Carrying a Torch for Rare Desert Fish

On a bright, sunny morning at the end of last year, a plume of smoke could be seen rising up from the high desert near Benton, CA. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and typically, flames like these spell trouble. But in this case, that smoke was cause for celebration.

Since 2010, Eastern Sierra Land Trust has been collaborating with local rancher Bill Bramlette and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to restore important wildlife habitat at the ponds at Benton Hot Springs Ranch. Now we are excited to announce to you that, with assistance from our partners at CalFire, we have reached a crucial step in our joint restoration plan.

After three years of careful planning, we’ve successfully completed a prescribed burn on the pond banks to eradicate aggressive plants and create sustainable habitat for a rare desert fish, the Owens speckled dace.

FINDING A HOME FOR THE OWENS SPECKLED DACE

The spring-fed ponds at Benton Hot Springs Ranch were historically documented to contain the Owens speckled dace – a fish whose ancestors swam in the prehistoric Mono Lake. Over the past several decades though, this rare desert fish has been in steep decline throughout the Owens Basin due to habitat modifications and encroachment by non-native fish.

“This is an opportunity to safeguard a declining species by putting it back in its natural habitat after an absence of perhaps 80 years,” reflected Steve Parmenter, lead CDFW Biologist on the Benton Ponds restoration project. “This gives us the chance to combine and apply several techniques and theories about wetland restoration I have developed over my career. And as an ancillary benefit, the pond will become indefinitely sustainable for all wildlife, whereas without this intervention it was rapidly turning into a bog.”

The Benton ponds are located on private property owned by fourth-generation rancher Bill Bramlette, who partnered with ESLT in 2008 to voluntarily preserve the ponds and surrounding meadows with a conservation easement designed to permanently protect wildlife habitat and prohibit future development.

Bill Bramlette has been an enthusiastic supporter of this project from the start. “I saw an opportunity to do meaningful conservation by working with partners who had access to resources and experts,” he commented. “Throughout the challenges we faced, I was constantly amazed by and appreciative of the perseverance and dedication of ESLT, California Fish & Wildlife, and CalFire.”

 

Our thanks go to Bill Bramlette for this unique opportunity to restore the Owens speckled dace to its historic habitat on his property – as well as for all the knowledge and resources he has shared with us to help make this project come to life.

PREPARING A SUITABLE HABITAT

The process of reintroducing a vulnerable species such as the speckled dace is no simple task. Long before the fish arrive, the ponds and their surrounding vegetation must be meticulously restored by removing two aggressive plants: hardstem bulrush and cattails. If left unchecked, these species would eventually choke out all viable fish habitat on the water. So ESLT and CDFW turned to CalFire for assistance in planning and carrying out a prescribed burn at the Benton ponds to remove this aggressive vegetation.

We had been hoping to complete this prescribed burn for three years – but up until this winter, weather and air quality conditions prevented the burn from being executed safely and effectively. In the meantime, ESLT volunteers, led by volunteer Board Member Tim Bartley and joined by CDFW staff, have been manually removing the invasive plants and transplanting three-square bulrush, a more suitable native species that will help improve pond habitat. You can read more about this work by Clicking Here.

Finally, this past December, the conditions were perfect for a controlled fire, and we were able to successfully eliminate a majority of the hardstem bulrush and cattails.

“It was a great experience to partner with many cooperators to improve wildlife habitat and control non-native plant species through the use of prescribed fire,” said Henry Herrera, Unit Forester of CalFire. “We utilized the safest measure and best available science-based environmental parameters to implement this prescribed fire. CalFire hopes to collaborate with many cooperators in the Eastern Sierra to utilize more of this valuable tool for species control, habitat improvement, range improvement, and to reduce the fire risk.”

For ESLT’s Stewardship Coordinator Sara Kokkelenberg (at right, removing bulrush from the ponds), witnessing the burn in person was a great reward. “I’ve been working with Steve Parmenter and CDFW to improve habitat at the ponds since 2013 when I was serving my first term as an AmeriCorps member with ESLT,” Sara reflected.

Now that we’ve finally been able to complete the burn, we’re suddenly a lot closer to accomplishing our goal. I know I speak for all of us at ESLT when I say how grateful I am to Steve for his leadership on this project. What an accomplishment!”

The prescribed burn was quite a sight – and we’re excited to share some of our favorite photos taken that morning. Look at those flames! We’re so thankful to CalFire for orchestrating the burn and keeping everything under control.

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NEXT STEPS AT THE BENTON PONDS

Along with our partners at CDFW, Tim Bartley and ESLT staff members have since returned to the Benton ponds to hand-cut and mow down the remaining unwanted vegetation. Next, the water level in the ponds will be raised to drown out the burned and cut plants; then CDFW will remove and relocate one of the pond’s current non-native, aquatic residents, the Sacramento perch, which would make quick work of any speckled dace that attempted to move in.

Once aggressive vegetation and non-native predators have been removed from the ponds, the sensitive Owens speckled dace will be safely returned to its historic home.

Our partners at CDFW, including (from left) Emma Hewitt, Christi Kruse, Steve Parmenter, and Rosa Cox, recently joined ESLT staff at the Benton ponds to finish removing the aggressive vegetation that remained after the burn.

A BETTER HOME FOR ALL

The Owens speckled dace is a relic of the Eastern Sierra’s prehistoric past – and creating safe places where the speckled dace can thrive is critical to helping the species survive. What’s more, improving pond habitat for this fish will mean a healthier home for other wildlife too, including ducks, grebes, and herons. We’re looking forward to witnessing firsthand the positive impact these changes will bring.

With Bill Bramlette’s support, ESLT has hosted events at the ponds on his property to give community members like you the chance to view unusual birds and other Eastern Sierra wildlife in their natural habitat.

Students participating in our “Birds in the Classroom” field trip look for unusual migratbirds at the Benton ponds.

Just last summer, we led a hike at the Benton ponds during our Lands & Legacy Celebration Weekend; and in years past, elementary school students participating in our “Birds in the Classroom” program with Eastern Sierra Audubon have visited the ponds many times on field trips. ESLT hopes to hold more such events in the future, once the project nears completion.

“Getting the chance to bring local school children and their families to this land to learn about birds, geology, and the pond ecosystem is a true gift,” reflected Kay Ogden, ESLT Executive Director.

“We all treasure our visits to this unique place. There’s so much to see and learn. And if the Owens speckled dace is able to regain a foothold here, what an amazing outdoor classroom this would become for us all.”

We are deeply grateful to Bill Bramlette, the Bureau of Land Management, CalFire, and CDFW for making this project possible; to all the volunteers who have worked at the ponds to improve habitat; and to Bill Bramlette’s neighbors, Karen and James Smart, for their assistance on the day of the burn. Funding for this project is provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Desert Fish Habitat Partnership.

Click Here to learn more about our ongoing conservation work at Benton Hot Springs Ranch!

 

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