Gordon Richards
Echoes From the Past

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May 5, 2006
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Emigrants and extinction: Wildlife impacted by settlement

From the largest to the smallest, all wild animals were severely impacted by the settling of the Truckee-Tahoe region.

The native Washoe knew intimately the haunts and habits of all of the animals, primarily hunting in the fall for rabbits, mule deer, ducks and geese. While they relied on fish, pine nuts and other plant species, they needed the meat available in the form of Sierra mammals to survive. Their hunting methods and practices appear to maintained a healthy balance of prey and predator.

As the first American mountain men under Jedediah Smith and Joseph Walker explored the east slope of the Sierra in the 1820s and 30s, they were discouraged by the lack of valuable fur-bearing animals found in the Rocky Mountains but not in the Sierra. They were after beaver pelts, but the only beaver they found were in the warm waters of the Central Valley river systems.

They did hunt deer and bear and other game for food, but only trapped a few fur bearing animals in the Truckee River watershed. As a result the animals were safe for a time from the extensive hunting and trapping that occurred in the Rocky Mountains.

The first wagon train that successfully crossed the Sierra was the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy party in 1844. They left behind 17-year-old Moses Schallenberger at Donner Lake for a portion of the winter of 1844-45.

We learn from Moses' writings that there were animals in the Sierra in winter, and they were quite plentiful in fact. Though he couldn't travel over the snow to hunt as he wished, he did manage to survive.

Moses survived primarily off of fox, though he did trap coyote as well. Both were abundant, and being the predators that they are there must have been an extensive supply of rabbit and other small game for them to feed on. Both silver and red fox were common in the forests and meadows.

A few years later the Donner Party found little in the way of wild animals to fend off starvation, as the majority of the wild animals were hibernating or had migrated for the winter. Those that remained were beyond the reach of the emigrants.

Other emigrant parties hunted deer, rabbit and other common game on their way west. They didn't spend enough time here to really impact the wildlife populations.

Once the Central Pacific Railroad opened up the Sierra to year-round settlement, hunters and trappers were quick to seek out the abundant wildlife for profit and recreation. The mountains were full of small animals such as rabbit, hares and squirrels that were easy targets for summer and fall hunters looking to stock up on meat for a long winter.

These animals could repopulate quickly, and though hunting and habitat change has certainly impacted the numbers they managed to survive today.

Other larger animals with a value on their coats were not so fortunate.

The Truckee River contained huge populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout, commonly growing to 3 feet in length, and many other animals fed on these migrating fish. The watershed was populated with mink and otter, which fed on the fish and other small amphibians and at times geese. The mink were highly prized for their white winter fur and trapping was done during the winter.

The river otter and mink population was also impacted heavily by the disappearance of the native trout, but the mink thrived again in the early 1900s as non-native fish species were introduced. The otters were trapped out by the mid 1890s.

The other riparian zone mammal that was trapped extensively was the weasel. These animals ate fish, amphibians as well as squirrel and chipmunk. The mink and weasel were trapped until their populations dropped dramatically, though some of each species remain in the more remote sections of the watershed.

Badgers, marmots and martin were also trapped throughout the 1800s. It appears from newspaper accounts that there were always one or two local men running winter trap lines in the Truckee area at least until the 1920s and probably later.

The mid-1880s have several reports of rare gray wolves being seen in the Prosser Creek area and a few trapped near Donner Lake. These predators fed off of the numerous mule deer herds that increased with the immense amount of early logging that opened up more habitat.

Waterfowl were inhabiting the Truckee-Tahoe area in vast numbers. Ducks and geese were here as summer migrants on all of the rivers, streams and natural lakes. Hunting of these species was so intense that they were among the first to have hunting seasons and limits placed on them in the 1880s.

Grouse and quail were also abundant, far more than modern times. These birds were among the food supply of the Washoe, as well as early emigrants passing through the area. Locals hunted the birds and they were served in local restaurants and shipped to California cities. Hunting regulations were put on these birds in the 1880s as well.

Mule deer herds were quite extensive on the east side of the Sierra, primarily due to the extensive meadow environments. Rather than the dense forests we see today, much of the forested areas were less dense, with natural low intensity fires keeping the pine duff levels down. This resulted in a mix of grasses, herbs, small brush and other tender plants allowing deer to browse freely in all areas.

Deer hunting was a important fall occupation of the Washoe culture. When Americans settled the mountains they continued this practice. Venison was served in all restaurants, and the meat was dried and jerked to preserve it for winter use. Bucks with 12-point racks were common, and while the elusive deer have managed to survive, they are nowhere near their former numbers or size.

All of these animals were themselves targeted by the two greatest carnivores found in the Sierra. The mountain lion, sometimes referred to in the newspapers as a lynx. Lions were quite common around the immediate Truckee area. One roaring lion was heard over a six-year period echoing regularly down the Trout Creek canyon into town in the early 1870s.

So great was the fear of mountain lions that $10 bounties were paid by Nevada and Placer counties for their pelts well into the 1900s. They were blamed for losses of sheep, cattle, and the reduction of the deer herds. There is no record of any mountain lions attacking people in this area through the 1920s.

The primary predator in the Sierra was the grizzly bear. Feared by all men, these huge meat-eating bears were summer residents of the forests and meadows, eating anything that breathed. They weighed up to 800 pounds, twice as much as the black bear they shared the Sierra with.

During the Gold Rush era, the grizzlies were hunted heavily and fled to the higher mountains to escape the gold seekers. As cattle and sheep grazing increased in the Sierra the grizzlies found them to be an easy and tasty food supply. Ranchers then began a widespread effort to eliminate all of the grizzlies.

Their large numbers decreased and the last reported sighting in the area was in 1907 near Webber Lake. The grizzlies were hunted into extinction in the Sierra by about 1925.

Wolverines and fishers apparently were rarely seen, as there is no mention of them being hunted or trapped.

Bald and gray eagles with a wingspan of up to eight feet were reported, sometimes alive, sometimes shot by hunters who thought they were competition for other game, and by sheep herders who feared the loss of sheep.

Black bears are the most common wildlife stories in the newspapers, and they deserve a column of their own.

Sierra wildlife and their interface with humans are a major part of the historical record.

Gordon Richards is the president and research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com. Check out "Echoes From the Past" in the Sierra Sun archives at www.sierrasun.com.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated May 5, 2006 08:02AM Published May 5, 2006 10:57AM Copyright 2006 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.