By Ryan Sabalow

Freeway overpasses for nomadic animals. More water for coho salmon to survive. Humane traps to relocate bears and mountain lions to safe ground.

Eight years after California removed the word “game” from the Department of Fish and Game and replaced it with “wildlife,” the department that once focused on hunting and fishing licenses now spends the majority of its time on animal protection.

That evolution is reflected in the budget submitted last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fund the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees a vast state with 33 million acres of wildland and species that range from humpback whales to endangered condors.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal would increase the department’s funding by $252 million — a 28 percent increase — and allow it to hire 216 new positions. Department director Chuck Bonham called it “the single biggest, serious investment … of one-time funds” in decades.

“That’s unheard of growth for us,” Bonham said. “This has been a many-decades journey to provide our department the capacity to do the job people have asked us to do.”

In the last 20 years alone, the Legislature has passed nearly 400 pieces of legislation that added more duties for the department’s 2,279 employees, leaving the department close to $20 million short to carry out its core missions each year, the department said.

The department, whose origins as a fishing and hunting regulator go back more than 100 years, is now responsible for chemical-spill cleanups, issuing renewable energy permits, managing 1.3 million acres of public wildlife areas and ecological reserves, keeping whales and sea turtles from getting tangled in fishing gear, heading scientific research and protecting endangered species.

For years, the department’s typical recourse to address its funding shortfall was to raise permit costs and increase user fees, something keenly felt by the state’s hunters and anglers, who pay more for fishing and hunting licenses than in any other state in the country. But hunting and angling revenues now only account for less than a quarter of the department’s budget.

Bonham spoke recently to The Sacramento Bee about the wide-ranging budget proposal and how Newsom’s initiatives hit on some of the themes and issues raised in The Sacramento Bee’s “Nothing Wild” series published late last year.

In the series, The Bee revealed how an ecological collapse is underway in the high desert landscapes of its northeastern corner, but departments like Bonham’s are often unable to nimbly react to solve problems due to a “constantly growing array of regulatory demands that suck up their budgets and staff time.”

The department recently published a report that concludes the department “is unable to fully meet its diverse mission — managing and protecting California’s diverse species and habitats and bolstering equitable public access to lands in the face of increasing population and resource demands in a changing climate.”
Help for Klamath Basin’s devastating drought

Bonham says Newsom’s budget proposal would address issues raised in two of the stories in “Nothing Wild.”

The most pressing is the Klamath Basin’s ever-worsening drought. Nothing Wild highlighted a gruesome botulism outbreak last summer that killed 60,000 ducks and shorebirds in two federal wildlife refuges along the Oregon border, Lower Klamath and Tule Lake.

The bacteria that cause botulism are found naturally in the Klamath Basin soil, but last summer a combination of low water levels and high heat killed the birds in droves. Federal biologists spent months on airboats removing maggot-covered bird carcasses to try to limit the spread. It could be worse this summer, since both refuges may end up going completely dry.

The budget has $9.8 million in funds to “upgrade water conveyance systems and maintenance equipment” at state wildlife areas — funds that Bonham said could be used to manage water in nearby state wildlife areas to help offset the dry conditions at Tule Lake and Lower Klamath. The boost in department staff also means there will be more employees to help on the federal refuges if there’s another botulism outbreak there like the one last summer, Bonham said.

At the same time, Bonham said the funds in the budget proposal could be used to pay farmers on Klamath River tributaries not to irrigate their crops, a move that could leave water in-stream to protect endangered fish. Two Klamath River tributaries, the Scott and Shasta — critical habitat for imperiled coho salmon — are in danger of drying out this year as the state faces a crippling drought.

Without help in the region, Bonham said, “It’s gonna be grim.”

Another Nothing Wild story highlighted conflicts between ranchers as gray wolves have moved back into the state. Newsom’s budget proposal comes with $3 million to create a non-lethal wolf deterrent program that includes funds to reimburse participating ranchers for when wolves attack their livestock.
Farm workers in the Klamath Basin near Tulelake set up irrigation lines last week to pump well water onto a farm field whose surface water has been cut off. Ryan Sabalow

Ranchers would prefer to be able to shoot wolves that habitually prey on livestock, but because California protected the animals under its Endangered Species Act, there’s little they can do. At least one wolf has already been killed illegally.

Some ranchers say they’d at least like taxpayers to compensate them for their losses if the state’s going to insist on leaving them with few options to protect their herds. Some other states have created similar reimbursement programs.

“We know this is done elsewhere in the West,” Bonham said. “And this is kind of the seed money to start that escrow account.”
Bears, cougars and coyotes in cities

The governor’s budget pays special attention to one particular growing demand on the department’s staff: The conflicts that occur when animals like coyotes, bears and mountain lions wander into populated areas — a problem that Bonham said seems to get worse during droughts, as the animals head into urban areas seeking food and water.

Last year, the state responded to close to 6,500 human-wildlife conflicts alone, Bonham said.

“We’ve seen about a 300% increase in five or six years in this workload,” Bonham said.

The department’s budget proposal includes $7 million in funds for the department to buy traps and other equipment to capture and relocate animals, as well as nonlethal deterrents such as flagging and fences to protect livestock from wolves.

Bonham said that as it stands the state doesn’t have nearly the equipment it needs.

“Last year, we had a bear down in Southern California that kept getting into trash around houses. And when we got ready to deal with it, we realized our closest equipment was about 200 miles away,” he said.

The budget also includes $350,000 for a feasibility study for a new facility at the department’s dilapidated and 50-year-old Wildlife Health Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, where many sick and injured wild animals are taken for care and study. Bonham said the facility is so rundown, “I wouldn’t want to put my dog out there on a hot summer day.”

To further help wildlife navigate away from cars and people, Bonham said the budget has a separate $230 million for the Wildlife Conservation Board to build crossings for wildlife.

This is a particular problem in Southern California where isolated pockets of mountain lions are suffering from genetic problems due to inbreeding because they get hit by cars trying to cross major freeways.

“I’ve got one population of mountain lions on the ocean side, looking at another population on the inland side, and they can’t get to each other,” he said. “It’s like, lost love, right?”

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