The tejon Creek Watershed
By Conservation Science Director Emeritus Michael White, PhD
Long a focus of human activity and travels in the Tehachapis, Tejon Creek has also become a focus of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy’s stewardship activities.
Prehistorically, a large Kitanemuk village occupied the mouth of Tejon Canyon. Tejon Canyon has long been used by travelers crossing the Tehachapis between the Central Valley and Antelope Valley, and this village was encountered by Spanish missionary Father Francisco Garcés during the first European entry into the San Joaquin Valley via Tejon Canyon.
Tejon Canyon was named by Ruiz expedition diarist Father José María Zalvidea in 1806 when he found a dead badger during their travel through the canyon. In more contemporary times, numerous homesteaders located in the canyon. There are still a couple of houses in the upper part of Tejon Canyon (inholdings within the Tejon Ranch property) that are occupied to this day.
Photo: Looking east toward the mouth of Tejon Canyon, as seen from the slopes of Bald Mountain. Chanac Creek, a tributary of Tejon Creek, is visible in middle of photo.
The Tejon Creek watershed occupies just over 32,000 acres (8 stream miles!) on Tejon Ranch, but significant areas of the watershed extend off the Ranch. For example, Chanac Creek is a tributary of Tejon Creek that originates off the Ranch in the Cummings Valley and Stallion Springs area.
What is a watershed? A watershed is an area of land that all drains to the same place. Rain and snow melt that fall within the Tejon Creek watershed flow downhill and eventually collect into lower Tejon Creek, which eventually disappears into the ground in the Great Central Valley (this location was historically known as the “Sinks of Tejon”). Stream channels generally get larger and carry more water as you move from the top of the watershed to the bottom.
Photo: Location of the Tejon Creek watershed on Tejon Ranch
Because of their very high conservation values, enhancing riparian habitats is a conservation priority of the Conservancy.
In large pastures, it can be difficult to control the seasonal movement of livestock especially when livestock water is not well distributed within them. During hot, dry summer months livestock are naturally attracted to the creek and shady riparian areas but use riparian areas less and adjacent grasslands to a greater degree in the cooler winter month when those grasslands are green from winter rains.
Photo: Both Tejon Creek (mid-photo) and Chanac Creek (lower) cross this portion of the Ranch which contains the Conservancy's Chanac Creek Enhancement Area.
When sufficient developed livestock water (i.e., troughs) is unavailable in upland areas, cattle depend on streams as a source of water, increasing the amount of time they spend in riparian areas and making seasonal grazing management difficult.
Changing the size and configuration of livestock pastures and developing new livestock water sources to replace streams can facilitate seasonal riparian grazing management, reducing adverse effects of livestock in riparian areas without having to completely exclude cattle year-round from riparian areas with expensive fencing.
Photo: Looking southeast across at the “gorge” of Tejon Creek, where Chanac Creek and Tejon Creek converge and head northwest toward the “Sinks of Tejon.”
The physical structure of riparian habitats is particularly important for many breeding bird species, which have evolved to specialize in using various parts of the habitat (e.g., understory or canopy specialists).
Riparian habitats can be degraded by disturbances such as over-grazing by livestock, rooting by feral pigs, and invasions of nonnative plants. By replacing, removing, or preventing vegetation in some layers of the habitat from regenerating, excessive disturbances can adversely affect native species that rely on these parts of the habitat. Because of their very high conservation values, enhancing riparian habitats is a conservation priority of the Conservancy.
While still analyzing the early results, the Conservancy has noted positive effects of the seasonal grazing management in the new Chanac pasture. Over three years of seasonal grazing management in the Chanac pasture, the diversity of plant species and the structural diversity of the habitat has increased, particularly with an increase in the vegetation understory layer, which was largely absent in many areas in the past.
Willow and cottonwood trees are surviving and growing well under the management regime, increasing in height by a couple of feet since 2019. The positive response of riparian habitat quality to seasonal grazing in this pasture suggests this practice may be generally beneficial to riparian conservation values in other parts of Tejon Creek and other watersheds.
Part of the Conservancy’s stewardship planning is looking at the feasibility of a subsequent phase of the Tejon Creek project that with additional ranching infrastructure would allow seasonal riparian grazing management in a downstream reach of Tejon Creek. Stay tuned for more information as the Conservancy continues to learn from this important, applied management project.
