recreation

The Monument-Worthy Birds of Cotoni-Coast Dairies: An Analysis

Introduction and Background

Obama’s Proclamation giving National Monument status to Cotoni Coast Dairies included protection for an interesting list of birds: a challenge or a nose-thumbing to preservationists? We don’t know, but in this essay I present both perspectives. First, a reminder that experts presented the President with a science-based white paper suggesting a list of sensitive natural resources worthy of protection by his Proclamation; most local conservation organizations wrote letters supporting this proposal. The white paper included 7 species of birds that are protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, but not protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA)…and so, without mention in the Monument Proclamation, might not be protected on BLM lands:

  • American peregrine falcon –  Falco peregrinus anatum– CA fully protected
  • Bryant’s savannah sparrow – Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus – CA Species of Special Concern
  • Ferruginous hawk – Buteo regalis – California Watch List (wintering)
  • Grasshopper sparrow – Ammodramus savannarum – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Northern harrier – Circus cyaneus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Olive-sided flycatcher-Contopus cooperi – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Short-eared owl –Asio flammeus – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)
  • Tricolored blackbird – Agelaius tricolor – CA Species of Special Concern (nesting colony)
  •  White-tailed kite – Elanus leucurus – CA Fully Protected (nesting)

The white paper also included recommendation for recognition of species that are federally protected as long as they are on California BLM’s sensitive animal list:

  • Burrowing owl – Athene cunicularia – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA Species of Special Concern
  • Golden eagle – Aquila chrysaetos – BLM CA sensitive animal; CA fully protected

And, experts mentioned two other notable bird species that frequent the property:

  • Red-tailed hawk – Buteo jamaicensis – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Short-eared owl – Asio flammeus – IUCN Status: Least Concern

At first glance… the Proclamation was a moderate success for bird conservation- experts proposed 11 bird species for the Proclamation, and the President’s Proclamation included 9 bird species. But, the Proclamation included just two of the species experts proposed: the white tailed kite and peregrine falcon. Besides the kite and falcon, the other species listed by the President are common and widespread enough to not warrant any conservation concern. Here are the other 7 birds listed in the President’s proclamation, along with their listing status:

  • American kestrel – Falco sparverius – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Black swift – Cypseloides niger – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Cooper’s hawk – Accipiter cooperii- IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Downy woodpecker – Picoides pubescens – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Orange-crowned warbler – Oreothlypis celata – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Tree swallow – Tachycineta bicolor – IUCN Status: Least Concern
  • Wilson’s warbler – Cardellina pusilla – IUCN Status: Least Concern

Optimism: A Presidential Challenge?

An optimist might consider the list of birds in the President’s Proclamation could be seen as a challenge to biologists, preservationists, and BLM. The President might have been truly insightful, providing protection for species common enough across the property for scientifically sound analysis of the impacts of varying levels of future visitor use. Only when there are enough nesting attempts of a bird species can we compare nest success in areas with and without visitors, or between areas of varying visitor use types/intensities.

With all of the biota listed in the Proclamation, BLM is required to provide protections in their management plans, setting scientifically-based preservation targets, and monitoring the status of these resources over time. Establishing preservation targets for species will involve developing various hypotheses, such as:

  • What is a minimum viable population size?
  • How many individuals are necessary to maintain their ecological functions?
  • How many individuals are necessary in various parts of the property to ensure that the public has an opportunity to view them?

It is likely that at least some of these birds are common enough across the property right now, when the property is seeing very little visitor use, that experts can inventory their densities and then notice change over time in response to varying management decisions. This would not be the case with more uncommon species.

I should point out that this optimistic viewpoint is difficult to completely uphold because the President did not include the expert’s suggestion of olive-sided flycatcher in his Proclamation: this is a species common enough on the property to meet the criteria outlined above.

Pessimism: A Presidential Nose-Thumbing?

The pessimist might consider it a purposeful snub by the President when he ignored most of the birds recommended by experts for inclusion in the Proclamation. He might have various reasons for snubbing the experts.

For instance, in recent Santa Cruz County history, and with the Monument Campaign in particular, we have seen political leaders leveraging and emphasizing the divide between pro-access, maximum use, recreation advocates and conservation advocates. If the pro-access, maximum use advocates had leverage with the President, they may have advised that inclusion of the conservation community’s recommendations as something to ignore.

