Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek
Biologist, Ballona Institute
A war to save certain unique species of plant and bird life from extinction has been raging off and an on for the last four years close to the Californian mainland.
The unpublicized battles on Santa Barbara Island, one of two islands of the Channel Islands National Monument off the Ventura-Los Angeles coast, have been fought by biologists of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with assistance from the California Department of Fish and Game. These battles are a desperate, last-minute attempt to preserve a species of giant sunflower, a species of song sparrow, and other flowers and small animals found nowhere else.
The enemy ? Rabbits, introduced to the island by early day farmers and again during World War II. The critters simply took over. The result was disasterous.
The National Park Service faces a parallel situation with respect to the non-native burros of Death Valley National Monument, which in the last 50 years have multiplied and spread through much of the mountainous parts of that region with devastating effects upon native vegetation and upon the native desert bighorn sheep.
No species of wildlife or plant ever should be introduced to an area without prior study to determine the possible effects on life already inhabiting that area. It's obvious that more harm than good often can and does occur when this precaution is not taken.
This Afterword regarding Lowell Sumner and Santa Barbara Island is noteworthy, if only because it shows that conservation off the coast of California had begun in the 1950s, a half-century ago. My research, thus far, indicates that Lowell Sumner's statements, reprinted above, are the first assertive writings by the National Park Service on alien non-native species in southern California. It is even more amazing that the NPS allowed a biologist was allowed to make these statements in writing in a public magazine article.
The delicate balance of this Californian island ecosystem, with its weedy grasses, Burrowing Owl, and many other terrestrial organisms is under threat now because not enough Americans realize the important work that the National Park Service is doing at Channel Islands National Park. It seems likely that the "weedy" and "grassy" habitats will now fall "prey" to the "predator-like" planning process. It is likely that many of the scientists, especially those with botany expertise, are going to recommend that this area be returned to a scrub, which may have dire repercusions for seabirds ability to nest on Santa Barbara Island. Restoration of native vegetation may be catastrophic for native birds and other native animals found on this unique island. This action of conversion of a meadowy coastal prairie to scrub would be disasterous for the Burrowing Owl and prairie raptors such as the Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl, and for smaller raptorial-like birds such as the Loggerhead Shrike, which occasionally migrate to Santa Barbara Island. This area is also prime habitat for large flocks of Western Meadowlark. This region should remain as "weedy" coastal prairie. Furthemore, it needs to remain as short-grass prairie rather than tall-grass (bunchgrass) prairie, so that the raptors and ardeids can hunt most effectively. Let us hope this area remains as prairie.
Consider the Burrowing Owl: This owl which cannot burrow itself, depends completely on the burrowing activities of the seabirds. So when does an owl actually have a chance to use as seabird hole, such as that of an auklet hole for raising its own family of young owls? It depends on an auklet hole being found vacant. Now you know why the Burrowing Owl can be found on Santa Barbara Island.
I would like to conclude this afterword with some obvious observations that Jack von Bloeker made regarding the islands off southern California. It seems that we on a path of restoration which may eliminate the small delicate animals. Is it too late to bring back the reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds, to their former abundance? Not at all. Indirectly, the loss of the reptiles, amphibians, owls, harriers, and other animals on Santa Barbara Island is due to the Hollywood phenomenon and human behavior. Are you surprised? Don't be, it is yet one other way that Ecology functions. Ecological systems can collapse and cascade downward into lower biodiversity just as they can build "staircases" of complexity to higher biodiversity. However, building a staircase takes more time and money than tearing one down. Staircases can also need repair and management on a continuing basis. Thus, the metaphor of a staircase for an ecological system is a good one, not unlike Aldo Leopold's metaphor to a wristwatch, more than 50 years ago, in Sand County Almanac.