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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY biologist Matt Scrafford is leading an Ontario, Canada study of its Wolverine population in an attempt to expand and restore the species in this Province..........'In Ontario, the Wolverine plays an important role in the cultural beliefs of many First Nations as symbols of strength"................."Historically, Wolverines were found throughout most of Ontario"............."Recent studies show some re-colonization of their historical northeastern range with the most optimistic estimates suggesting there may be several hundred".........."The main threat to the Wolverine is habitat loss due to forest clearing, and habitat fragmentation often associated with mineral extraction, forestry, and road creation".............."Wolverines in Ontario has decreased over 50 percent since the mid-1800s with them now found primarily in the far north central and western portions of the province"........"The pattern for Wolverine has been similar to that of Woodland Caribou with both species disappearing from southern Ontario fairly rapidly during the nineteenth century during a period characterized by a large increase in human settlement, logging and railroad construction, and during the early twentieth century, a period of intensive exploitation of wildlife"........."As one of the first species to disappear with the onset of human disturbance, Wolverines are an excellent indicator of ecosystem integrity" ..........."Moose and Woodland Caribou are the primary ungulate species in the Wolverine diet" ........."When carrion is scarce, small mammals and birds become primary prey for Wolverines with "Trappers noting Wolverines staking out Beaver lodges to get a meal" ............"Females do not produce litters successfully until they are an average of 3.4 years old with average litter size two to three kits with a life expectancy of eight to ten years" ................."Births generally coincide with periods of greater ungulate carrion availability and snow cover, which provides enhanced security cover for kits".................."A fundamental goal of Wolverine recovery is to provide for connectivity across its historical range in Ontario and neighbouring jurisdictions"

Rarely seen wolverines subject of northwestern Ontario tracking project

Researchers want to understand how to help the population rebound in the province

Matt Scrafford's job involves getting up close and personal with a notoriously elusive animal. 
He studies wolverines, and is currently working on a project that involves live-trapping, and tracking the animals near the town of Red Lake in northwestern Ontario.
It's not easy to do — to say wolverines keep to themselves would be an understatement — but that's what Scrafford loves about the job.

"Just the challenge of working with a species that's so low-density, so reclusive," he said. "Wolverines are really hard to find and so there's an element of challenge to that that's really exciting for me." 
The animals are also still relatively poorly understood, he said, which is what makes his current work, as a wolverine conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada, so important.
He's trying to get a handle on the animal's population numbers and demographic patterns in order to better understand how to manage the habitat of the species, which is threatened in Ontario.

Research could inform habitat management

The work involves anesthetizing the animals and fitting wolverines with GPS collars, which transmit information about their location every several hours, so researchers get a "fine detailed understanding of where the wolverine's spending its time," he said.

Researchers get a sense of where dens are located, and how wolverines are moving on the land relative to other things such as forestry operations and roads. 
"If we have that type of information we can manage populations to help with growth. If populations grow we could potentially take them off of the endangered species list here in Ontario," he said.

How do you trap a wolverine?
But before the wolverines can be collared, they need to be caught. 
To do that Scrafford and his colleagues work with local trappers, who give them advice on good spots to set up the live traps, which are sometimes constructed in the field using logs, and are baited with beaver meat.

Mother Wolverine moving her kit to a 2nd snow den for safety

When a scavenger jumps in, the lid closes, and Scrafford and his colleagues immediately receive a notification. The researchers will be located in a cabin nearby, he said, and snap into action to reach the site — usually by snowmobile — within the span of about an hour.  Animal welfare is paramount, he said, so when a trap is triggered the researchers respond at any time of day or night.
They have this low, just guttural grumble that can kind of just send ... shivers up 

your spine- Matt Scrafford
If a wolverine is inside, it's not hard to tell. Their distinctive sound can be heard from a distance of about 10 metres, he said.

Proposed Wolverine recovery zone in Ontario 

"They have this low, just guttural grumble that can kind of just send kind of shivers up your spine ... you know I've worked with 70 or 80 different individual wolverines and every time I walk up to the trap and there's a new individual in there making that noise it still does the same thing for me that it did the first time that I heard it."

Motion-sensor cameras

In addition to live trapping the animals, the researchers are also capturing images of them using cameras set up at stations in the woods. 
Across from those stations is a piece of meat, hanging from a tree, and strategically placed so that when a wolverine reaches for it, the animal exposes its chest pattern. Those patterns, unique to each animal, are like calling cards.

