Archive for June 2012

THE NEBRASKA SANDHILLS: Loving the Great Plains

June 27, 2012

Colt following its mother in the Nebraska Sandhills

I’ll get the embarrassing stuff out of the way first: I got my vehicle stuck in the sand of Nebraska’s Sandhills. I was heading back on a 28 mile paved one lane road (paved so the tourists don’t get stuck!) that was about ten feet wide; after a particularly rewarding stretch of birding and photography, I decided to return to see if I could get any other photographs. Near a cattle guard I swung the van wide right off the pavement and then proceeded to take a wide U-turn. The sand on the other side of the road was softer than I expected, and the van’s rear wheels began spinning, cutting deeper into the sand like a chain saw. Within seconds, the van was resting on its transmission and the back wheels were spinning freely.  At this point, with my hands on my hips and any hint of a smile vanished from my face, I stared at my predicament. I wasn’t going to get out by myself with the equipment I had, yet it was 25 miles back to the main road and cell phone reception.

The thin ribbon of pavement leading out through the Sandhills; is it paved so that the tourists don’t get stuck in the sand?

My van, stuck in sand beside the paved one-lane road to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Here the van was resting on its transmission with the wheels spinning freely … I guess I should have gotten a 4WD van!

This is about as lonely as a road gets, but within a minute or so, I saw a truck towing a horse trailer approaching. As it drew next to me and slowed, I looked up at the driver and was surprised to see a cute teenage cowgirl, blond hair in a pony tail flowing out from behind a baseball cap. I immediately thought of the old “Take it Easy” Eagles’ song lyric:

“It’s a girl my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me …”

Well, not at me, but at my predicament. I told her the obvious, that I was stuck, and asked if she had a way to pull me out.

“Sure.”  she said, “But I have to take care of something first; I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I appreciate your help,” and watched as she drove away. Then I spent the next half hour on hands and knees digging out as much sand from in front of the rear wheels as I could, not that it helped all that much, but it gave me something to do while waiting.

Then I heard the distant drone of a motor across the sandhills, and watched the flat-bed Ford and horse trailer returning. This time the girl brought her dad with her, and he matter-of-factly hooked a heavy tow chain to my rig and I was out in a couple of minutes. He looked like a rugged and handsome 40-something rancher from Central Casting, with a cowboy hat, boots, jeans, and a blue western shirt, deeply tanned with thin wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. I shook his hand and thanked him and his daughter for their help, and I was back on my way–albeit with his friendly admonition to stay on the paved road!

Back on the road again, crossing a cattle guard with a cactus sticking out of it

Western boundary of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and about 25 miles along this sand road to the nearest hamlet

The lonely landscape

The Sandhills of western Nebraska are a place apart, dotted with lonely ranch houses that might be a dozen miles from the nearest neighbor. When meeting a pickup virtually anywhere in the Sandhills, the driver will almost always wave. This happens only in the REALLY rural, sparsely populated parts of America.

The grass-covered sand dunes of the Sandhills

When this region was first settled in a land rush just after the turn of the last century, the new owners got 640 acres of government land under the Kinkaid Act passed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, and set about to raise crops and dairy cattle. Earlier, settlers had gotten 160 acres of land, but that proved to be too little to make a living on, or even to starve decently, so the 640 acres was a better deal. But this is a harsh land, and the story of ranching and farming here has been one of farm failure, followed by gradual consolidation into large ranches.

Two-track road winding over the dunes in the Nebraska National Forest

I’ve loved this region since I first saw it some 20 years ago. It is truly big sky country, with wave after wave of sand dunes stretching far, far beyond what the eye can see. These are not dunes in the sense of barren and blowing beach dunes; these are dunes covered with grasses that wave in the constant winds. The sand dunes are no longer active, since the region gets enough rain now for the dunes to support the grasses that stabilize the sand. The exception is where wind undermines the grass cover on the dunes in a “blowout;” this has happened consistently enough through the eons that one endangered wildflower–the Blowout Penstemon–is actually adapted to colonizing and stabilizing these blowouts.

