San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Male Canvasback

This excerpt is from a story written by former Refuge Manager Bryan Winton and was originally published in the Winter 2001/2002 issue of Tideline, the quarterly newsletter of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Tucked away in the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay estuary lies a body of water and land unique to the San Francisco Bay Area. Every winter, thousands of canvasbacks - one of North America’s largest and fastest flying ducks, will descend into San Pablo Bay and the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge not only boasts the largest wintering population of canvasbacks on the west coast, it protects the largest remaining contiguous patch of pickleweed-dominated tidal marsh found in the northern San Francisco Bay - habitat critical to the survival of the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse.

Although many may be more familiar with San Pablo Bay NWR’s sister refuge, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Don Edwards), San Pablo Bay NWR was established eight months prior to Don Edwards in February of 1974. San Pablo Bay NWR is the second largest refuge in the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex (Don Edwards being the first) with 13,189 acres of tidelands, including open water, mudflat, tidal marsh, seasonal wetlands/brackish marsh, managed ponds and upland habitats. It was established to protect migratory birds and endangered species such as the California clapper rail, salt marsh harvest mouse, and California brown pelicans.

Management in recent years has focused on tidal marsh restoration and planning, land acquisition, and environmental education. The refuge protects vital open water and mudflat habitats critical to waterfowl and shorebirds utilizing the Pacific Flyway. Canvasback, scaup, and a myriad of shorebird species use the refuge in fall and winter during their southerly migration. Active marsh restoration management to increase salt marsh harvest mouse numbers is currently underway in the Tolay Creek tidal wetland restoration project, and plans are   developing to do the same in the Cullinan Ranch Unit, the Tubbs Island Levee Setback, and Mare Island. With a lot of forethought, management, and a little luck, the salt marsh harvest mouse and other species could once again flourish in northern San Francisco Bay.

Land acquisition is an important management aspect of San Pablo Bay NWR in that it will help protect marshes, endangered species habitat, and visitor opportunities for future generations. The base closure on Mare Island in Vallejo has resulted in the opportunity to add an additional 163 acres and 2,473 acres of State of California Lands Commission leased lands. Other lands the refuge hopes to acquire is the 3,300 acre Skaggs Island, former Naval Communications land. This property situated between Sonoma Creek and several sloughs has been identified as the linchpin property integral to successfully facilitate large-scale tidal wetland restoration in northern San Pablo Bay. Without this property, restoration will be very difficult.

The California Department of Fish & Game has been an invaluable partner with the refuge in land management. The unmatched state-federal relations are enabled with help of a Memorandum of Understanding which provides guidelines for seamless management of northern San Pablo Bay wetlands. The mutual goal of managing resident, migratory and endangered species while offering compatible wildlife -dependent recreation opportunities such as hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education and interpretation, has laid the groundwork for a successful partnership. The refuge also hopes to partner with many other organizations and agencies to continue preserving and restoring one of the most unique natural areas of the San Francisco Bay estuary.