Last word on #TracyBear

The crowd. This was only the beginning.

After 10 years as an environment reporter at two newspapers, I’ve done my share of urban wildlife stories.

Mountain lions hiding in trees. Huge salmon lurking in the smallest city streams. That dolphin in Stockton’s Deep Water Ship Channel.

Never have I seen the kind of community interest generated by Tracy Bear. (Lodi’s Tom Kettleman turkey comes close.)

The scene in Tracy on Wednesday night was electric as wildlife officials tried to safely remove the bear out of a tree right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Yeah, the bear was interesting, but the crowd? Amazing.

People lined up 10 or 15 deep behind the yellow caution tape. They finagled their way as close to the action as possible, even as community service officers tried to keep them back.

One family climbed atop an RV in their driveway for the best possible view. Dads lifted their sons and daughters up on their shoulders, and hundreds of cameras documented the action from hundreds of different angles.

The crowd gasped with each rustle of the tree leaves. Many outright screamed when the bear finally let go.

And then, with the apparent blessing of law enforcement (I think), the crowd surged closer as biologists checked the bear’s condition on the ground. A mass of people descended onto the intersection of Bessie and Whitter avenues from four directions.

Then, another rush as firefighters lifted the bear and placed her in a trailer. Kids squeezed in as close as they could to peer through tiny portholes.

Amid the surge, I saw a few people turn back, evidently fearful they could be trampled. Eventually firefighters were able to clear enough people away from the trailer that the truck towing it was able to leave the scene.

Who says people don’t care about nature?

Who says we’d rather stick our noses into electronic devices?

Who says we’re apathetic about anything outside of our own skin?

The “Nature Deficit Disorder” theory holds that less exposure to the outdoors can lead to serious behavioral problems for children, while also disconnecting them from the natural world and leaving them with less interest and less respect for wild things.

But after Wednesday night’s excitement, I have to wonder if interest in nature is inherent in all of us, even if we don’t often notice it.

Granted, a bear is a particularly charismatic critter. And the cynic might say the crowd was driven more by the news cameras than the furry guest of honor.

I’d prefer to think that Tracy residents experienced a reawakening of what, for some, might have been a long-dormant connection to nature. Maybe their enthusiasm was a reflection of the fact that it had been so long since that connection had been felt.

The trick, of course, is getting people to care about less astonishing natural events. Earthworms in the garden, blackbirds on the back fence, hummingbirds hovering on a Sunday afternoon, etc.

But if what I saw last night is any indication, we still love the world around us.

Thanks, #TracyBear, for reminding us.

Courtesy the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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Where our hyacinth headache started

Poster for the 1884 World Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, where water hyacinth samples were handed out to patrons, sealing the fate of the Delta and many other hyacinth-clogged water bodies.

Someone asked me on Twitter what the most viable plan is to attack water hyacinth.

Here is my expert opinion:

First, invent a time machine.

Second, travel back in time to one day prior to the 1884 Cotton States Exposition in New Orleans.

Third, hogtie whichever knucklehead dreamed up the idea of handing out hyacinth samples to thousands of visitors from across the country, and

Fourth, throw all those plants on the first boat back to the Amazon.

That’s what I’d do.

Is it just me, or would that make for kind of a cool action flick — a little Back to the Future, a little Terminator? And with the proceeds from the film, we could build a state-of-the-art bioenergy facility here in Stockton where our hyacinth could be collected and put to good use.

OK, scratch the time machine plan. Anyone got a number for James Cameron?

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‘Everything seems to be accelerating’

NOAA's April-through-June temperature outlook, released on Thursday

Daffodil Hill is closing for the season before it normally even opens. The flowers are already past their prime. Such is the weirdness of this “winter” (it is still winter, no?).

Everything’s early this year. Stockton has already hit the mid-80s (84 degrees on March 14).

December was 7 degrees above normal, January was 3 degrees above normal, February was 4 degrees above normal and March so far is running 5 degrees above normal.

Without the late-season storms we had last year, reservoirs are already close to topping out for the year and will begin to drop soon, state and federal officials said earlier this week. Usually, thanks to snowmelt, those reservoirs don’t start declining until later in the spring.

Overall we’re about six weeks to two months ahead of schedule, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Ron Milligan said at a meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday.