I rescued this Ornate Box Turtle from the middle of the road, after I took his picture

The Ornate Box Turtle has a hinged lower shell in front, which it draws up to shield its face from intruders; this was one of the few pictures I took after he finally decided I was not much of an adversary and went strolling away

Western Meadowlark viewing its territory from atop a wooden fencepost

Prairie Rose in bloom

Western Spiderwort brightening the landscape with blossoms that seem to reflect the vast blue sky

Winds are constant in this open land. Ranchers catch the winds with old-fashioned windmills, which pump water from the vast Ogallala Aquifer up to tanks for watering cattle. Many of these windmills have seen service for many decades, and the Great Plains would look even emptier without them. The landscape is wonderful for raising cattle, horses, and wildlife–all of which take advantage of the open tanks of water below each windmill.

Windmill pumping water for cattle in the Nebraska Sandhills

Each windmill pumps water, as long as the wind is blowing, into a stock tank; birds and other wildlife also take advantage of the good source of water

Patience is a virtue when waiting for bulls and calves to leave the road

The Ogallala Aquifer is Nebraska’s most precious natural resource, other than the future potential of wind. The aquifer is the reason that the Nebraska Sandhills made the national news for the first time in my memory. A Canadian company, TransCanada Corp., proposed to route the big Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Sandhills, which would bring black gold from Alberta tar sands down to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas. When President Obama announced a delay in approval of the pipeline in November 2011, a lot of Americans howled in protest, convinced that the delay was a political move, but not the conservative ranchers of the Sandhills. They know that their livelihood depends upon the health of the Ogallala Aquifer running below these old sand dunes, and that a serious oil spill could ruin the clear liquid gold that lies below the sand. These ranchers vociferously protested the proposed route of the pipeline, and I suspect that they will eventually win in the battle to reroute the pipeline around the Sandhills.

Prairie pothole and dramatic cirrus clouds

One area of the Sandhills is dotted by prairie pothole lakes; here the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for ducks and wading birds, as well as songbirds and other wildlife. During my brief visit, I glassed a flock of American White Pelicans; huge birds that were resting on an island in the middle of a small lake. Near them, at a few feet higher in elevation than the pelicans, was a colony of nesting Double-Crested Cormorants. My favorite bird of the refuge was the Long-Billed Curlew, a large wading bird with an impossibly long and slender curved bell. Pairs of curlews were flying wildly above, frantically calling with the urgency of breeding. What an exuberant display of summer life on the prairie!

Prairie pothole lakes dot the landscape in the vicinity of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Upland Sandpiper nervously watching me

Long-billed Curlew opening its impossibly long and curved bill

Juvenile American Avocet foraging among flies along the edge of a prairie pothole

The other sound that I associate with the Great Plains is the call of the meadowlark. The first time I drove across the country, now over 40 years ago, I was on the way from my Michigan home to fight forest fires in the California mountains. I had just read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, about his journey to rediscover America by traveling the back roads. I did some of the same on my trip, and I recall driving through Kansas with the windows open on a hot spring day–this was before air conditioning isolated most of us from the sounds of the outside world–and hearing the constant melodies of meadowlarks perched on fenceposts and telephone poles. I’ll always associate the prairie with that experience.

Western Meadowlark bursting into song

When I first visited the sandhills back in the mid-1990s, I photographed an old gas pump in front of an abandoned building, where an old steel advertising sign faded in the prairie sunlight. On this return trip, I discovered that the pump and old sign have since been removed, presumably by antique collectors, leaving just a sad old building in a row of sad old buildings. In fact, this town of Whitman is trending toward an agricultural ghost town as the Great Plains depopulate.

I photographed the Jewel Diner in Mullen back in the 1990s; there is now just a concrete slab where the diner once stood

When I photographed this building in the 1990s, there was a classic old gas pump and two old metal signs; these are now gone 

Old and abandoned buildings in Whitman, as the village slides toward being an agricultural ghost town during my 2012 visit

Old false-front building in Whitman in 2012

In the nearby village of Mullen, I photographed the Jewel Diner years ago. This abandoned diner was in the classic old tradition of 1930s era art-deco diners, but it was tiny and cute as can be. I remember being thrilled to see and photograph it. Since then, the diner was removed and installed in a steel barn owned by a private collector. Here is what I said about the Jewel Diner after first encountering it a decade-and-a-half ago:

“Just before photographing this ghost of an old diner, I stopped for lunch at a small town restaurant just down the road. After seeing what other patrons were eating, I ordered the local specialty — a dinner plate-sized (really!) slab of breaded and fried pork served with mayo on a huge bun. We’re not going to talk about my cholesterol level right now, thank you.