Wolverine historical southern range(dark shade)  

"It's kind of like a human fingerprint," Scrafford said, adding that the photos then help them to estimate population numbers. 
Since the study was launched in 2018, Scrafford says they've managed to collar five wolverines – four males and one female. He said he hopes the study will go on for another year or two, so they can increase that number, and get a good sense of how the animals are faring on the boreal shield. 
For Scrafford, who also did PhD research on wolverines in Alberta, working with the animals is a dream job.

"They're furry and they're fluffy and handsome and [they've] got lots of personality," he said, "and they're pretty cool critters."

Sunday, January 13, 2019

We discussed last week how what was a Caribou population of tens of thousands in Maine at the time of European colonization gradually disappeared from that landscape and went functionally extinct in 1860 due to human settlement, hunting and Wolf prey-switching to Caribou as Deer expanded their range into northern Maine.............As of last year, the same has occurred in Montana, Idaho and Washington State---due to the same reasons that the Maine herd blinked out, the only difference being that Moose as well as Deer migrated into this once stronghold of Caribou as human development fractured its Northwest forest biome................."Just to the north of Montana and Washington, a splintered population of Caribou are holding on in some remote unfractured forest sections of British Columbia, Canada"..............."Biologist and photographer David Moskowitz spent four years documenting caribou ecology in this part of the world for his new book 'Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope'".............."Caribou need unbroken interior forest, where wolves and pumas find it harder to get at them"............"Their lifecycle includes a double annual migration, moving up and down in elevation rather than point to point across landscapes"..............."In winter, Cariibou wide hooves allow it to use the deep snow like an elevator so it can get at the lichens it eats around the tops of evergreen trees"................"When the snow melts it moves to lower elevations and depends on winds to blow lichen out of the trees to the forest floor"................"When midsummer reaches the upper elevations with green up, the caribou return to the peaks"................ "And when that dries up in fall before the snows return, the animal migrates downslope again"..............“Deer, elk and moose don’t like that old forest so there’s no predators there either"................."They have the ecosystem to themselves"

Last look? Book recounts decline of woodland caribou

Rob Chaney, Jan 10, 2019

When you subtitle a book on a very fraught subject “From Heartbreak to Hope,” you really hope you got the order right.

That was David Moskowitz’s challenge after years of work documenting the decline of woodland caribou in the Inland Northwest Rainforest. The rare animals went functionally extinct in their Montana, Idaho and Washington habitat last year, but cling to persistence in parts of British Columbia.
A woodland caribou calf and cow check out a camera trap Moskowitz set to capture images of the rare mammals. Woodland caribou depend on old-growth forests for lichens that make up the main part of their diet.

“I understand the idea that people get depressed when they hear this,” Moskowitz said shortly before a visit to Missoula. “At the same time, healing comes from being honest and candid. It’s a chance to embrace the fact we have really big problems. My goal as a storyteller and journalist is to share the realities of the struggles we have. And the reality is change can happen.”

The first things to embrace are realization of an animal and an ecosystem few people knew existed. The massive caribou herds of the arctic tundra have been well-documented in nature films and hunting stories. Woodland caribou look like their smaller cousins, and live in some of the most inaccessible old-growth forests along the western Rocky Mountains.

The old-growth cedars of this Selkirk Mountain forest in British Columbia were clearcut shortly after Moskowitz photographed the area. The black metal bands around the tree at right keep the trunk from splitting when it's cut down. Woodland caribou adapted to become the only large mammal that exclusively uses such forests.

“David’s email showed up in my inbox about a decade ago, asking for advice about where to find woodland caribou,” said University of Montana biologist Mark Hebblewhite. “I gave him some ideas and never expected to hear from him again. These are the most enigmatic, mysterious animals we have in this part of the world.”
Instead, Moskowitz returned with mounds of photos and video of the ungulates. His images and research have been compiled in the book “Caribou Rainforest: From Heartbreak to Hope.” His film, “The Last Stand” will be shown in Missoula on Monday at 7 p.m. in the University Center Theater.
Four years ago Moskowitz had some time in his summer schedule and decided to try and see the woodland caribou he’d written two previous books about.
The woodland caribou of the Inland Northwest Rainforest have gone functionally extinct in the United States, but 

“I spent a month in the caribou rainforest looking for them, and that’s when I realized the scope of the story,” Moskowitz said. “As I was driving up the road to their habitat, their habitat was literally coming down the road on logging trucks. They’re relying on old growth, and we’re liquidating the forest out from under them while spending millions of dollars to recover them.”
Most rainforests are along ocean coasts, like Olympic National Park in Washington or the ecosystems in Australia, Norway and Kamchatka. When Glacier National Park rangers tell visitors to Avalanche Creek’s massive cedar trees that they’re in the farthest eastern extent of the Great Pacific Northwest Rainforest, that’s what Moskowitz means. It may be the only significantly sized inland rainforest remaining on earth, and it was the woodland caribou’s last stronghold.
“Only the Pacific Northwest has an interior rainforest,” Moskowitz said. The temperate rainforest has more biomass than any other system on earth. These places burn once every 500 to a thousand years. So they’ve got thousand-year-old duff.”

