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River Is Essential Source For Vast Array of Fish, Wildlife

A RIVER AT RISK. A battlefront in the war between man and nature. Second of two parts


Since a great upheaval of rocks and mountains created the Ventura River valley more than a million years ago, the river's waters have provided the essentials of life to plants, wildlife and humans.

The earliest settlers in modern times were the Chumash Indians, who had a village of 400 people at the estuary and several other villages along the river and its tributaries.

Since those pre-mission days more than 200 years ago, homeowners, farmers, developers and businesses have claimed much of the Ventura River's 16-mile length for their own, leaving only a stretch of land at the estuary, Foster Park and Casitas Springs for public property.

But the animals that roam the night ignore property lines, prowling the river bottom and banks that connect the Los Padres National Forest to the north, the Santa Ynez Mountains to the west and Sulphur Mountain to the east.

"The river is a source of water, habitat and foraging grounds," said biologist Lawrence E. Hunt, who has spent many days walking the river. "It is essential to the animals."

Mule deer drink the water and munch on the young willow stems along the river's edge. They browse along its banks. And after dark, they walk the riverbed before finding a spot to curl up for the night.

"It's a small mule deer herd that lives in the area," just north of the Main Street Bridge, said Hunt. "I've seen as many as 15 of them at a time."

Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, skunks and raccoons roam the river and its banks as well, searching for small rodents for their evening meals. Lizards scamper over the rocks, searching for a spot to sun by day and hunt by night. Frogs and snakes stay under a cool cover of vegetation during the day before emerging for nighttime foraging.

And there are bats, 2,000 to 3,000 of them, that make up one of the biggest bat roosts along the central coast, Hunt said.

Some animals, like the birds of prey, hunt all along the river and its tributaries. Hawks are a common site circling for upward drafts above the Matilija forks, and ospreys can be found as far south as the river's mouth.

Along the river's banks, white egrets with their delicate black legs pick their way along the sand. Small flocks of mallards fly in noisy formation overhead.

The California least tern issues its piercing call as it searches for food. And at the estuary, hundreds of shorebirds, including the endangered California brown pelican, loaf in the sun.

"From the top of the watershed all the way down to the ocean, the Ventura River is one of the really valuable wildlife habitats in Southern California," Hunt said. Hunt is now on contract to Southern Pacific Milling Co. to write a restoration plan for 23 acres of the river two miles north of the Main Street Bridge. SP Milling Co. mined the area for its rock and sand for more than 25 years before it pulled out of the river last year.

It was in that area last year that a pair of endangered least Bell's vireos nested for the first time in 85 years.

"They moved in as soon as the human disturbance from the sand and gravel mining moved out; it was no coincidence," Hunt said. "It is a sign that the area is capable of supporting this endangered species."

It was two years ago when he first heard the distinctive call of the male flying around singing to attract a mate.

As if through clenched teeth, seeming to ask a question and then answer itself, the tiny songbird sings, "Cheedle cheedle chee? Cheedle cheedle chew!"

The vireo is among 237 species of birds that have been sited in the lower eight miles of the river alone. No studies have been done to document species on the upper half of the river.

Of those, sensitive species include the western snowy plover and the yellow warbler, the yellow-breasted chat, the tricolored blackbird, the western yellow-billed cuckoo, the California least tern, the Peregrine falcon, the Belding's savannah sparrow and the California brown pelican.

Biologists have also found at least 12 other species--six bird, three fish, two reptile and one mammal--listed by state or federal agencies as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern or special animals.

Fish include the tidewater goby, newly listed this month as endangered, and the once-abundant southern steelhead trout, which is being considered for endangered species status all along the Pacific coast. The endangered arroyo chub is also found in the river.

Biologists have counted two kinds of amphibians, four reptile species, and 23 species of mammals in the lower eight miles of the river.

Endangered or rare reptiles and amphibians include the Southwestern pond turtle, the California red-legged frog and the two-striped garter snake.

There are several species of plants that are threatened with extinction as well.

But what difference if a tiny and obscure fish like the tidewater goby becomes extinct, or even the steelhead, which once was so plentiful in the river that children caught them with pitchforks?

"If one species is lost, you really don't know what the effect on other species will be," Hunt said. "You can get a domino effect where the whole system degrades. Then you are left with a few common species."

And if one species is allowed to go extinct because it is too much work to save it or humans need its habitat, it could too easily become the norm, he said.

"Where do you draw the line; when do you stop and say, 'OK, we've lost enough species?' " he asked. "There has to be a balance."

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