Since we are pretty fish-centric people here at FISHBIO, when we think of floodplains we tend to think of Chinook salmon and Sacramento splittail. But a recent visit to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge near Modesto with the organization River Partners reminded us that many other creatures make use of floodplain habitats as well. River Partners has been restoring wildlife habitat in the Central Valley for many years, and they focus on the bigger picture: how these habitats benefit the ecosystem as a whole. Their restoration projects in the refuge have taught them the importance of incorporating suitable habitat for various birds and terrestrial animals in floodplains. For example, the riparian brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius, shown above), an endangered native species that has been reintroduced to the refuge, needs to escape to higher ground during floods. As with many riparian areas in the Central Valley, “higher ground” often means levees. However, most levees are intentionally stripped of vegetation due to a controversial claim that plants destabilize the structures (see Levee improvements). This poses a problem for the rabbits: escaping floods means exposure to predators.
Like most extreme events in nature, floods are a double-edged sword that can prove a blessing to fish and a danger to rabbits. River Partners has worked to provide shelter for the rabbits and other species during floods by re-vegetating some levees with native plants such as California wild rose (Rosa californica), California blackberry (Rubus ursinus), and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis; shown above). Furthermore, they have created a network of “bunny mounds” to offer wildlife additional high-ground refugia in the event of a flood. To check out this restored habitat, stroll along the new Pelican Nature Trail in the refuge, which is part of the larger San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex.