The valley of the shadow of death

western spadefoot spea hammondii california
Western Spadefoot (Spea hammondii)

The last chapter of our California journey brought us to a very different ecosystem.

While driving from Yosemite to Shasta my father and I crossed the Central Valley. This valley was once an extensive grassland and wetland system that spanned most of the length of California from Bakersfield to Redding. The Central Valley held a unique herpetological assemblage that included California Tiger Salamander, Western Spadefoot, Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard, Giant Garter Snake, and San Joaquin Coachwhip. Many other endemic fish, mammals, invertebrates and plants were found in its waters.

In the 1850s, disillusioned gold rush miners flooded into the valley and began turning it into cropland. The valley’s year-round sunshine and excellent soil were perfect for agriculture. New dams blocked off water sources that fed much of the valley’s wetlands; marshes that remained were drained and planted. What herps survived had to adapt to agriculture or be constrained to small pockets of habitat.

One species that has has a tough time adapting is the Giant Garter Snake. It is the world’s largest garter snake and among the most aquatic. Wherever dryland crops are planted, wherever water is drained, it disappears. The Giant Garter Snake is now missing from 98% of its former range in the San Joaquin Valley (the southern portion of the Central Valley) and has lost most of its remaining habitat to the north as well.

A few remaining Giant Garter Snakes are hanging on in limited spots where natural marsh remains. Others survive in irrigation canals with sufficient cover vegetation, feeding on introduced warmwater fish that have replaced their natural food supply. In the right spots these snakes even venture into flooded rice fields. An effort has been made to preserve some of these heavily-altered habitat mosaics and keep the snake from going extinct.

giant garter snake habitat thamnophis gigas california
The habitat was less than ideal, its threats right in our face

My father and I drove up to one of the newly established preserves, a canal crossing the road with fallow fields allowed to overgrow on one side while crop planting continues on the other. This habitat is loaded with threats. Roads cross everywhere, agricultural runoff flows into the water, and fishermen abound. our My father and I drove up to one of the newly established preserves, a canal crossing the road with fallow fields allowed to overgrow on one side while crop planting continues on the other. This habitat is loaded with threats. Roads cross everywhere, agricultural runoff flows into the water, and fishermen abound.

As we reached the canal, my father spotted a body. We stopped to find a dead juvenile Giant Garter Snake, killed by a passing car. I walked over to the edge of the canal and saw another dead giant garter in the water. Pulling it out, I found it had been trapped in the tattered remains of a discarded fishing net, drowning as a result.

I crossed to the other side of the road. Just as I reached the edge a huge snake launched itself off of the canal’s banks and dove into the water with impressive form. We had a live one!

giant garter snake thamnophis gigas california
Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas)

My father and I left the spot alone for half an hour to search other roadside canals, then returned more stealthily than before. This time the snake allowed me to approach. Nearly a meter in length and as thick as any garter snake I’d ever seen, its stature was as impressive as its resilience. But does it represent a new start for the species, or a final straggler destined to meet the same fate as its brothers, caught by traps or cars or other hazards in a landscape no longer its own?

In the presence of many enemies

The State of California lists 22 species of reptile and amphibian as “threatened or endangered” and another 44 as of “special concern” due to declining range and populations. Thus a third of California’s herps are officially in trouble, and in fact nearly all species have shown recent declines. A longitudinal study by Sam Sweet found that snake observations across his study areas dropped by over 90% between 1980 and 2010. This held true even for common species like gopher snakes and ringnecks, the sort of herps that we would rarely worry about.

Common Raven eating a Sierra Alligator Lizard yosemite national park california
Common Raven consuming a Sierra Alligator Lizard in Yosemite National Park. Campground trash has boosted the populations of opportunistic foragers, increasing the risk to prey species.

In an ideal world, we could identify the threats to wildlife one-by-one and then work to reduce them. Unfortunately, the threats may be too numerous for this piecemeal approach. In our blog series I’ve identified herps in trouble due to urban and suburban sprawl, drought, dams, introduced trout, chytrid fungus, introduced bullfrogs, recreational ATVs, garbage dumps, land loss due to agricultural development, the human facilitation of native predator spread and density, global warming, irrigation, pesticides and other chemical runoff, fire, groundwater depletion, livestock grazing, mining, highway construction, logging, automobile pollution, invasive plant spread, hiking/camping impacts, disease, fishing bycatch, and roadkill.

That list is not exhaustive – nowhere did I mention the perils of sound pollution (disrupts some auran breeding near roads), light pollution (impacts life cycles near urban areas), renewable energy development (takes over large tracks of land in the desert), or other threats which may not even be yet known. We address one threat only to see another crop up, or improve the situation for one species then find that our actions have indirectly harmed others.

Pygmy Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii) california
The Pygmy Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii) is not on the sensitive species list yet largely because it is one of the least-studied lizards in California. None had been seen in this meadow in over a decade until we found a little male near the end of our trip.

Due to the number and complexity of the threats, many species are lost before we even knew what hit them. We like to think we understand conservation more now than in the when previous native herps went extinct in California, but even in the last twenty years we’ve seen additional species potentially blip off the map (Northern Leopard Frog, Desert Slender Salamander) without being able to do anything about it or even really being aware of when they disappeared. if another vulnerable species became extirpated over the next decade – say, the Regal Ringneck Snake or Cope’s Leopard Lizard, the Lassen Cascades Frog or Lesser Slender Salamander – we might be just as ignorant as to what was happening. Or even if we did know, still incapable of addressing it until the animal was already gone.

Still waters in green pastures

oregon spotted frog habitat rana pretiosa
Oregon Spotted Frog habitat

After a night in Shasta my father and I embarked on our last full day of the trip. We hit a few spots in the Siskiyous and then crossed the border into Oregon. Staying within state lines was not an option; our final target, the Oregon Spotted Frog (Rana pretiosa), is extinct in California.

From my childhood home near Portland, I grew up hearing stories about the decline of this unique and beautiful red ranid. One of the most aquatic frogs in America, it prefers to spend its time floating in water rather than sitting on shorelines. It breeds in highly vegetated shallows but survives summers and droughts in deeper permanent water, and its reluctance to travel overland between these habitats leads it to require complex, diversified wetland systems in order to survive.

Sadly, most such wetlands have been filled in for agriculture, polluted by fertilizer and pesticide runoff, destroyed by cattle grazing, overgrown with invasive foreign grasses and reeds, or overtaken by predatory bullfrogs. The last confirmed record of a spotted frog in California was in Modoc County in 1989. Though still found in a few localities in the Northwest, they have disappeared from 95% of their former range.

My father and I drove up into the eastern slopes of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, home to most of the remaining spotted frog localities. In late afternoon we arrived at the necessary complex wetland system, free from bullfrogs and out of range of cattle grazing and agricultural runoff. A beautiful stream twisted through long grass, stretches of flooded meadow connecting its waters to several small but deep ponds.

oregon spotted frog rana pretiosa
One of thirteen observed spotted frogs, all floating in water

I scanned the surface of one pond until I saw tell-tale upturned eyes protruding from the water. After 30 years of hearing about this endangered species, I was observing one in the wild. My heart pounded as wonder overtook me – it was like a myth in the flesh. I felt lucky, blessed. The longer I stood, the more frog shapes resolved. I counted nine spotted frogs and several tadpoles in this single water body. Others floated in an overflow pool adjacent to the stream, and more still were found in a marsh a few miles away. In at least this one spot, far from human development, they are strong.

Conservationists are working to create hope for the Oregon Spotted Frog, even in Washington where only seven populations of the species persist. For several years the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife worked in conjunction with zoos and a corrections facility to run a reintroduction program. Spotted frog eggs from Conboy Lake Wildlife Refuge and the Black River were brought to captive facilities, where they were raised to adulthood and then released into a new preserve. The largest and healthiest frogs were those raised by inmates, perhaps because they gave the most time and attention to their care. Unfortunately, the reintroduced frogs failed to prosper at the new locality. Other reintroduction projects have followed in its wake and are showing somewhat more success.

