PICTURED: Female pronghorn antelope at the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham 

by Chuck Graham

Lying hidden in waist-high coyote bush, green ephedra and Canadian milkvetch, I observed a San Joaquin kit fox pup, the smallest fox on the North American mainland. After brushing a legion of pesky ants off my legs, the curious fox detected my subtle motions and alertly peered at me from the other side of its prominent den mound, 30 yards west of where I sat.

San Joaquin kit fox pair in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

If not for its enormous ears — the largest of any canid in North America — I may have entirely missed the curious pup; its four siblings remained hunkered down below. As it strained its neck to keep watch on me, a lone tule elk bull sauntered off my left flank to the south as the morning sun crested the Temblor Range within the Carrizo Plain National Monument. 

Nearly entering the annual rut, that solitary tule bull blurted out a bugle call heard hundreds of yards away where his harem of tule cows gathered near Soda Lake Road. The cool, crispy air revealed its breath wafting skyward. That broadcasted bugle carrying across the plain sent the young kit fox bolting down below.

Final frontier

Grassland fauna thrive unfettered here, a small blade of wilderness holding on in the Southern San Joaquin Valley and lying just beyond the northeastern fringe of Highway 33. At 246,812 acres, 50 miles long and 15 miles wide, the Carrizo Plain is the largest single native grassland habitat remaining in the Golden State. It celebrates its 20th anniversary as a national monument on Jan. 17, 2021. 

View of the Temblor Range in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

The Carrizo Plain constitutes the last bastion for many species of native flora and fauna, including more endangered species than anywhere else in California. It is also a haven for ungulates like tule elk (Carrizo herds are some of the fastest growing in the state) and the struggling pronghorn antelope.

The national monument is cooperatively managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy. It also relies on a throng of nonprofits seeking to enhance a natural balance across the grasslands.

Yellow goldfields and purple thistle sage bloom at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

“The wildflower displays can be extraordinary. But even in years when they aren’t abundant, it is still a beautiful landscape,” said Johna Hurl, monument manager for over 20 years. “In the spring you may catch a glimpse of some kit fox pups playing at their den. They often sunbathe and can be seen playing with each other. Sometimes you may see the elk calves as they run with the herd. Antelope ground squirrel young can often be seen along the roads scampering around by the salt bushes.”

Wandering in solitude

My curiosity won out. I needed to know what was concealed inside the tumbledown trailer resting lonely for who knows how long.

I pulled over, camera pack affixed, and walked over to seek out signs of life, mainly opportunistic wildlife that may have claimed the human relic for their own. Whoever dwelled there previously had left a potpourri of debris, some of it unexplainable: piles of newspapers, a wheelchair, legions of tires walled into a perimeter surrounding the gutted dwelling. Old office desks struggled to stand on their own.

Suddenly, a solitary barn owl took flight, barely clearing an open door hanging by one rusty hinge. After slowly walking up the steps, I cautiously peered inside.  There was plenty of trash strewn inside the entire trailer, but nothing stood out more than the graveyard of giant kangaroo rats piled 6 inches high on the floor.

It was a horrid sight to behold, these hundreds of carcasses gutted by an extremely efficient barn owl. But it was also a good indicator revealing the health of the grasslands. 

Giant kangaroo rat at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Biologists have told me several times in the past that as the giant kangaroo rat goes, so goes the rest of the Carrizo Plain. The rats are a reliable food source for a whole smattering of wildlife across the grasslands, from kit foxes and rattlesnakes to long-tailed weasels and a bevy of hawks, falcons and owls. Their expansive burrows are adopted by nesting burrowing owls, antelope ground squirrels, kit foxes and American badgers, who make them their own, nearly ready-made dwellings for life on the grasslands. Giant kangaroo rats also enhance browsing habitat for tule elk and pronghorn antelope.

As for that gutted trailer, there are certainly a few of those scattered across the monument. There are plans to remove the worst of the eyesores and in turn enhance an already unique landscape.

“We’re working with the Bureau [of Land Management] right now to address a collection of long-abandoned trailers left on monument land by an adjoining landowner,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch, a regional nonprofit keeping a keen eye on the well being of the Los Padres National Forest and the Carrizo Plain.

Open space required

While dark gray storm clouds broke apart, brilliant shafts of sunlight beamed downward onto the grasslands. A herd of at least 30 pronghorn antelope that had bedded down most of the day felt the warmth of the sun and began browsing.

