Reprinted from The Western Tanager, 89(3): 9–11 (January/February 2023).
P-22’s reign as the biggest cat in Griffith Park has come to an end. The news was front page, not just in Los Angeles but farther afield, to those who found inspiration in a mountain lion living in the midst of the second biggest city in the nation. To say he was loved would be an understatement. Even in his final months as his encounters with people and pets became more common, the community response was to let him be and find a way for him to survive.
Having a big cat in the middle of the city was important for more than just large mammal conservation, but also for perspectives on nature in the city as well. Beth Pratt of the National Wildlife Federation, P-22’s “agent” and driving force behind the wildlife bridge over the 101 freeway now under construction in Agoura Hills, put it this way in a social media post following the release of the sad news about P-22:
He changed us. He changed the way we look at LA. And his influencer status extended around the world, as he inspired millions of people to see wildlife as their neighbors. He made us more human, made us connect more to that wild place in ourselves. We are part of nature and he reminded us of that. Even in the city that gave us Carmageddon, where we thought wildness had been banished a long time ago, P-22 reminded us it’s still here.Beth Pratt, National Wildlife Federation
Indeed, it is that fact that there is still wildness here to connect with that motivates our local conservation work. Even though they might not have the star power of a 125-pound puma killing mule deer under the Hollywood sign, our birds are also part of the wildness in this city, from a disoriented goose at a Dodgers game to a gang of Bushtits foraging through the foliage in just about any neighborhood with vegetation. It takes a little knowledge and an eye to see it, but birds are our wild and marvelous neighbors as well and connecting Angelenos to them and the conservation of their habitats, from natural areas to the urban forest, is our goal.
Seeing the Wild at Silver Lake Reservoir
As we have reported before in these pages, the City of Los Angeles has been developing a Master Plan for the reuse of the Silver Lake Reservoir Complex (Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs) as a public park now that it is no longer used to store drinking water. In 2017, Los Angeles Audubon set out some principles for this reuse back, highlighting the features that currently make the site important for birds: a large area of water where they could be undisturbed and retention of a perimeter fence that would be effective at controlling human access and associated disturbance by people and their pets. The City released a Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) analyzing the impacts of the proposed Master Plan. Los Angeles Audubon Society reviewed the DEIR in detail before the public comment period closed in mid-December and found it to have missed the mark of preserving habitat for birds, let alone enhancing it.
The Master Plan proposes, among other features, to construct a large lawn down to the water’s edge and to encourage access on the shoreline and kayak tours around the reservoirs. This is inconsistent with the uniquely important ecological value of the site. First, the site is a regionally important stopover site for migratory waterbirds. The Master Plan proposes introducing fish to the reservoirs, but the migratory birds that use the reservoirs the most do not need fish: Ruddy Duck (seeds, roots, and insects), Canada Goose (plants, insects, sometimes small fish), American Wigeon (plants), Northern Shoveler (seeds, tiny crustaceans), Ring-necked Duck (aquatic plants, insects), and Eared Grebe (insects, crustaceans, and sometimes small fish). The value to these birds is that they have a place of refuge with limited human disturbance in an otherwise highly disturbed urban landscape.
The site contains a rookery for Great Blue Heron and nest sites for raptors, which are vulnerable to disturbance. The DEIR fails to provide appropriate buffers, established in the scientific literature, to minimize impacts on these features.
The site is important for migrating passerine birds, which forage as they move through the vegetation around the reservoirs. Although the Master Plan describes what it calls “restoration” the species listed for these areas are a hodgepodge of native and nonnative species that do not reflect any native habitat. Worse, the DEIR assumes that a 3-foot fence and educational signage would keep people and pets out of these newly opened areas, which is not a reasonable assumption.
Many of the aspects of the Master Plan and DEIR appear not to have been reviewed by ornithologists or naturalists familiar with the ecology of the area. For example:
- The City claims that it will provide habitat for amphibians, but proposes to introduce predatory fish, which would virtually eliminate habitat for amphibians;
- People will be allowed down to the shore of the reservoir, but no consideration is made for avoiding the introduction of exotic species, such as the Channeled Apple Snail that was introduced to Echo Park Lake in the City’s own enhancement project several years ago. This invasive snail wantonly consumes aquatic vegetation and is a vector of dangerous parasites;
- The Master Plan proposes to construct a lawn down to the water, which is a recipe for encouraging the development of nuisance populations of resident Canada Geese. We love migratory Canada Geese as they come through on migration, but acknowledge the challenges posed by over-abundant resident populations;
- The “restoration” areas would not include the rare native tree of the area, Southern California Black Walnut, while proposing to introduce a range of inappropriate plant species, and claiming credit for offsetting increased disturbance with these plantings. They even propose to cut down two of these trees, instead of designing around them;
- No consideration is made of the required vegetation clearance that would be forced in the “restoration” zones by construction of unnecessary buildings within the grounds;
- The entire perimeter and an expanded park area would be illuminated all night, with the added disturbance to birds that would ensue from activity, as well as impacts from the lights themselves, which would be 50 times brighter than natural levels.