An additional and perhaps additive possibility is that the President’s advisers were opposed to preservation of grassland habitat on the property, possibly because of the near necessity of using livestock grazing to maintain that habitat. Despite a growing scientific consensus, some maintain that California’s coastal grasslands are largely ‘unnatural’ relicts of human management, evidenced by their ‘natural’ succession into mixed coniferous forests. And, while fire is sporadically used to maintain California’s coastal grasslands, livestock grazing is more common. Many of the bird species that experts recommended for inclusion are dependent on extensive grassland habitats; some may even require livestock grazing to maintain structure that is conducive to nesting success. The reader is no doubt cognizant of some of the environmental community’s opposition to livestock grazing on conservation lands, and this philosophy could well have been in play when advisers helped the President to draft his Proclamation. None of the birds included in the President’s Proclamation rely on grassland habitat.

A final additional and perhaps additive possibility is the Presidential adviser philosophy that the protection of grassland dependent birds might interfere with maximizing visitor use of the property. Grasslands on the property offer the easiest opportunities for access to the many visitors desiring expeditious photographic opportunities. And so, perhaps the President’s advisers refused protection of grassland birds in order to more readily allow for maximum visitor use.

Concluding Remarks

The future will help inform the prevalence of the optimistic or pessimistic interpretation of the President’s motivations for naming the Monument-worthy birds of Cotoni Coast Dairies in his Proclamation. With luck, we may be able to have conversations with the President’s Proclamation advisers to learn, first-hand their rationale. And, we may gather more clues in the advocacy of Monument Campaign organizers and others during the planning process for the property. We will share our discoveries to help science-based conservationists better engage with similar situations in the United States. And, we will use what we learn to improve our strategy moving forward with preserving the sensitive natural resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Postscripts

  1.  One reviewer suggested an alternative possibility for the President’s advisers largely avoiding the experts’ list of sensitive bird species: the advisers may have not recognized the credibility or legitimacy of the source of information.
  2. Another reviewer pointed out the irony of the Proclamation recognition of indigenous peoples and yet the lack of inclusion of those peoples’ iconic birds: eagle and hummingbird.
  3. Bird experts point out that the President’s inclusion of American kestrel was cogent because of a regional decline in nesting, a phenomenon that isn’t explicable but warrants attention.
  4. Bird experts also point out that the President’s inclusion of black swift is curious because the species has never been known to nest on the property, and nesting areas anywhere nearby have long been abandoned.

Unbalancing Act: park planners threatening wildlife by appeasing the masses

Here on Santa Cruz County’s North Coast, parks managers aren’t using the normal tools to help them balance recreation and wildlife conservation.  There are numerous proposals for new wild land park access points, trails, campgrounds, parking lots and the like.  Meanwhile, miles of unplanned, ‘illegal,’ uninvited trails from dozens of ad hoc trail heads proliferate, unheeded.

To manage parks correctly, parks managers would normally go through a planning process that includes understanding the current situation, planning for specific goals, and monitoring to see if they got it right.  Park planners start with studying both the wildlife (types, distribution) and likely recreational visitors (expectations).  The results of these studies inform a ‘carrying capacity analysis’ – how many of what kind of human recreational use can occur in a particular area of conservation land without too deleteriously affecting a given set of natural resource goals.  The analysis details thresholds of acceptable change, which sets in motion a monitoring program so that managers can adjust visitor use accordingly.

Limiting wild land visitor use to protect wildlife is a lot like hunting and fishing regulations that have been succeeding well in restoring game species.  Fishing and hunting regulations require good information on how many fish or game can be caught while maintaining or increasing a population.   Regulatory agencies set the regulatory limits of “take” and monitor both the amount of animals reported to have been killed as well as the populations of the animals still alive, adapting regulations on a regular basis to maintain healthy populations.  Hunting and fishing regulations can change yearly. Sometimes, there are moratoriums on “take” of a certain species.

Despite the parallels in theory and efficacy, in actual practice there is divergence between hunting/fishing and management of park visitors, especially here in Santa Cruz County.  Whereas hunting and fishing regulations are widespread and accepted in U.S. culture, Santa Cruz County’s wild land recreation culture hasn’t experienced controls of visitor use, with a couple of exceptions.  The endangered snowy plover and elephant seal both have seasonal closure, prohibiting recreational visitation to the beaches that are critical to their survival:  two of umpteen species protected on a miniscule percentage of our park land.  This is not for want of policies that mandate better park management.

There are many policy mechanisms obligating wild land parks managers towards more effective recreational visitation management.  For instance, California State Parks is required by law to perform a carrying capacity analysis (Pub. Resources Code 5019.5) for all of their parks.  And yet, such analyses have yet to be implemented using modern biological or sociological principles.  Instead, State Parks’ plans contain arbitrary zones grading from high to low recreational use radiating out from the most convenient park entrance.  Likewise, BLM is required to balance recreational and environmental goals and to monitor and adjust visitor use as necessary.   Santa Cruz County Parks and all other parks managers must protect sensitive park locations by limiting use to interpretative activities under the California Coastal Act.  Despite these regulations, between the disinterested public and “slippage” in agency interpretation/implementation, we see little evidence of professional management of recreational use in Santa Cruz County’s precious parks.

