Are you, perchance, suffering from increasing existential dread over the climate crisis? Have you lost all faith in humanity to save our own species from annihilation? It might be helpful to review some of the non-human species inhabiting California that – through human efforts – have been saved from extinction. As a bonus feel-good factor, some of them are really, really cute.
In the thick of the pandemic, you probably heard a quotation from Mr. Rogers suggesting that we “look for the helpers.” This sage advice might also help with eco-anxiety. The stories of species saved from the brink of extinction are a testament to the combined efforts of conservation experts, lawmakers and volunteers to achieve seemingly impossible successes. OK, human activity is generally what endangered these species in the first place. But there’s a message of hope in that, too – we can recognize the errors of our predecessors and change course for the better.
The island fox, one of the smallest foxes in the world, lives on six of the eight Channel Islands located 25 miles off the Southern California coast. Each of the six islands, including Santa Catalina and Channel Islands National Park’s San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz islands, is home to its own endemic subspecies of island fox. These adorable canids are found nowhere else on Earth, and they came very close to extinction, very recently.
From 1994 to 2000, the population of island foxes dropped by about 95%, from around 1,500 individuals to fewer than 100 on Santa Cruz Island, and just 15 foxes each on San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands. In 2004, every subspecies was listed as federally endangered. The cause of the foxes’ dramatic population decline was predation by non-native golden eagles. Feral pigs on the islands attracted golden eagles, which preyed on piglets along with island foxes.
Recovery efforts from 1999 were led by the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy and Catalina Island Conservancy. A captive breeding program, relocation of golden eagles and the eradication of feral pigs, completed by 2007, were key to restoring balance in the islands’ ecosystems. Conservation efforts also included the reintroduction of bald eagles to the Channel Islands (they don’t eat live foxes). Over nine years, 285 island foxes were released back on the islands, with the final pair set free in 2008.
Island fox populations have recovered. While all island foxes are still considered a species of special concern by the state of California, they were delisted as an endangered species in 2016. The national park service states that saving the island fox is one of the quickest and most successful recoveries of an endangered species.
The gray whale populations that migrate along the Pacific coast of North America are one of California’s most prized natural treasures. Whale watching tours and the chance to spot these enormous marine mammals from coastal headlands feature among tourist attractions up and down the coast. Once common throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere, the species became extinct in the Atlantic by the early 1700s. The two surviving populations, Eastern and Western North Pacific, were added to the federal endangered species list in 1970.
Commercial whaling brought all remaining gray whale populations to near extinction. The first steps in decades-long efforts to save the gray whale were international commercial hunting bans adopted in the 1930s and 1940s, and later a moratorium on commercial whaling in the mid-1980s. By 1994, the Eastern North Pacific population reached a sustainable range and was delisted as an endangered species. According to the most recent population reports from NOAA Fisheries, almost 30,000 gray whales now migrate up and down the California coast.
Complicating celebrations of the species’ recovery, its population increase might be due to melting ice caps making more food available to gray whales in Arctic waters. Further, the Western North Pacific population has not fared so well, with an estimated stock of fewer than 300 whales.
Cervus canadensis nannodes
Tule elk (pronounced “toó-lee”) are a subspecies of elk endemic to California and found only in the state. The figures telling the story of their decline and recovery are astounding. Estimates put the tule elk population at the time of European arrival at around 500,000. They were believed to be extinct by 1870 until a single breeding pair was found in Kern County. More than a century of somewhat disjointed conservation efforts has yielded a current tule elk population of around 4,000, all descendants of just 28 individuals saved from extinction.
So how did half a million tule elk become reduced to such a precariously small herd? You guessed it – European settlers. The native grassland and hillside habitats of tule elk were exactly where settlers wanted to graze their imported animals and plant their imported grasses. Hunters and traders sold tule elk hide and tallow, and the Gold Rush brought high demand for elk meat. By the time the state legislature banned elk hunting in 1873, tule elk were believed to be extinct. (Spoiler: They weren’t!)
