Treebeard's Stumper Answer
I can hardly open a local newspaper lately without reading about some local endangered species of plant or animal. Santa Barbara County seems to have more than its share of protected plants and animals. It's making a difference in what we can do on our beaches and rivers and fields. Ocean Beach near Lompoc is now closed to protect nesting snowy plovers. Why is California, and the Santa Barbara region in particular, so rich in threatened and endangered species? What local plants and animals are protected, and where do they live? I guess the real question is: should we care?
Unfriendly signs at Ocean Park (aka Surf Beach) at the mouth of the Santa Ynez River west of Lompoc, California. We spoke with an Air Force security officer who was patrolling the beach beyond the sign. She explained that entry is an $80 dollar fine, with no warnings given. I pointed out that the sign is only in English, though many Latinos and Vietnamese used to regularly fish here. There is a small section of beach nearby that is still open. This situation is not popular with local residents.
This remote windblown beach and estuary are surrounded by Vandenberg Air Force Base. This is an amazing natural area, rich with endemic plants, especially on Burton Mesa in the distance. Endangered Western Snowy Plovers are nesting along the beach and Southern Steelhead Trout are hopefully running up the river to spawn. This area is relatively well protected, though large areas of the coastal strand are overrun with introduced ice plant and beach grass. The bright yellow flowers are Giant Coreopsis, coreopsis gigantea, uncommon this far north, but doing ok here. The distant yellow flowers in the estuary are invading wild mustard.
The Santa Barbara region is rich in endangered species because this is an area of many different habitats, ranging from ocean and island, to river valleys, to high mountains, and on to the near-desert interior. We're all learning about Southern steelhead trout, Western snowy plovers, California tiger salamanders, and the rest of the 45 local species now listed as endangered or threatened. Whether we should care is a discussion question, not a stumper with an answer. For me, these are indicator species of where I want to live, like the canary in the coal mine.
I'm really busy with school right now, so consider this a working copy. I don't have time to make it shorter! These issues have been on my mind for some time, and any comments are appreciated.
Graybear says it well, all the way from Virginia:I would have to say that, due to the unique geological diversity there, species requiring a particular combination of habitats are unable to meet their needs elsewhere. You have mentioned some of these environments in earlier stumpers - the southern-facing mountains, the ocean, the fire mosaic, islands, etc. Species of plants and animals interact with the diversity of environments for their various needs - food, shelter, water, pollination/procreation, etc. As the human population expands, these species have nowhere to go.
Short and to the point. The Santa Barbara region sits at a crossroads in time and place and climate:
- We're all perched somewhere in time between ice ages. Santa Barbara was never under an ice sheet like the Sierras, but the climate was different when humans first came on the scene here 20,000+ years ago. Look at the road cuts along Highway 154 near the dam(n) overlook at Lake Cachuma. Those jumbled rocks with sharp-corners are a fanglomerate, rocks that were transported in huge Pleistocene floods and landslides that didn't have the chance to be rounded off like river rocks. Within the last few tens of thousands of years, there was water in the desert lakes and pygmy mammoths on the Channel Islands. Climate change is the norm, even without global warming.
- The east-west trending Santa Ynez Mountains form a natural barrier between Southern and Central California. Many native plant species find their northernmost and southernmost extension here. The south-facing Transverse Ranges, the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada (through the spur of the Tehachapi Mountains) all meet near Mount Piños like spokes on a wheel, and bring their native species with them. A transect across the county runs through many life zones and habitats. Our varied geography includes the Channel Islands, active and arrested sand dunes, vernal ponds, and serpentine and limestone soils.
- Our current climate swings between drought and deluge with the Southern Oscillation of El Niño and La Niña. "Normal weather" is just a statistical average, not an expectation. Local plants and animals survive the extremes by finding niches that suit them. Our Mediterranean climate of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers promotes regular wildfires and a resulting fire mosaic. We border the ocean, and morning fog carries moisture far up the river valleys into the summer-dry interior.
All these natural factors promote biodiversity.
I'm sure another big factor in our endangered species count is that Santa Barbara is a University town with an active environmental movement, and people with knowledge, and the money and time, to support it. Species won't be listed as threatened or endangered unless someone notices their presence, and cares, and can afford to pursue it.
Extinction has always been part of the natural world. Human activity speeds it up. Santa Barbara also sits at a crossroads in history and land use policy:
- A large part of the Santa Barbara backcountry is protected in the remote San Rafael and Dick Smith Wilderness areas. The rest of the non-urban county is in an ongoing historical transition from being open range land to becoming something else. These changes have deep roots that go back to the original ranchos of the old Spanish and Mexican days. Urban development in Santa Barbara and Goleta has long been limited by water, but the voters' recent decision to connect to the California State Water Project has changed that. Much of the open space we see around the Santa Ynez Valley is private ranch land without cattle. The local livestock auction yard shut their gates a few years ago after a period of extended drought. I don't see many cattle on the hills now except when ranch property is up for sale. (Do the realtors rent the herds?!) This can't continue. Movie stars and corporations are now buying the land and calling the shots. Many working ranchers are aligned with political agendas that have nothing to do with their best interests and alienate the people who should support them. They're selling out for good prices, and I understand why. As a naturalist, I used to grumble about cattle disturbing the wildflowers and spreading weeds, but this alternative is worse. Thousands of acres of former range land are now being planted to wine grapes, and endangered California tiger salamanders are caught in the middle. I feel trapped too.
The political reality is that threatened species will become a tool to control development in the way that water availability used to. It's an interesting conflict with many sides. Even as a naturalist, I don't like the simple answers. I'm worried about the future.
A few more thoughts:
- Consider the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in the remote northwest corner of Nevada. This is high desert land, far from anywhere. I love this empty country! The first ranches started here in the 1870s. By the turn of the century, the native Great Basin grassland was destroyed by overgrazing, and cheatgrass and sagebrush replaced the native grassland. A few fortunes were made, and the land was literally used up in just 30 years. That's greed. Santa Barbara's Bradbury Dam was finished in 1952 by the Bureau of Reclamation to impound the Santa Ynez River into Lake Cachuma to supply the city with water. It was an epic project that involved carving a tunnel through the Santa Ynez Mountains from the watershed to the coast. The yearly spawning runs of many tens of thousands of steelhead trout were not even considered. Why wasn't there effective protest? Why wasn't the then-perennial Santa Ynez River classed as a public navigable waterway to protect the fishing access? The dam(n) builders knew exactly what they were doing, and could have done it differently. It's the same story on the Columbia, the Colorado, and many other rivers. It's just greed. A few fortunes were made, a resource was used up, and now we're all paying to try to bring back what was lost.
- Ranching and family-owned businesses on State Street in Santa Barbara are also endangered. The Cielo Store on top of San Marcos Pass where I live stands empty. I think an interesting history of our times could be told through the ups and downs of this little store in our mountain community over the years. I miss the Sunday breakfasts and Monterey sandwiches. Chaucer's Bookstore in Santa Barbara is one of the fine bookshops, but can it survive competition with Borders and Amazon? We have to live with our choices in economics as well as ecology. Sometimes the short-term gain of saving or making a few bucks has a big price down the road.
- A golf course or a vineyard can be designed around individual oak trees, but that doesn't preserve the Oak Woodland natural community. Species can be protected under the Endangered Species Act, but the real point is to preserve habitat and natural communities. The law has become a tool for naturalists who know better but have nothing else. As singer Ani DeFranco says, "Any tool can be a weapon when its used right." This makes the law vulnerable to the real criticism that extinction is a natural process and people have a place in nature too.
- The Las Padres National Forest Adventure Pass program came at a bad time. I'm willing to pay a fee to use popular recreation areas like Paradise and Red Rock along the Santa Ynez River, but I refuse to pay to enter my National Forest, on principle. As Woody Guthrie and Edward Abbey said, that's our land behind the fence. There are fewer people in the forest because of this fee-use program. Fewer people means fewer supporters of the wild lands and all they contain. I won't buy an Adventure Pass, and if you do, even after getting a ticket, you're supporting the program. Don't do it. You can download and print my anti-Adventure Pass. Support www.freeourforests.org.
- The California Department of Fish and Game has a natural diversity database of "special status plants, animals, and natural communities" in California, listed by county. Santa Barbara County has many listings, but San Diego County has even more, probably because it extends farther into the desert and across the interesting Cuyamaca Mountains. But it's not a competition, and I don't think the numbers mean that much. The Santa Barbara list includes 7 snails and slugs, but only 3 insects. I've noticed a decline in insects over the years, but I can't document it, and who can? As a naturalist, I know it's easy to spot the first appearance of a bird or wildflower, but it's much harder to spot the last. How many insect species are really endangered? What about slime molds and lichens? Imagine the political consequences of listing an endangered slime mold! Does the Lorax speak for slime molds too?
- The Endangered Species Act is built on the biological idea of a species. But that's a tricky notion that is changing with the advent of DNA analysis. The lupines in my canyon might well be slightly different from the lupines in the next canyon. They are pollen-compatible and can interbreed with a range of intermediate offspring, but in fact they don't because they are geographically isolated. How do we decide if they are different taxa? Is this a finding of fact? That's why field biologists talk of populations more than species. These small differences between populations are important because they show evolution at work. But when are the small differences enough to warrant subspecies status or a change in species name? Under the Endangered Species Act, such a decision can stop public works or a housing development. It's not Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) that are listed as endangered, but the Southern steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus), the genetically unique Southern California population of that noble fish. Taxonomy is a digital this or that, but nature is an analog in between, and data conversion is always tricky.
Whew! The biological issues are tough enough. When peoples' livelihoods are on the line, it gets even more politicized. I have strong feelings that don't quite fit into a position statement yet. I stand by my statement that these local endangered plants and animals are indicator species of where I want to live, like the canary in the coal mine. If they go, so will I. But where?
More to come..., but here are a few links in the meantime:
- The California Department of Fish and Game supports the California Natural Diversity Database which includes a county-by-county list of Special Status Species. These are PDF files that require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. There's also a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species page.
- The 4th grade GATE class at Isla Vista School in Santa Barbara/Goleta has a page with pictures and links on endangered animals in Santa Barbara County. Good job.
- The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has info on California plants and plant communities. CalFlora has the details.
- I recommend the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky (1997). I received this small book as a Christmas present from my Mom, and I couldn't put it down. It's an appreciation of the fish, with recipes and unexpectedly rich history. It shows how a single species can be an indicator for an ecosystem in trouble, and the price when the warnings are ignored. It's a fine book.
- The real point of the Endangered Species Act should be to preserve habitats and ecosystems, not single species. There's a new report sponsered by the United Nations on People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. Print the PDF file. This is just the summary, with more to come. It's impressive.
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