Central Coast Natural History



Prior to the discovery of the Central Coast by Spanish explorers, the Traces of the Past Project Area (i.e., from Santa Margarita) was home to Native Americans and a variety of birds, mammals, fish, and other God’s critters.

Species of note:

The area teemed with herbivores such as deer, antelope, and elk. The California Tule elk or Wapiti, which is one of three species, were common in the area. This is the smallest of the three species and is light brown in color. Estimated numbers?   While today, we associate elk with mountainous terrain, their endemic habitat was NOT the mountains. Originally, they roamed marshy wetlands, grassy plains, and foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Gabilan Hills. The Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, noted seeing Tule elk on the South shore of Monterey Bay in 1604. And Lt. Pedro Fages’s expedition documented about 50 elk in the area of Elkhorn Slough, near Moss Landing.

These Tule elk were a source of meat and hides for native Americans. For the ensuing white man, especially during the Gold Rush, the meat was valuable and the elk were hunted to near extinction. As a side note, the land baron, Henry Miller, protected the last remaining herd on his ranch near Buttonwillow in the south end of the San Joaquin Valley. The herd rebounded from a paltry 28 animals in 1898 to 400 animals in 1914. In 1934, the Tule Elk Wildlife Refuge was established between Buttonwillow and Taft, California. From there, as the population rebounded, other herds were started to protect against disease epidemics or other disasters. One heard was established in Fremont’s peak of Monterey County. Today, XXXX

Antelope were also abundant.

Fray Juan Crespi was a member of Portolá’s expedition in 1769. From San Simeon, the party was forced to travel inland into the Santa Lucia Range. They began the trip on September 16, and after ten days of difficult passage emerged into the Salinas Valley at King City. The expedition followed the Salinas River downstream, camping on September 27th near Metz and the next day at Camphora. [Crespi noted] many antelope, and in a grove in the Salinas River bed encountered a group of Indians who apparently were engaged in a communal hunt. This group is often identified in the literature as the Ensen (a subgroup of the Ohlone or Costanoan), but it is more likely that these individuals were members of the Esselen tribe (Breschini). Likewise, the ever-present Lt. Pedro Fages saw and noted antelope near Chualar in 1770 and at San Juan Bautista in 1772 (Anderson). 

It appears that between the drought of the 1860s and subsequent agricultural expansion, the antelope were pushed out of the Salinas Valley. California Department of Fish and Wildlife re-introduced antelope to the area, and today, antelope herds can be seen in the high valleys of the Gabilan Hills such as the Bitterwater Valley of easter Monterey County or the Carrizo Plains and Cuyama Valleys in the Northern San Luis Obispo County.

No endemic bovine or equine species existed in this area, but ursine species were plentiful! Before colonization by the Spanish, the Grizzly bear was the top of the food chain! A mature California grizzly bear could weigh up to 1,500 pounds. The Indians believed the Grizzly was possessed by the devil and they avoided them at all costs. The white man brought firearms and hunted the Grizzly for food and to prevent predation on domestic animals. For example, in 1805, a Grizzly bear was responsible for killing over 400 head of livestock on the Rancho del Rey near Salinas (Anderson) Add a comment about Place Names: Canada de Los Osos and Oso Flaco since these areas are outside the Project Area? The last verified Grizzly bear sitings were in 1886 in Monterey area. And the last California siting was in the Sierra in 1924. 

The American Condor is yet another spectacular species that hovered on the brink of extinction because of anthropomorphic causes. It is the largest North American bird. Their range is from Baja California to the state of Washington and eastward to the Rio Grande River. Their size is enormous with a wing-span as great as 10 feet. They were first noted by Carmelite Friar, Antonio de La Ascension, in 1602. He described them feeding on a dead whale. In prehistoric times, the Condor’s range was throughout the West and SIn 1985, the U.S.Southwest. By colonial times, the range was confined to the Pacific Ocean, and by the 1980s there were only 20 condors left in the wild. In 1985, the US Fish and Wildlife Service captured all birds in the wild and started a captive breeding and release program. The program has been successful. What are today’s stats? 