Los Angeles Audubon has concluded that the adverse impacts of the increased development and activity proposed in the Master Plan would degrade the important value of the Silver Lake Reservoir Complex for birds. The wildness that birds bring to this feature can already be appreciated and any development should protect them. This one doesn’t. Any marginal benefit from converting open water along the edges to wetlands would be small in comparison with the adverse impacts of removing the perimeter fence and promoting extensive human activities, including night lighting and amplified sound. The Master Plan and associated analysis evince little understanding of the biological values of the project site and miss the mark entirely if their intention was, as stated, to be beneficial for native biodiversity. We hope the City of Los Angeles reconsiders its plans.
Wild Under Threat at Ballona
At the Ballona Wetlands, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and its partners have proposed a large dredging and filling project to completely reconfigure this coastal wetland in a manner inconsistent with its existing or historical ecology. An Environmental Impact Report has been prepared for this project and certified by CDFW. An associated Environmental Impact Statement, which is required under federal law because of the need for permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers, has not been certified because the State’s plan did not use the right volume of stormwater in models to test whether a new system of constructed berms would keep residents safe. In an effort to move forward, CDFW has proposed to start implementing a part of its project, known as Sequences 1 and 2, which would construct drainage channels in an area south of Culver Boulevard where no channels were present historically and that is currently a healthy high marsh habitat dominated by native plants. CDFW recently received permission from the California Coastal Commission to drive heavy equipment into this fragile habitat to conduct geotechnical borings, even though the Coastal Commission has not considered the restoration plan as a whole or its environmental review. Los Angeles Audubon opposes these developments.
The first problem is that CDFW and is supporters fail to recognize that the former agricultural fields that would be excavated to build (not restore!) tidal channels have recovered well and are now supporting thriving pickleweed populations, used by everything from Belding’s Savannah Sparrows to Western Meadowlarks. Some people have gotten the notion that pickleweed requires tidal channels and tidal inundation, but this is not true. My colleagues and I wrote about this in a study of lagoons in northern San Diego (Beller et al. 2014). In particular, we documented, based on many sources, that the particular pickleweed species in question, called Parrish’s Glasswort, is not a good indicator of tidal waters because it grows both in lower marshes with tidal flows and in high marsh areas that are subject to periodic flooding. We wrote, “Such flooding, however, may derive from either tidal flow or lagoonal ponding [of rainwater].” Anyone who has been at the Ballona Wetlands in recent weeks knows that there is lagoonal ponding of rainwater in the areas to the south of Culver Boulevard near the freshwater marsh. This is not because the soil is compacted from the agricultural era, or a symptom of disfunction, it is exactly how this area functioned historically and the robust and increasing native vegetation in this seasonally ponded area needs no “restoration.” As we have also shown conclusively in previous studies (Dark et al. 2011, Jacobs et al. 2011), this area did not have tidal channels historically, at least for thousands of years, and there is no reason to destroy habitat to install them now.
The only reason we have been able to figure out why the nonprofit that led the development of this dredge and fill plan decided to design tidal channels in this area is that these channels would build out the stormwater flood management plan proposed for the Playa Vista development when it owned this property. The channels of Sequences 1 and 2 are identical to the original Playa Vista proposal. But now this is public property, with a legal obligation to protect native species and habitats, not to implement a flood management scheme for a private development.
We wish that CDFW would take a new look at its outdated plans and understand that it would destroy an existing, healthy habitat that is right before our eyes. Once you understand the history and dispense with the myth that pickleweed requires tidal flows, the landscape comes into focus as it was before urbanization, and it can be appreciated for the place of wildness that it is.
Beller, E. E., S. Baumgarten, R. M. Grossinger, T. Longcore, E. D. Stein, S. Dark, and S. D. Dusterhoff. 2014. Northern San Diego County Lagoons Historical Ecology Investigation: Regional Patterns, Local Diversity, and Landscape Trajectories. SFEI Contribution No. 722. San Francisco Estuary Institute – Aquatic Science Center, Richmond, California.
Dark, S., E. D. Stein, D. Bram, J. Osuna, J. Monteferante, T. Longcore, R. Grossinger, and E. Beller. 2011. Historical Ecology of the Ballona Creek Watershed. Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Technical Report No. 671, Costa Mesa, California.
Jacobs, D., E. D. Stein, and T. Longcore. 2011. Classification of California Estuaries Based on Natural Closure Patterns: Templates for Restoration and Management. Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Technical Publication No. 619a, Costa Mesa, California.
2 thoughts on “Wildness in Our City”
Great post, thank you for sharing. Are you on campus tomorrow between 12pm and 3pm? I’m coming to LA for a last minute trip and will be near UCLA. Talk soon!
Hi, do you have a good mailing address? Thanks! C
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