After rolling out the door and down the road, I immediately stopped to photograph this jewel of a diner. With the art deco details, it would have been the most modern building in this Nebraskan sandhills town back in the late 1940s. When I took the photograph in 1999, the Jewel Diner had sat there closed and empty, probably for several decades.

At an art show in Cincinnati, one woman was thrilled to see this photograph. She told me that she was raised in Mullen and frequently ate at the Jewel Diner all those years ago. Recently she returned to the town and found that the diner had been moved–apparently to restart its career serving up chicken-fried steaks and home fries.” 

I camped one night in the Nebraska National Forest–yes, you heard that right, the Nebraska National Forest. To anyone who has driven the endless miles on Interstate 80 across this prairie state, the notion of a national forest here sounds silly. This is an unusual national forest, however, one that started in the dreams of a University of Nebraska botanist named Dr. Charles E. Bessey. He thought that with the rainfall in the Sandhills, there was enough moisture to support trees. He convinced Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, that his idea was sound, and they convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to support the idea. So in the first decade of the 20th century, a small army of planters planted trees in the grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills. These 25,000 acres of trees became the Nebraska National Forest in 1908.

A segment of the sandy Circle Road leading through the hand-planted trees of the Bessey Ranger District in the Nebraska National Forest

Pine forest along the Circle Road

Junipers scattered at the edge of the national forest

The Scott Lookout Tower, built in 1944, still operates as a fire tower in this land of dangerous range wildfires

Bottlebrush Squirreltail Grasses wave in the wind in the moist landscape around a windmill

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery grows tree seedlings and other plants for reforestation efforts; it is over a century old, having been established during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt

Prickly Poppy looks like an unlikely cross between a thistle and a poppy

Though the Nebraska National Forest never became the supplier of fenceposts and timber than Dr. Bessey had imagined, it is still an iconic and fascinating part of the Great Plains. There is even a fire tower where visitors can climb and look out over the entire expanse of this unit of the forest.

Circle Road leading up and down and around the Sandhills

There is a loop road through the forest, which I decided to drive in my van. I soon discovered that roads through the Sandhills are made of … sand, so they make for interesting driving in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Where I entered the 20+ mile road, there was no sign stating that it was for four-wheel drive vehicles, so I decided to try it. I found that it was awfully iffy going up the sandy dunes in my vehicle, but as long as I kept up my momentum, I was all right. So, I probably crested 150 hills by gunning the engine and maintaining momentum. It was a relief when I finally got to the other end of the loop road and back on gravel–and at that end of the road there was a sign saying “four-wheel drive only.” This was the day before my adventure getting stuck in the Sandhills, so I guess it gave me a false confidence.

To many coastal Americans, this is flyover country, but I just love exploring these remote places

I left the Sandhills late in the day after getting freed from the sand. When I drove into the town of Alliance, I found roads everywhere in the town blocked by police, and it was hard to get through the town to the freeway. Later, I checked the news and found that a man was barricaded inside a pharmacy with an assault rifle and other weapons. He had shot and wounded two police officers and the pharmacy owner (who was a hostage until he made a daring escape) during a botched robbery attempt, and was under suspicion for a murder in a trailer park nearby. He was later found dead after the swat team went in that evening. I was reminded of the lyrics from Bruce Springsteen’s dark song about a murdering rampage across the prairie fittingly called “Nebraska,” in which Springsteen voices the murderer:

“They declared me unfit to live, said into that great void my soul’d be hurled

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”

Yes, there is. But there is also the kindness I found in the Nebraska Sandhills. Thank you, unknown rancher and rancher’s daughter. for helping a stranger in a strange land. And make sure the water below the surface stays clear and clean forever.

