Marijuana Wars and the California DFW

California Department of Fish and Game Warden Jerry Karnow with suspected poisoned bear at an illegal marijuana grow site

Fish and Wildlife Warden Jerry Karnow with suspected poisoned bear at an illegal marijuana grow site. Photo courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife Warden Jerry Karnow

Just after daylight in September 2014, four California Department of Fish and Wildlife officers and four Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies quietly locked their vehicles and began what was to be an arduous hike into the bone-dry Yuba River Canyon. Armed to the hilt and decked out in standard marijuana eradication attire—full camo uniforms and bulletproof vests—the officers were prepared for any eventuality. Since becoming fully engaged in the business of eradicating marijuana grows and routinely dealing with drug cartels and dangerous criminals, DFW wardens had added a new weapon to their arsenal: the POF .308 semiautomatic rifle.

The California Department of Fish and Game first entered the marijuana eradication business about ten years ago. Wardens were recruited by county sheriffs’ departments and various drug task forces to participate in the Campaign Against Marijuana Program (CAMP). Fish and Game involvement increased as other enforcement agencies became aware of the wardens’ work ethic and backwoods knowledge. It wasn’t long before Fish and Game officers were asked to assist with most details—a boon to interagency relations but a strain on an already understaffed warden force. Having wardens so heavily involved in marijuana eradication also strayed from the Department of Fish and Game’s primary mission of protecting California’s natural resources.

Out of necessity, Fish and Game’s then chief of patrol decided that Fish and Game officers would provide assistance in marijuana investigations only when rehabilitation of the property was part of the detail; this would be consistent with the Department’s mission. At a minimum, habitat restoration would include cleanup of pesticides, proper disposal of litter, and removal of stream blockages. Marijuana had become a serious environmental issue.

Part of an illegal marijuana grow photographed by California Department of Fish and Game Captain Patrick Foy

Part of an illegal marijuana grow. Photo courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife Captain Patrick Foy

In 2012, the Department of Fish and Game—soon to be the Department of Fish and Wildlife—began taking a more proactive approach to marijuana eradication. The new chief of patrol was contacted by a group of officers with the idea of creating an environmentally focused marijuana team. This ten-person Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET) would take the lead when environmental damage caused by marijuana grows was significant and restoration efforts were necessary.

It was soon discovered that environmental damage was extensive in some California watersheds. Highly sensitive species, like salmon and steelhead, were being harmed by traditional cartel-type grows and by a growing number of additional grows that had sprung up since the passage of Proposition 215. Regulations were being ignored as streams were dewatered, diverted, and polluted. This prompted the (renamed) California Department of Fish and Wildlife to create what is now the Watershed Enforcement Team (WET); this small group of Fish and Wildlife officers, environmental scientists, a DFW attorney, and a support staff work with the California Department of Water Resources to focus on the most environmentally challenged watersheds in the state. [Read more…]

2015 Book Tour Off to a Great Start

 

Steven T. Callan signing books for the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

Signing books for the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

The 2015 book tour is in full swing and off to a great start! Kathy and I have enjoyed making many new friends, and we look forward to a full calendar of events in the months ahead.

Author Steven T. Callan signing books at Wintu Audubon Society

Signing books after my presentation to Wintu Audubon Society

January found us with the Wintu Audubon Society, where I was asked to give a presentation about Badges, Bears, and Eagles, my career in wildlife protection, and my upcoming sequel. We thoroughly enjoyed their warm welcome, their hospitality, and many interesting, well-thought-out questions.

Steven T. Callan speaks about his book Badges, Bears, and Eagles to the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

Speaking to the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

The Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California invited me to speak at their February meeting in Auburn. Kathy and I were so impressed with the planning and organization that went into this exciting event. I had the privilege of being a guest on two Sacramento-area radio programs prior to my speaking engagement, helping to ensure an impressive turnout. What a friendly group of fishermen and fisherwomen!