Left photo: A November 2017 photo of the riparian vegetation in Chanac Creek, shortly after a seasonal grazing management regime went into place.
Right photo: A November 2020 photo of the riparian vegetation in Chanac Creek, three years after seasonal grazing management went into place. Note the increased cover of understory and canopy plants.
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Photo: A well site installed by the Conservancy in 2017 to facilitate better grazing management within the riparian Chanac Pasture.
Adaptive cattle grazing management, vegetation monitoring, wildlife cameras, avian surveys, and dedicated weeding have shown positive results in the 1,200-acre Chanac Creek Enhancement Area. Changes to species and habitat diversity are expected to continue. Supporting the seasonal grazing protocol is a well system feeding additional troughs away from the creek to keep cattle out of the riparian zones. The Conservancy, supported by private and public funds, has committed over $1,000,000 to this project.
A project of this scale not only benefits the immediate Tejon environment, but it serves as a model for improved grazing management throughout the West. Considering the thousands of acres of similar pastures actively grazed just in California, the impact can be significant. Precious riparian and creek refugia, critical to climate change adaptation, can be preserved or restored, allowing native species to flourish. Funds are required to maintain grazing and water infrastructure and continue monitoring of anticipated riparian zone improvements.
Thank you, Chris Gardner!
Note: We asked Chris to select some of his favorite photos for this story.
It is difficult to say goodbye to longtime docent Chris Gardner, who moved with his wife, Linda, to South Carolina last month.
In all, he has devoted, quite literally, thousands of hours leading tours, counting pronghorn, capturing stunning wildlife photos for use by the Conservancy (especially on Facebook), penning articles for this newsletter, helping with endless stewardship chores and always, always, being willing to go that extra mile and lend a hand when we truly needed it.
We will miss Chris inestimably, but he will be much closer to his daughter and his Florida roots, as well as miles of coastline to explore and photograph.
Chris got started with the Conservancy in 2013.
“Like so many others, I wondered what was behind the fence. Then, late one afternoon in the autumn of 2013, I saw an announcement to become a docent for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy.” Chris attended the meeting and became a member of the very first class the Conservancy offered to become a docent.
In the years that Chris volunteered, he came to know the Ranch quite well and the cross-ranch tour was one of his specialties. Chris’ knowledge of plant and animal life of the different ecosystems was combined with his love of the Ranch’s history. Birding groups asked for Chris by name when making reservations. Of the staff and docents, few know the Ranch better. Inevitably, there are certain places he holds special. His favorite place?
“The high country,” Chris says. “I never tired of hearing the Rocky Mountain elk bugle, or even hearing the wind in the trees.”
Photo: Ground squirrel
Chris has seen plenty of wildlife on the Ranch during his tenure. He remembers one incident in particular that stands out.
“Once, with Bill Lydecker, we encountered an interaction between a young pronghorn buck as he tried to approach a harem protected by a mature buck. The pronghorn were so engrossed in the encounter that they completely ignored us. Watching their behavior was simply fascinating.”
While the work of any Conservancy docent may not always feel like work, in fact, the Conservancy’s ability to perform its mission would be greatly diminished were it not for the incredible support and hard work of our docents and volunteers. Chris feels his time here was worth it. He finally knows what is behind the fence.
Chris adds this: “A whole new world opened up. I got opportunities to interact with very knowledgeable people, such as Scot Pipkin, Mike White, and Ellery Mayence. Then, I had the opportunity to share what I had learned with others during public access tours.”
Photo: Nursing Pronghorn
Story and photos by Senior Docent Steve Justus
Many of the expert birders whom we take on Tejon Ranch have called it the best place for raptor sightings in Southern California.
We have sightings of raptors and other bird species that you may never see in the urban environment you may live in. Every trip we make to the Ranch seems to present something new and exciting! A recent trip was no exception.
Senior Docent Chris Gardner and I had just such a surprise sighting at Reservoir 2 on the Ranch.
Osprey visits are not frequent. When we see one, it is a special day. Since Ospreys’ diet is 99% fish, Reservoir 2, with its decent fish populations, is a good stopover.