Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 8

     Sage-juniper shrubland once covered much of many western states in a north-south band from southern Canada to Mexico.  This habitat made optimum use of the low rainfall of the region while sheltering an array of wildlife.  Pronghorn antelope, deer, foxes, jackrabbits, Coyotes and a great variety of small mammals, birds and reptiles were native.  The Bureau of Land Management and private ranchers acquired much of this region and attempted to turn it into grazing land.  To eradicate the native plants, herbicides were used, and in many areas, the vegetation was chained:  Battleship anchor chains strung between bulldozers are dragged through the sage and other native plants, pulling them out by their roots and leaving bare earth.  This eliminated large portions of this habitat, threatening a host of native species.  Chaining has been opposed by conservationists and Native Americans, but little action was taken until a 1997 lawsuit by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance halted work in the area.  The tribe claimed that chaining disturbed archeological sites, and the conservation group opposed it on environmental grounds.  Chaining continues in Utah and elsewhere.  The destruction of sage-juniper shrubland has allowed an invasion of exotic weeds, from tumbleweed to Eurasian Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an extremely flammable plant that has spread over an estimated 100 million acres across the West.  Native wildlife, such as Mule Deer, Sage Grouse and jackrabbits, which thrive in sagebrush, disappear when Cheatgrass takes over.  Cheatgrass does not provide good forage for livestock because it is green only briefly in the spring and fall.  Massive rangeland fires have broken out, scorching the ground and bringing about the collapse of entire ecosystems, according to Jayne Belnap, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.  Herbicides are being used to eradicate Cheatgrass with varying success, and a fungus may be introduced which kills the grass.  Federal officials are attempting to restore native plants and grasses to portions of Utah to replace Cheatgrass and other exotic weeds such as Russian knapweed.  Restoration of the original sage-juniper habitat may never occur, however.
     One species that has suffered from loss of sagebrush habitat is the Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), the largest grouse in North America.  Weighing from 5 to 7 pounds, this bird is native to sage rangelands from southern Saskatchewan south to Utah, Colorado and eastern California.  The displaying male expands large white air sacs which are surrounded by a huge mass of fluffy white feathers encircling his head and covering his belly, making him look double his actual size.  He folds his dark brown wings to frame the white chest plumage and spreads his brown spotted tail in a fan of long spikes.  While displaying, the male makes a bubbling sound as air is released from his air sacs, and the female, in sombre brown and white plumage, cackles (Farrand 1983).   Millions of acres of this spectacular bird's habitat have been converted to agriculture and grazing.  Sagebrush, which comprises this species' entire diet, has been destroyed to create grazing land for cattle (Ehrlich et al. 1992).  Western populations of the Sage Grouse may be listed on the Endangered Species Act, having been officially classified as a Category 2 species by the Fish and Wildlife Service, indicating a species that may be in jeopardy unless current trends are reversed.  The full species has been listed by the National Audubon Society as a bird of "Special Concern" (Ehrlich et al. 1992). The Sage Grouse is extinct in British Columbia and New Mexico (Farrand 1983). 
     The destruction of sage shrubland did not result in seas of grass for cattle because of the climate and soil factors.  Instead of forage, exotic grasses took hold, and today the Bureau of Land Management claims that one of these, the Eurasian weed cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), has become the foremost environmental problem in the country.  It has infested an estimated 100 million acres of what was once sage and native grasses.  The BLM itself laid the way for this invasive weed, which is extremely flammable and spreads in uncontrolled wildfire once ignited.  The United States government is planning to introduce a fungus native to Eurasia that kills the grass, and other scientists are testing an herbicide to kill it.  Cheatgrass does not provide good forage for livestock because it is green only briefly in the spring and fall.  Ranges that burned only once a century now catch fire every three or four, and cheatgrass has come to dominate the ecosystem.   Some research scientists are cultivating native grasses in laboratories to replace cheatgrass.  Chaining is planned to rid the range of cheatgrass.
     West of the Rocky Mountains, large stretches of prairie, known as intermountain grasslands, occur from eastern Washington through Nevada and Utah.  Only 1 percent or less of California's grasslands remain (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  Once they covered 9 million hectares (more than 22 million acres), dominating the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, known as the Central Valley (Mittermeier et al. 1999).  This valley is now almost entirely agricultural fields, livestock grazing area and urban development.  Many species of plants and animals were probably lost since these grasslands were plowed before botanical and zoological studies were made (Knopf 1988).  The vernal pools, or temporary wetlands, that once provided habitat for wildlife, including spawning places for turtles and frogs, are also nearly gone (Mittermeier et al. 1999).