“Everything seems to be accelerating,” Milligan said.

The earliest Stockton has ever hit triple digits is April 30 (it happened in 1981). Could we break that record this year?

Just asking.

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Not extinct — at least, not yet

A Delta smelt. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Delta smelt story by Capital Public Radio could be misconstrued by those who don’t read beyond the headline.

No, the smelt is not extinct. At least, not yet.

It’s true that the smelt population is the lowest on record, as demonstrated in an annual survey by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. And I’ve spoken with biologists who do believe this could be the year we lose the species.

But very few smelt is not the same as no smelt at all.

I’ve also seen it suggested today that because biologists found just six smelt in the Delta during a recent spring survey, that there are only six smelt left in the Delta. That’s not the case; the survey samples only a small portion of the smelt’s habitat, according to Peter Moyle, a leading expert on California’s native fish species.

That having been said, the low number does suggest a small and dispersed population, Moyle told me in an email.

“We actually don’t know what the minimum viable population size for smelt is, but we are probably pretty close to it,” he wrote.

After all, male and female smelt have to be able to find each other, or it’s all for naught.

The Delta smelt is not extinct, but as the Cap Radio piece says, we’d better prepare for that result. It may be inevitable.

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‘Don’t wake me up, don’t piss me off’

Otis "Red" Shaw. File photo by Craig Sanders.

If you plan to illegally dump toxic substances, don’t do it right in front of Otis “Red” Shaw.

The French Camp resident, who is known for picking up roadside trash, caught some folks in the act a couple of weeks back.

It was about 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and Shaw was sleeping. “I heard a bunch of noise,” he told me later. “There was a Budget rental truck that had backed in, and these guys are dumping some clear liquid on the ground” on Union Pacific property near his house.

Ol’ Red went out there and asked what was up. He saw the men were draining a 55-gallon drum in the back of the truck.

“They said ‘It’s just water, don’t worry about it,’” he said.

Yeah, right. Water.

“I said, ‘Hey, go dump it in your front yard,’” Shaw told me.

The men took off. The truck had no plates, but Shaw reported it anyway. A cleanup crew later told him the men were dumping some kind of lacquer; it took better than a week to clean it up. Here’s the incident report.

Shaw was still mad about it when I spoke with him earlier this week.

“Don’t wake me up,” he said. “Don’t piss me off. I’ve been here 66 years and 4 months.”

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Sturgeon rescue

Check out the patience of state fish and wildlife officers, who spent 20 minutes reviving this large white sturgeon on the Sacramento River near Clarksburg last week.

The fish was taken by a poacher who had thrown the fish in the back of his truck, officials said.

Officers stopped the car and found the 61/2-foot-long fish, which was oversized and untagged. Eric Solden, 34, of Hood, was cited, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

More remarkable was what happened next, as officers put the “nearly lifeless” fish back in the river in an attempt to resuscitate it. Other fishermen took video as one officer moved the fish back and forth to force water over its gills.

Finally, the fish gained enough strength to swim away, and there’s one more beautiful, giant sturgeon in the Sacramento River as a result.

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Counting salmon

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Times are tough enough for salmon without a reporter shortchanging them.

In last weekend’s story recapping the fall salmon run, I reported that just 1,832 adult salmon migrated up the Stanislaus River this past season.

But that number refers to the salmon carcasses that were later counted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Obviously not all carcasses are located after the fish spawn and die, so the better number to rely upon is the 5,507 salmon that were seen swimming upstream past the weir near Oakdale. That’s only a couple of dozen fewer fish than the previous year, and is actually a relatively high number in the context of the past decade or so.

The point of the story doesn’t really change, though. The full effect of the drought on our state’s salmon populations has not yet become apparent. Next year and the year after that should be interesting.

In the meantime, sorry ’bout that, fishies.

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Zombies: Good news and bad news

Some smart people at Cornell University found a way to simulate a zombie attack.

And they prepared a nice little interactive game where you can place a single zombie anywhere in the United States and see how quickly the invasion would spread.

Like so:

Apologies for the quality of the video, but you get the idea.

