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A tiny sparrow, 4 plants removed from endangered list on San Clemente Island after Navy effort

The population of a tiny bird with a stripe for a mustache has made a tremendous comeback on the Navy-owned San Clemente Island, so much so, it now boasts numbers in the thousands, when once it was the double digits, and the Bell’s sparrow will no longer be listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species Act list.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials recently announced the recovery of the birds’ population, along with four plant species that grow only on the 57-acre island. The plants – the San Clemente Island bush-mallow, paintbrush, lotus and larkspur – all contribute to the habitat the sparrow uses for nesting, breeding and feeding.



Removing the bird and four plants from the threatened list comes just as the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Richard Nixon, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Officials credit the species’ progress to decades of perseverance by the wildlife service and the Navy to restore the 22-mile-long volcanic island, which is the southernmost of the Channel Island chain. Largely uninhabited, San Clemente Island lies 55 miles west of Orange County – it is also the military’s only ship-to-shore live-fire training range in the nation.

“This is extremely exciting and historic,” said Sandy Vissman, a biologist and the San Clemente Island coordinator for the wildlife service, adding this is the first time five species were removed at once. “These plants were first placed on the endangered species list in 1977, now it’s 45 years later. We’re very excited, because we think the Navy is committed to continuing its conservation agreement. It’s a testament to their stewardship.”

The Department of Defense took over the island in 1934 and it is considered part of Naval Base Coronado and the Pacific Fleet Southern California Range Complex. The island is regularly used for large-scale training events, including training with other nations. Navy SEALs do underwater training north of the island’s airfield; Marine battalions heading for deployment use it to practice amphibious assaults and island invasions.

But as a manager of federal lands, the Navy is also required by law to preserve the island’s plants and wildlife. When the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973, it became the Navy’s duty to revive the island’s species on the list. Some scientists who work for the Navy have called San Clemente Island “California’s Galápagos,” because it’s the most diverse of the Channel Islands in numbers of plant and animal species.

Plant and wildlife restoration programs, which recently have seen an annual budget of $6 million, faced restoring the island’s natural habitats chomped nearly bare by goats left from the island’s ranching days before World War II. The only shrubs left growing were on steep canyon cliffs or in caves; wind and other erosion swept the remaining topsoil into the ocean, Vissman said.

Because there was little plant life to support it, the tiny Bell’s sparrow was found only on the west side of the island.

In the early 1980s, biologists counted only 34 birds. By the 1990s, as the goats were removed and plants began to grow a bit, there were 300. Fifteen years ago, they had multiplied to 600.

The island’s once-threatened night lizard came off the endangered species list in 2014. The San Clemente Island fox, believed to have been brought to the island as a pet by American Indians, who traveled and traded between the islands, dwindled to 300 at one time and is now back up to 800 and considered “very stable.” About 17 types of plants found nowhere else in the world were nearly eaten off the island.

Still considered threatened is another bird, the San Clemente loggerhead shrike, and two more plant species, the San Clemente Island Star and the Santa Cruz Rockcress.

“I don’t think anyone hearing about this comeback in partnership with Fish and Wildlife would think that the other federal entity involved is the Department of Defense,” said Melissa Booker, the Navy’s San Clemente Island wildlife biologist, who has had her hand in restoration on the island since the mid-1990s. “Yes, there are regulations for federal agencies to support the recovery of species, but the Navy also has its own internal policies.”

Mitigation efforts include creating fuel breaks from where heavy artillery fire and bombs cause fire and controlling the introduction of invasive species from the mainland. As an example, Marines have to wash their vehicles before they are transported to the island by barge or aircraft.

Intensive training, such as ship-to-shore bombardments, can only be done on the southern end of the island – less than 10% of its footprint.  Military vehicles may travel through the island from one side to the other, but only along one road designated for that purpose, said Kim O’Connor, conservation program manager for the Pacific Fleet.

There are about 6,000 of the sparrows now thriving on the island. The San Clemente Island larkspur, once only small plants found in two locations on the island, now grows in 74 locations and totals about 19,000 plants.

But even though the sparrow and plants will no longer appear on the endangered species list, ample protections will be in place, including a conservation agreement between the Navy and the wildlife service to monitor their success for the next nine years, Vissman said. Booker and other biologists will continue to monitor how they’re doing.

Booker said she spends at least three days on the island every week, and is thrilled with the progress of its recovery – she once likened the island to a moonscape.

“Standing on the east side, you see sage scrub along the slopes and in the canyons,” she said. “With that, you see fluttering wings and hear bird song that wasn’t there before. It’s now all over the island.”


Source: Orange County Register

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