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Drawing  by Julian Plath, a student at Brookside and member of the Shrimp Club

One of the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) most unusual, yet satisfying Partners for Wildlife projects has evolved near the small town of Two Rock in a coastal dairy-producing region of Sonoma County in northern California. At the heart of the partnership are the students of Brookside School and the affection they have for an endangered crustacean, the California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica)

In 1993, the 4th grade class of Brookside School in San Anselmo, California, began discussing the plight of endangered species. The students' concern about the loss of wildlife led them to take action by "adopting" an endangered species. They wanted to select a species that was local, one that was not getting much attention, and one that had no one fighting for it. After considering a number of species, the students decided on the California freshwater shrimp. They formed a "Shrimp Club" and set out to plan "The Shrimp Project." Their goal was to try and make a difference in their world by making the world safer for the shrimp. The students began by educating themselves, brainstorming for specific activities, and setting up committees to share the workload. Over the last 2 years, the students have worked on creek restoration; met and collaborated with ranchers, biologists, vineyard owners, and environmentalists; marketed student-designed shrimp T-shirts and sweatshirts; designed murals; sent out letters, information packets, newsletters, and press releases; defended shrimp conservation before the University of California Regents and the City of Santa Rosa; and traveled to Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to lobby for the shrimp.

Students examine a California freshwater shrimp / Barbara Comnes Photos
Students examine a California freshwater shrimp during a rainy field trip. (Barbara Comnes Photos)

But the students weren't done yet. As part of an application for the national Anheuser Busch "A Pledge and A Promise" environmental award, they developed a Shrimp Information Packet, which won a first place award in the K-5 category and the Grand Prize in the K-College category. The monetary award of $32,500 provided money to be used for native plants, fencing, cattle bridges, and operating expenses for shrimp habitat improvement projects in the Stemple Creek watershed. Other grants the

Shrimp Project has received include $2,500 from Bank of America, $32,000 from the Marin Community Foundation, a matching grant of $35,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a $10,000 grant from the Center for Ecoliteracy. The Project has been supported since its inception by a Brookside partnership with the Autodesk Foundation.

Which brings us to the partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). In 1994, the staff of the FWS State Private Lands Office in Sacramento was approached by a representative of Paul Martin, a dairy operator from the Two Rock area. Paul, his wife Jill, and daughter Betsy had worked with the Shrimp Club to rehabilitate a portion of Stemple Creek that crosses their property by fencing-off most of the creek and by planting native riparian trees, shrubs, and native perennial grasses on the banks of the creek. Betsy is active with the Future Farmers of America and led the "Shrimp Kids" in their rehabilitation work. The remaining task was to finish fencing-off the creek in a way that would allow cattle to cross from one pasture to another without entering the creek. Paul proposed a solution; place the bed of an old railroad flatcar across the creek to act as a cattle bridge, and fence-off and gate the remaining unprotected portion of the creek. Additional plantings of riparian trees, shrubs, and native grasses would be included as part of the project. An FWS biologist examined the project site, found that the project would result in the restoration or enhancement of approximately 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) of Stemple Creek, and confirmed that the project would improve the quality of shrimp habitat. Because of the broad range of benefits that would result from the project, the FWS chose to help fund the project through the Partners for Wildlife Program. The financing was arranged as follows: of the total project cost of $12,900, the FWS will pay 50 percent ($6,450), the USDA Farm Service Agency and the Shrimp Club of Brookside School will each pay 20 percent ($2,580), and the landowner will pay 10 percent ($1,290). Members of the Shrimp Club will plant the trees, shrubs, and native grass plugs by hand. The project is scheduled for completion by the summer of 1996.

Fourth graders select plants for restoration / Barbara Comnes Photos
At a native plant nursery, fourth graders select plants for habitat restoration. (Barbara Comnes Photos)

How do the students of the Brookside School feel about their experiences with the Shrimp Project? It's clear that the Shrimp Project has gone beyond just a learning experience. The students' adoption of the shrimp and their involvement in projects to improve habitat for the shrimp have opened their eyes to all sorts of new possibilities. "I learned a lot from the Shrimp Project" says Lucia, a Brookside School student, "and one of the main things was that kids can really do a lot to save the earth. If every class in the world helped one species, the world would be a much better place." Another Brookside student, Megan, put it this way: "I learned that there are a lot of animals in the world that we really don't know about. And we can make a difference in the world. I feel proud and honored to be a part in this."

Innovative initiatives and voluntary measures undertaken jointly by agencies, landowners, and community organizations often hold the best hope for species recovery while minimizing impacts to private landowners. The projects being carried out by the Shrimp Club of Brookside School are a prime example of this type of approach. Once again, it is the children, with their enthusiasm, imagination, and willingness to experiment, that are helping adults find answers. In the words of dairy producer Paul Martin, "The Shrimp Project has been accepted by the farmers in my area because they (the students) have been taught to respect a farmer and his property and work cooperatively. If the Endangered Species Act were to be implemented like these kids and their teachers work, we'd all be better off."

Species Information: The California freshwater shrimp (Syncaris pacifica) is a 2.5-inch (5-centimeter) decapod crustacean. It is the only extant species in its genus on the Pacific Coast, and represents one of two surviving genera in the family Atyidae. California freshwater shrimp are endemic to gentle gradient, low elevation, freshwater streams in Marin, Napa, and Sonoma Counties in California. A true freshwater shrimp, it inhabits quiet portions of tree-lined streams with underwater vegetation and exposed tree roots. Once common in the streams of the three counties, S. pacifica now occurs only within restricted portions of 15 streams.

The California freshwater shrimp has an extremely limited range. One of its few remaining habitats is Stemple Creek, a perennial stream that flows from the foothills of the Sonoma Mountains and across a narrow coastal plain before emptying into the Estero de San Antonio, an estuarine delta in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the Central California Coast Biosphere Reserve. The Stemple Creek watershed encompasses 50 square miles (130 square kilometers), almost all of which is in agricultural production. Dairies and livestock ranches are the mainstay of the watershed's economy. Most of the Stemple Creek drainage is gently-sloped grassland. Willows (Salix sp.) once grew thickly along the creek, and oaks (Quercus sp.) and California bays (Umbellularia californica) still grow along its tributaries and in the headwaters area. In the past, dairy and livestock operators allowed their animals direct access to the creek. The resulting impacts on vulnerable riparian habitat contributed to erosion of the creek banks, deposition of sediment in the creek channel, and the loss of shrimp habitat. Other threats to the shrimp include habitat degradation from suspended solids in the water column, reductions in the amount of aquatic vegetation that provides cover from predators and food for the shrimp, increased water temperatures due to decreased shading, and pollution from animal waste. The water quality is now so poor that people who grew up swimming and fishing in the creek no longer let their children play in it.

Daniel Strait is a Fish and Wildlife Biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's State Private Lands Office in Sacramento, California.

 

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California Partners for Fish and Wildlife, USFWS Photo/Davis Menke

Last Modified: January 2005

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