea, all home to people for ages lost in time.

     The southern San Joaquin Valley is a closed basin formed by a ring of tall mountains, and the merged alluvial fans of the Kings River in the east and Los Gatos Creek in the west. The Kings and Kaweah Rivers drained snowmelt off the Sierras in spring and each divided into multiple channels that spread out to “a perfect swamp” according to early travelers (Preston 1981). Large inland seas formed here in the past: Tulare, Buena Vista, Kern, and Goose lakes. These were shallow, and sometimes dried up altogether. In wet years they joined into one large lake that emptied through Fresno Slough into the San Joaquin River, and hence to the Pacific (Katibah 1984). In the wet year of 1978 the old Tulare Lake suddenly appeared again, spreading over 70 square miles to a depth of 40 feet (Preston 1981). Formerly when Tulare Lake joined with the smaller lakes, 2,100 miles of shoreline were created, producing one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River, and the largest single wetland in California (Banks and Springer 1994).

     In the highly recommended book Indian Summer: Traditional Life Among the Choinumne Indian’s of California’s San Joaquin Valley Recorded by Frank Latta in 1871 (1993, Heyday Books, Berkeley), Thomas Jefferson Mayfield gave his descriptions in 1871 of the amazing scenes of Tulare Lake: great growths of tules 20 feet high and more than two inches thick, clouds of blackbirds, and mile-long swarms of wild geese flying over. Days worth of travel through tule stands and mudflats, and rivers lined with beautiful willows, blackberries and grape vines greeted him on his explorations. The Indians set basket traps in the shallow waters to catch hundreds of trout, steelhead, salmon, suckers, and eels. Some families built huge 50-foot long tule balsas, which they floated down on the spring melt-waters coming off the Sierran streams, and from which they would spear fish next to drifting mats of decaying tules near shore.

     Then came the cattle barons, and next the wheat barons, and as early as the mid-1850s diversions began on the Tule River (Preston 1981). Diversified agriculture led to the total draining of the lakes in the 20th century.

     A fragment of Tulare Lake can still be seen at Creighton Ranch Preserve in Kern County. Here remnants of the extensive freshwater marshes can be found, including the endemic goldenbush (Haplopappus acradenius ssp. bracteosus) (Griggs 1983).

Hypothetical extent of habitats and lakes in San Joaquin Valley before European contact, based on various old maps, references, and my own fieldwork.
Diagram of Sierra Nevada snowpack and maximum floodwater extent in the Central Valley before European contact--before the era of dams, dykes, and levees. 
Tremendous snowmelt foodwaters regularly in the past topped riverbanks and flowed out into vast floodplains and bottomlands. The Sacramento River flooding outwads in a winter hundreds of years ago. Oil on cotton rag paper. 
The floodpwaters gradually recede, bringing nourishing silts to Valley oak savannas across Central Valley floodplains. Oil on cotton rag paper.

The Sky Was Blackened


     The Delta, that great convergence of rivers as they came together to squeeze through the Carquinez Strait into San Francisco Bay, was a paradise for waterfowl before “reclamation” converted much of it to agriculture and dry land. Sloughs, oxbow ponds, swales, and beaver-dammed ponds abounded. After the winter rains vernal pools formed, and the rivers overflowed onto low ground. “Tule potatoes” (Sagittaria latifolia) grew abundantly in these freshwater marshes and provided food for numerous ducks. 

     Explorer-naturalist John Xantus collecting specimens out of Fort Tejon in Kern County, found waterbirds abundant in the tulares of the southern San Joaquin Valley, as about Buena Vista Lake, into which the Kern River flowed. In May he found breeding Fulvous whistling ducks (Dendrocygna bicolor), Cinnamon teals (Anas cyanoptera), Black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus), and White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi). By January he described Tulare Lake as “literally covered” with waterfowl (Zwinger 1986). 

     A. K. Fisher, ornithologist on the “Death Valley Expedition” in 1891, stopped at Buena Vista and Tulare Lakes and noticed abundant Coots, Western grebes (Aechmorphorus occidentalis), Eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), California gulls (Larus californicus), White pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), American avocets (Recurvirostra americana), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Green-winged teal (A. crecca), and Canada geese. Northern harriers (marsh hawks) (Circus cyaneus) were said to abound in the San Joaquin Valley around the extensive marshlands (Fisher 1893).

Ring-necked ducks, field sketches.

Cinammon teal and gadwall field sketches

Mallard, cinnamon teal, and pied-billed grebe field sketches.

     A survey party exploring San Joaquin Valley in 1853 found Wood ducks (Aix sponsa), as well as grizzlies, plentiful by the Kaweah River. Across an alkaline desert they approached Tulare Lake, where they found elk, Long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus), Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), and an Indian village (Grayson 1920).

