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Taking Stock : Channel Islands Project Helps Train Scientists to Inventory Flora and Fauna


After a summer spent either on the water or in the water around the Channel Islands National Park, marine biologist Dan Richards and the crew of the Pacific Ranger were looking forward to one thing when they finished their work: water.

"We're looking forward to a long hot shower after taking ship showers all week. The stall is really tiny. It'll be nice to take a shower where you can move around a little."

That cruise marked the end of the summer-long project to monitor the kelp forest in the park. At several intervals during the season, National Park Service scientists and volunteers dove into pre-established study areas around the islands to count kelp, tally tunicates and add up abalone.

"There's a gorgeous diversity of plants and animals in the kelp forest," Richards said. As many as 1,000 species, give or take a few.

Yet more than 200 years after Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus developed the modern system of classifying plant and animal species, park service scientists don't have a method for taking inventory of the flora and fauna in America's most treasured natural places.

Six years ago a researcher reported that the striped skunk had vanished from Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. The animal was just one of many that had apparently become extinct in the West.

But the finding, based on visitor sightings, was erroneous. It turned out that no one bothered to report skunks because they're so common. This drove home the point that the park service really had no idea what it had and what it didn't have.

"The researcher mistook the absence of evidence as evidence of absence," said David Graber, a biologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon. "The researcher was relying on National Park Service databases that frankly stank."

The Channel Islands kelp forest monitoring project is a small part of the solution. Researchers here and at four national parks have developed models to take inventory and monitor a variety of ecosystems so that scientists in green denim will be able to give the 250 parks in the national system an annual checkup.

"We've been at it for 15 years," said Gary Davis, a marine biologist responsible for the design of the Channel Island project. "We're just getting started."

But Davis is far enough along to start training managers from other parks on how to take stock of the natural resources within their boundaries. The 30 Park Service scientists from around the country made a late summer visit to Anacapa Island, one of the five islands comprising the park, to participate in a tutorial on the procedure.

They watched intently as marine biologist Richards used a submersible camera and special diving mask to narrate live pictures of three scientists counting and measuring plants and animals in Anacapa's Landing Cove.

Sarah Allen, an ecologist at the Park Service's western regional office, was enthusiastic about the project. An inventory of species within parks, she said, helps biologists be resource managers rather than crisis managers.

"A doctor needs to know what the patient's normal conditions are," Davis said. "Physicians learned what the normal body temperature was by taking a survey. We need to learn the vital signs for an ecosystem and how those vital signs vary over time."

The park service isn't alone in its ignorance. The United States has no complete inventory of its species, but neither does the rest of the world. And, without a more thorough survey, scientists say they can't be sure if a species is in trouble, where it is or how to preserve it.

The cataloguing approach marks a change in the way research funds are allocated. During the 1970s and well into the 1980s, biological inventories were not considered appropriate topics of study. Instead the focus was on individual species, in particular, those that were endangered or posed a menace. They have included silver sword plants in the Hawaiian islands, melaleuca trees in the Everglades, grizzly bears in Yellowstone and black bears in California parks.

"Taking an individual view of spotted owls or snail darters is bankrupting us," Davis said. "In the long run, understanding the habitat and what drives it will be more cost effective." It's also more difficult and, in the short term, more expensive.

Surveying entire systems over long periods of time is an immense job and one that the Department of the Interior met in the truest governmental fashion: It established a new bureaucracy.

The National Biological Survey became operational in November, 1993, with a budget of $167.2 million. Personnel from the Interior Department's seven other divisions--including the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management--were recruited to staff the new bureau. Davis is one of the staffers.

"It used to be that money came in five-year blocks," he said. "Well, in a five-year duration you can't understand natural cycles like El Nino, which occurs at seven- to 12-year intervals."

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