Steven T. Callan with Jim Petruk, president of the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

With Jim Petruk, president of the Rooster Tails Fishing Club of Northern California

We rounded out the first quarter of the new year with two appearances: a book signing at the Nor-Cal Boat, Sport and RV Show and a presentation to the Shasta Group of the Mother Lode Chapter of the Sierra Club. Kathy and I had a ball at both events.

Steven T. Callan at Nor-Cal Boat, Sport and RV Show

With Department of Fish and Wildlife friends Eda Eggeman Ebe and Torry Zimmerman at the Nor-Cal Boat, Sport and RV Show

The year ahead is going to keep us busy, with events scheduled at Lassen Volcanic National Park , the Chico SIRs, and Eureka’s Clarke Historical Museum, to name a few. The highlight of the tour is seeing old friends and making new ones along the way. [Read more…]

Show Respect and Pass Through Quietly

 

Mature bald eagle at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Mature bald eagle perched on snag at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

“Quick, roll up the windows!” said Kathy. We had just entered the ten-mile auto tour route at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, when four cars roared by us like we were standing still. Pulling to the side of the road, we waited for the dust cloud that enveloped us to subside.

“Where did all these inconsiderate people come from?” I said, in slightly less delicate terms.

My wife and I love seeing and photographing wildlife, but our primary reason for coming to wildlife refuges, like Lower Klamath  and Tule Lake, is for the serenity and enjoyment of experiencing nature. Competing for the next “photo op” was not what we had in mind.

I thought about a recent piece I had read in Ducks Unlimited magazine, entitled “Public Land Ethics.”  The article provided ten rules for hunters to follow when hunting on public lands. Having enforced fish and wildlife regulations for thirty years, I was well aware of these rules—none of which were subject to enforcement—all of which require respect.

So, where am I headed with this train of thought? Respect is required of everyone who passes through a state or federal wildlife area—that includes photographers, bird-watchers and sightseers, as well as hunters. Visitors should respect the lands, respect the wildlife, and respect other visitors by showing them common courtesy. If you’re kicking up dust, no matter how dry the conditions, you’re driving way too fast.

Mallard pair at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

Mallard pair at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

After watching the dust clouds finally disappear, we slowly proceeded toward a stand of mature cottonwood trees at the west end of the auto tour route; according to one of the volunteers at the refuge visitor center, about thirty bald eagles had been frequenting the grove. Arriving at a flooded wetland, we began photographing an assortment of common duck species: mallards, pintails, gadwalls, widgeons, and buffleheads, along with massive concentrations of snow geese and white-fronted geese.

“Look, there’s a mature bald eagle up ahead,” I said. “Let’s see if we can get close enough for a photograph.”

“I’ll get the camera ready,” Kathy replied.

Butte Valley Wildlife Area with Mount Shasta in background

Butte Valley Wildlife Area with Mount Shasta in background

The majestic, white-headed bird sat motionless on the tip of a partially submerged snag while I inched the car within range of our 300 millimeter lens—close enough for a reasonably good photograph, yet not so close as to disturb the eagle. Kathy had depressed the camera shutter once or twice, when [Read more…]

Presentation at Wintu Audubon Society

Author Steven T. Callan signing books for Wintu Audubon Society members

Signing books for Wintu Audubon Society members. Photo by Kathy Callan.

Last night I had the pleasure and privilege of giving a presentation to a packed house of Wintu Audubon Society members. In addition to discussing my current book and the upcoming sequel, The Game Warden’s Son—A Half Century of Protecting California’s Wildlife, we shared ideas about how our natural resources might be better protected. One of the suggestions for helping to finance more wardens in the field was a voluntary wildlife stamp for people who bird watch, hike, and enjoy nature’s wonders but don’t necessarily hunt or fish. This is an excellent idea, in my opinion, and one that would find favor, I believe, with sportsmen, nature enthusiasts, and game wardens alike.

Thank you, Wintu Audubon, for the warm welcome and stimulating discussion!

