Sanctuaries of the Sacramento
Refuges along the river foster wildlife and opportunities for outdoor adventure
Just beyond the Chico city limits, off a valley highway, the bustle of the everyday world transitions into a wildlife marvel filled with a mix of animal species in their natural habitats.
There, a walk along a trail may provide glimpses of scampering deer or scat from a mountain lion. A close inspection will reveal dozens of migratory and native species of birds, whose singing echoes through the peaceful huddle of cottonwoods.
These are some of the wonders to experience when exploring a local wildlife refuge, such as the Pine Creek Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.
Located on the south side of Highway 32 between Chico and Hamilton City, Pine Creek opened a year ago to little fanfare. Yet the refuge’s one-mile walking trail is the gateway to myriad wildlife. Songbirds and swallows, white-tailed kites and different species of hawks are just a few of the birds that live in the area. The refuge is also home to black-tailed deer, mountain lions, bobcats and coyote.
With the exception of 34 natural acres, the 563-acre property had been private farmland—orchards planted with walnut, prune and almond trees. The majority of the Pine Creek Unit is now restored habitat, the result of conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners, such as Nature Conservancy and River Partners.
Restoration began in 1998, with the last bit of the project completed earlier this year. The site comprises cottonwood forest, valley oak woodland, riparian scrub and restored native grassland.
Wildlife refuges, such as the Pine Creek Unit, are important habitats for migratory birds, fish and other wildlife, said Joe Silveira, a wildlife biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 300 species of birds and a diverse group of animals can be found in the refuges along the Sacramento River.
Natural habitat conservation efforts along the Sacramento River began in 1989, when the U.S. Department of the Interior permitted Fish and Wildlife to purchase 18,000 acres between Red Bluff and Princeton for restoration. The arrangement formed the Sacramento River Wildlife Refuge, one of six complexes of the larger Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. So far, the agency has acquired 10,140 acres located in Tehama, Glenn and Butte counties.
“Through active habitat management we’re basically increasing the natural diversity of plants and animals in the Sacramento River ecosystem,” Silveira said.
Pine Creek is a self-guided experience, but those looking to gain a bit more knowledge or interaction can take guided tours from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge located in nearby Willows, which also serves as the headquarters of all six complexes. Tours are given each weekend from November through January, which also happens to be peak waterfowl season.
In Willows, sightseers will find themselves immersed in a beautiful outdoor environment. The afternoon leisurely one-mile walk leads visitors through four habitats consisting of seasonal marshes, permanent ponds, vernal pools and riparian woodlands.
The marshes are flooded in the fall by water from the Sacramento River, providing a habitat abundant with food crucial to migratory birds. In late spring, the marshes are drained and new plants will grow, said Naomi Baucom, a visitor services assistant and California Waterfoul Association intern, who occasionally leads tours.
Near the riparian forest, Logan Creek winds its way through a canopy of cottonwood and willow trees. Wooden boxes are found on some trees, serving as replacement homes for wood ducks that have lost most of their natural nesting places due to deforestation.
A glimpse of waterfowl can be seen along the walking trail but for bird enthusiasts who want to see more, vehicle tours may be the best option. The auto route is self-guided but a radio station gives history of the wetlands and interesting facts about the species on the refuge. (Guided van tours are also available.)
Driving allows for opportunities to stop at designated areas to take photos, and get a closer look at thousands of geese, ducks and other birds that make the Sacramento River region their seasonal home. About halfway through the route, an observation platform offers a splendid view of the wetland and wildlife. The dock is the perfect chance to get out, stretch and get an up-close view of wildlife from spotting scopes mounted at the site.
About 2 million ducks, 750,000 geese and other migratory birds from as far away as the Arctic region of Alaska, Canada and Siberia will rest here during the next few months as they travel the Pacific Flyway. Wildlife refuges offer a sanctuary for the birds, Baucom said.
Human activity such as logging in the early 1900s began altering the ecosystem along the river. Then the agricultural industry took hold and farmers, ranchers and other land-based industrialists transformed much of the wild land to domesticated fertile grounds. Nowadays, growth in general and increased human activity continue to change the ecosystem and threaten wildlife. Many of the natural habitats are disappearing. In fact, it’s estimated that less than 5 percent of the region’s original wetlands exists today.
Restoration projects such as the ones at the Pine Creek Unit and the other habitats in the 35,000-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex are ways to jumpstart the process of returning the land to its natural state.
Protected wetlands and other natural habitats provide benefits for the public as well. Aside from wildlife observation, other permissible activities include bank fishing, photography and environmental education. Hunting is also allowed during certain times of year in designated areas. Silveira says controlled hunting helps maintain the diversity of wildlife. Additionally, the money generated by the sale of permits goes toward the purchase of habitat.
Wetlands, such as those found along the Sacramento River, also reduce soil erosion, control flood water and purify water.
“The Sacramento River supports an abundance of fish and wildlife species,” Silveira said. “The river is important for us. It is vital to the state water supply.”