I’m strangely comforted by the results. After all, it takes quite a while for those staggering zombies to take over an entire city, let alone region or state. Stockton is effectively overrun within 15 or 16 hours, but it’s a full day and a half before the zombies begin to infiltrate the east Bay Area, two full days before metropolitan Sacramento is mostly gone, four days before Fresno feels the bite and 15 days before the undead belatedly hit up L.A.

In other words, unless your luck is extraordinarily bad and that first zombie is your neighbor or mailman, you ought to be able to take your sweet time packing up your belongings, herding your family into the SUV — don’t forget the cat — and taking the scenic route out of town.

Forget the mad panic you saw in World War Z.

OK, now the bad news.

The Cornell study specifically calls out the San Joaquin Valley. Yes, the hard-luck Valley, with all of its economic hardships and environmental disparities, also faces a special risk from zombies.

That’s because the Valley is sandwiched between two major metro areas — the Bay Area and L.A. While those cities face the most immediate risk because of their dense populations, it’s the Valley — particularly the south Valley, near Bakersfield — that will inevitably get hammered within about four weeks, as zombies spill over from at least one of those two cities.

Seems like every story has a Valley connection. Here’s the study itself if you want to see for yourself.

Bottom line: Forget every zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Keep calm, take your time, get a good night’s sleep, but at some point get the heck out of the Valley.

Good luck.

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Competitive climate

Expect tough competition for the hundreds of millions of dollars in cap-and-trade funds now being made available across California.

Case in point: About $130 million is offered for “affordable housing and sustainable communities” projects. Visionary Home Builders of Stockton has already applied for its Grand View Village downtown development, pictured below.

Proposed Grand View Village development in Stockton

But the state’s Strategic Growth Council, which will decide who gets the money, told me today that it has received 146 applications totaling $760 million dollars — more than five times as much money as is available.

Regionally, Los Angeles led the way with 50 applications. The Bay Area was next with 44 applications, and the San Joaquin Valley followed with 21 requests.

Time will tell where the money is actually spent and which regions benefit the most.

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Deep roots

Daffodil Hill. Public domain image from California Photo Scout.

Daffodil Hill’s early bloom this year got me thinking that it’d be fun to share some of the history of the place.

So I emailed the Ryan family, which owns the property, and they sent a document that I’ll both paraphrase and quote from liberally here:

The whole thing started with Dutchman Pete Denzer, who owned the land and planted daffodils in a garden at the foot of the hill to remind him of his homeland.

The property had been used as a way station for teamsters and travelers using the road from Kit Carson Pass (now Highway 88). The land had also been used to supply vegetables for early gold miners in Volcano.

Then, in 1877, Arthur Burbeck McLaughlin (from Ohio) and Elizabeth Van Vorst (from New York) married in Volcano. They were 24 and 23 years old, respectively.

They bought Daffodil Hill from Denzer — and continued his tradition, taking “great pride” in the flowers.

The ranch sounds like it was a busy place. It continued to function as a stage stop with stables for mules, which hauled heavy timber to the nearby mines. Charcoal was also manufactured at the ranch.

The young couple took over operation of the 17-room boarding house. They rented out rooms, cooked homemade meals and sheltered animals. Breakfast cost 25 cents. Dances were held on Saturday nights in the loft of the huge barn, which is still in use today.

Arthur McLaughlin died in 1912, and Lizzie died in 1935. The ranch passed down to their three children: Mary, Jesse and Ann.

The daffodil planting continued, now in memory of Lizzie. New varieties were added — a few hundred, then a few thousand as the first visitors began arriving in the late 1930s. No irrigation or fertilizer was used.

The hill was officially opened to the public in 1940. On Easter Sunday in 1953, about 500 visitors enjoyed the scene.

Planting continues in this day, mostly in November and December, with an average 12,000 bulbs added each year to areas that have died out or are weak in bloom.  Family, friends and caretakers do all the work.

More than 300 varieties of daffodils have now been planted, totaling more than 300,000 bulbs.

Mary McLaughlin’s daughter, Mary Lucot Ryan, told a reporter in 1995: “We have never charged an admission. To me that would defeat the purpose. This started out as a memorial to my grandparents, parents and the other pioneers who traveled this way. We don’t do it for money. We do it for our family.”

Mary Ryan and her husband Martin Ryan died in 2008, two months apart. The hill has now passed to yet another generation. The faces change; the tradition does not.

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    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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