Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mountain lions and orcas and bureaucrats

Lions and orcas and bureaucrats

Tom Stienstra

Sunday, February 22, 2009

(02-21) 18:30 PST -- So many stories, so little time:

Mountain lions have been ordered shot in Nevada to protect deer herds. Salmon and killer whales face a collapse in California because of water projects. A Department of Fish and Game director appears ready to walk the plank into oblivion. And why one of the prettiest state parks in California, Pfeiffer Big Sur, is likely to stay closed.

Of the dozens of stories, adventures and profiles on my desk, these are the four most provocative:

Mountain lions vs. deer: In Nevada, deer populations have plummeted from 240,000 to 108,000 in the past 10 years. Scientists attribute the decline largely to mountain lion predation. So Ken Mayer, former big game coordinator in California and now the director of Nevada Department of Wildlife, has ordered a major program to shoot mountain lions.

The intent is not to eliminate predators, Mayer said, but rather to reduce them so deer herds can rebuild. He said the program will be based on wildlife science and the predator-prey relationship.

Some people think that the relationship between mountain lions and deer is self-governing. So when the deer are about wiped out, the mountain lion population then naturally goes down to form a "balance" and the deer herd will bounce back.

That is not what happens. When there are few deer left to eat, the mountain lions then wander into the backyards of homes and ranches and eat whatever they can catch, then return afield to clip off the fawns. Their favorite food other than deer appears to be house cats, but they'll take dogs, sheep, llamas, calves and about anything else when hungry enough, including people occasionally.

Many wildlife experts believe we need Mayer back in California to do the same thing here. In the past 50 years, the population of deer in California has dropped from an estimated high of 2 million to fewer than 450,000, because of mountain lion predation and habitat loss in the Sierra foothills.

Salmon, orcas face collapse: The story this past week that reported the lowest number of salmon in history to swim from the ocean, through the bay and to the Sacramento River has several shocking sub plots.

It's now likely that all salmon fishing will be shut down again this year off the Bay Area coast. Killer whales, or orcas, could face a population crash because their primary diet is salmon and they could have difficulty finding other food.

Now get this, from the fine print inside a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service: Of the salmon that spawn or are released from hatcheries in the Sacramento River downstream of Redding, only 20 percent make it to the Delta because of water projects. Of that 20 percent that make it to the Delta, 60 percent die because of more water projects. So for the juvenile salmon that start their journey in Northern California, only 8 percent make it to the Bay to head out to the ocean.

The best suggestion is tell L.A. and other water grabbers to shut off their California Aqueduct faucet and build several desalination plants.

DFG director to walk the plank? The Senate confirmation hearing and vote for Don Koch as director of Fish and Game, scheduled for next Wednesday, could turn into an interrogation with ugly results, or be delayed. The organization California Trout, once a Koch supporter, now opposes him. The Karuk Tribe also opposes Koch, and if his defeat is imminent, other organizations will reportedly surface at the hearing.

"Our endorsement was conditional, and Koch has uniformly failed on all counts," said Jeff Shellito of California Trout. "Under Koch's watch, DFG has really blown it in the past year."

The DFG charges a record high price for fishing licenses this year, $60.95 with stamps for the Bay Area angler. Yet salmon are shut down, striped bass have gone down the drain (of the California Aqueduct), ocean deep sea fishermen got lumped with commercials over widespread season closures, there isn't a single lake in the Bay Area where DFG trout plants alone provide decent fishing, and there still isn't a comprehensive trout planting management plan that protects native species and also provides recreation.

Koch will also have to explain how, when he was a DFG regional manager in Redding, water diversions caused fish kills on the Shasta and Scott rivers, and whether preferential treatment guided fish stocks in his region.

Trouble for Pfeiffer Big Sur: The backlog on infrastructure repair for state parks is finally hitting the public. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, with no money to build a new bridge at the entrance, could be closed all year. The old bridge was removed last fall when engineers discovered it could be washed out by mud slides. There's no telling when this might be fixed.

"The Great Outdoors With Tom Stienstra" airs Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on KMAX-31 Sacramento. E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/02/22/SP9U1619UH.DTL

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