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Friday, March 21, 2008

Southern California Wildlife paths may pave way to survival

By Dana Bartholomew, Staff Writer, L.A. Daily News

For full report:

There's just enough wilderness left in Southern California for a mountain lion to stalk a wily badger from the southern Sierra Nevada into Baja California.

But if habitat linking millions of acres of parkland gets gobbled up by development, conservationists say the Southland's rich wildlife legacy could be lost.

"Without linkages between existing parks, national forests and other public lands, many native species could be threatened or disappear entirely," said Ray Sauvajot, chief of planning, science and resource management for the National Park Service in Thousand Oaks.

A consortium of 15 wildlife agencies released on Wednesday a comprehensive plan, seven years in the making, to establish those linkages throughout Southern California.

The plan, produced by South Coast Wildlife, maps more than 1 million acres of wildlife corridors and establishes a long-term strategy to safeguard native plants and animals.

Movement is essential to wildlife survival for gene sharing and for repopulating habitats, the group says. By protecting the travel routes for everything from mountain lions to butterflies, many endangered animal and plant species can be saved.

"Now, all 15 linkages from the Tehachapis down into Baja are complete," said Kristeen Penrod, conservation director for South Coast Wildlands, a Los Angeles conservation planning agency.

"The whole purpose of this is to maintain existing conservation investments- billions (of dollars) in state parks - so that our grandchildren and great grandchildren can see them in perpetuity. It's really about the animals being able to have healthy populations and gene pools."

The 67-page report, "South Coast Missing Linkages Project: A Wildland Network for the South Coast Ecoregion," is designed to provide a blueprint for governments to deter development of key wildlife habitats.

The South Coast Linkages Project now serves as a model for similar plans in Northern California, Arizona and Colorado.

The Southern California wildlife network is comprised of roughly 19.4 million acres, of which 94 percent are protected, according to the report.

Of that, about 1.4 million acres serve as links between national forests and other public lands - a little more than half of which is at risk of being developed.

The proposed 555-acre Las Lomas development in the rolling hills between Los Angeles and Santa Clarita was to be built on land reserved for one of those links. It was shot down Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council.

"In Southern California, we don't have a lot of time to conserve these linkages," Penrod said. "Probably about a decade."

Linkage advocates hope to map the rest of California and to draw in more partner agencies in order to develop a public consciousness to protect vital open space.

"Connecting wildlands requires connecting a lot of people," said Penrod, a founder of the linkage movement. "We need to speak in one voice to protect these linkages."

In June 2006, South Coast Wildlands published a 213-page report outlining wildlife corridors around Los Angeles.

The region, considered one of the world's 25 most important "hot spots" for biological diversity, contains 400 threatened and endangered plant and animal species.

For wildlife, the acquisition of Ahmanson Ranch by the state in 2003 helped connect the Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains.

In west Simi Valley, mountain lions have been tracked crossing an underpass and tunnel to the 118 Freeway connecting the Simi Hills to the Arroyo Simi.

The report found mountain lion movements from the Los Padres National Forest near Lake Piru across the Santa Clara River into the Santa Susana Mountains, then across the 118 around Rocky Peak Road and into the Simi Hills west of the San Fernando Valley.

Other corridors include the Agoura Hills-Calabasas area, across the Ventura Freeway around Las Virgenes-Malibu Canyon and into the Santa Monica Mountains around Malibu Creek State Park.

Sauvajot said such agencies as Caltrans have made recent headway to protect wildlife migrations by creating access under busy freeways. Plans call for new wildlife tunnels beneath the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon Road between Calabasas and Agoura Hills.

Wildlife fencing is now being added along Highway 23 between Moorpark and Thousand Oaks, which guides animals to safe undercrossings.

"It's the only plan of its kind," said Sauvajot, based in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "Because of the level of development and fragmentation of habitat, the species that still exist and this area's survival depend on the corridors and open spaces that are still out there.

"This is a blueprint for wildlife survival."



A landmark conservation plan would link up wildlands in Southern California. A report to be released Wednesday by the group South Coast Wildlands maps out strategies to preserve and link vast stretches of terrain. KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce tells us the plan would connect several areas in San Diego County and Mexico.

The South Coast Missing Linkages project is intended to maintain Southern California's wildlife now and in the future. The group says without linking parks, forests, and other lands, many native species will disappear entirely. That's because the animals need room to roam to find food, mates and escape other threats such as fires and floods. The challenges are many -- from housing developments and freeways to shopping centers and climate change.

Penrod: We're standing actually in one of the core habitat areas or one of the target things that the linkages are intended to serve. So Palomar Mountain here with Cleveland National Forest and then Cuyamaca down in here and hooking up to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

That's Kristeen Penrod, Conservation Director for South Coast Wildlands. The group is one of more than 20 federal, state and local agencies and organizations that have put together the plan. Penrod says the idea is to translate that plan into land-saving actions such as buying property, restoring and preserving linkages.

Penrod: We can basically create the backbone of a regional conservation strategy that will basically take us from the Southern Sierras all the way down to Baja.

There are six linkages in San Diego County stretching from Camp Pendleton to Palomar Mountain in the Cleveland National Forest.

Penrod says the project aims to stitch together a variety of open spaces, from park and forest land to farms. But barriers such as highways, bridges, and other developments are fragmenting the natural habitat areas. She says undoing those barriers will ensure the survival of endangered animals, from bighorn sheep to butterflies.

Penrod: And so what these linkages are is just a wee bit more in order to maintain those connections. Basically research has shown that if you know, even Palomar Mountain or Anza-Borrego State Park are not large enough by themselves to support species over time.

Penrod says Interstate 15 is the only major freeway in the linkage joining the Santa Ana Mountains to the Palomar Mountains. She says providing crossing structures -- bridges, overpasses, or specially designed culverts -- would give animals a pathway to reach upland and aquatic areas.

Other solutions to create links include working with property owners, builders, environmental groups and wildlife agencies to create conservation plans.

Dave Van Cleve is with The Nature Conservancy and the former superintendent of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. He says connecting the lands is not just for wildlife.

Van Cleve: These corridors are open for people too to enjoy and they’re for backpackers, and horseback riders and mountain bikers. We encourage people to use these lands as well. We think public access is really going to be important to a lot of these.

One program already helping the effort is the County’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan -- a long-term habitat program to preserve more than 300,000 acres of county natural areas.

The chief of the plan is Tom Oberbauer. He says making the linkages work will ensure the survival of mountain lions, deer, foxes and bobcats.

Oberbauer: The last grizzly bear killed in San Diego County was in 1906 in San Onofre Creek. The last grizzly bear in California was 1922 in Tulare County. So it was sometime back in the Gold Rush period -- you know 1840s, 18-whatever -- there were grizzly bears all over here. There were also jaguars in San Diego County and jaguars extended clear up to Monterey County. The last jaguar killed in Southern California was in Palm Springs, I think it was like 1836.

If the wildlands plan is successful, it would mean mountain lions, foxes and other animals roaming the county today will still be here in 100 years.

Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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