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Saving the Steelhead

October 03, 1999|Ed Leibowitz

There are less improbable ways to ace an environmental studies class at Saddleback College than the one 21-year-old Toby Shackelford pursued: discovering an endangered species in a river before a major toll road was due to plow through.

Actually, Shackelford's pursuit of the Southern California steelhead trout in the shallow San Mateo Creek this February was so brief that even the most impatient angler might envy it. "I found a little water hole," Shackelford says. "I dropped in the line, and a minute later or less, I got a little nibble. I knew it was a trout, and once I saw a little silver on its belly and the little dots on top, I knew it was a steelhead."

Shackelford's professor was blown away by his claim that the Southern steelhead, thought to have disappeared decades ago anywhere south of Malibu Creek, had resurrected itself in the San Mateo. "He said, 'Holy moly!' " Shackelford recalls. " 'Do you know what the implications are? They're supposed to be extinct!' "

Shackelford had thrown his fish back, but subsequent visits by marine scientists yielded more than 32 steelhead. Shackelford enthuses over the fish's adaptations to Southern California's drought and runoff after chaparral fires. But as he awaits the environmental impact report concerning completion of the Foothill Transportation Corridor, the I-5 alternative, he worries about a man-made calamity the steelhead will be harder pressed to adapt to.

"Unfortunately, they want to build pillars right where my spot is," he says. "It's pretty disappointing." He at least can take some comfort that his discovery may help tip the balance toward conservation.

"The rolling hills east of San Clemente are one of the last riparian habitats in Southern California that haven't been developed upon," says Elizabeth Lambe, a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club. Toby's discovery, she says, will be "another tool" to defend the habitat, also home to federally endangered tidewater gobies, Pacific pocket mice and Southwestern Arroyo toads.

"So many teenagers spend their time walking around the malls," Lambe says of Shackelford. "It's great to meet a guy his age who's this engaged in preserving natural areas for the future."

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Shackelford's Web page, http://www.geocities.com/yosemite/falls/1436.

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