Natomas chainsaw massacre?

State and federal authorities investigate the possible destruction of a threatened species’ habitat

Stumping ground: Leonard Padilla and his conquests.

Stumping ground: Leonard Padilla and his conquests.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Biologist Jim Estep has been monitoring Swainson’s-hawk nests in the Natomas Basin for six years. On May 16, he discovered that a tree containing an active hawk nest, located about a mile east of Sacramento International Airport, had been cut down.

“I just went out to check that nest site to find out if the birds were on it,” said Estep, “and that’s when I noticed the trees were down.” Estep found that 15 acres had been cleared of brush, numerous willow trees and 15 cottonwood trees, including the one with the hawk nest. He said a pair of hawks used the nest last year and were seen adding to the nest this spring but had yet to lay this year’s clutch of eggs. Swainson’s hawks are listed as a threatened species in California and are protected by federal and state laws.

The property is owned by Leonard Padilla, the former bail bondsman who was a candidate in both last year’s race for mayor and the 2003 recall election. Padilla said he sent a crew out to clear the land around the week of May 15 and believed the hawk nest was not being used. “I had not seen, for years, anything that looked like a snake or a hawk on the property,” Padilla told SN&R.

Patrick Foy, a biologist and information officer with the California Department of Fish and Game, said the department inspected the area on May 22 and is “conducting the investigation with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service.” Foy said the investigation is continuing.

Jenny Marr, a staff environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Game, said, “Our warden has launched an investigation and is obtaining as much information as she can for our enforcement division to reach a determination.” The department is specifically looking into alleged violations of Fish and Game Code Section 3503.5, the destruction of birds of prey, their eggs and their nests; and Section 1602, the alteration of lakes and streambeds.

The latter is of concern because the clearing also may have disrupted an irrigation ditch that runs along the edge of the Padilla property and is considered the habitat of giant garter snakes, another endangered species.

The Swainson’s hawk has been on the list of California’s threatened species since 1983. Loss of habitat, particularly nesting areas, is the greatest threat to the large broad-winged hawk.

Mike Bradbury, a Swainson’s-hawk expert who is concerned about the survival of the California hawks, has been studying the birds for 13 years. “We definitely think the California population is really different from the rest of the birds in North America,” said Bradbury. “Last year, we took a bunch of blood samples, and not a single bird showed positive for West Nile Virus even though, as they migrate, they move through areas in which the disease occurs and has been occurring for a while now.”

UC Davis genetics researchers, said Bradbury, are trying to identify a gene that apparently makes some organisms immune to the disease. “So, you say, what good is the bird? Well, what if the bird has a unique gene that ends up especially useful in determining what gene makes you immune to a given disease, and that they can somehow transfer that over to humans?”

Padilla said that about a week before he had the trees cut down, he sought advice from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “I talked to the feds; they said they had been out there but they hadn’t seen anything.” Padilla could not remember the name of the agent he spoke to. “I think he said there had been a nest in one of the trees, or something to that effect,” said Padilla. “But no hawk, no eggs … no nothing.”

Padilla bought the property around 1980. Although zoned for agriculture, it has not been farmed for about 15 years. As a result, Padilla said, the grass and brush on the property had become a fire hazard.

“We go out there and plow the grass under and all that,” he said, “but at the same time we noticed homeless people started crowding in around some of the brush.” The homeless presented a problem, Padilla said, because their campfires could trigger a wildfire, endangering the nearby Westlake housing development as well as traffic on Interstate 5. He said the trees were cut down to deprive the homeless of their campsites. “You try not to be heartless,” he added, “but there’s a liability problem.”

Jim Pachl from the Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk, an organization formed in 1994, speculated that greed rather than liability issues could have been a motive for the removal of the trees. Padilla’s property lies between two areas where AKT Development Corp. hopes to build housing developments in the near future: Greenbrier Farms and West Lakeside. “A developer would find it more convenient to not have a [Swainson’s hawk] nest at all on the property,” said Pachl. “In fact, we believe a number of trees out there [in the Natomas Basin] have been removed in the belief that this would avoid regulatory issues.”

Only a mile south of the Padilla property, land purchased for about $5,000 an acre in 1980 was sold to developers for a record $212,000 per acre last year [see “Backwater swirling,” SN&R News, June 23]. Padilla said he recently received a written offer of $250,000 an acre for his land.

As for selling his property, Padilla said, “I’ve never listed it, to be honest with you. But obviously, there comes a point where everything has a value. And as much as they’re building all around it …”

At this point, it is unclear whether Padilla will be penalized for possible destruction of snake and hawk habitat. Penalties for such offenses are set by a judge at the request of the district attorney. In 2002, Sacramento International Airport filled in several acres of wetlands that were giant-garter-snake habitat. The airport also cut down 100 trees, three containing Swainson’s-hawk nests. In the settlement of that case, the airport was ordered to repair the environmental damage and do mitigation. For mitigation, the airport purchased 300 acres of nearby land that will be managed as a wetland. To repair the damaged habitat, the airport removed the fill from the wetlands, restored the hydrology to the damaged marsh and permanently protected 30 acres of rice fields. The trees have not been replaced.

“A pretty critical part of the maintenance of the Swainson’s-hawk population out here is to retain a good nesting habitat throughout the area,” said Estep, who sees nesting trees in Natomas as key to the Swainson’s hawk’s survival. The hawks need tall trees undisturbed by human activity, adjacent to foraging areas open fields, to build their nests.

The loss of the nest tree on the Padilla property was especially frustrating for Estep because it was located in an area where there are already few nests. Of the 59 active nests Estep monitored last year, most were in tall trees along the Sacramento River; only 14 were in the interior of the Natomas Basin.

For now, the California Department of Fish and Game says that both federal and state agencies are cooperating in its investigations into the land clearing and tree cutting on the Padilla property and that it could be several weeks until a determination is made. Padilla says he has only received a letter from the department—nothing from federal authorities. He also said the letter only mentioned possible violations of Section 1602, the alteration of lakes and streambeds.

Meanwhile, the pair of Swainson’s hawks that lost their nest continues to stay in the area. The day that Estep found the downed nest tree, he saw the pair of hawks in other nearby trees. “The day that I was there, they began copulating again, which is sort of common practice after a nest has failed or something like that has happened,” he said. Estep thinks it is probably too late for the hawks to attempt to nest again this year.