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Of Foxes and Sandpipers

October 11, 1987

The October bird migration is conspicuous at Bolsa Chica in Orange County, a reminder of the importance of preserving these wetlands, but also a reminder that about 70% has already been lost along the California Coast.

Western sandpipers, among the smallest of the shore birds, are passing through Bolsa Chica on their way from Arctic breeding grounds to wintering areas as far south as Peru. They are among 180 species counted at Bolsa Chica, a measure of the benefits of the agreement that now assures more than 900 acres of protected wetlands at that site alone.

But problems abound at some of the other sites.

At the 900-acre Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge that shares rare coastal land with the Naval Weapons Station, red foxes are threatening two endangered species of birds, the least tern and the light-footed clapper rail, decimating their eggs and young. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Navy have won the first round of a court battle initiated by an animal-interest group to block trapping and removal of the foxes; an appeal is pending.

The red fox is also causing problems at Madrona Marsh, the beleaguered 45-acre vernal marsh at the northeast corner of Madrona Avenue, and Sepulveda Boulevard, in Torrance. Even without the problem of the foxes, Madrona Marsh is suffering from a shortage of funds, from a drought that has left it parched, and from the intrusion of uninvited visitors and the uninvited trash from neighboring commercial operations.

Final development of yet another of the urban preserves, Ballona Wetlands in Playa del Rey, is stalled pending outcome of a court challenge by a citizens group to the plan approved by the Coastal Commission. The suit seeks to enlarge the protected area from around 200 acres to more than 300 acres and to bar a street opening that would bisect the preserve.

The red fox, incidentally, is not native to this area. The species was imported for those who like to ride after hounds in hot pursuit. But this has made no easier the dilemma of conservationists who ultimately will face the decision of killing substantial numbers of the foxes or seeing rare bird populations eliminated. At Madrona Marsh, with a fox population now estimated at six, the problem has been complicated by well-meaning visitors who feed the foxes instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.

Despite all of the problems, Madrona Marsh attracted 76 species of birds in the year ending last August, according to Martin J. Byhower, a science teacher who is vice president of the Friends of Madrona Marsh. "Because of the drought, the abundance is down but diversity perhaps is up," he told us. "This is the only vernal marsh south of the Tehachapi," he added. But now, as the political battles over saving the marsh have been won, although at the price of a greatly reduced acreage, there is a shortage of public and private funding to complete the perimeter planting and other work within the site. "It's pretty sad in some respects," he said.

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