I knew I didn’t have long before they would spot me in my hiding place. There were so many that someone was bound to see me. There must have been 40 or 50 of them hanging around the fence and peering through the trees to the spot where I sat breathlessly. They seemed to be searching for wildlife—they found it all right.
“Wow kids, I see some wildlife hiding right back there!”
“Look, it’s a person back there! What’s he doing?”
“That’s no ordinary person kids, that’s Wildcat George! He lives here in the forest and has a special permit so he can go places we can’t!”
Now that my cover was up, I smiled and growled ferociously to the day camp group as the counselor told the children stories about crazy Wildcat George. I let the gender thing slide. My s ummer internship with the East Bay Regional Parks was certainly putting me into some bizarre situations. Already I had been charged by a young buck, jumped and chased by dogs, stabbed by a large mouth bass fin and attacked by a toe biter. I have gotten mo re poison oak than suntan this summer, and I almost find stinging nettle pleasant in comparison. My job, I like to tell people, is comprised of dog-stalking and fish-shocking. The components of my work in Tilden Park of Berkeley include monitoring dogs to see if they are staying out of the pools, and conducting electro-fishing surveys of Wildcat Creek. Both are integral to assessing the health of Wildcat Creek’s native rainbow trout population.
In Tilden Park, there is a good reason to be concerned abou t the trout. Surveys on the rainbow trout populations in Wildcat Creek have been conducted since 1984, and these figures have shown a significant decline in the trout populations from 1999 and on. The only year that populations appeared to increase was th e year when fewer dogs were observed splashing about in the pools, although there is no way to be certain that this was directly responsible. Dog activities often have destructive effects upon riparian ecosystems and the wildlife they support. There are v ery few pools that have enough water in them all year long to support native aquatic species such as rainbow trout, three spine stickleback and California newt larvae. In the summer months, the water temperature increases as the water levels lower. This reduces the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water needed to sustain the fish. When dogs run along the pool banks, they destroy riparian vegetation that provides a shade cover as well as the root systems essential to stabilize the loose dirt of the banks. Loose dirt is washed into the pool where it fills it in pools and clouds the water. Trout lay their eggs in little gravel nests, or redds, and sedimentation kicked up by the dogs can potentially suffocate these eggs before they hatch. When they are actua lly swimming, the dogs cause even more problems by raising the turbidity of the water and shaking up all kinds of organic debris from the pond bottom. This in turn can also lower water oxygen levels, causing the fish great distress.
The pool of particul ar concern to me, Nook, is only 32 feet wide, 22 feet long and about 1.6 feet deep, but our surveying indicated that at least 12 rainbow trout between six and eight inches and one 14-inch monster lived there. Over the course of 51 hours of creek monitorin g, 363 dogs passed along Wildcat Gorge Trail with their owners or hired dog walkers. Of these, 66 or approximately 27 percent ignored posted signs by running along its banks or jumping in for a swim. The total sum of swimming time that I observed was 27 m inutes. Considering that a mere three-second splash is enough to leave the small pool murky for hours, it was amazing the fish could survive there at all. As Nook is one of the few perennial pools of WildCat Creek, they are essentially stranded there unti l the rains come.
In an area where most parks don’t even allow dogs off-leash, many people come to Tilden especially so that they can let Fozzy and Molly unleash their canine angst. The East Bay Regional Park District has a very generous off-leash dog p olicy. Implementing a leash law in highly sensitive habitat areas has been successful in other parks. However, in the spirit of a cooperative and educational approach, Tilden Park has been experimenting with colorful and informative signs as a means of ke eping dogs from entering the creek. The idea is to appeal to the conservation ethic of trail users rather than using more hard-handed restrictive measures. As I learned from my poolside observations, some park visitors are more respectful of these measure s than others. One woman compliantly leashed her dog whenever passing a protective area. Disappointingly, many more allowed their dogs to splash in Nook to their heart’s content.
We recently installed invisible deer fencing between the fence posts of Noo k to keep dogs out, and it appears to be a great success. Without the turbidity of swimming to stir up sediment, the water almost immediately cleared to the point where once-skeptic hikers started to see fish. When the day camp group returned from its hike, I met them on the other side of the fence and explained what I, Wildcat George, was doing in an area they were not supposed to go. I told them about the fish and let them peer through my magic polarized lenses to see through the water more clearly. As they walked off talking about fish in wonder, I hoped that they could return years later and still enjoy the rich abundance of wildlife that East Bay Parks like Tilden are teeming with. When you are enjoying the more than 95,000 acres of parkland that the East Bay offers, please be mindful of the impact your actions may have upon park life such as the rainbow trout, and be pro-active in asking this of other trail users as well!
Ashley DuVal is a student at Cal and an East Bay Regional Park District employee.y