Wiyot Tribe Develops Wetlands Protection Program

November, 2016

The Wiyot Tribe—whose ancestral territory is along the shores and tributaries of Humboldt Bay (Wigi) and the lower reaches of the Eel (Wi’yat) and Mad Rivers (Batawat)—have been the caretakers of these lands and watercourses for over a thousand years. The Wiyot Tribe and its Natural Resource Department (WNRD) carries on this role as one of the many caretakers of the Humboldt Bay area, to ensure that its people and future generations can experience, enjoy, and rely on the natural bounty we are blessed with on what has become known as the North Coast of California. 

The WNRD recently took another step in helping to preserve important natural resources and the ecosystem services they provide by completing a robust Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water Act (CWA) § 104(b)(3), Wetlands Protection Program Development Grant (WPDG). Restoration and protection of our coastal wetlands is a victory for all of us who live around Humboldt Bay, as these wetlands help to ensure our bay is clean and help to mitigate impacts from climate change and rising sea levels.

CWA 104 helps Tribes and other land managers to fund studies and biological investigations that support the prevention of water pollution—a primary goal of the Clean Water Act.  The Grant specifically helps the Tribe build its capacity to prevent and assess water pollution by increasing the quality and quantity of its wetlands. The funding of the evaluation of the Tribe’s wetland resources and establishment of a program to protect, manage, and restore its wetlands will help the Tribe achieve water quality goals.

First, wetland areas needed to be identified and determined through a process of wetland delineation, which is regulated, guided, and verified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  WNRD staff gained training in this methodology as well as the California Rapid Assessment Method (CRAM) for wetlands, which provides a score card for a wetlands functionality and health.  Wetlands were found on all three of the Tribe’s properties, which include the Table Bluff Reservation, Indian Island in Humboldt Bay, and Cock Robin Island in the Eel River estuary.

The Table Bluff Reservation (TBR) wetland consists of a small willow-dominated depression near the south shore of Humboldt Bay, surrounded by a sea of pastureland, which contains mainly non-native forage grasses planted for cattle.  Survey efforts have found the water quality to be good at this site, however our monitoring wells dropped substantially during the 2015 summer drought period.  Invasive species like poison hemlock and Himalayan blackberry are invading the wetland, which was found to be a primary concern impacting this wetland.  The water table appeared to be re-charging after the more normal and wet winter of 2016.  Coast willow, red alder, skunk cabbage, lady fern, water parsley, and coast hedge nettle are dominant members of the TBR wetland plant community.

Indian Island is located in the center of Humboldt Bay, just north of the Samoa Bridge.  Tuluwat, the northern portion of the island, is an ancient shellmound built up over centuries by the Wiyot people.  This is the site of the Wiyot’s World Renewal Ceremony and the horrible Wiyot Massacre of 1860, when around 200 women and children were murdered by vigilante white settlers.  The salt marsh surrounding Tuluwat is a tiny remnant fraction of the salt marsh that once fringed Humboldt Bay and its sloughs.  The Chilean cord grass, Spartina densiflora, has invaded most of the marsh on the Bay, and the WNRD is working with other groups and agencies to work toward bay-wide eradication.  Some very nice intact native salt marsh habitat was also identified, including two rare salt marsh plants—Point Reyes’s bird’s beak and Humboldt Bay owl’s clover. The Tribe hopes these healthy native species populations will re-colonize restored areas where Sparta has been removed.

Cock Robin Island (CRI) is located in the Eel River estuary and contains gravel bar, channel, and slough habitats as well as a rare remnant North Coast black cottonwood (Populus trichocapa) riparian forest.  Cottonwood forest on the North Coast, particularly in the Eel River valley delta and lower Mad River is uncommon because it occurs on prime agricultural soils that were cleared of forest by the early settlers.  Terrestrial and aquatic habitats are of high quality on CRI, particularly for migratory birds along the Pacific flyway, including the threatened west coast distinct population segment (DPS) of the yellow-billed cuckoo.  The CRI shoreline edge with East Lake Slough provides abundant down woody debris from the forest, which acts as cover and resting sites for fish. CRI was rated through the CRAM process as having the best wetland quality and health out of the Tribe’s three wetlands that were assessed.  The WNRD will work to preserve and improve the unique black cottonwood forest and its associated species, while also planning to assess impacts from higher up in the watershed that might be affecting the estuary. Toxic algal blooms are one issue of concern, which is exacerbated by nitrogen run-off from agricultural fertilizers and livestock waste from upriver.  One goal of the Wiyot is to get CRI placed into Trust status, which could give the Tribe a greater say on activities that occur higher up in the watershed, including the license renewal of Scott and Vans Arsdale dams.

This process resulted in the creation of  the Wiyot Wetlands Program Plan (WPP)—a five-year plan that will guide the WNRD’s wetland restoration and protection activities, including the restoration of the Table Bluff Reservation wetland buffer, where the WNRD plans to use native plants and sheet mulching methodology to shade out and exclude non-native species that are invading the wetland and affecting its hydrology. Native plantings will focus on plant species of cultural significance to the Wiyot people. 

One initial step is to develop a native plant nursery as a conservation tool and resource.  Continuation of invasive Spartina treatment on the Indian Island saltmarsh and the establishment of water quality monitoring stations at both Indian and Cock Robin Islands are other actions listed in the plan.  A WPP is meant to be an adaptive working document that can be modified as lessons are learned from field applications.  

A wetlands field operations manual for present and future WNRD staff and a Wiyot Wetlands Field Guide were also created.  The field guide is an educational guide to the Tribe’s wetlands and wetlands around Humboldt Bay, wetland issues and promotes the use of native plants for landscaping.   The guide will be available to local interpretative centers, like the Arcata Marsh.
Gaining a general snapshot and understanding of the Tribe’s wetland resources, and recognizing how important they are to the ecological health of our region and home were the most important results of this process.  The WRND hopes to take this baseline data and use it to better care for its wetland resources for future generations, a role that it has been honoring since time immemorial.