Tule elk became a conservation success story in California thanks to an unlikely hero, a cattle baron, of all people, named Henry Miller. It was on Miller’s ranch that rumors of the tule elk’s extinction were proven false. Upon the discovery of a pair of tule elk on his land, Miller ordered their protection and dedicated 600 acres to preserving the species. From 28 elk in 1895, the herd grew so large they needed a new reserve. This was the first in a series of relocations that resulted in discrete pockets of tule elk habitat across California. Conservation measures by state and federal agencies helped tule elk numbers exceed 2,000 by 1986, and an estimated 5,700 by 2019. Some key locations for observing tule elk include Tule Elk State Natural Reserve, Carrizo Plain National Monument, Pacheco State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore.
Southern Sea Otter
Enhydra lutris nereis
With over 2 million hairs per square inch, sea otters possess the world’s densest fur, an asset that was almost their downfall. The hunters and fur traders who ravaged the Pacific coast in the 18th and 19th centuries almost wiped out California’s most adorable species. Sea otters didn’t receive legal protection from hunting until 1911, and the southern subspecies of sea otter was thought to be extinct by the 1920s.
In 1938, a population of approximately 50 southern sea otters (a.k.a. California sea otters) was spotted off Big Sur, offering a spark of hope for the species’ recovery. The species received legal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. Today, southern sea otters number around 3,000 individuals, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, all descendants of those 50 Big Sur otters. They inhabit kelp forest and estuary habitats from around Half Moon Bay to northern Santa Barbara County, and are considered a keystone species – their health is indicative of the overall ecosystem.
California Brown Pelican
Pelecanus occidentalis californicus
Flocks of brown pelicans are a common sight along the coast of California, so it’s shocking to recall that the species was on the brink of extinction as recently as the 1970s. Widespread use of the pesticide DDT during the 1960s and 1970s led to the near-extinction of several bird species, including the California subspecies of brown pelican. DDT runoff from mainland sewers into the ocean contaminated the fish consumed by pelicans, causing reproductive turmoil through egg-shell thinning.
Channel Islands National Park is the only U.S. breeding grounds for the California brown pelican. In 1970, just one chick survived out of 552 nests on Anacapa Island. The species was listed as federally endangered in 1970, with the state doing the same in 1971. DDT was banned in 1972. The California brown pelican made a remarkable recovery, and was delisted as an endangered species in 2009. The West Anacapa Island colony, which is off-limits to visitors, averaged around 4,600 nests per year from 1985 to 2006, with an additional estimated 1,500 nesting pairs on Santa Barbara Island.
In 1987, there were 22 California condors left on the planet. Twenty two. Only nine were in the wild. These enormous birds don’t mate until they’re around 6 to 7 years old, and females lay a single egg every other year. Efforts to save this species have been long, slow and tentative, but with remarkable results. California condors now number around 504 birds, according to the American Bird Conservancy, more than half of which are in the wild.
California condors aren’t the prettiest of birds, but they are extraordinary in many ways. The largest avian in North America, they boast a 9-foot wingspan and weigh around 23 pounds. They can live up to 60 years. They soar on air currents at over 55 m.p.h. and glide for hours without beating their wings. California condors have been around since the last ice age, feasting on the carcasses of mammoths and smilodon. Sadly, modern birds’ carrion diets include carcasses left behind by hunters and containing poisonous lead shot. Toxic lead poisoning is the major cause of death among wild California condors, and combined with other factors it resulted in the species being declared extinct in the wild by the late 1980s.
An intensive captive breeding program from 1987 increased the population of California condors to today’s more robust figures. Wild populations have been reintroduced at multiple sites in California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico. You might see them soar over the redwood forest, the Big Sur coastline or Pinnacles National Monument. Lead poisoning from ammunition remains still a major threat to the species, as are powerline collisions. However, the population could potentially be downlisted from critically endangered in 2024.
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