Discuss the Arroyo Seco River as important anadromous fish habitat. 

In 1770, the Mexicans returned to Monterey to establish a mission and presidio.

“The land expedition followed the same route as it had the previous winter returning from Monterey. After 36 days on the road, with only two days of rest, they arrived in Monterey on May 24, 1770, camping in the previously used site by El Estero. That afternoon, Portolá, Crespi, and Don Pedro Prat walked along the beach, returning from where they had planted a large cross the winter before.”

Collation writes:

Having examined the cross they went down to the beach. Thousands of sea lions were about, so close to one another that they looked like a pavement. Two young whales lay together not more than a hundred yards off shore. The waters were as calm as those of a lake. From where they stood Monterey Bay looked like a great “O” just as it had appeared to Vizcaíno. They no doubt felt a little embarrassed that they had not gone personally with the explorers when they were there in the previous December, for they realized that the cross squarely marked the harbor.

Discuss whales, seals, and otters. 

Discuss endangered birds, amphibians, and plants endemic to both areas. 


The area of Northern Luis Obispo County was and remains is an ecological transition zone. You will find plant species from southern and northern California residing side-by-side. 

The inclination of modern modelers and environmental chroniclers of the Salinas Valley is to discuss the valley in terms of minimum, maximum, mean and average conditions. However, there is a wide range of altitude, temperatures, fog, wind, and rainfall that collectively create climatic gradients and hundreds of micro-ecosystems that defy definition. For example, the elevation ranges from 540 feet at Bradley to 10 feet at the Blanco. Because the valley is bracketed by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the West and the Gabilan Hills to the East, there are rain shadows and areas where storms might stall creating a wide variety of precipitation patterns from north to south and east to west. The mouth of the valley opens to the Monterey Bay; and therefore, marine influences are greatest near the Bay and taper off as they approach San Ardo in the South. These conditions and gradients bely convenient classification or simple description. Most models are not intricate enough to be useful as predictors of conditions. 

The Salinas River watershed is often lumped with other watersheds in the state, but the unique in its own right. First of all, it flows from south to north. Secondly, it is what many call an upside-down river: much of the available water is subsurface. Discuss the river’s hydrology more. Cite the book “The Upside Down River”

As California moved into statehood and moved out of the rancho era, agriculture became the dominant driving economic force the altered and shaped the landscape. 

Insert info about William Powell and the prevailing views about westward expansion and how that dramatically altered California’s ecology. 

Discuss hydromodification and the dramatic changes on the Central Coast from damning the San Antonio and Nacimiento Rivers, to Irrigation, to displacing herbivores, to loss of fish habitat, to displacing cattle production, to changes in principle cropping systems and refinement of those systems.

From 1860 to 1864, William H. Brewer traveled the length of California and kept a travelogue. In 1861, he passed through the Salinas Valley and described it as a vast, dry, dusty, plain with sparse grass. 

What’s next? What will the Salinas Valley look like in 20 years? 

Discuss the potential impacts of water policies. 

Books and References 

Anderson, Burton. Breschini, Gary S., and Gudgel, Mona, editors. The Salinas Valley, A History of America’s Salad Bowl. A Monterey County Historical Society Publication. 2000.

Breschini, Gary, S. Ph.D. The Portolá Expedition of 1769. Monterey County Historical Society. http://mchsmuseum.com/portola1769.htm

– — — The Founding of Monterey. Monterey County Historical Society. http://mchsmuseum.com/colonization.html

Brewer, William, H. Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1966.

Lapham, Macy H., and Heileman, W.H. Soil Survey of the Lower Salinas Valley, California. USDA. 1901.

Soil Survey of Monterey County, California. USDA, Soil Conservation Service, In cooperation with the US Forest Service and University of California Agricultural Experiment Station. 1978. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_MANUSCRIPTS/california/CA053/0/monterey.pdf

Soil Survey of Monterey County, California. USDA, Natural Resource Conservation Service. Current SurveyCalifornia