What you can do

Each and every time a new access proposal comes forward, ask the organization responsible what they will be monitoring to assure that recreation isn’t causing too much wildlife disturbance.  For instance, miles of proposed trails on the San Vicente Redwoods property- proposal due soon.

Wildlife conservation and wild land recreation are conflicting goals

We called her Bella, member of a North Coast coyote pack.

Wild land recreation conflicts with healthy wildlife populations, endangering future generations’ ability to enjoy the nature we currently experience and the services that ecosystems provide.  Wild land recreation here refers to passive recreation – mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, etc.  The severity of impacts from these activities on wildlife vary depending on the numbers of people and the species of wildlife.  Here, I focus on vertebrates, though we should be concerned with invertebrates, as well – some of what follows applies to the many species of endangered insects in our wild lands.

Santa Cruz County’s wild lands support diverse vertebrate wildlife – many have been declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation.  Wild land parks are important to the survival of especially wide ranging carnivores such as  American badger, ring tailed cat, gray fox, bobcat, long tailed weasel, and puma.

These predators are essential to supporting wild land ecosystems and the services those ecosystems provide including the water we so rely upon.  If future generations are to enjoy the beauty of redwood and oak forests maritime chaparral and coastal scrub, and coastal prairies and wetlands, all depends on these predators.  Widespread and poorly planned wild land recreation is posing increased threats to these predators in Santa Cruz County.

The impacts of wild land recreation on wildlife have been well and extensively scientifically documented, including in our region.  The diversity and abundance of wildlife decline in parks with recreation as opposed to parks without recreation.  With more recreation, these impacts increase.  Deer flee 200 yards when approached by recreational mountain bikers in parks.  Bobcats and badgers decline in recreational parks and especially den only far from recreation.  While some species of birds become accustomed to recreation, others do not and will not forage or nest close to recreational visitors in parks.  A frog very like our California red-legged frog has been shown to decline in proximity to recreational use of parks.  In sum, because of the wealth of evidence, wild land recreation has recently been recognized as one of the greatest and growing threats to wildlife across the entire world.

WHAT TO DO

If you care for future generations’ ability to enjoy what we have today, speak up against the widespread proliferation of recreational access to wild land parks.  There are many such proposals in Santa Cruz County, right now.  If you consider giving to private, not-for-profit land trusts, consider giving only when they have proven that they are setting aside lands for wildlife, primarily.  If you or your friends recreate in wild lands, stay on marked, planned trails- not the miles of unmarked, ad hoc trails created mostly by mountain bikers in our State Parks.

Public ignoring biodiversity in parks – Business & politicians taking advantage

crowded beach

‘crowded beach’ © Mark Notari

Wildlife conservation is a public priority, but Santa Cruz citizens sleep while politicians and business leaders threaten to deprive future generations of opportunities for the wildlife experiences we have today.

National poll data indicate that 70% of Americans self identify as ‘conservationists.’  Although there is no local data, you would expect an even higher percentage for our progressive community.  In the past 35 years, the public has supported a cadre of local conservationists in just the first steps of conserving wildlife of our county – progressive land use restrictions and large scale protection of open space.  Unfortunately, the public have checked out, abandoning the crucial next step in protecting wildlife – protecting our parks from being loved to death.

The beaches and parks our community has protected are now threatened because they are global tourist destinations.  Politicians and business leaders are maximizing short term profit by packing in as many recreational visitors as possible, threatening wildlife.  Any of the public still paying attention is being duped into believing that any amount of recreation in our open spaces is harmless.  Every organization owning/protecting open space is increasingly opening their lands to a flood of people; their websites, news releases, tours, and talk swell with pride of new “access.”

Flooding parks with throngs of visitors will drive wildlife from lands that were originally protected for conservation.  This is unfair to future generations, who will experience the trees, but not the diverse and alive, critter filled forests we are so lucky to have today.

WHAT TO DO?

As you hear about proposals to increase numbers of recreational visitors, numbers of trails, ‘access points,’ parking lots, etc., I hope you will ask “what do biologists say about impacts to wildlife?”  If you, like me, feel like we probably have enough and it is time for better planning for the wildlife, speak out where you can.  For instance, against a National Monument designation for our North Coast.  And, please, vote for politicians that seek biologist counsel as much as they listen to business leaders.