At dawn I lit out on a lonely trail leading to Painted Rock. The natural sandstone cathedral is still a vital meeting and ceremonial venue for Native American tribes like the Chumash and Yokut on the Carrizo Plain National Monument, west of the Los Padres National Forest off Highway 33. As I entered Painted Rock, shadows retreated across the sweeping valley floor as the sun rose above the Temblor Mountains to the east.
Remnants of elaborate rock art still clung to the canvas of gritty sandstone. As I gazed at all the remaining detailed rock art, there was a flash of feathers flying over me, exiting one of the many lofty alcoves inside the massive rock outcropping. The east wall was cloaked in multi-colored lichen. Reds, oranges, yellows and browns decorated the broad sandstone slab, and perched on its face were two barn owls soaking in the morning sun. Their feathers blended in perfectly where they were perched overlooking the Carrizo Plain.
As it grew warmer, I watched, from the inside of Painted Rock, a small herd of pronghorn antelope rising from where they had bedded down the night before. As they rose and shook the morning dew off their shaggy coats, they immediately began to graze the grasslands moving east to west, bounding across wide open spaces of the Carrizo Plain.
A hiker takes in the sweeping grasslands on the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Back in 1988, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) partnered up with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the then-California Department of Fish and Game to acquire, manage and protect this breathtaking expanse of land. The initial parcel was 82,000 acres, but today it’s 250,000 acres.
On Jan. 12, 2001, the largest single native grasslands remaining in California was deemed a national monument by former President Bill Clinton, thus protecting the Carrizo Plain from any oil exploration or further habitat destruction.
The panoramic landscape is the largest protected habitat along the Pacific Flyway, making it a birder’s paradise. Besides the expansive grassland habitat, it also includes woodland habitats, mountain ranges reaching over 5,000 feet, Soda Lake (the largest natural alkali lake in the state) and surrounding vernal pools. The Carrizo Plain has more endangered species than anywhere else in the state.
“It is one of the primary core recovery areas for a whole suit of endangered species,” said Bob Stafford, a senior environmental scientist for California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). “It also has one of the larger tule elk herds in the state.”
Scanning with my high-powered optics, I panned across the Carrizo Plain from the foothills of the Caliente Range in search of ungulates such as tule elk and pronghorn antelope. It’s not until late morning that I spot a single-file procession of tule elk, maybe 40 animals moving gradually west of me. A mixture of cows and calves followed closely together across a field of wildflowers, where a carpet of tidy tips and owl’s clover brightened the plain.
California’s Central Valley was once teeming with animals like tule elk and pronghorn antelope. Loss of habitat, disease from livestock, and overhunting took their toll on massive herds of ungulates, leaving places like the Carrizo Plain devoid of such wildlife. But in the late 1980s, the then-California Department of Fish and Game embarked on changing a lifeless landscape. Herds of tule elk were transplanted to the Carrizo Plain in 1988. Pronghorn antelope were restored to the plain in 1990.
Yet the two species’ populations are heading on divergent paths. Tule elk being generalist feeders have been able to adapt to perpetual drought conditions, able to sustain themselves on dry grasses. Pronghorn antelope, on the other hand, are specialists requiring flat, wide open spaces while foraging for forbs, broad-leafed herbaceous plant. A survey performed by the U.S. Geological Survey in November 2013 concluded that of the 42 different plant species consumed by pronghorn, 26 of those species were forbs. The other plants consumed were species of grasses and shrubs.
“We have seen some dramatic fluctuations in most populations, depending on weather conditions,” continued Stafford, who has worked on the Carrizo Plain for 17 years. “Long-term trends would be an increase in tule elk numbers and a decrease in pronghorn numbers.”
According to the most recent aerial surveys, Stafford said, there are somewhere between 350 and 400 tule elk and 60 to 70 pronghorn in the greater Carrizo Plain ecosystem and surrounding ranchlands. Tule elk were expected to continue their stabilizing trend because they’re able to occupy and do well in a greater variety of habitat conditions, whether it’s the grasslands or the surrounding mountain ranges. Pronghorn, however, are on the cusp of sustainability, but the California Department of Fish and Game is in the process of curbing this trend.
Water troughs have been part of the Carrizo Plain for some time, but additional troughs have been added to aid declining pronghorn numbers. Stafford said the troughs are hooked up to water tanks in the existing system. Supplemental food sources have also been provided. Pronghorn numbers, however, are so low that any negative fluctuations in their habitat could prove detrimental.
“Pronghorn numbers have dropped to levels where any negative environmental factors will have serious impacts on the herds,” Stafford said. “Moving more animals into the area without addressing the reasons for their decline would not be considered an option.”
If pronghorn numbers continue to decline and get below a certain point, a wide variety of environmental events can keep the numbers low.
“Summer and fall forage are one of the primary factors,” Stafford said. “Fall forage plants (morning glory) commonly grow in late summer in cultivated fields. While taking these lands out of cultivation is a definite positive for most of the Carrizo species, it decreases habitat value for pronghorn.”
TOP: An endangered San Joaquin kit fox lays flat on the ground in the morning sun.
LEFT: An antelope ground squirrel stands tall to detect any approaching predators.
TOP RIGHT: A pair of barn owls color conscious on a lichen-covered sandstone slab.