The woodland caribou evolved to exploit that unique ecology. For example, it follows a double annual migration, moving up and down in elevation rather than point to point across landscapes. In winter, its wide hooves allow it to use the deep snow like an elevator so it can get at the lichens it eats around the tops of evergreen trees. When the snow melts it moves to lower elevations and depends on winds to blow lichen out of the trees to the forest floor.
“Lewis and Clark almost starved to death around Lolo Pass, which was great caribou habitat,” Hebblewhite said. “We still had a woodland caribou herd around Lolo in the 1930s.”
When midsummer reaches the upper elevations with green up, the caribou return to the peaks. And when that dries up in fall before the snows return, the animal migrates downslope again.
“Deer, elk and moose don’t like that old forest,” Moskowitz said. “So there’s no predators there either. They have the ecosystem to themselves.”

Or they did, until biological research revealed that industrial development poked a hole in the caribou mountain fortress. Logging has targeted much of the old-growth forests in British Columbia and the northern United States, even though the market for those big trees tends to be pulp. Many Canadian timber companies then spray the cut blocks with herbicide to kill broadleaf plants that might compete with the new tree seedlings they plant to regrow the original forest. Those regenerated areas tend to be much more productive for deer and moose than caribou.
Seismic exploration roads for oil and coal have penetrated much of what’s left. Those roads allow wolves and mountain lions to get at the expanded deer and moose populations. In the process, they find the caribou, which have few evolutionary defenses to active predators.
The Selkirk herd that used forests of northern Idaho and Washington had about 50 caribou in 2009. Last summer, aerial surveys found just three animals south of the Canadian border.

“They’re the most recent large-profile animal to go extinct under our noses,” Hebblewhite said of the U.S. caribou herds. Approximately 3,800 woodland caribou remain in British Columbia, and that number fell 15 percent from the 2017 surveys.
North of the border, U.S. Indian tribes and Canadian First Nations collaborated to build maternity pens in hope of shielding caribou cows and their newborns from predators at their most vulnerable times. The pens have shown little success. Hebblewhite said efforts to use hunters to reduce the moose populations in caribou habitat, which in turn discourage wolves from moving in, has shown some good effect. The province has also set aside 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of protected woodland caribou habitat.
But if those efforts fail, Moskowitz said many other species will suffer. British Columbia has tied those protections to the woodland caribou’s persistence.
“If the caribou disappear, those habitat protections are at risk as well,” Moskowitz said. “If we decide there’s no real possibility of recovering population, we’d let go of those habitat protections. Some entities are trying to run out the clock so they can stop dealing with caribou and release these lands for logging.”
Caribou: From Heartbreak to Hope
A remnant group of elusive caribou in the Rocky Mountains embody the plight of a wilderness under siege in this lavishly illustrated eco-study.
Moskowitz (Wolves in the Land of Salmon, 2013, etc.), a wildlife tracker and photographer, explores the lives of the so-called “mountain caribou,” a subpopulation of reindeer living in a region of the Rockies that’s also the world’s largest interior temperate rainforest, stretching some 500 miles from Washington and Idaho to British Columbia. The area’s old-growth forests, watered by heavy rainfall and deep winter snowpack, furnish an unusual ecological niche for the caribou, who migrate up and down the mountains, subsisting mainly on lichen. Meanwhile, the caribou’s endangered status energizes human efforts to protect the forests from man-made encroachments. Moskowitz analyzes this biologically unique environment and the complex adaptations that caribou and other creatures have that enable them to survive there, surveys the destruction wrought by logging operations, examines the place of caribou in Indigenous cultures, and celebrates his own communion with primeval nature: “I bask in a moment of grace,” he writes about spying a grizzly and her cub in a clearing. The author’s tone occasionally gets strident, as when he decries “the juggernaut of Western civilization’s cancerous relationship with its habitat.” But his absorbing natural history usually makes a more measured, if still ardent, plea for preserving the forest and its fauna while also accommodating limited, sustainable human use of its resources. The book is strewn with gorgeous color photographs, most taken with camera traps that used motion detectors to sense and snap passing beasts. The caribou browsing the foliage or sniffing the lens aren’t the most visually charismatic creatures, and they frequently come off as a bit mangy. But other animals steal the show, including majestic bears, hypnotic mountain lions, suave lynxes, quarrelsome marmots, shrill wrens, and imperturbable toads. Moskowitz’s composed landscapes—featuring stars and the aurora borealis shimmering above trees, craggy peaks, soft meadows, and ravaged clear-cuts—are especially good and make a powerful argument for conservation.
A fine coffee-table tome about a rich and threatened ecosystem.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

