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Catalina Restoration Project Gaining Ground

Environment: By weeding out nonnative animals, conservancy follows its mandate to repair damaged landscape and return island to its natural state.

November 23, 2001|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Botanist Denise Knapp was overjoyed when she discovered a patch of a rare rock cress growing in Santa Catalina Island's remote and foggy Wild Boar Gully nature preserve.

The tiny flowering plant had not been seen on the island in three decades. But it suddenly flourished behind a fence erected two years ago to protect the area from deer and feral goats that used to browse vegetation to oblivion.

"Now, you can almost hear the plants sighing with happiness and relief," Knapp said on a recent weekday hike into the 112-acre preserve where she had found the so-called Santa Cruz Island rock cress plant last April. "I love coming here. It has a unique assemblage of rare plants, it's beautiful and it's slowly returning to its natural state."

The same could be said for much of the 76-square-mile island, whose natural rhythms had been severely altered by nonnative animals, ranching and farming.

In one of environmentalism's emerging successes, Catalina's native plants and animals are on the rebound because of experimental restoration efforts. While much attention has been placed on the removal of feral creatures such as goats and pigs from the island, equally important has been the replanting of native vegetation nurtured in greenhouses and laboratories, and the fencing off of sensitive areas such as Wild Boar Gully.

Peter Schuyler is director of ecological restoration for the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that owns 88% of the island and is mandated to return it to its natural state. "We'll never be completely pristine," Schuyler said, "but we want to get rid of the major threats posed by man and [to] repair as much of the damaged landscape as we can. In five or 10 years, we'll be well on our way."

However, there is a risk that unforeseen consequences will result from the ecological tinkering.

For example, a successful effort to capture feral goats and ship them to the mainland has resulted in a surge of vegetation. More greenery could eventually pose a fire threat to Avalon, the island's bustling tourism and demographic center with a permanent population of 3,000.

'We are facing a natural system that is always changing--we don't know exactly what's just down the road," Schuyler said. "So we have to be adaptable."

The Wrigley family, of chewing gum fame, bought up most of the island in 1919 with an eye toward tourism, but later took up environmental preservation.

The conservancy, formed by the Wrigleys, shifted its policy five years ago toward the aggressive, hands-on restoration projects. Those are now producing tangible results.

2 Wild Goats Remain of 5,000 a Decade Ago

Grazing animals have been competing with the island's native mammals since goats first were introduced by Spanish missionaries in the 1800s. Over the centuries, grazing and trampling by nonnative animals also wreaked havoc on native plants, which had evolved in the presence of herbivores no larger than a ground squirrel.

Earlier this year, all but two females of the island's wild goat population, which only a decade ago was more than 5,000, were captured and removed.

The last 300 tusked and shaggy feral pigs on the island--descendants of animals brought to Catalina to eat rattlesnakes--are targeted for removal within three years.

A week ago, six captive-bred island foxes were released into the wilds as part of an experimental effort to revive a native population decimated by an outbreak of distemper believed introduced by a someone's pet.

For the first time, the environmental impacts of the island's revered but nonnative bison are being recorded, down to the number of bites of grass the beasts consume per minute. The goal: determining a herd size, which now stands at 350, that might be more compatible with the island's native species.

The effects of those and other restoration projects are most evident near the conservancy's inland headquarters in a broad valley known as Middle Ranch, about seven miles west of Avalon.

A week ago, 13 AmeriCorps volunteers erected a 7-foot-high, bison-proof wire fence around a 10-acre portion of weedy former Middle Ranch hayfields. It will soon be flooded with tens of thousands of handpicked and specially mixed native seeds.

"About a year from now, you'll see a 10-inch-high blush of the first chaparral and coastal sage to grow here in half a century," said consultant botanist Lisa Stratton. "Essentially, it will be an island of natural vegetation that will produce its own seeds, which will be carried elsewhere by wind and birds."

Stratton, who did her doctoral thesis on the botany of Hawaii, has high hopes those seeds will eventually overwhelm adjacent pockets of prolific nonnative weeds and shrubs.

Nurturing Stock Plants at Island Nursery

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