Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve Project a National Success Story
News of the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve has traveled to Washington, D.C. A project to remove French and Spanish broom plants in the reserve has been highlighted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as one of the service’s most successful projects in the nation, said reserve manager Jeff Mott. The project is funded by a two-year Fish and Wildlife Service grant matched by the Bidwell Environmental Institute.
Matt Hamman, FWS Partnership for Wildlife coordinator, said the broom project “tells a nice story of restoration, partnership, and conservation.” His field station, the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge Complex, submitted the broom removal project to the FWS California/Nevada Operations office as a success story. The project was one of three projects out of 12 projects submitted from the California/Nevada region, chosen by the office for national recognition. The project is now featured on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife HabITS database, commonly used by FWS, members of Congress, and others to learn about habitat restoration and enhancement taking place nationwide.
The Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve consists of 3,950 acres owned by CSU, Chico and the Chico Research Foundation, and managed by the Bidwell Environmental Institute. It stretches 4.5 miles along Big Chico Creek above Bidwell Park and encompasses a wide variety of habitats supporting more than 140 different wildlife species. The mission of the reserve is to “preserve critical habitat and to provide a natural area for environmental research and education.”
But the natural habitat of the reserve was recently threatened by the non-native broom, a very invasive plant that thrives in riparian habitats. Broom grows thickly, “way above your head—you can’t even walk through it,” said Mott. It grows so densely that it crowds out the native plants, upsetting the natural balance of the area.
“ Broom removal improves the overall health of the entire watershed,” said Mott. Broom outcompetes native alders and willows, he explained, which lean over the water in riparian habitats. In the reserve, these trees shade Big Chico Creek, keeping it cool enough for spring-, fall-, and late fall-running Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead, both on the federal list of threatened species, to spawn. When the broom takes over, that shade is lost, the stream temperature rises, and those fish cannot reproduce.
Broom removal also benefits resident and neo-tropical migrant songbirds such as California state endangered willow flycatchers, which need native willow and cottonwood riparian forests, said Hamman. But the salmon and flycatchers aren’t the only species that benefit from broom removal, said Mott: “All the animals depend on the native plants, and the broom has kept the natives from thriving. “
Broom also presents a severe fire hazard. “It is highly flammable and grows around the bases of other trees, so when it burns, it kills a lot of other native trees,” said Mott. It also “flashes,” burning very hot, shriveling and killing surrounding plants.
The fire hazard and environmental effects worried adjoining landowners, and four of them helped with the hard physical labor of broom removal, donating their time along with CSU, Chico students and graduate students and community volunteers. The cooperation between stakeholders caught the attention of the FWS. “A unique partnership was developed between the University, the ecological reserve, the federal government, and private landowners,” said Hamman.
The FWS also recognized the overall success of the project: In the span of the two-year project, all the mature broom plants have been removed from about eight miles of riparian habitat on both sides of Big Chico Creek. Native grasses are again seen in the areas previously crowded by broom, and willow and alder trees again arch their cooling branches over the water.
But broom is persistent. “We will probably be pulling sprouts for the next decade, if not longer,” said Mott.