In a grim assessment of last week's raging wildfires, federal biologists have reported to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt that a large percentage of Southern California's rare birds perished, mainly in Orange County, when 170,000 acres of sage and chaparral were reduced to piles of gray ash.
Approximately 15% of the last surviving California gnatcatchers were apparently wiped out, or about 330 pairs in three counties, according to a preliminary briefing that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists prepared for Babbitt before new wildfires broke out Tuesday in the Southland. The tiny gray songbird, which depends on sagebrush for its survival, was declared a threatened species by the federal government in March.
Also killed were an estimated 460 pairs of cactus wrens, 15% to 20% of the U.S. population of the rare species, which live in patches of prickly pear cactus in sage-lined hills and are under consideration for federal protection.
The firestorms have opened a disturbing new chapter in the years-long struggle to save Southern California's vanishing coastal sage scrub from development without derailing economic growth.
Just seven months ago, Babbitt announced that the mix of arid shrubs is the centerpiece of a new national experiment to use the Endangered Species Act as a preventive tool to save rare wildlife yet avoid its usual economic gridlock. The idea behind the California Resources Agency's program is to let developers voluntarily create preserves using scientific guidelines while letting the rest of their land undergo development without long delays.
The innovative conservation program is expected to remain intact, but the planning of the preserves may have to undergo considerable changes because of the fires. Thousands of acres of prime habitat in Orange, San Diego and Riverside counties were rendered useless to wildlife--at least for the five to seven years it takes for the habitat to revive, biologists said.
"We have had an experience here that can only be called catastrophic," said Dennis Murphy, a Stanford University biologist who heads a scientific review panel for the state's coastal sage scrub planning program.
"This is not the standard late-autumn sequence of fires. This was a substantial environmental emergency," Murphy said. "I'm ready to be sickened when I see the total numbers" of acres damaged and birds destroyed, he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Resources Agency are trying to decide whether to bolster protection of remaining sage scrub in Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties. Even Orange County's controversial San Joaquin Hills tollway, which had already been approved by the federal wildlife agency, may face more environmental hurdles before the scrub can be graded.
"It certainly appears that we are going to have to look with a very critical eye at development proposals, particularly in coastal Orange County," Murphy said. "The carrying capacity of coastal Orange County for the gnatcatcher has been diminished and probably will stay diminished for five or more years."
Officials warn that the death toll in the report is preliminary, since more precise assessments cannot be made until Murphy, two other scientists and federal officials fly over the fire-scarred land to assess the damage in the next few days. The estimates were compiled by federal biologists who compared counts of birds made last spring with a general outline of the acreage that burned.
"Until we know precisely how bad a hit the gnatcatcher took with all this, we won't know what is needed. But (the fires) definitely change the rules of the game," said Fred Roberts, a Fish and Wildlife Service botanist based in Carlsbad.
California Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, who has flown over some the burned areas, said Tuesday that he was "astounded at the loss of the natural areas across the range of the fires." But he cautioned that the ecological assessments are early, with some land still ablaze, so the impact on the conservation program remains uncertain.
Fire is common in sage scrub, and in the long run it can be beneficial, but conservation officials worry about the short-term impact on the rare birds over the next few years.
"No question the loss of any habitat is critical at this point, but to say more than that is premature," Wheeler said. "It is clear that what habitat remains is now more valuable (to conserve) than what it was a few days ago."
Wheeler said the fire is "bound to have some effects" on the preserve planning, especially for the Irvine Co., Orange County's largest private landowner, which suffered the largest loss of acreage of any developer. The company was well on its way to identifying which land to conserve, but the fires burned about 4,000 acres of land north of Laguna Beach that was intended to be the heart of its preserves.