Colt nursing in this wide-open and beautiful land, which I think of as the gateway to the American West

For more information about the Nebraska Sandhills, go to the following sources:

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Nebraska National Forest

Keystone XL Pipeline (if you Google this, you will find arguments on all sides of the pipeline issue)

Nebraska Sandhills

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

CHANNEL ISLANDS RESTORATION: We are as Gods

June 3, 2012

We almost lost the Island Fox, whose numbers plummeted from over 2,000 to under 100 in a few short years on Santa Cruz Island, due to a complex chain of events set in motion decades ago. This blog describes the ways that people affected the wildlife and plants of Channel Islands National Park, and how the National Park Service and its allies in conservation have attempted to rescue some of the iconic native creatures and restore the fragile ecosystems of these islands located so close to the millions of people living along the southern California coast.

The rat’s dark eyes reflected the full moon as it twitched its whiskers, sniffing the air. Nearby, a newly-hatched seabird, fluffy and vulnerable, scrambled around its mother as she waited patiently for others to hatch. The rat, sensing the vulnerability of a baby, dashed in for a quick take, grabbing the tiny chick and then rushing up through the rock crevice, its naked rat tail trailing like a snake. 

The next morning, two fox kits played by their den, tugging on a fallen eucalyptus branch and wrestling together in the dusty earth. High above, a predator watched with eagle eyes as it floated on currents of warm air. An ache of hunger stirred in its cells, an ache that two days ago was satisfied by zooming down on a squealing piglet. Adjusting its wings, the Golden Eagle plunged at dizzying speed, opened its talons, and snatched the tiny fox. The kit never saw it coming, but his sister did, and she learned a lesson in horror that arrives unexpectedly from the sky.

When I visited Channel Islands National Park in April 2012, it struck me that the Channel Islands are a virtual laboratory for many of the great conservation disasters and subsequent restoration stories of the last 50 years. These rocky outcrops and their creatures have endured DDT poisoning, a major oil spill, overgrazing, overharvesting, invasions of alien animals and plants, endangered species, and now the threat of ocean acidification.

The National Park Service is steward of land on five of the Channel Islands, and has made a heroic effort to restore the islands to something closer to their historic natural state. This effort has come at the cost of controversy and lawsuits, but the National Park Service has stayed the course; the islands and their native plants and animals are better for the effort.

Santa Cruz Island has a long history of ranching and farming, but it has also supported endemic animals and plants in wild ecosystems–creatures found nowhere else on earth. 

Santa Cruz Island

Some 10,000 years ago, Earth was emerging from an ice age and the Channel Islands were experiencing monumental changes. At that time, so much of the earth’s water was locked up in glacial ice that the vast oceans were lower, exposing more of the coastline. Four of today’s islands–Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel–were combined into one large island known as Santarosae. With the sea level 300 feet below today’s level, the island was much larger than the four remnant islands of today.

The prime herbivore of the islands, the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth (the mother of all oxymorons–but the pygmy mammoth indeed weighed only 10% as much as its mainland ancestors), which had grazed these windswept landscapes for eons, suddenly disappeared. Forever. Did it have something to do with the arrival of people at roughly the same time? Perhaps. From the admittedly spotty, pieced-together timeline that scientists have constructed based upon remains of mammoths and people, it appears that the mammoths disappeared shortly after the arrival of the first humans. Did these Chumash people ram spearpoints into the last 2,000 lb. beast of its kind? We may never know, but I’m placing my bet on a simple “yes.”

But enough of ancient history; the Chumash people came to a rough balance with the other island inhabitants for the next 10,000 years, so we’ll cut them some slack for the vanishing mammoths. Especially since they themselves disappeared from the islands in historical time, coinciding with the invasion of the Europeans, and all the cultural changes and diseases and opportunities that made for huge societal changes in native peoples across the continents.

People have been a part of Santa Cruz Island for some 10,000 years

The Chumash did manage to live in harmony with the little Island Foxes and the strikingly blue Island Scrub Jays. As well as the Sea Otters that fur traders eliminated from the Channel Islands, and the abalones that have become so scarce due to overharvesting and poaching that they have largely disappeared from California dinner tables.

Next on the scene were ranchers. Santa Cruz still has historic ranch buildings, roads, orchards, stone piles, and other artifacts that represent some 150 years of agricultural operations. Generations of ranchers carved a living out of this island. With the island’s Mediterranean climate, olive groves and vineyards prospered; the latter until Prohibition. Sheep grazed the hillsides. Pigs and other farm animals became a common sight and smell on the island. Eventually, pigs escaped and sheep ventured into inaccessible places, so the island had some new creatures enjoying their newfound freedom.