“Your ears are confused with the many sounds -- the quacking of the mallard, the soft and delicate whistle of the baldpate [widgeon] and teal, the underground-like notes of the rail or marsh-hen [Coot], the flute-like notes of the wild goose and brant, the wild ranting of the heron, not to forget the bugle-like notes of the whooping crane and swan and a thousand other birds mingling their songs together -- creates that indescribable sensation of pleasure that can only be felt by one fond of nature in its wildest and most beautiful form” (ibid.).

Wood ducks in a tule marsh.

     At Buena Vista Lake they similarly found great quantities of ducks and geese -- 185 fowl were killed with ten shots. 

     Sacramento Valley residents in the mid-1800s complained of “the almost deafening, tumultuous, and confusing noises of the innumerable flocks of geese and ducks which are continually flying to and fro and at times blackening the very heavens with their increasing numbers...” (Banks and Springer 1994). 

Egret and coot field sketches.

Little green heron field sketch.

Goldeneye, mallard, and violet-green swallow field sketches.

Peregrine falcon field sketches.

     Lesser sandhill cranes (called “little brown cranes”) (Grus canadensis canadensis) were formerly common, “thousands” seen feeding in open grasslands near marshes, wintering in the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco Bay transitional marsh grasslands, and once in the Los Angeles region. They may have bred in the Central Valley at one time as well (Remsen 1978). Greater sandhill cranes (G. c. tabida and G. c. rowani) were formerly common in interior California, but their breeding range has been greatly reduced; they no longer nest in the Central Valley marshes. The rare large white-colored Whooping crane (G. americana) was also once a California bird, although now no more: John J. Audubon reported it from “upper California northward”; ornithologist Lyman Belding once saw a flock in 1884 over the tules on Butte Creek, Sutter County, and another flock in April 1841 near Gridley, Butte County (Grinnell 1944). Today this endangered crane has suffered a range shrinkage down to a narrow belt in central North America. I watched two at Yellowstone National Park one spring feeding in a wet meadow at dusk, picking up grasshoppers and frogs. 

Whooping crane field sketches at Yellowstone Natiuonal Park.

Whooping crane field sketches.

     Geese such as Canada (Branta canadensis), Greater white-fronted (Anser albifrons), Snow (Chen caerulescens), and Ross’ (C. rossii) have rebounded from their lows around the year 1900 thanks to the efforts of sport hunters. Two diminutive subspecies of Canada geese, the Aleutian Canada goose (B. c. leucopareia) and Cackling Canada goose (B. c. minima) were formerly much more common in winter the length of the state, but are still at low numbers. Bird illustrator John Cassin (1865) called the Aleutian goose “one of the most abundant of the species of geese” on the West Coast. Snow geese he described as extremely common and widespread all over California marshlands -- flocks of white birds must have appeared like snow patches covering the ground as they fed in grasslands or loafed on marsh edges. By 1913, population drops were estimated as one goose left for every 100 to 1,000 geese present in the late 1800s, due to habitat loss (Banks and Springer 1994). The endemic “Tule goose,” a large form of the white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons gambeli), is known to winter only at certain marshes in the Sacramento Valley and Suisun area, and may be in danger of going extinct (Small 1994).

     “How can you take all these sad stories?” a friend asked me. Well, I answered, maybe if we collectively remembered these events in California’s unfolding history, in the future we could learn from them when we ourselves face big environmental problems such as droughts and the need to share water.

     In the 1870s and 80s market hunters specializing in waterfowl hunted the Central Valley with 14-foot cedar scull boats called “tule splitters,” using 10-gauge shotguns to bring down “bluebills” (scaup), “whistlers” (goldeneyes), “spooneys” (Shoveler ducks), “speckled breasts” (white-fronted geese) and many others. Since waterfowl were considered “vermin” by farmers, in the early days hunters had no limit on the number of birds they could take -- sometimes 10,000 ducks a day were shipped to San Francisco (Cowan 1985). The game was placed in sacks and sent on trains and steamers to San Francisco to be hung on hooks in game stalls for restaurant buyers to choose (Welch 1927). This commercial hunting tapered off by 1910 (Banks and Springer 1994). Some estimates put the North American duck population at 400 million in the 1850s. Droughts across the Canadian and American prairies in the 1930s helped induce a plunge to 30 million. So in 1937 a group in New York formed Ducks Unlimited, dedicated to restoring waterfowl populations. The first waterfowl refuge was created as early as 1867 at Lake Merritt in Oakland; Gray Lodge came in 1931 after a federal program began to acquire wildlife refuges. By 1934 the Duck Stamp program put hunting fees back into conservation (Banks and Springer 1994, Minshall 1980). Fortunately the Aleutian Canada goose is beginning to rebound because of work at places like San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge.