 

For the Love of Ducks

Waterfowl at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Waterfowl taking flight at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Photo by author.

With the north wind blowing off snow-covered Mount Shasta, it was brutally cold that December afternoon in 1960. Sitting in the back seat of our family car, I spotted an enormous flock of snow-white birds feeding in the grain field on the west side of the highway.

“Are those geese?” I asked.

“Snows,” said my father. “I see some specks and a few ducks out there with em’. You guys are gonna see a lot of those birds where we’re going.”

Snow geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese at Sacramento NWR. Photo by author.

Just then the entire flock exploded into the air, flew directly over our heads, and began circling another field on the opposite side of the highway. My father rolled down his window so my two younger brothers and I could hear the deafening roar of these migratory wonders, all crying out at the same time. It was the sweetest music I had ever heard.

I was twelve years old on that eventful day, traveling up Highway 99W to our new home in Orland, California. Awe-inspired and completely captivated by the incredible beauty of those splendid birds, my passion for waterfowl would last for the rest of my life.

Like many of the boys growing up at the north end of California’s Great Central Valley, I loved to duck hunt and seized every opportunity to bring home a couple of plump, rice-fed mallards for the dinner table. Fifty years later, I still get just as excited when I see wild ducks and geese, but I’ve put away my shotgun and replaced it with a camera and paintbrush.

Don’t get me wrong—I remain a strong advocate for sport hunting, as long as it’s done legally, in accordance with state and federal regulations. As I stated in my first book, Badges, Bears, and Eagles, law-abiding sportsmen contribute hundreds of millions of dollars, every year, toward the purchase of wildlands and the improvement of wildlife habitat. These funds support nongame birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and beneficial insects, as well as game species like ducks and geese.

Greater white-fronted geese at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Greater white-fronted geese at Sacramento NWR. Photo by author.

Possibly the best place in California to see spectacular concentrations of ducks and geese is the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, made up of five national wildlife refuges (NWRs) and three wildlife management areas (WMAs). Our favorite is the Sacramento NWR, located about nine miles south of Willows, off old Highway 99W.

Kathy and I made one of our annual treks down to the refuge a few weeks ago. It was a perfect day for taking photographs: One of our recent storms was breaking up, leaving behind a dazzling blue sky filled with billowing thunderheads. [Read more…]

Splashing Salmon and Giant Sycamores

Spawning male Chinook salmon

Spawning male Chinook salmon. Photo by author.

I’m sometimes asked if I had any favorite places to work during my twenty-one years supervising the warden force in western Shasta County. Lower Battle Creek immediately comes to mind—especially the tree-lined section from the mouth, where Battle Creek flows into the Sacramento River, to the barrier weir at Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

Lower Battle Creek from riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Lower Battle Creek from riparian trail. Photo by author.

Every fall, from mid-September to early November, this three-mile stretch of Battle Creek would come alive with fall-run Chinook salmon. Right behind the salmon were the poachers—some by day and some by night—with fist-sized snag hooks, dip nets, spears, and pitchforks. Many’s the autumn we had to practically stand guard on this extraordinary stream and its anadromous visitors.

Immature bald eagle on riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Immature bald eagle on riparian trail. Photo by author.

For me, the days of chasing salmon poachers are over, but Kathy and I still enjoy watching these marvelous fish make their incredible journey upstream to spawn. Possibly the best place in Northern California to experience this wonder of nature, and a whole lot more, is Battle Creek Wildlife Area.

Wetland at east end of riparian trail, Battle Creek Wildlife Area

Wetland at east end of riparian trail. Photo by author.

On any given day, we can hike the riparian trail, with its giant native sycamores, majestic valley oaks, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks, great horned owls, and legions of soaring turkey vultures. Every break in the vegetation offers a window to Battle Creek itself—its reflective surface decorated with brilliant fall colors, its gravel bottom excavated with salmon redds and laden with fish eggs, its waters alive with the sights and sounds of salmon splashing their way upstream. [Read more…]

Tall Trees and Emerald Waters

One of the largest trees on Earth: Old-growth redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California

One of the largest trees on Earth: Old-growth redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California. Photo by author.