An old fence in Scorpion Canyon speaks of the ranching that occurred here for over 100 years

As agriculture thrived on Santa Cruz, the California mainland was becoming a bleeding edge of industrial America. By the 1950s, Bald Eagle nests had completely disappeared from the Channel Islands, where there were previously two dozen. The culprit? DDT. The industrial strength pesticide, sprayed nearly everywhere in the world where mosquitoes were a problem, had side effects. Yes, a DDT scientist claimed that the chemical was perfectly safe, each year shocking the students in his classroom by eating a spoonful of the stuff. And, yes, like many baby boomers who camped in the late 1950s in state parks, I inhaled big gulps of the chokingly thick DDT fog that park staff sprayed through the campgrounds, and I’m still alive. So far.

Birds weren’t so lucky. DDT thinned their eggshells, especially the eggshells of birds higher on the food chain; when a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon or a Brown Pelican would sit on the eggs, the thin shells would crush under her weight. This was a problem across North America, but the Channel Islands had a special problem: they lay just offshore from a major DDT manufacturer. The Montrose Chemical Corporation had its DDT plant in the Los Angeles area, which EPA estimates dumped 1,700 tons of DDT into the sewer system and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean before the plant closed in 1983. Over the decades, that DDT, residing on the bottom sediments of the Continental Shelf, made it into the food chain, contaminating fish and the creatures that eat the fish–including the Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and Peregrine Falcons that nested in the Channel Islands.

By sometime in the 1950s to 1960s, all the Bald Eagles were gone from the islands. Fish and small ducks breathed a sigh of relief and perhaps the sharks ate better than they used to, but those of us who loved our national bird were in shock. The Endangered Species Act, created during the Nixon administration, was a response to seeing such a rapid decline in some of America’s most charismatic creatures.

The late 1960s were a time of budding consciousness for the environmental movement. I was taking Introduction to Ecology 301 at the University of Michigan in 1969, and I remember coming into the classroom and hearing about the Santa Barbara oil spill that had just happened. An offshore oil well had blown out, allowing millions of gallons of oil to float atop the Santa Barbara Channel, killing thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. This sad event spurred the movement tremendously with the clear and present danger of careless drilling. When the spill occurred, oil-soaked birds and marine mammals were shown nightly on national news as they washed up on once-pristine California beaches, feathers saturated with black oil. It was a sight that many never forgot, and thousands of Channel Islands birds and marine mammals were affected. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clean feathers of birds coated with petrogoo–an effort that unified environmentalists and animal lovers in an emotional and physical struggle to reverse the damage. Tragic oil spills have occurred since then in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and the terrible results have been similar. At least we now have protocols for attempting to clean up the mess, for which we can thank the Santa Barbara spill.

Meanwhile, island pigs were multiplying like rabbits (though the island had no rabbits). When conniving pigs escaped their fences, they took off squealing with the glee of freedom, heading into the mountains of Santa Cruz. In their happiness, they enjoyed sex in the wilderness, and made lots of little piglets to root around among rare plants, dig holes in old Indian camps, and generally make a mess of the island. This might sound cute enough, but the spectre of a 400 lb. boar surprising a hiker on a trail is enough to send a mental warning of what a big pig can do.

The little pigs rooting everywhere on Santa Cruz then attracted a predator, the magestic Golden Eagle, that had only occasionally visited the island in the past. When the Bald Eagles nested on Santa Cruz, they ruled the skies with shows of aerial strength, and kept away the Golden Eagles. But when the Bald Eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagles sensed a vacuum and moved in for the kill … of piglets. There was so much pork that the Golden Eagles decided to nest on Santa Cruz.

All would have been wonderful had the Golden Eagles eaten a strict diet of pork, but in eagle fashion they decided that the tiny Island Fox also made a delightful meal. As a result, the Island Fox population on Santa Cruz plummeted from about two thousand in 1994 to under a hundred some seven years later, and the very survival of the species was at stake. The National Park Service had a choice: they could let nature take its course, in which case an entire charismatic species would disappear; or they could take action to save the Island Fox.