BOTTOM RIGHT: Sweeping grasslands on the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
I’ve been coming out to the Carrizo Plain for over 10 years. Drawn by its perpetual silence and solitude, the Carrizo Plain has been an escape in which to experience a piece of old California. It’s also a great place to see wildlife if you’re willing to drive slowly on dirt roads, hike cross-country and simply watch for movement.
Wildlife like the San Joaquin kit fox, badger, desert cottontail rabbit, jackrabbit, antelope ground squirrel, coyote, blunt-nose leopard lizard and roughly 200 bird species blend in well with the arid landscape.
Once, about 300 feet off the road between the Selby and KCL Campgrounds, I saw a pair of kit foxes sunning themselves out in the open near one of their den sites. They had flattened themselves against the ground. When I stopped my truck the female dove into their den, but the male didn’t budge. It allowed me to belly crawl to within 50 feet of it and, at one point, it became so relaxed that it fell asleep. It was a good look at one of the Carrizo Plain’s most elusive residents.
“Kit fox populations are definitely down,” said Stafford of the Carrizo Plain population. “We do surveys (of kit foxes) pretty much year-round.”
Spotlight surveys typically take place in March, June, September and December as long as the weather holds up. Stafford said surveys cover roughly two separate 35-mile routes. He’s been performing these surveys since 2000. As with most wildlife on the Carrizo Plain, weather has been a key factor in the fluctuation of kit fox populations. Since 2000, Stafford and his team have counted 2,471 kit foxes covering 109 kilometers of dirt roads in the Carrizo Plain. The high count was in the summer of 2005 with 1,788 kit foxes. The low count was 65 kit foxes in the fall of 2014.
“Kit foxes are the primary focus,” he continued, “but we also count all carnivores and try to get an estimate of prey species. We’ve even seen kit foxes follow badgers as they dig up small mammals.”
The last significant rainfall on the Carrizo Plain was in the winter of 2009/10. Since then, there’s been a reduction in small prey populations like antelope ground squirrels and giant kangaroo rats; thus, kit foxes have been experiencing some lean times on the plain.
“Giant kangaroo rats are basically the key species in the entire Carrizo web,” Stafford said. “As they go, so do a lot of the other endangered species.”
There are many predators in the Carrizo Plain that not only rely on giant kangaroo rats as a food source, but also for their burrow sites. Everything from kit foxes, burrowing owls and badgers to snakes and long-tailed weasels locate, take over and modify giant kangaroo rat burrow sites.
“The burrows are also used by blunt-nose leopard lizards,” Stafford said, “and California jewel flower is often associated with the burrow systems.”
The largest of the 21 species of kangaroo rats, giant kangaroo rats are native to the San Joaquin Valley and are arguably the most important animal on the Carrizo Plain. At this point giant kangaroo rats are kind of a big unknown on the Carrizo Plain because of the continuing extreme drought conditions. The tiny, nocturnal rodents with the big feet, eyes and long tails, work like little lawnmowers on the grasslands, virtually mowing down huge swaths of grasses surrounding their burrowing sites. By flying over their sites, Stafford and his team locate and count giant kangaroo rats.
Even with degraded habitat this keystone species can thrive in what’s remaining with an average of 69 individuals per nearly 2.5 acres. These busy tunnel diggers can transform huge swaths of habitat by building extensive burrow mounds up to 30 feet in diameter and 3 feet underground.
“They mow down the area around their burrows so we can fly transects over the area to map the areas they mow down,” explained Stafford. “Problem is, if we don’t get any growth they have nothing to mow and we have nothing to survey. Therefore, we haven’t been able to do any surveys since 2011.”
In 2014 I saw and photographed one wildflower on the Carrizo Plain. The state flower, a lonely California poppy, appeared out of place on an otherwise uninspiring landscape on the way up to an empty Selby Campground.
The last great wildflower season was the spring of 2010, when the 50-mile-long Carrizo Plain transformed into a palette of pinks and reds, yellows and oranges and purples and blues. It appeared as if someone had come to the plain, taken a giant paintbrush and splashed bright colors across the grasslands, the Temblor and Caliente Ranges. The bush lupine was so fragrant it was thick in the air. Massive fields of tick seed coreopsis swept across from the east side of Soda Lake almost to the base of the Temblors on the Elkhorn Plain. Massive fields of tidy tips were so dense that when I lay down in them they shaded me from the sun. From Soda Lake Road, out near one of the old ranch sites closer to the Elkhorn Plain, there appeared to be a lake but it was actually a broad, deep bluish-purple field of phacelia.
“There are a couple of endangered plants on Carrizo, California jewel flower in particular,” said Stafford. “However, the general long-term trend has been an increase in native plants compared to the 1980s, since large portions of Carrizo were still in cultivation at that time. It is a mixed bag as for importance of native vegetation. Giant kangaroo rats, tule elk and pronghorn have no problem consuming nonnative plants.”
I made several trips to the Carrizo Plain those two weeks in late March and early April of 2010. As spectacular as that wildflower bloom was, they’re now more fleeting, gone before you know it. There hasn’t been a bloom like it since.
During one of those trips I drove out toward the north entrance of the Carrizo Plain, hung a left, heading west on a nameless dirt road, and soon found myself in a hypnotic field of vibrant owl’s clover. There was a pair of huge pronghorn antelope bulls loping across green hillsides covered in the magenta-colored blooms before vanishing over the next saddle. It was another moment worth reliving on the Carrizo Plain.