"Southern California's native chaparral and sage scrub aren't so much adapted to wildfire as they are to a certain pattern of fire — periodically burning in hot, intense blazes that consume all the vegetation"............. "Rebirth begins almost immediately, with certain species such as toyon and scrub oak resprouting from underground root systems or burls"............."Within months, bouquets of bright green shoots stud the bare ashen mountainsides and ravines"................."Other shrubs, such as ceanothus, regenerate when heat from the flames or chemicals from charred wood stimulate the germination of their dormant seeds"..............."But the spread of two things — people and non-native grasses(originally brought in by European settlers in the 19th century)— are helping disrupt that pattern by putting too much fire on the landscape too often"...................."Lightning accounts for less than a quarter of the fire starts in Southern California's four national forests".................. "Most ignitions are human-related, intentionally or unintentionally"..............."The more non-native grass inserts itself into the landscape, the more likely you are to have fire"............... "That's a point that a lot of people don't appreciate"................."The prevalence of human ignitions means wildfires are more likely to erupt when Santa Ana winds whip them into a fury, as happened with the recent Woolsey and Thomas fires, the state's second-largest wildland fire on record"......................."Frequent big fires mean that shrublands that would naturally burn at intervals of 30 to 60 years — or even a century or more — are sometimes torched at intervals of a decade or less"................."When that happens, resprouting species don't have sufficient time to regrow"................"Non-sprouting shrubs can't reach maturity and shower the ground with a new seed bank"...................."Invaders can then take over in a process ecologists call type conversion"..................."Slopes that wore a thick green jacket of wildlife-supporting shrubs turn brown under a blanket of exotic annual grasses that are dry and dead most of the year"..............."Native wildflowers struggle to take root in the thick mats of non-natives"........................ "Erosion increases. Biodiversity declines, and the fire cycle accelerates further"

click on Bettina Roxall's name below(author) to pull up and read full article

More wildfires, drought and climate change bring devastating changes to California wildlands

Even a brilliantly sunny day couldn't dress up the dull palette of invasive grasses that had transformed the slope into a dried-up weed patch.
Only a sprinkling of young shrubs provided a hint of what the spot looked like before it had burned — again and again and again.
The Brown grassed in between the brown chaparralplants is non-native, fire prone and offers poor wildlife value

In the last 22 years, three wildfires have swept across the area, all but erasing the cover of gray-green sage scrub documented in 1930s aerial photographs.
Southern California's native shrublands are famously tough. Conservationist John Muir celebrated them as Mother Nature at her "most ruggedly, thornily savage."
They evolved along with long, hot summers, at least six rainless months a year and intense wildfires.
But not this much fire, this often.
The combination of too-frequent wildfires and drought amplified by climate change poses a growing threat to wildlands that deliver drinking water to millions, provide refuge from Southland sprawl and — 142 years after Muir penned his mash note — are still home to mountain lions, bears and big-eared woodrats.
Biologists attempted to replant native
chaparral plants(flags show planting sites)
but thick non native grasses and lack of rain prevented seedlings
from taking firm root