Two Island Foxes greet each other affectionately

It was not only the survival of the Island Fox that was at stake: there were also Chumash archeological sites and a wealth of endemic plants–plants found nowhere else on earth–that were being absolutely hammered by the pigs and sheep. The National Park Service has a mandate to preserve the landscape and its wild creatures, so they had to come up with a comprehensive plan. This was to be done in coordination with The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages well over half of Santa Cruz Island.

Nothing is ever easy these days, when so many interest groups and individuals believe that they truly represent nature, or wildlife, or common sense, or industry, or …

One of the first steps the National Park Service took was to remove 16 wild horses, or more properly, “horses gone wild,” from the island. Had the horses remained, they would have gone forth and multiplied, and added even more pressure on the island’s natural inhabitants. But, for every bureaucratic action, there is a reaction. The National Park Service was sued by the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals Inc., a group that wanted the horses to remain. After the group lost its initial court battle and subsequent appeal, the way was clear for the NPS to remove the horses. They did it in the face of last minute pressure from the local congresswoman, but all 16 horses were removed, alive and kicking, and placed in a mainland sanctuary.

Next, the 2,000 sheep on the island were removed and transported to the mainland. Sheep are not as charismatic as horses, so there was much less controversy about this removal.

Skull of a sheep that died on Santa Cruz Island; at one time there were 2,000 sheep grazing on the island

Pigs were another matter. The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy decided that the pigs had to be killed rather than live-trapped. The now-wild pigs had diseases such as cholera and pseudorabies that meant they could not be safely transplanted to the mainland.

Dramatic clouds over the hills of Santa Cruz Island

The plan was to construct electric fences to contain the pigs, then shoot them from helicopters and use a defoliant to kill a favorite pig food, the invasive Fennel. A group sprang up to oppose pig removal, the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association (CHIAPA), and held several raucously emotional public meetings to discuss the proposal. A journalist for the student newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported on the first meeting, quoting a spokesman of CHIAPA as saying “The pigs have been demonized and accused of imaginary crimes.” A colleague opined that “The Island Fox population was robust until The Nature Conservancy took over the island … the finger goes right to The Nature Conservancy for causing the near extinction of the Island Fox (this person claimed that the Golden Eagles were drawn to the island by rotting sheep carcasses when the sheep were removed). The latter spokeswoman also said that “This is literal warfare. They are defoliating the land so they can gun down the enemy.”

Despite the controversy, a company from New Zealand indeed executed the pigs–all 5,000+ of them–in 2005. That action meant that the island’s native plants and foxes had a better chance of surviving.

The next step was to relocate the Golden Eagles, in order to preserve the Island Foxes, whose numbers were now far less than 10% of what they were just a decade before. An elaborate plan was devised to live trap the eagles, then move them back to a distant place on the mainland. This effort went well, and over 40 Goldens were trapped and transplanted. They have not returned.

Ravens are part of the native fauna of the Channel Islands

At about the same time, ten pairs of the increasingly scarce Island Foxes were rounded up and moved to a captive breeding center, in order to try and give the fox population a jump start. Fortunately, it worked wonderfully, and in a few short years the fox population is back to its natural levels.

Island Foxes are tiny; only about a quarter of the size of their mainland ancestors, and about the size of a typical house cat

Meanwhile, Bald Eagles have been reintroduced to the islands and have started nesting again, as have the Peregrine Falcons that went through a captive breeding and reintroduction program starting in the late 1970s.

So, Santa Cruz has gone from an island with a dozen species in danger, to an island that is recovering nicely. On my trip to the island, I saw about two dozen Island Foxes in three days, as well as a Peregrine Falcon and some of the endangered plants that are returning from the brink of extinction. The slopes no longer have the denuded look that the sheep brought, and the diggings of pigs no longer threaten archaeological sites and native plants. Island Foxes no longer have to worry about death diving from the sky. All is well …

Greene’s Liveforever and several of its island relatives were negatively affected by the 5,000+ pigs running wild on the island

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is far smaller than Santa Cruz Island, and the challenges have been different. There are no foxes on Anacapa, as it is too small to support a fox population. It does have major populations of nesting seabirds that have faced tremendous challenges.

Anacapa supports one of the two American breeding colonies of California Brown Pelicans, but DDT poisoning had the same effect on their eggshells as it had on Bald Eagles. In 1970, only ONE pelican chick hatched and survived in the entire colony. Recovery began soon after DDT was banned, and there are now about 4,600 pelican nests on West Anacapa–a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. There are still challenges: nighttime squid fishing disturbed the birds and led to some nest abandonment a decade or so ago, but now there is a buffer zone. Hikers are not allowed close to the colony.