     In California's southwestern coastal region, a unique mosaic of ecosystems of sage giving way in parts to oak woodlands, dunes, conifers and riparian vegetation, once covered millions of acres (Boucher 1995).  This natural environment is under extreme threat from development by the burgeoning populations of San Diego and a string of towns and cities that stud the coast and inland areas north to Los Angeles.  Unrestricted building of homes, golf courses, highways and industries have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres here since the 1970s.  The areas along river and streams, or riparian regions, are the most endangered habitats.  The virtual explosion of development has squeezed wildlife into pockets of their original ranges and threatened the survival of hundreds of species.
     The Fish and Wildlife Service lists 77 species of animals and plants that are dependent on the coastal sage ecosystem on the Endangered Species Act, and almost 400 more species as candidates (Mann and Plummer 1995).  Among these is the California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica), a small black-capped songbird, first listed on the U.S. Endangered  Species Act as Threatened in 1993 after the State of California bowed to developers and refused to list it on the state endangered legislation.  The statewide population totals only a few thousand birds.  Another endangered bird, Least Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), is restricted to shrub and scattered woodlands in this same region.  The state of California has listed many other threatened resident species of the region, halting many developments.  Since this is some of the most valuable real estate in the country, with real estate lots selling for between $200,000 and $3 million an acre, conflicts arose (Mann and Plummer 1995).  The human population of Southern California quintupled between 1940 and 1995, a rate that exceeded Bangladesh's rate of increase (Mann and Plummer 1995).   A consortium of 40 California conservation groups fought to save these songbirds and their habitat and, in the process, curb the smog, traffic, pollution and housing developments that are taking over the state.
      The high-pitched battle included developers, the business community, residents, local and state legislators, federal government authorities, conservationists and scientists, all at odds over the fate of this beautiful region and its wildlife.  The coastal sage shrub ecosystem has been reduced to about 6,000 square miles of disconnected patches south of Los Angeles, with one of the largest preserved areas being the U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton (Mann and Plummer 1995).  The California Resources Agency chose this habitat to test its Natural Communities Conservation Planning (NCCP) program, dividing it into 13 subregions; the city of San Diego had its own program to cover 12 habitat types over 900 square miles (Mann and Plummer 1995).   
     A complex alliance of organizations and interests finally agreed to a federal-state master plan for the conservation of two counties, with the objective of preserving the major part of what remains of the already fragmented ecosystem.  Although far preferable to uncontrolled development, the Endangered Species Act's Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for San Diego and Riverside counties allowed massive growth of housing and highways to occur in endangered species habitat.  Because the California Gnatcatcher is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act rather than the more restrictive category of Endangered, development can continue under Fish and Wildlife Service regulations, which allow up to 5 percent of its coastal sage shrub habitat to be destroyed (Boucher 1995).  Also, the listing of this bird had been conditional, based on the success of the NCCP plan under an obscure rule of the Endangered Species Act (Boucher 1995).  The plan created a system of large protected reserves linked with corridors of similar habitat.  Developers can build on habitat outside the reserves.  The sizes of the reserves, which also include habitats of some or all of about 80 additional species threatened with extinction, are critically important.   Scientists appointed to some review panels for the HCPs have found that, rather than producing specific guidelines, they were asked only for general ones, and considering that 90 percent of the coastal sage shrub has already been destroyed, there is little room for error.  In Orange County, development companies own the majority of sage shrub, and their consultants have demanded that scientists prove their case concerning the amount of area needed for reserves, causing one environmentalist to conclude, "The county is the lead agency in name only. It's basically a branch of the real-estate industry there" (Boucher 1995). 
     In spite of the apparent success of some of these agreements, some scientists have expressed uncertainty as to whether the reserves will be adequate to prevent extinction of the California Gnatcatcher and other species (Boucher 1995).  These conflicts are occurring in other parts of the country as well, pitting environmentalists against developers.  Unless the careening, out-of-control development and the geometric population growth slow, thousands of species and their unique habitats will be lost in the process, no matter how careful the planning.

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