The footprint of the 2003 Piru fire can be seen atop a ridge in the Lake Piru Recreation Area. After the wildfire, invasive grasses (brown) replaced native shrub growth (green). Al Seib / Los Angeles Times
Burn maps show the astonishing extent of the wildfires that have seared the southern portion of the Los Padres forest and adjacent lands.
The border of the 2007 Zaca fire bleeds into the even bigger 2017 Thomas fire, which in turn runs into the footprint of the 2006 Day fire. Together they incinerated an area roughly twice the combined size of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Dozens of other wildfires have raced across the forest's crumpled terrain in recent decades, including the 1997 Hopper, 2003 Piru and 2007 Ranch fires that blackened the grassy hill near Lake Piru.
"There are not that many places where there's really old habitat left, that hasn't seen a fire in the 30 years I've been here," said Los Padres forest biologist Kevin Cooper, who retired last month.
Since 1950, hundreds of wildfires have burned in and around the southern portion of Los Padres National Forest. Sources: Cal Fire, Nextzen and OpenStreetMap
Wipe the steep mountainsides clean with flames and there is nothing to hold on to rainfall and let it seep into the ground, recharging aquifers.
There is nothing to prevent soil from washing away and silting up reservoirs and fish streams.
There is nothing to stop rivers of mud and rocks from crashing into foothill communities.

Will the native plants and trees return or
will non-native grasses flood into this hillside?

The Thomas fire was barely contained when monster debris flows roared down denuded slopes last January, killing at least 21 people and destroying more than 100 homes in the Montecito area.

Across Southern California, oft-scorched shrublands have given way to monotonous expanses of quick-to-dry invasive grasses that are of little ecological value, don't anchor the soil as well as deep-rooted chaparral plants and ignite easily, fueling more and more fires.
Frequent fire is driving chaparral loss in the Santa Monica Mountains, which burned yet again in November. Roughly a quarter of the 97,000-acre Woolsey fire was a reburn of land charred in wildland blazes over the last two decades.
Once gone, the chaparral and sage scrub that drape the wildest parts of Southern California are proving ominously difficult to restore.
"For so long, people thought of chaparral landscapes as being so resilient that papers came out in the '70s on 'How do you get rid of this stuff — it keeps growing back,'" said Nicole Molinari, the U.S. Forest Service ecologist for Southern California.
"And here we are finding ourselves at a time when we're actually concerned about its ability to persist and trying to restore it and having challenges in doing so. That to me is a little frightening.

When scrubland turns to grass

Southern California's native chaparral and sage scrub aren't so much adapted to wildfire as they are to a certain pattern of fire — periodically burning in hot, intense blazes that consume all the vegetation.

Rebirth begins almost immediately. Certain species, such as toyon and scrub oak, resprout from underground root systems or burls. Within months of the Thomas fire, bouquets of bright green shoots studded the bare, ashen mountainsides lining Highway 33.
Other shrubs, such as ceanothus, regenerate when heat from the flames or chemicals from charred wood stimulate the germination of their dormant seeds.
But the spread of two things — people and non-native grasses — are helping disrupt that pattern by putting too much fire on the landscape too often.
Lightning accounts for less than a quarter of the fire starts in Southern California's four national forests. Most ignitions are human-related.
Ranch hands repairing a pipe started the Zaca. A transient burning trash ignited the Day. Laborers doing construction work on a boat launch sparked the Piru.
Officials have not declared a cause of the Thomas blaze, which burned into the Los Padres forest from adjoining land. But Southern California Edison has said its electrical equipment probably helped start the fire, thought to have had at least two ignition points.
The prevalence of human ignitions means wildfires are more likely to erupt when sundowner and Santa Ana winds can whip them into a fury, as happened with the Woolsey and the Thomas, the state's second-largest wildland fire on record.
Frequent big fires mean that shrublands that would naturally burn at intervals of 30 to 60 years — or even a century or more — are sometimes torched at intervals of a decade or less.
When that happens, resprouting species don't have sufficient time to regrow. Non-sprouting shrubs can't reach maturity and shower the ground with a new seed bank.
Invaders can then take over in a process ecologists call type conversion.
Slopes that wore a thick green jacket of wildlife-supporting shrubs turn brown under a blanket of exotic annual grasses that are dry and dead most of the year.
Native wildflowers struggle to take root in the thick mats of non-natives. Erosion increases. Biodiversity declines. The fire cycle accelerates.
"The more grass you get, the more likely you are to have fire," said Carla D'Antonio, a professor of ecology at UC Santa Barbara. "That's a point that a lot of people don't appreciate."
She is overseeing restoration research as part of a multifaceted fire recovery.