As for the Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs and Northern Leopard Frogs discussed in the previous essay, all depends on the persistence of habitat. These reintroduction efforts will only matter if the wetlands aren’t drained and the meadows aren’t developed. Only if cattle haven’t overrun the spots and agricultural runoff hasn’t poisoned them. Even with all the researcher help in the world, the spotted frogs continue to face a complex of threats.

Looking forward to forever

Oregon Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps wrighti)
The Oregon Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps wrighti) is associated with fragmented pockets of old-growth forest. A morning’s search had been fruitless until we suddenly found seven in just a few meters of habitat.

What can we Californians do to address all these threats to allthese species in a manner that has any chance of preserving our biodiversity for future generations? Is there any way for us to stop playing catch-up, to teach outrselves to preserve life rather than destroy it?

A necessary part of the answer, in my evaluation, is that we adopt more wholistic conservation measures that address many of the threats at once. And the easiest way to do this is to reduce our ecological footprint by reducing our consumption.

Over the last 70 years American consumption patterns have increased dramatically. Everything we do seems to have been super-sized, from our homes to our cars to our meat to our discarded trash. Some calculations suggest that the average American has the ecological footprint of 40 people in Bangladesh, or 200 people in Ethiopia. And there is no evidence that any of it has made us happier – in many cases it’s quite the opposite. The root of this trend towards overconsumption is the corporate need to continually increase production, thus inundating us with advertising that suggests we will not be happy unless we discard all that is old, buy everything new, and constantly, constantly “upgrade”.

It is unlikely that corporations will lose their desire to see us consume more. Nor will our government work against their most well-heeled lobbyists. Thus is it up to individuals and families and communities to choose how we will reduce our impact.

sampling for western spadefoot in tejon ranch
Sampling for Western Spadefoot in one of California’s largest remaining grasslands. There are plans to build a 40,000 person development nearby.

Will we choose to live in smaller homes on smaller plots in order to limit residential sprawl and driving miles? Will we choose less wasteful eating habits and adjust our diet to reduce our agricultural footprint? Will we refrain from replacing commercial goods with every new season or fad, so that we can minimize our resource depletion and waste production?

Rough estimates suggest that Earth’s consumption patterns are already 20% higher than sustainable levels – in other words, the Earth would have to be 20% bigger for us to be able to use as much stuff as we do every year without eventually destroying all of it. It’s worse in America – if the entire world’s population consumed goods like Americans, we would be at 400% of sustainable consumption. It would take four Earths to supply our needs. And America’s over-consumption doesn’t only affect America’s wildlife – our raw material extraction, factory pollution, and even trash disposal has been outsourced to much of the rest of the world.

An “advantage” of globalization is that you don’t have to see the impact of your choices. But even when we outsource much of our impact, there are still repercussions right here in California. Dams, logging, dumps, sprawl, agribusiness – its all right here in front of our eyes. And despite whatever we might hear about backroom dealing in the “water wars” or politician’s calls for “drill baby drill!”, the profitability of development comes down to you and I. However much energy, water, home, car and agriculture we want to pay for, they will produce. Our use drives their profits. That choice is in our hands.

ted daehnke in yosemite national park
The author’s father in Yosemite

The constant theme I saw throughout my trip was that despite the threats to California’s wildlife, there remains a good chance that our herps can persist so long as the habitat is still there. But every year we lose more of that habitat. The choice before us is how much more habitat we will use up before we reach for a different way to live.


Thomson, Robert C. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Nafis, Gary. California Herps: A guide to the reptiles and amphibians of California.

“Imperiled frogs thrive in inmates’ gentle hands”, article published in The Olympian by Stacia Glenn

A heartfelt word of thanks to Shanti Mathias for all of the assistance on the series