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Keepers of the Wild

Mark Ackerman and Mariah Garr have dream jobs nurturing the creatures, from wild turkeys to bobcats, inhabiting the Cosumnes River Preserve northwest of Lodi

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Posted: Friday, August 3, 2012 7:35 am

Mariah M. Garr works in paradise, and she knows it. As wetlands manager for the Cosumnes River Preserve, the biologist-cum-farmer’s daughter sees brilliant sunrises, hears the ancient, piercing cries of the Blue Heron, sees coyote pups darting into the cover of an oak forest.

“I am so lucky,” she said recently, while giving a glimpse of her world on a tour of the preserve’s main holdings. “I absolutely love my job.”

Not everything, though.

As the big Dodge truck rumbled past an expansive pond laced with grassy shoots, Garr rolled her eyes just slightly.

“Beavers,” she said.

Roaming the preserve, helping keep it alive and vital, is a daily joy for Garr and for Mark Ackerman, her colleague and the preserve’s wildlife biologist.

But by their own admission, they have a love-hate relationship with beavers.

Keeping a wild place wild

The Cosumnes River Preserve includes 46,000 acres, stretching from grasslands near Rancho Seco deep into the marshy Delta. The preserve’s core is roughly 2,000 acres just off Interstate 5 at the Cosumnes River, which is the last wild river in the Central Valley.

The preserve is 15 miles northwest of Lodi, but many residents have never visited. What they are missing: a place teeming with life, from dragonflies to coyotes, giant garter snakes to red-tailed hawks.

The abundance of wildlife in the preserve, a green, wet oasis in an increasingly suburbanized region, is jaw-dropping: At the winter peak, more than 100,000 birds have been counted in the preserve core. It is a vast, as-far-as-the-eye-can-see invasion of swans, ducks, cranes and other flying creatures.

Birds are the preserve’s most visible form of wildlife, but there are many, many others. Ackerman is a preserve veteran who started as an intern and worked his way up. He has spotted mountain lions several times over the last 15 years.

“They don’t like being around people,” he said. “The few times I have seen one, they have bolted. They are really elusive.”

There are also reported sightings of wild minks, though no one yet has captured an image of one.

Garr and Ackerman revel in it all.

In essence, it is their job to keep a wild place wild.

Biologists in the field

Ackerman is the savvy veteran, Garr the newcomer. They both work for the federal Bureau of Land Management. They do their share of writing reports and attending meetings. But more than most, they are in the field, smelling the wild mustard, feeling the breeze rise from the west.

“Lots of biologists are stuck in a cubicle doing paperwork,” Garr said. “Not many get to actually be outside, hands-on.”

Once, the Central Valley was a vast, moist place, a collection of riverside forests and  wetlands home to a striking array of life, from fairy shrimp to grizzly bears.

Now, those wetlands have dwindled. They serve as primordial filters, cleansing runoff before it goes to the Delta. They are transitional settings between the coastal zones and the timbered uplands.

The preserve’s wetlands are its showcases. The horde of migratory birds visiting the preserve roam the wetlands. Most visitors come to walk through them and be awed by the birds in them.

“Much of my job is keeping birds happy,” Garr said.

Weeds to sheep

It’s ironic, but keeping wetlands truly wild and healthy requires human intervention. They are, essentially, interlocking ponds. Garr and Ackerman figure out when to let one dry out, when to moisten one up, when to disc a dry pond, when to let it be.

They time those changes with the arrival and departure of birds.

For example, before the first massive waves of migratory birds arrive, Garr and Ackerman try to moisten many of the ponds enough to trigger an explosive growth of tiny creatures, such as worms and snails, that nourish the winged visitors.

“We call it ‘duck soup,’” Ackerman said.

The two do not simply plan and advise. They drive tractors and backhoes. They use shovels and hoes to shore up ponds and scrape out weeds. They open valves and shut them off.

Part of their job is beating back invasive species.

“Pepperweed.” Ackerman fairly spat the word. He climbed from the truck and grabbed a handful. “It’s an evil weed.”

Left alone, the menace draws salt to the surface, choking out other species. Preserve managers use varied tools to control it and other intruders. Some weeds are yanked by hand, some are scraped and dug out with tools. Others are exposed to tactical applications of herbicide.

Herds of goats and sheep are brought in to help, too.

“The sheep are sort of fussy about what they eat,” Ackerman said. “The goats will eat anything.”

The accidental forest

The Dodge slashed through a thicket of blackberries and Ackerman clicked off the engine.

All around were cottonwoods and ash trees.

It was the center of an infant forest.

Some years ago, a levee broke on the Cosumnes and part of a tomato field was flooded. The levee was repaired, but the farmer didn’t bother with the expense of re-leveling and replanting.  He left the sandy, loamy expanse as it was. Willows and cottonwoods rushed in, then Valley oaks took root.

The area became known as the “accidental forest.”

In 1996, preserve managers decided to replicate Mother Nature with the help of a bulldozer. They destroyed 50 feet of levee and waited for the winter floods. They came, deposited fresh sands and soils, and a new forest was underway.  

Now, it is dense and rising.

It is called the “intentional forest,” and ecologists are studying other sites along the Cosumnes where such rebirth can happen.

Ackerman and Garr keep an eye on the intentional forest through what they call “passive management.”

Mostly, though, they are letting nature take its course here.

Signs of a healthy habitat

It had appeared overnight, a gnarl of tules and cattails clogging a concrete water outlet.

Garr and Ackerman were trying to drop the water level in the pond and keep water flowing through it.

The beavers had other plans.

They had worked through the night, staunching the flow with assorted debris.

It was a dam, of sorts, one of many beavers have built in the preserve’s watery lattice.

“They don’t like flowing water. We do,” Ackerman said.

The beavers are not just, well, busy. They are smart.

If Ackerman pulls out a dam of tules piled on dirt piled on twigs, the beavers take note.

Their next dam will be different. Maybe mud atop twigs atop oak branches.

If one of the beaver dams is dismantled, it is never recreated the same way.

Their water management plan is their own. So is their housing construction.

Once Ackerman was driving a truck across a levee and the levee gave way. The front end of the truck plunged several feet into a subterranean pit.

A beaver lodge.

No beavers were injured. The truck needed substantial repairs.

“We may complain, but they’re a sign the habitat is healthy,” Garr said.

Forever wild

The preserve has a wild spirit, but it has a tamer side, too. There are agricultural holdings blending into the wetlands and conservation easements. Corn, rice and tomatos are among the crops grown on preserve lands.

Garr and Ackerman work with the farmers to achieve a balance.

“We are environmentalists, but we are pragmatists, too,” Garr said.

When the two talk with farmers, they have credibility. Ackerman was raised on a family farm in the Lodi area. Garr’s family grows rice in the Colusa area.

Both Garr and Ackerman were riding in tractor seats as young children.

Now, they help manage a mix of crops and creatures. And there is nothing they would rather do.

The truck’s engine fell silent next to a rice pond with a lone white egret feeding in the distance.

“Rice ponds hold every shade of green, from lime to emerald,” Garr said. “Since I was a girl, I’ve loved those colors.”

The egret, soundlessly, ascended to a pale blue sky.

Contact Editor Rich Hanner at richardh@lodinews.com.

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