Michael Brady steers a four-seater all-terrain vehicle down a barely visible trail in the sand and enters the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, a place Brady calls a hidden gem.
The refuge is 2,553 wind-blown acres of ever-shifting sand dunes that is home to one of the highest concentrations of rare and endangered plants and animals in San Luis Obispo County. More than 120 species of rare plants and animals have been found there.
“This place is different every time you visit,” said Brady, who heads the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Guadalupe-Nipomo refuge.
The refuge is sandwiched between Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to the north and the Guadalupe oil field to the south. It is part of an 18-mile stretch of remote coastal dunes running from Point Sal to Pismo Beach.
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120 species of rare plants and animals in the refuge
Funding shortfalls within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may cause the refuge to close to the public for the next 15 years, according to the refuge’s updated management plan that was released in February.
The refuge’s longtime manager, Glenn Greenwald, retired last year and will not be replaced. That means Brady or someone else from the service’s Ventura office must make the two-hour drive to the refuge every couple of weeks to manage it. Not having a manager on-site has made effectively operating the refuge much more difficult, Brady said.
The agency spends $133,500 annually to manage the refuge. Since 2010, the agency has lost about 20 percent of that funding, Brady said.
“Since 2010, the refuge system budget nationally has declined by over $20 million while costs have continued to increase,” the management plan states. “Over the same period, staffing has been reduced by about 12 percent. Uncertainty about future budget appropriations will continue to influence the extent to which strategies can be implemented and goals and objectives can be realized.”
The new management plan lists three options — close the refuge to cut costs, continue managing it as it is now, or moderately increase visitation and environmental education activities. The plan’s 15-year time frame was mandated by Congress in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1997.
Under the option to moderately increase spending and activities at the refuge, the annual cost would jump to $241,000 from $133,500. If the refuge were closed, the annual cost would fall to $9,000.
The agency is expected to make a decision in June or July after evaluating public comments. Public comment on the conservation plan closed April 18.
Hiking in the refuge
The agency’s preference would be to increase public access to the remote refuge if more funding could be found and volunteer support could be developed.
Right now, there is no road access to the refuge. Visitors can reach it either by hiking south from the Oso Flaco Lake beach trail, or by hiking north along the beach from Rancho Guadalupe Dunes Preserve. Either way, it’s about 4 miles round trip.
216 plant taxa (species, subspecies, varieties) in the refuge
144 bird taxa in the refuge
30mammal taxa in the refuge
One of the top priorities would be creating a 2-mile hiking trail that would take visitors from the beach to the back-dune area with stops at a pond, a willow valley and a peak with panoramic views of the refuge.
Closing the refuge would be a significant loss to the community, said Doug Jenzen, executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center in Guadalupe. The refuge is popular with photographers, botanists, birdwatchers and surf fishermen.
Several times a year, Janzen’s organization leads nature hikes into the refuge that generally attract 30 to 60 participants. Among the most popular destinations are the dunes formations that feature nearly vertical slopes of sand.
“They look like something from another planet,” Janzen said of the formations.
The exact number of people who visit the refuge annually is unknown because most visitors park in the Oso Flaco Lake lot, hike to the beach, hike a mile south and enter the refuge unsupervised from the beach. Docent-led hikes can access the refuge from a service road off Oso Flaco Lake Road.
For his part, Janzen is optimistic the refuge will remain open due to its popularity and the bad public relations it would bring to the Fish and Wildlife Service if it closed.
“The conservation plan required that all options be considered but did not address the likelihood of them being adopted,” he said. “Closure would be a sensitive issue.”
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes refuge is one of the newer refuges in the national system. It was formed in 2000 when The Nature Conservancy donated the land to the federal government. The refuge boundary covers 1.8 miles of beachfront and extends 3 miles inland.
“There are a lot of plant species here that are found nowhere else on Earth,” Brady said.
The list of rare and endangered species found in the refuge include plants such as the La Graciosa thistle, marsh sandwort and Gambel’s watercress and animals include California least tern, California red-legged frog and western snowy plover.
The refuge is also regularly visited by wildlife that is not endangered such as deer, coyote, bear and fox. Brady regularly finds shed deer antlers in the sand. A whale skull was also recently found on the beach and moved inland.
The refuge also has its share of invasive species, most notably European beach grass, veldt grass and ice plant. In 2014, it was estimated that 130 acres within the refuge are infested with beach grass and 940 acres infested with veldt grass.
Invasive plant species are a serious problem because they compete with the rare native species for limited habitat and freshwater.
Recently, the refuge was invaded by feral pigs, which can damage endangered plants by rooting around in ponds and wetland areas. The conservation plan calls for the pigs to be controlled by fencing and hunting.
Threatened and endangered species in the refuge
California red-legged frog: federally threatened
California least tern: federally endangered
Western snowy plover: federally threatened
American peregrine falcon: state protected
California brown pelican: state protected
Golden eagle: state protected
White-tailed kite: state protected
Northern elephant seal: state protected