Paula M. Schiffman, Ph.D.Department of BiologyCalifornia State UniversityNorthridge, CA 91330-8303

Mediterranean-type Climate and the Local Ecological Landscape

Southern California’s climate of hot, dry summers and cool winters with annually varying rainfall is largely responsible for determining the species composition of our wildlands.  This climate, which is known as a Mediterranean-type climate because it is very much like that of the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, is produced by the complex interactions of cold ocean currents, latitude, and continental terrain.  This type of climate is found nowhere else in North America.  In fact, other than parts of California and the Mediterranean region itself, only a few other far-flung places on Earth are characterized by Mediterranean-type climates:  central Chile, South and Western Australia, and the Cape region of South Africa.
Our local native plants and animals are adapted to this Mediterranean-type climate.  They have special biological features that enable them to deal with the stresses produced by very bright sunlight, tremendous summertime heat, and many months without rainfall.  The chaparral and coastal sage scrub ecosystems developed on southern California’s hillsides after the Pleistocene ice age ended about 10,000 years ago.  Chaparral vegetation is made up of very densely growing shrubs with sclerophyllous leaves (tough, leathery, evergreen leaves that resist wilting in the summer).  Plants species such as chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), California lilac (Ceanothus spp.), and scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia) dominate this ecosystem.  Like chaparral, coastal sage scrub is a shrubby type of vegetation capable of growing on steep, rocky slopes.  However, the plants do not grow as densely and many of them are drought deciduous (they avoid drought stress by dropping their leaves in the heat of summer and only produce new leaves when winter rains begin).  Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), sages (Salvia spp.), and sagebrush (Artemisia californica) are important coastal sage scrub species.  In addition, some slopes and canyons support woodlands of oak (Quercus agrifolia and Q. lobata) and walnut (Juglans californica).  These hillside vegetations provide habitat for a multitude of wildlife species including mammals such as bobcats (Felis rufus), mountain lions (Felis concolor), and coyotes (Canis latrans), and birds including Wrentits (Chamaea fasciata), California Thrashers (Toxostoma redivivum), Western Scrub-Jays (Aphelocoma californica), California Quail (Callipepla californca), and Anna’s Hummingbirds (Calypte anna), to name just a few.  Although our local hillside ecosystems have become increasingly vulnerable to clearing for suburban development, tracts of chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and woodland still remain intact in the Santa Monica Mountains, Santa Susana Mountains, Simi Hills, and Verdugo Hills surrounding the San Fernando Valley.
But what about the San Fernando Valley itself?  Today it is a complex human-dominated environment of suburban houses, backyard gardens, businesses, streets, and freeways.  What was its ecology like before people so massively transformed it, when it was still a wild environment?  Historically, the Valley’s rather flat terrain and often dense, clayey soils were carpeted by a prairie (or grassland) of colorful wildflowers, grasses, and other plants of rather low stature.  In addition, riparian (riverside) corridors of willow (Salix spp.), alder (Alnus rhombifolia), sycamore (Platanus racemosa), and mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) grew along the Los Angeles River floodplain and the creeks that flow across the Valley and feed into it.  This prairie and riparian vegetation was quite different than chaparral and coastal sage scrub and, therefore, the ecology of the Valley floor was also quite different than that of the surrounding shrubby hillsides.  For example, groups of pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), North America’s fastest running mammal, roamed the Valley floor.  They ate the native wildflowers that carpeted the Valley and, because they were adapted to the open and mostly treeless environments of plains and prairies, they did not venture too far into hillside thickets of chaparral and coastal sage scrub. In 1775, Pedro Font, a Spanish priest described in his diary an observation made in the Conejo Valley (west the San Fernando Valley) of “a very large drove of antelopes which as soon as they saw us, fled like the wind, looking like a cloud skimming across the earth.”  Early records like this one help us visualize what this historical prairie ecosystem was like because it no longer exists today.
In fact, the historical San Fernando Valley prairie was habitat to a great deal of wildlife diversity.  Birds adapted to wide open spaces, such as Western Meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta) and Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris), were particularly common. The magnificent California Condor (Gymnogyps californicus; now an endangered species protected by the state and federal governments), was also frequently seen soaring above the Valley.  Small mammals, particularly cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus audubonii), black-tailed hares (Lepus californicus), California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) and valley pocket gophers (Thomomys bottae) were also extremely numerous.  The large numbers of these animals so impressed southern California’s earliest European and American settlers that several people actually wrote vivid descriptions in their journals about seeing thousands of rodents in flatland areas like the San Fernando Valley.  Ground squirrels and pocket gophers were especially notable because their burrowing activities left holes in the soil that made travel by horseback or wagon difficult.  In 1832, an early Los Angeles resident, Hugo Reid noted that ground squirrel diggings “so honeycombed the surface of the ground as to make it dangerous to ride anywhere off the roadway faster than a walk.”  
These small mammals were the food base for a large number of native predators, including coyotes, long-tailed weasels (Mustela frenata), and badgers (Taxidea taxus), as well as many snake and hawk species.   The region’s most high profile predator, however, was the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos).  Grizzlies excavated the soil with their enormous claws in search of rodents, roots, bulbs, fungi, and insect grubs.  Because of the abundance of these foods in the prairie ecosystem, the San Fernando Valley was grizzly bear habitat.  In 1861, concern about the danger of grizzly bears was on the mind of the scientist, William H. Brewer, as he explored the Santa Susana Mountains.   In his journal he described hurrying back to the perceived safety of his group’s campsite at the base of the mountains because “I was alone, far from camp – grizzlies might come out as the moon came up, for the weather was warm.”  Because California’s early European and American settlers felt threatened by grizzly bears, they aggressively hunted down bears and shot them.  A skull of a grizzly killed in 1875 at the San Fernando Mission is now housed as a museum specimen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  Because of this intense hunting, grizzlies were extinct in California by the early part of the 20th Century.  One of the last surviving individuals was killed in 1916 just north of the San Fernando Valley in Big Tujunga Canyon.  Ironically, the fierce, but locally extinct, grizzly bear still emblazons the California state flag and we proudly recognize it as our official state animal.

