While conducting a warrant search for illegal marijuana Mendocino County law enforcement officials were surprised when they also found endangered wild steelhead and poached ducks.
On March 7, Department of Fish and Game (DFG) warden Don Powers seized 18 wild steelhead and 56 ducks from freezers in two locations while assisting the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department in serving search warrants for illegal marijuana propagation. The wild steelhead, 17 of which were spawning females, are believed to be from the Garcia River in Mendocino County, where they are protected and listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Formal charges will be brought against Kyle Edward Stornetta, 31, of Manchesterfor unlawful possession of the wild steelhead as well as unlawful possession of an overlimit of ducks. Prosecutors are currently evaluating the case and deciding which additional state and federal regulations were violated, including marijuana violations.
"Enforcement efforts are critical to ensuring the threatened wild steelhead stocks are able to rebuild by returning and completing their spawning cycle on the Garcia River," said Nancy Foley, DFG's Chief of Enforcement.
Wild steelhead along the Mendocino Coast were listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2000 and it is unlawful to catch or possess them. The federal listing spurred the investment of millions of dollars of public and private funds in the Garcia River and its watershed to fund restoration and conservation efforts including bank stabilization, upslope sediment reduction, the planting of thousands of small willow, silt reduction programs, road upgrading or decommissioning, and other improvement and forestry projects and practices.
Specific contributions have included more than $1 million in grants issued by DFG's Fisheries Restoration Grants Program, an $18 million purchase of the Garcia Forest by the Conservation Fund of the Garcia River Forest to manage and restore its 23,780 acres, and a $3.5 million for a conservation easement purchased by the Nature Conservancy to conduct studies and monitor fish and wildlife populations within the forest.
Other investors include the County of Mendocino, the Mendocino Redwood Company and California Trout Unlimited.
The steelhead population is responding to these efforts and showing increasing signs of recovery. In 2009, DFG biologists estimated only 65 steelhead returned to spawn to the Garcia River, but in 2010 approximately 250 steelhead were tallied and in 2011 an estimated 770 steelhead spawned. Even with these increasing numbers, the loss of 17 females is a significant blow to the Garcia River's steelhead population.
"Those 17 females could have produced about 70,000 eggs to help restock the river," said Doug Albin, a DFG fisheries biologist in Fort Bragg. "The Garcia River is gradually being nursed back to health by a number of groups pooling their conservation and restoration efforts, but those investments are negated when spawning females are illegally taken like this."