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Memories of Merced NWR

Ross's Goose - Chen rossii
Ross’s Geese at sunset. Merced NWR, south of Merced, California.

Midway between Interstate 5 and US-99, 15 miles from Los Banos and 11 miles from Merced California, is the approximate geographic center of California’s Central Valley. It is also the site of the 10,000+ acre Merced National Wildlife Refuge. 

American Bittern - Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bittern disguised as a reed at Merced NWR.

Prior to the “civilization” of the west, the entire Central Valley of California was a destination for huge numbers, perhaps billions of wintering waterfowl. Most of the valley is a low lying river bottom and flood plain.  Following the discovery of yellow metal in the mid nineteenth century, the floodgates opened, and hordes of get-rich-quick wannabes poured in. After the gold played out, many of the new immigrants found the land rich with potential for agriculture, and so started the competition between species for dominance of the resources here. Not only were the fields converted to human uses, a wholesale slaughter of geese and ducks began, justified by the “need to feed the thousands of new immigrants”. I read reports that wagon loads of killed birds were “harvested”.

In the early 1800s there was an enormous 13,670 square mile lake at the southern end of the Central Valley called Tulare Lake. It was separated from the rest of the valley by an alluvial dam that held back the 200 foot deep lake, but in times of high runoff the water would overflow and fall into the San Joaquin river. During the period of 1850 to 1879 there was extensive flooding, but since then the water has been diverted for agricultural development, and now this lake is gone, leaving only a dry bed.

Allocation of lands for protecting wildlife was brought on as much by the conflict between a species bent on profit, and a host of native species desperate for survival. By the early 1950s local farmers raised concerns that wildfowl were damaging their crops. In 1951 steps were taken to establish a refuge outside of Merced California. The first refuge in the Central Valley (Sacramento NWR) was started in 1937, and the process continued until the last refuge (San Joaquin NWR) was established in 1987.

This idea got me thinking. In those 50 years, how much have we “preserved”? I did some math:

Beginning Year Acreage
Merced NWR 1952 10,262
San Luis NWR 1966 26,800
San Joaquin NWR 1987 7,000
Sacramento NWR 1937 10,775
Colusa NWR 1945  5,077
Kern NWR 1960 11,249
Sutter NWR 1945 2,591
Delevan NWR 1962 5,877
Total Acreage in the Central Valley 79,631

The Central Valley is roughly 18,000 sq mi or 11.52 million acres. The total NWR acreage in the valley is 79,631 acres, or 0.69% of the Central Valley. To be fair, there are other reserves in the valley besides the NWR’s listed, but I don’t believe they add more than a few thousand acres. It would still seem that less than 1% of the land in this great valley has been set aside for wildlife. Some, like Delevan NWR are not open to the public, but is open to hunters in season. To be fair, much of the funding to create these reserves was supplied through the purchase of hunting permits.

In a previous post I stated, “In the past two centuries we’ve transformed the land from settled islands amid a sea of natural landscapes, into islands of wildness within a sea of civilization.” The discussion above quantifies this process and provides a perspective in scale.

I’ve visited Merced National Wildlife Reserve on three occasions, all were winter visits. Twice in December 2011 I went exploring and I learned that this location was a Mecca for Ross’s Geese. Every time prior to this experience, when I met massive numbers of white geese, nearly all members were Snow Geese with a scattering of Ross’s Geese mixed in. I found the reverse was true here; nearly all the white geese were Ross’s. I also met my first American Bittern here in 2011. In January 2019 I revisited this reserve, but I did not encounter the Ross’s Geese in the numbers like my 2011 visit. On each of these occasions I met many other avian species. The gallery below shows some examples of the birds to be found here.

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