Native People and Their Ecological Effects

The first human inhabitants of the Los Angeles area were the Tong-va (also known as Gabrielino) people.  In the San Fernando Valley there is archeological evidence of 10 distinct Tong-va communities.  Each of these communities was located where the prairie of the valley floor interfaced with the surrounding mountain slopes.  Locations where settlements were established had dependable sources of freshwater and wild foods, as well as protection from flooding.  The number of people living in these native communities is difficult to estimate because, within just a few years of their first contact with European explorers and Spanish missionaries, mortality caused by European diseases and brutal treatment devastated the Tong-va population.  It is clear, however, that the pre-contact population would have been considerably larger in size than the 100 inhabitants (or less) per community documented in mission records in 1797.
The people in the San Fernando Valley’s Tong-va communities utilized a diversity of natural resources for food, shelter, and cultural purposes.  The acorns produced by oaks were a staple of their diet.  They also ate many other types of fruits and seeds, including prickly pear cactus (Opuntia littoralis), hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), chia (Salvia columbariae), and red maids (Calandrinia ciliata), and onion-like bulbs such as blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum).  They ate grasshoppers and a variety of insect larvae.  Rabbits, rodents, antelope, and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) were hunted using bows and arrows constructed from branches and twigs of plants including elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), willows, and wild rose (Rosa californica).  Baskets were woven from skunkbrush (Rhus trilobata), grasses, willows, and rushes (Juncus spp.) and the wood from trees such as oaks, willows, and sycamore were used to construct houses, canoes, mortars, platters and many other basic items used in daily life.
Because the Tong-va depended upon local organisms for survival, they actively managed their environment in the San Fernando Valley to promote and maintain habitats of useful plants and animals.  For example, they purposefully set fires to increase the productivities of important food plants such as chia, red maids, clovers (Trifolium spp.), and blue dicks.  These fires also improved hunting by increasing forage for wildlife.  In addition, it is likely that the Tong-va people promoted the growth of useful plants through small-scale cultivation, broadcasting seed, and coppicing (pruning stems from shrubs or trees to enhance new growth).  These intentional manipulations of the environment enabled the native people to exert considerable control over the region’s vegetation and animal populations.  Nonetheless, compared to the modern-day extent of human dominance in the San Fernando Valley environment, the landscape that the Tong-va inhabited was still very wild.