View west from Inspiration Point along Anacapa Island and toward Santa Cruz Island

Another major challenge came to the islands earlier. About 150 years ago, a ship named after Mexican-American War hero Winfield Scott ran aground on the rocks just off Anacapa Island. Everyone aboard was eventually rescued, but the Black Rats on board decided to rescue themselves, and many swam successfully to shore, where they colonized the island and found a rich food source in the seabirds that called Anacapa home. They devoured eggs and chicks of such rare and threatened species as the Xantus’s Murrelet. They bred like rats, of course, and soon thousands of them were swarming over the tablelands and cliffs of this small island. A few years ago, the National Park Service mounted an all-out assault on the rats, completely eliminating the creepy creatures using poison, some of it spread on the cliff faces by helicopter. Of course, groups of animal rights advocates spoke up for the rights of rats, but the National Park Service did the right thing and eliminated the rats, thus saving untold native birds and a native island mouse from elimination.

Giant Coreopsis, one of the fascinating and unusual plants on Anacapa Island, was threatened by the encroachment of introduced, invasive plants

In the 1950s, the US Coast Guard staff on Anacapa decided to introduce Ice Plant to the island. This attractive plant is good for erosion control, and had already established a foothold along the central and southern California coasts. Unfortunately, the Ice Plant spread quickly over much of the island, displacing native plants in its march to utter domination. The National Park Service inherited the Ice Plant when it took over the island, and decided that the invader had to go. Volunteers and staff have tried various methods of eradication, including pulling it up and applying herbicides, and are finally winning the battle.

About a year ago, the National Park Service set up a greenhouse on Anacapa, and is growing native plants from seeds collected on the island. The goal is to jump start the revegetation of Anacapa with native plants. Based on what I saw, the newly growing natives are doing really well.

We are as Gods

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogues of the 1960s and beyond were the Google of their day, but with a sustainable living emphasis. The eminently browsable pages skipped from resources for raising chickens to building a windmill to understanding deep ecology to printing on a small press. It lent itself to dreams, and to a feeling of responsibility toward Planet Earth.

I recall a statement by Stewart Brand–it may have been on the cover of one of the catalogues along with a photo of Earth from space taken by one of the Apollo missions–in which he said “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” Meaning, that we have such an overwhelming presence on Earth, that we had better learn how to responsibly guide the impact of people upon the natural systems we depend on. It is an obvious statement, yet extremely profound in its implication that we cannot continue soiling the nest, or we will all get sick.

Recently, Stewart Brand revisited and revised his classic statement to “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it.” Again, an obvious statement, but one that flies in the face of those who think we can drill our way to sustainability in an era when over seven billion of us demand and deserve better lifestyles and lifespans. How do we get to the point of sustaining all those souls without ruining the planet so it no longer can support us?

That brings me to back to Channel Islands National Park, where the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy are playing the role of being the good Gods of ecological restoration and sustainability–not an easy task and often a controversial one.

Arch Rock at the eastern point of Anacapa Island

As a naturalist, I have always loved wild creatures of every kind, with the certain exceptions of ticks and mosquitoes and some kinds of spiders. But, just as there are the good gods of restoration, there are the bad gods of invasion and elimination. Is it right that an accidental introduction of pigs threatened the very survival of the Island Fox? I think the clear answer is “NO!”  The National Park Service did what it had to do to protect the wild and natural inhabitants of these islands, rather than reserving them for rats and pigs.

I have witnessed the result of these restoration efforts, and it is good. We are indeed as Gods.

The National Park Service and its allies in conservation saved the Island Fox from extinction.

Further Reading and References:

Restoring Santa Cruz Island

Restoring Anacapa Island’s Seabird Habitat

Restoring Anacapa’s Native Vegetation

Pig Eradication Completed

Animal People News (point of view of animal rights advocates)

Yet More Killings

When the Killing’s Done (T.C. Boyle’s novel about the Channel Islands killing controversies)

National Geographic News reports on pig killing controversy

The Daily Nexus article about pig killing

Blog about Anacapa Island Restoration