Kathy and I recently attended the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) fall conference on the aptly-named Wild Rivers Coast. Stretching from Port Orford, Oregon to Klamath, California, the Wild Rivers Coast is 101 miles of incredibly beautiful coastline. Eight of America’s most renowned salmon and steelhead streams course through this magical land  of tall trees and spectacular seascapes: the Sixes, Elk, Rogue, Pistol, Chetco, Winchuck, Smith, and Klamath Rivers. For an outdoor enthusiast who loves to write, paint, fish, kayak, bird watch, and walk on the beach, this may have been as close to nirvana as I will ever come.

Kayaking on the Smith River, California

Kathy kayaking on the Smith River. Photo by author.

We began our two-day conference at the Howonquet Lodge  in Smith River. The first day we enjoyed presentations from two of California’s foremost outdoor writers: Chris Collard, editor of the Overland Journal, and Tom Wilmer, award-winning host of NPR’s Journeys of Discovery. Later that afternoon, Redwood National and State Parks Superintendent Stephen Prokop provided a fascinating overview of the four California parks that occupy the Wild Rivers Coast: Redwood National Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. That evening, OWAC’s prestigious Californian of the Year award was presented to Michael Muir, great-grandson of esteemed conservationist John Muir, for his life’s work of providing open space access to people with physical handicaps and limited mobility.

At Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, beside one of the largest (redwood) trees on Earth

Kathy at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, beside one of the largest (redwood) trees on Earth. Photo by author.

On the second day of the conference, Kathy and I, along with four other OWAC members, were treated to an up-close-and-personal trek through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. We were led by Adam Spencer, of Redwood Rides, and his partner, Alex Kwan.

The first leg of our adventure was a bike ride amongst the world’s largest trees. No exaggeration—some of the old-growth giants we had the awe-inspiring experience of standing beneath are the largest individual trees on Earth. Equally impressive is the endless list of plant and animal species that call this wonderland home, among them the majestic Roosevelt elk. [Read more…]

Above the Canopy

Great egret feeding on small fish and snails in kelp beds off Lovers Point, Pacific Grove, California

Great egret feeding on small fish and snails in kelp beds off Lovers Point, Pacific Grove, California. Photo by author.

Having had the pleasure and privilege of diving in California’s kelp forests from San Diego to Monterey, I would describe it as a surreal, almost religious experience—witnessing underwater cathedrals rising a hundred feet from the ocean floor to the surface canopy—bathed in dappled sunlight and teeming with life of every shape and color. Giant kelp provides food and shelter for literally thousands of mammal, bird, fish, and invertebrate species. Until recently, I hadn’t realized that it also provides an abundance of wildlife habitat above the canopy.

Kathy and I spent a day in late August kayaking off the coast of Pacific Grove, a sleepy little coastal town in Monterey County, California. With a high pressure weather system in place, the ocean was unusually calm and the water was crystal clear. There had been recent reports of humpback whales venturing close to shore and surfacing near kayakers, so I prepared our camera for any opportunity that might come our way.

“This would have been a great day for diving,” I said, paddling outside the cove and into the open ocean. Looking back, I noticed a harbor seal following closely behind Kathy’s kayak.

“Who’s your friend?” I asked.

“He’s been popping up beside me ever since we left shore,” said Kathy. “These little guys seem to be very curious.”

Elegant terns feeding young in kelp beds off Lovers Cove, Pacific Grove, California

Elegant terns feeding young in kelp beds off Lovers Cove, Pacific Grove, California. Photo by author.

Heading southwest, we entered a kelp bed the size of a small town and extending a half mile out to sea. Birds were everywhere—not just cormorants, gulls, and pelicans, as you might expect—but egrets, herons, terns, and shorebirds. I photographed a great egret that was using the floating kelp canopy as a platform for spearing snails and small fish.