     Similarly, San Francisco Bay had famous wintering waterfowl marshlands, such as Alvarado Marsh and Alviso Slough in the South Bay, followed by Suisun and Napa marshes. By 1900 market hunters transferred 250,000 to 300,000 ducks, geese, and swans annually through San Francisco from Bay and Delta marshes. 47,565 Mallards alone were brought to market in the 1895-96 season. As late as 1914 hunters took 1,000 ducks a week out of the Alvarado Marshes (Skinner 1962). 

Black-necked stilts field sketches.

Black-necked stilts flying field sketches.

Sora and Virginia rail field sketches.

Furred Gold


     Besides feathered critters, inland fur-bearers brought the British Hudson’s Bay Company into the Central Valley in 1826-45. The main attraction was the Golden beaver (Castor canadensis subauratus), a special California beaver which dug burrows into marsh and riverbanks. It was very numerous in the Delta around the hundreds of small rush-covered islands and sluggish streams, and was not found above 1,000 feet in elevation (Grinnell 1935). In 1840 Thomas Farnham exclaimed, “There is probably no spot of equal extent in the whole continent of America which contains so many of these much-sought animals” (Skinner 1962). The beavers also made their home in the fresh and brackish marshes in San Francisco Bay and along the Napa River. Beaver declines were steady from hunting, although a great many fur trappers abandoned the pursuit in favor of gold digging when that precious metal was discovered by settlers. Fur-trapping regulations, open seasons, and licensing were enacted in 1917 (Dasmann 1981). Open season continued into the 1950s as the rodents did damage to levees with their constant burrowing. 

     River otters (Lutra canadensis) and Mink (Mustela vison) also had a center of abundance in the Delta and lower Sacramento River marshes, and also abounded in the Tulare Lake region. A high-count of 5,854 Mink were trapped in California in 1927-28 (ibid.). Muskrats (Ondatra zibethica), however, were introduced into central California in 1943 (they are native to the marshes of northeastern California). 

A golden beaver in willow and ash-lined sloughs in the Delta. Oil on cotton rag paper.

Cultural Landscapes


     Not everyone lives next to a marsh today, but you can still get an idea of what these communities are like, and a hint of the grandness of the watery inland realms, by visiting places like Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Solano County, managed by the California Department of Fish and Game. This refuge encompasses more than 10,000 acres of freshwater, brackish, and salt marsh on the edge of Suisun Bay where the Delta meets the San Francisco Estuary. I watched two River otters play and splash in the golden sunset-colored waters of a slough channel one evening, the tall silhouettes of cane waving their feathery flag-seedheads in the breezes. Mink and Golden beavers swim here too, and Tule elk roam the uplands.

     Today Suisun Marsh is obviously a cultural landscape, with roads, built levees of dirt to hold back the tides, and as you hike the trails you often pass by pumps, gates, and valves controlling where water goes, which areas are flooded and which are dried out. Agriculture surrounds the area.

     But as ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson pointed out, these habitats have always been cultural landscapes, managed by people long before Europeans arrived (and I would add, impacted by grazing elk herds, digging grizzly bears, and Ice Age megafaunas in the more distant past). Indians have always selectively burned, transplanted, dispersed, and harvested plants, creating “small-scale human disturbance regimes” that helped shape the very genetics of the species they used (Anderson 2005).

     The Owens Valley Paiute practiced a form of irrigation agriculture, by damming Bishop Creek and constructing ditches miles long to deliver water to wet meadows and marshes, increasing edible plants such as Blue dicks bulbs (called “grass nut”) (Dichelostemma pulchellum), and the seed-bearing species Lovegrass (Eragrostis), wildrye (Elymus cinereus and E. triticoides), sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii), water cress (Rorippa), and pigweed (Chenopodium). Women got together to communally harvest the bulbs with digging sticks and collect the ripe seed with seed-beaters. The Paiute also irrigated other parts of the Owens Valley, and Shoshone groups built ditch systems in various valleys of Nevada (Lawton et al. 1993).

     Back in my home valley east of Bishop, I could see down through the different layers of land use in the local spring marshes. Historic irrigation practices for the old cattle ranch that used to operate here were visible: ditches, stock ponds fringed with cattails, old fields of weedy alfalfa, rusty antique water pumps. An older layer showed up as white flint knives, scrapers, and other stone tools from Indian settlement times scattered over the marsh edges, and possible remnants of small ditches spreading out over the meadows. These would have benefitted the toads by creating new wetland habitats. I am learning that I too can interact with the current landscape as wildlife refuge by acts of habitat restoration.

     Anderson, in discussing how to move beyond modern society’s separation of nature and culture and develop a “culture of place,” reminded us:


“For California Indians, nature was not an abstract concept relegated to the remote fringes of human communities but was intimately intertwined with daily living. Indigenous peoples’ lifeways show us that intimacy comes from interacting with plants and animals where they live and establishing relationships with them” (Anderson 2005: 363).

North Delta illustration of Miwok village on a natural levee of the Sacramento River, with tule marshes in the background. The North Coast Range marks the horizon. Colored pencil on paper.