Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department - Habitat Restoration
Yurok Ancestral Territory is centered around the Klamath River, extending eastward from the Pacific Ocean and across the coastal mountains of northern California. These lands include groves of the world’s tallest trees, from which Yurok carved redwood canoes; oak woodlands, grasslands, and prairies, from which Yurok gathered acorns and materials for making nets; 30 coniferous tree species, seven of which are endemic; seven oak and oak-like masting trees; creeks and streams that provide refuge and breeding habitat for salmon and other fishes; and mountains rising more than 6,000 feet in elevation. Historically, the oak woodlands, savannas, meadows, and prairies were gathering grounds for Yurok utilitarian, medicinal, and cultural uses, and home to abundant elk and deer herds, which provided human inhabitants with food, clothing, and tools.
Ecosystems worldwide are faced by myriad threats, most of which are anthropogenic in origin. Many forests of the western United States, including those within Yurok Ancestral Territory, have been afflicted by centuries of deleterious land management practices by outside influences. The result has been severely degraded ecologies, in both form and function, including altered vegetative communities, heavy fuel loads, single-age monocultures, and conditions which can contribute to catastrophic wildfires. Encroachment of prairies and oak savannas by unmanaged conifer trees and brush, drought, and invasive species have increased fire risk, and reduced both the habitat and abundance of many native plants and animals. The Tribe has identified restoration of these habitats as a management priority and seeks to return the land to a healthy mosaic of diverse forest, prairie, wetland, riverine, and riparian habitats. Restoration activities can enhance the capacity of our ecosystems to withstand extreme environmental events, including drought and fire, be resilient to changing climatic conditions, improve human health through increased availability of traditional food resources, and engage the Tribal community in traditional Yurok stewardship practices.
In Yurok Ancestral Territory, two centuries of land management by external cultures and influences have resulted in a severely degraded landscape, particularly with respect to prairies. The planting of fast-growing timber species, introduction of invasive plants and animals, changing climate patterns, and prohibition of tribal management practices, such as traditional burning, have drastically reduced the quantity and quality of prairies in our region. It is estimated that only 1%, or 350 acres, of the historical prairies remain in the northern half of the Yurok Reservation; of those, many are experiencing encroachment of unmanaged native species, such as Douglas-fir, as well as invasion by non-native species, including grasses, Himalayan blackberry, and a variety of brooms (family Febaceae).
Native wildlife and other cultural resources are dependent on these prairies and woodlands, as are the traditional and subsistence economies central to the Yurok way of life. Although some intact prairies remain within Yurok Ancestral Territory, most are outside, including those within Redwood National and State Parks boundaries, making them largely inaccessible for Yurok Tribal management and use. Thus, the few remaining prairies on Tribal lands are of critical importance. The Yurok people are committed to developing capacity to restoring our historical lands, and to manage them holistically and respectfully, according to traditional practices and ethics.
Restoring prairie ecosystems enhances a variety of natural resources important for supporting Yurok tribal members and preserving Yurok traditional lifeways. Many Yurok tribal members, particularly those living in the upriver portion of the Reservation, depend on prairies for hunting and gathering of foods and materials. Prairie restoration will improve elk and deer habitat; acorn crop yield; growth and access to basketry, medicinal, and ceremonial materials; and stream quality for anadromous fish. Along with its Yurok Natural Resource Division partners and an inter-department landscape working group, the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department has developed the first restoration and adaptation plan for prairies on Yurok lands. Through these efforts, the Yurok Tribe seeks to restore these degraded ecosystems and combine thoughtful, modern landscape management approaches with traditional stewardship to promote ecological integrity and increase resilience for the Yurok lifeway.
Invasive Species Management
The Yurok are intrinsically connected to their land, with the Yurok Constitution stating that the Tribe must act as a steward of the Klamath River and its tributaries. The destructive actions of feral cattle have long been a major concern for Tribal members, such that feral cattle eradication was identified as a high-priority restoration activity. The Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department – Feral Cattle Removal Project combines cultural need with ecosystem restoration, through the ability for Tribal members to participate in and receive meat harvested from these conservation efforts.
The Feral Cattle Removal Project is focused within the lower Klamath River sub-basin, with emphasis in the Blue Creek and Bear Creek watersheds. Generations of wild bovids — descendants of non-native, domestic cattle — have threatened ecosystem health and function in Yurok Ancestral Territory through degradation of stream banks, overexploitation of riparian vegetation, and widening and aggrading of tributaries, resulting in erosion, sedimentation, vegetation loss, elevated water temperatures, bacterial propagation, habitat loss, reduced aquatic diversity, and altered aquatic biochemistry. Such impacts degrade spawning habitat for anadromous fishes, including chinook salmon, endangered coho salmon, and steelhead trout, and make the stream less hospitable for fish migration and survival. These nonnative grazers also damage preferred habitat patches for native ungulates, like deer and elk, and many threatened species, such as western pond turtles and foothill yellow-legged frogs. This Project is critical for improving the health and function of Blue Creek and Bear Creek watersheds, and an important component of ecosystem restoration and management throughout Yurok Ancestral Territory.
Feral cattle grazing in the Blue Creek watershed in 2019.