“We called this seaweed when I was a kid,” I said, maneuvering up and over a series of gentle groundswells.

“I think most people still do,” said Kathy.

“When I think of weeds, I think of dandelions and Bermuda grass,” I said. “Something as important to the ocean ecosystem as giant kelp shouldn’t be called a ‘weed.’” [Read more…]

A Hot Summer’s Day on Chico Creek

Chico Creek I’ve been exploring Northern California’s streams−above and below the surface−for most of my life. One of my most memorable adventures took place on a hot summer’s day in 1964, not long after my sixteenth birthday. My fishing buddy, Paul Martens, had heard that some trophy browns could be caught in upper Chico Creek. The only way into this treacherously steep canyon was an overgrown Caterpillar track that hadn’t been traveled or maintained in years. Throwing caution to the wind, I shoved my 1947 Chevy pickup into first gear, gingerly stepped on the gas, and inched down the steep embankment.

“I just bought a new Mitchell 300,” said Paul. “I can’t wait to try it out.”

“If this road gets any narrower you might not get your chance,” I replied.

Moving at a snail’s pace, it took us almost an hour to reach the end of the path.

“OK, where’s the trail?” I asked, climbing from the truck.

“It’s supposed to be here somewhere,” said Paul.

“It’s only nine o’clock and already hot,” I complained. “The temperature’s supposed to hit a hundred today.”

Teased by the sound of the rushing water below, Paul and I peered over the canyon’s edge. All we saw was a seemingly impenetrable wall of scrub oak, manzanita, gray pine, and poison oak. Determined to reach the stream, we searched the canyon wall for a way down. Paul discovered what might have been some kind of human foot path a short distance from the truck. I thought it was nothing more than a deer trail, but it would have to do, so we gathered our gear and began the day’s adventure.

Both of us carried cloth fishing creels and two-piece spinning rods with reels attached. “Watch for snakes,” I cautioned, as we carefully squeezed between patches of poison oak. About fifty yards down, the trail disappeared and the canyon became even steeper. Sweat poured from our foreheads and into our eyes. The fear of stepping on a rattlesnake paled in comparison to the anticipated joy of reaching the stream and flopping into the refreshingly cool water. Chico Creek Expletives rolled off our tongues as we crashed our way downward, pushing brush and sharp branches aside. “It’s too late to turn back, Paul. Keep going, we’re almost there!” I finally reached a clearing, a hundred feet above the stream. It was then that I heard Paul cry out, “Sheiiiit!” I looked up just in time to see my two-hundred-twenty-pound, bespectacled fishing buddy burst into view. He was still on his feet but sliding on the soles of his Converse All Stars, fishing rod and brand-new Mitchell reel firmly clutched in his right hand. Suddenly, his feet flew out from under him, and he fell backward onto the hard, red clay. The impact loosened Paul’s grip on the fishing rod and away it went, bouncing down the canyon, over the rimrock ledge, and into the stream below. [Read more…]

My Interview on NPR’s “Journeys of Discovery”

Author Steven T. Callan with Warden Ryan Hanson in front of the Fish and Wildlife Patrol Boat Bluefin

The author with Warden Ryan Hanson in front of the Fish and Wildlife Patrol Boat Bluefin. Photo by Thomas C. Wilmer

What an honor it was to be interviewed in Morro Bay by Tom Wilmer, the illustrious host of National Public Radio’s hit program, “Journeys of Discovery.” The show will be broadcast this Wednesday, July 9, at 1:00 or 1:15 PM, throughout Central California, on NPR affiliates KCBX, KSBX, and KNBX. It will also air worldwide at the same time on KCBX.org.

If you click on this link, you can access the interview, and find out about my serendipitous meeting with one of California’s up-and-coming stars, Warden Ryan Hanson.

Hope you enjoy it!