2 people sit in a small gray motor boat on the still, dark green water. On the right side of the boat, fence posts stick up out of the water.

Original coyote fence removed at Mono Lake

In late August last year, California State Parks and the Mono Lake Committee joined forces to remove the remains of the 1980s-era coyote fence that once protected Negit Island’s nesting California Gull colony. Taking advantage of the low lake level, as well as a short reprieve from wildfire smoke, a crew of nine—six from State Parks and three from the Committee—spent a morning sawing off dozens of steel poles at the waterline. When the lake rises to its management level of 6392 feet above sea level, the poles will be deeply submerged and will no longer be an unsightly hazard to paddlers.

The fence was erected in 1980 after the lake level had dropped so low that a landbridge to Negit was fully exposed, opening a pathway for coyotes to cross to the island and prey on nesting California Gulls and their chicks. Until 1979, Negit was the primary nesting site for the gulls, but that year not a single chick survived to adulthood—all were killed by coyotes or abandoned by fleeing adult gulls. In response, the California Department of Fish & Game appropriated funding to build a barrier across the landbridge, and in early spring of 1980 a half-mile of chain-link fencing was installed. But gulls have a long memory, and in 1980 they crowded onto other smaller islets to nest, remembering the previous years of devastation on Negit.

The fence proved ineffective anyhow and the lake level continued to drop, exposing more and more land. In 1981, when the lake reached its historic low of 6372 feet, the coyotes simply went around the ends of the fence.

Despite its impracticality, the fence remained, growing thick layers of rust and salt rinds from the alkaline water of Mono Lake. The goal this year was to entirely remove the fence poles (the chain linking disintegrated or was removed at some point), but complete removal proved impossible: most poles were sunk into cement footings in water too deep for wading. We tugged, and we wiggled—like five-year-olds with a loose tooth—and eventually decided that, lacking scuba gear and underwater tools, cutting the poles as short as possible above water would have to do.

Using a battery powered Sawzall and leaning out over the gunwale of the Committee boat, Bartshe and I cut the poles while State Parks summer interpretive aide Claire DesBaillets guided us from section to section. In the State Parks boat, Catherine Jones, Courtney Rowe, and rest of the State Parks staff worked on another section of fence line. Santiago prowled the Negit shoreline with his camera and documented the process.

It felt great to remove the poles—evidence of a time when the lake was perilously low and the gulls’ survival at Mono Lake hung in the balance. It seemed like the closing of one chapter of Mono Lake’s story, and an affirmation of how far we’ve come in the intervening 40 years: a State Water Board decision reached, ten feet of lake-level rise realized, and a stream restoration program making steady gains all attest to this progress.

But the trip to the island was also a stark reminder that the lake is still much lower than it should be, and that even electric fences, like the one successfully deployed in 2017, are ultimately not the best protection we can offer the California Gulls. The hard reality is that we’re still just one drought away from needing to re-deploy that electric fence to protect the gulls’ nesting grounds. Mono Lake’s surface elevation is still nearly 11 feet too low. In the long term, the best we can offer the gulls—and all of Mono’s ecosystem—is a steadily rising lake that reaches the management level. In the meantime, here’s to incremental improvements, and a Scenic Area that grows more scenic year after year.

This post was also published as an article in the Winter & Spring 2021 Mono Lake Newsletter (page 11). Top photo by Santiago Escruceria.