Sonoma Land Trust’s has $2.1 million grant to support work on wildlife corridors

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The large black bear moved slowly through a remote section of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, stopping only briefly to raise its head and look around before moving out of the frame.

The waning daylight scene, captured earlier this month by a motion-activated video camera, offered a fleeting glimpse into the daily activity of a wild animal rarely seen in such detail near a populated stretch of Sonoma County with vineyards, homes and businesses.

But the video clip also underscored a point conservationists have emphasized for years: Wildlife can and do use local open space such as parks and ranches to move from one habitat to another. And Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, on the east side of Sonoma Valley, is one of those places.

Now the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust is tapping a recent $2.1 million grant to expand its conservation work in the area.

The bolstered effort builds on existing work to study and preserve a corridor wild animals use to move across the valley, from the Mayacamas range on the east to Sonoma Mountain on the west.

With the new funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the group will broaden its focus to include the Sonoma County portion of a larger “linkage” between the Blue Ridge-Berryessa Natural Area — a vast swath of mountain landscape that includes sections of Napa, Yolo, Solano, Lake and Colusa counties — and Marin County.

The connection takes in a patchwork of public and private lands that create a safe passage for wildlife, including potentially, the Sugarloaf black bear. Such corridors keep wildlife populations healthy and sustainable, conservationists say.

“Especially when you get to the larger predators, like the bears and the mountain lions, there’s not that many of them, and their population density is pretty low,” said John Roney, a Sugarloaf-based manager for the nonprofit Sonoma Ecology Center, which helps run the state park. “If they can’t move freely, then it’s hard to have a stable, long-term, healthy population.”

Tony Nelson, a program manager for the Sonoma Land Trust, said the park is a key part of the linkage that has become a focus of his organization’s efforts.

An earlier $1.7 million grant helped the group protect property in the area and install cameras to monitor wildlife, among other efforts.

The new funds will support those efforts on a larger scale along with a partnership with Audubon Canyon Ranch studying mountain lions, Nelson said.

Motion-activated cameras are an important tool in the work. Dozens now keep an on eye on wild animals using the Sonoma Valley corridor. The trust plans to add more to road underpasses between Highways 12 and 101 in order to monitor how animals move through them.

Nelson said the trust already plans to clear one underpass along Highway 12 to encourage more animals to use that space instead of crossing the busy road. The highway through Sonoma Valley was one of many locations in the North Bay researchers identified as a hot spot for road kill. Other areas included Highway 101 between Petaluma and the Golden Gate Bridge, and three sections of Highway 37 by San Pablo Bay.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district encompasses Sonoma Valley, said “success stories” of wildlife moving through the region present a strong case for keeping wild habitat intact.

“It just reaffirms how important it is to set aside a place for wildlife to be,” Gorin said. “We’re pretty close to them, but we can appreciate that often wildlife was here way before people were.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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