'Wildlife State' faces development onslaught

Posted: 28 May 2008

California is America's "wildlife state." It boasts more species than any other, as well as the greatest number of species found nowhere else. This extraordinary biodiversity is already stressed by the state's big human population and further threatened by continuing rapid population growth and development. This special report is by Leon Kolankiewicz.

These findings are highlighted in California Wildlife: Conservation Challenges, released last year by the California Department of Fish and Game. Thousands of Californians and many conservation groups contributed to this Congressionally-mandated plan, several years in the making.

California Condor
California Condor
California Condor. Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
The plan reports that California's treasure trove of biological diversity arises from the astonishingly varied landscapes and climates found here on the geologically active western edge of the North American continent and tectonic plate. Californians should revel at sharing their state with such remarkable creatures as the California condor, the largest bird in North America; the coast horned lizard, which squirts blood from its eyes when threatened; the tailed frog, among the most primitive of frog species; and the once-endangered gentle giant that is the California gray whale.

Unfortunately, California also claims the dubious distinction as the state with the most imperiled wildlife. When overpopulation and biodiversity collide, biodiversity invariably suffers. Over 800 species in the state are now at risk - including half of all mammals (123 of 222) and one-third of all birds (139 of 391). Of these, 134 species are listed as threatened or endangered, that is, facing a real possibility of extinction.

Stress factors

Conservation Challenges identifies the major "stressors" impacting California's wildlife and habitats, including water management conflicts, invasive species, overgrazing, recreational pressures, and climate change. But the plan is explicit that, almost throughout the state, rampant growth and development are substantially stressing wildlife. It states: "Increasing needs for housing, services, transportation, and other infrastructure place ever-greater demands on the state's land, water, and other natural resources."

California's population surged by nearly 50 per cent from 1970 to 1990, and then grew another 14 per cent in the 1990s, adding four million more residents. Already at 38 million, the Department of Finance projects our numbers to swell to 60 million by 2050. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the relentless spread of one life form, our own Homo Sapiens, is riding roughshod over hundreds of other life forms that have made California their home for eons.

In the Central Coast, where Santa Barbara is located, the population grew by 13 per cent from 1990 to 2000, while urbanised acreage expanded about 20 per cent. Crowded and costly coastal areas have forced development inland, as newcomers seek affordable housing in areas once dominated by agriculture and large ranches. Development and sprawl has not only destroyed habitat directly, but fragmented remaining natural landscapes and degraded the quality of adjacent habitats.

Endemic species

This region's diverse coastal, montane, and desert-like natural habitats support 482 vertebrate species, including 283 birds, 87 mammals, 42 reptiles, 25 amphibians, and 45 fish. Thirteen of these species are endemic to the Central Coast, not found anywhere else even in California. Due to the human onslaught, over 150 vertebrates are now at risk in this region alone; another 60 invertebrates (animals lacking backbones), ranging from butterflies and fairy shrimp to mollusks, are also in peril.

Coast Horned Lizard
Coast Horned Lizard
Coast Horned Lizard. Photo credit: USGS
Four decades ago - when California's population was less than half of today's, and America's one-third smaller - environmental scientists and activists were outspoken and unequivocal on the threat posed by overpopulation. UC Santa Barbara's Garrett Hardin penned the hard-hitting essay The Tragedy of the Commons for the august journal Science. Stewart Udall, Interior Secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, wrote in his classic book, The Quiet Crisis, that: "Dave Brower [the legendary executive director of the Sierra Club] expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, 'We feel you don't have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.'"

In 1972, 1981, and 1996 successive high-level, bipartisan commissions appointed by Presidents Nixon, Carter and Clinton all recommended that the United States needed to stabilise its population - and control immigration - or forfeit its environment, including its landscape and wildlife.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of Conservation Challenges to recommend the same, but it betrays a managerial conceit or wishful thinking to claim: "Without conservation planning, growth and development can eliminate important habitats..." That is, we can have our cake and eat it too. A more honest, less politically correct rendering would be read: "Even with conservation planning, growth and development will eliminate important habitats..." Good planning is crucial, but not a panacea.

If Californians allow their state's population to hit 60 million in 2050, as now projected, and the number of endangered species has actually declined, it will not be because these creatures have been saved, but because they have vanished forever.

Leon Kolankiewicz is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS)