Popular UC Davis-run wildlife reserve closed due to Wragg fire

The Wragg fire has forced the closure of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a trail popular among local hikers for its nature-gazing opportunities and views of Lake Berryessa in close proximity to Davis and Sacramento.

Smoke still smolders along the charred landscape at the spot run by the University of California, Davis, with fallen trees blocking many points along the 7 miles of trails. On the upper slopes, most of the chaparral is gone.

Many of the blue oaks have been completely burned, with singed brown leaves on those that were spared. Most of the wooden trail steps have been burned and give way when weight is put on them. A map kiosk and sign-in book now are a collection of ashes.

Stebbins Cold Canyon likely will not reopen until spring, according to Jeffrey Clary, the reserve’s director. Until then, only research is allowed.

“There are a lot of trails that need to be repaired,” Clary said.

The 576-acre reserve, off Highway 128 near Lake Berryessa, offered a mix of pristine habitats, including grasslands, blue oak woodland and chaparral shrubland, as well as a seasonal stream. It was one of the first areas burned in the Wragg fire, which began July 22 and burned more than 8,000 acres. Firefighters have reached 92 percent containment of the blaze.

The reserve is on property owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies.

Clary said it may take at least 10 years of regrowth before the fire effects are no longer visible. Regeneration is already under way; Clary predicts it will only be weeks before chaparral shoots start punching through charred soil.

“Chaparral are a species we call ‘resprouters,’” he said. “That type of vegetation is made to burn, so we’re not concerned about them.”

Of concern is the potential loss of blue oaks that once dotted the landscape. Blue oaks have difficulty regenerating in Northern California, he said, and their loss would noticeably change the landscape, replacing what was once woodland with weedy grassland.

It will be spring before the blue oak damage can be assessed, Clary said.

“The risk is that there will be no new oak sprouts, and acorns will have to be harvested by nearby trees for replanting,” he said.

He said it is too early to tell what effect the Wragg fire has had on the wildlife at the reserve. However, he suggested the effects of the Wragg fire will provide an excellent laboratory for UC Davis researchers.

The consensus is that most animals recover quickly after a forest fire, said Thomas Scott, a wildlife conservation specialist at UC Berkeley. But Scott believes a combination of urban encroachment and an increase in fire activity are having an impact on threatened species.

Scott said forest fires have already been implicated in rapid population declines of birds that rely on coastal sage scrub and the endangered yellow-legged frog.

“It’s convenient for us to think that threatened species will pop right up and get on with their lives,” said Scott. “That is something that’s being called more into question now with all the fires we’re having now.”

The fire gives UC Davis a chance to expand public access to the site, said Clary, who explained the reserve will feature road signage and a parking lot once it reopens.

Visits to the reserve have significantly increased over the past 10 years. Trail visitation records show that roughly 7,000 visited the reserve a decade ago. Current trail counts show that 65,000 now use the reserve each year, Clary said. In exit interviews, many new hikers said they found Stebbins Cold Canyon through social media.

“Ten years ago, this reserve was like a local secret,” Clary said.

A cobbling together of state and federal funds will help, especially since the Berryessa Snow Mountain area – of which the reserve is a part – was designated last month as a National Monument by President Barack Obama.

“We’re going to put the whole region of lands on the table and we will be deciding what trails will need to be reworked, what new ones are appropriate and rework the parking situation,” Clary said.

If the reserve reopens in spring, it should do so with a lot of color. “If we get good rains this winter, we will have a really good wildflower show next spring,” said Clary.

He based that expectation on the aftereffects of last year’s Monticello fire, which burned 6,488 acres nearby.

“That wildflower show was as good as I have seen in 15 years,” said Clary.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz

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