Ecosystem Changes During the Past 200+ Years

European settlement, which was initiated by the Spanish missionaries in the late 1700s, radically changed southern California.  Flatlands, including the San Fernando Valley, were converted to agricultural uses and livestock grazing became the region’s most widely established agricultural practice.  Enormous herds of cattle fed on the prairie vegetation.  In an 1861 diary entry, William H. Brewer described the San Fernando Valley as having “no fences, the cattle half wild and require many horses to tend them.  A ranch with a thousand head of cattle will have a hundred horses.”  In addition, numerous sheep and hogs were also released to forage in the prairie ecosystem.  These large domesticated animals were very different from the Valley’s native herbivores (antelope, rabbits, rodents, grasshoppers, etc).  Intense livestock grazing was a new mode of disturbance in this habitat and it was extremely disruptive to native species.  Many wild plants were unable to tolerate so much herbivory.  According to cowboy chronicler Dane Coolidge, “in 1805, thirty-five years after the first herd was brought in, they were killing cattle in the San Fernando Valley because they were destroying the grass.”  Not only did overgrazing disrupt the livestock industry, it also severely disrupted the wild ecosystem that provided the food base.  Overgrazing magnified the natural stresses caused by periodic floods and droughts.  The effects cascaded through the entire system negatively affecting native species in unexpected ways.
One of the major ecological changes that resulted was a massive invasion of plants from Europe’s Mediterranean region.  These species included yellow mustards (Brassica nigra and Hirschfeldia incana), filaree (Erodium cicutarium), and many annual grasses including wild oats (Avena spp.) and red brome (Bromus madritensis).  These invasive species were inadvertently transported to California as seed contaminants of ship ballast, crop seed and nursery stock, or by adhering to the fur of imported livestock.  Once here, their seeds were spread by livestock and they rapidly became naturalized.  These invasive alien species were very opportunistic.  They were more tolerant of the effects of livestock grazing than most native plant species and they competed intensively for water, nutrients, and space.  They displaced native plants and came to dominate prairie environments like the San Fernando Valley.  These invaders are still widespread today and can be found in Valley parks and vacant lots, and also in the hills in open spaces between shrubs or trees.  They continue to compete with native species for limited amounts of resources and, therefore, these invaders are considered to be biological pollutants.
Over time, large citrus orchards replaced the herds of livestock in many San Fernando Valley prairie areas.  Later, following World War II, suburban development began to displace the orchards.  These citrus orchards and then housing tracts transformed the Valley’s once largely treeless prairie landscape into a landscape in which non-native trees were increasingly common. This trend has continued and today our gardens, streets, and parks are planted with an enormous array of ornamental trees and shrubs – species that originated all over the world.   Not only is the Valley’s prairie gone, the Los Angeles River and its feeder creeks now flow through stark cement channels and the riparian woodland corridors of alder, willow, mulefat, and sycamore that once dissected the prairie are also gone.  
Yet, despite the tremendous environmental changes associated with increasing urbanization, wildlife still can be found throughout the San Fernando Valley.  In particular, a wide variety of wild birds, including Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), Lesser Goldfinches (Carduelis psaltria), Bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus), Mourning Doves (Zenaiada macroura), Western Scrub-Jays, Great-horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) and hummingbirds can be found inhabiting our garden shrubbery and street trees.  Interestingly, most of these species naturally occur in the woodlands, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub in the hills surrounding the Valley.  They have simply expanded their habitat usage to include the suburban ornamental woodland that replaced the prairie on the Valley floor.  This human-dominated environment also provides habitat for several bothersome, opportunistic, and invasive animal species that are not native to California including black and Norway rats (Rattus rattus and R. norvegicus), fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), Virginia opposums (Didelphis virginiana), Rock Doves (Colulmba livia), European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus).

Challenge for the Future

The ecology of the Valley has changed considerably since the time when the Tong-va were its human inhabitants and prairie plants supported pronghorn antelope, grizzly bears, and thousands of ground squirrels.  Although the San Fernando Valley prairie no longer exists, many wildlands do still remain in relatively intact condition in the mountains and canyons throughout the Mediterranean-type climate region of California.  Much of this land is owned by federal, state, and municipal government agencies, along with a few private conservation organizations, and environmental protection and ecological restoration are the primary management objectives in these areas.  Still, suburban development continues at a breakneck pace and our remaining wildlands are increasingly threatened by human encroachment.  Recently, California’s Mediterranean-type climate region was ranked by an international group of scientists as being among the Earth’s top twenty-five “biodiversity hotspots” for which stepped up conservation efforts should be a priority.  This hotspot designation highlights the uniqueness and variety of plants and animals in our wonderful natural environment.  It also points to our duty to serve as its vigilant stewards and vocal advocates.  This is a responsibility that we all share as members of the San Fernando Valley ecosystem.

Recommended Additional Reading

Dallman, Peter R. 1998. Plant Life in the World’s Mediterranean Climates.  California Native Plant Society (Sacramento, California) and University of California Press (Berkeley, California).
Gumprecht, Blake. 1999. The Los Angeles River:  Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.  Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, Maryland).
McCawley, William. 1996. The First Angelinos:  The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles. Malki Museum Press (Banning, California) and Ballena Press (Novato, California).
Schoenherr, Allan. A. 1992. A Natural History of California. University of California Press (Berkeley, California).