From my vantage point, I could see a wired fence in the way of the pronghorns’ path, a potential impediment for North America’s fastest land mammal. Naively, I thought the pronghorn would leap over it, but one by one they deftly dipped beneath the weather-beaten fencing.

Close to extinction between the late 1800s and early 1900s, efforts were taken to translocate 200 animals from Northeastern California to the Carrizo Plain in the late 1990s. Since then, pronghorn have had a difficult time reestablishing a stable population within the national monument.  

Old, rusty fencing is a factor. Although lots of barbed wire fencing has been removed by volunteers, there is still a lot out there, especially outside the monument where pronghorn want to naturally migrate. Drought has been an issue for pronghorn as well. They require open spaces and are therefore specified eaters. Tule elk, by comparison, possess a more diversified menu of grasses, herbs, woody chaparral and trees, and can locate more browsing options from the grassland floor up into the rolling foothills.

“We would like to see more fences removed, to facilitate movement across the landscape by pronghorn and elk,” said Kuyper. “We’d like to see a full-fledged effort to identify threats to the pronghorn population on the Carrizo Plain, which has struggled for the last few years. Pronghorn are an iconic species of the area and we need to do everything we can to ensure their survival.”

Today, pronghorn can be seen on the Carrizo Plain National Monument, but their numbers are low, less than 100 individuals separated into small herds. 

Herd of Tule elk at Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Mountain high perspective

Crunchy frost clung to my mountain bike like grim death, my hands purple from grasping the grips of my frigid handlebars. It forced me to furiously peddle, keeping warm while ascending to the Caliente Ridge on the west side of the Carrizo Plain.

Binoculars were an essential item required while soaking in all there was to see not only on the grasslands, but also the open-book-shaped mountains east and west of the monument. The first overlook revealed a huge swath of grasslands and then there was Soda Lake, the largest natural alkali lake in Central and Southern California. From that vantage point, I was just entering the first stands of pinyon-juniper woodlands just above impressively weathered sandstone rock outcroppings. Scanning with my binoculars, I caught a rare glimpse of a bobcat surveying the rolling hillsides and a golden eagle soaring high overhead. I also spotted a prairie falcon and a migrating ferruginous hawk, raptors ruling the airways above the grasslands.

As steep sections of the Caliente Road winded upward, my appreciation for this wild place intensified. From here, the 50-mile-long stretch of grasslands broadened while ascending further toward the summit of the Calientes at 5,106 feet. The immensity of this fragile biome was now in full view. And yet, I attempted to imagine this grassland ecosystem a couple hundred years prior when it once extended 450 miles from Redding south to just beyond Bakersfield. It was a habitat that once teemed in flora and fauna rivaling the sweeping plains of East Africa. 

A red tailed hawk eyes a recently caught meal on an old fence post in Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photo by Chuck Graham.

Today, visitors settle for a sliver of that, a dichotomy of woe for what has been lost and gratitude for what remains. Beyond the boundaries of the Carrizo Plain, however, expansion has crept in from the north. The Carrizo Plain Conservancy, a nonprofit, has taken on the task of acquiring adjoining lands, creating much-needed open space and corridors to enhance movement for struggling pronghorn antelope, an animal that easily eclipses 50 mph, and for endangered species like San Joaquin kit foxes, blunt-nosed leopard lizards, giant kangaroo rats and antelope ground squirrels.

“Any adjacent lands to the monument do continue to add corridors that could benefit wildlife,” said Hurl.

Finally, at the summit, I reveled over the expansive plain below. Late afternoon cumulonimbus clouds hovered above the daunting Temblors and long shadows gradually crept across the Carrizo Plain. There is no other place like this in California. 

The grasslands, however, remain threatened by oil extraction on the west side of the Caliente Mountains. The next decade will determine the overall health and diversity of this stunning biosphere. Much will depend on the ongoing grind of tireless conservationists.

“So much work has been done over the course of the last two decades to restore degraded areas of the monument,” said Kuyper. “Miles of barbed wire fencing has been pulled, invasive plants have been removed, a management plan has been prepared. But so much more can be done, and there is a growing alliance of nonprofit organizations with the will to do it.”

Carrizo Plain National Monument: www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/california/carrizo-plain-national-monument