FULLY BAKED: Dead trees blanket the north side of Figueroa Mountain.
Plants and Animals Are Dying for a Drink
Four Years of Extreme Drought Taking Big Tolls
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Death in Santa Barbara’s natural world is typically swift and violent — mountain lions pounce on deer, hawks snatch up snakes, frogs gulp down dragonflies. Even plants have their dramas.
That’s changing — slowly and sometimes imperceptibly, but it is.
After more than four years of record-breaking drought — intensified by rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns — the living things along our coast and in our mountains are gradually fading quietly away: through starvation, abandonment, and deadly thirst.
The bodies of emaciated foxes are turning up on San Miguel Island, malnourished crows are falling all over the county, and the forests are littered with millions of dead trees. Once we look past our water bills, a muddy Lake Cachuma, and bureaucratic wrangling over desalination plants, we see evidence of ecological impact all around.
Most of the effects aren’t instant or catastrophic. Instead, they’re cumulative and evolving, hitting critters as ordinary as squirrels and as rare as tiger salamanders.
Evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, reveals a system out of whack. Santa Barbara hikers tell of empty creeks and fields of wilting wildflowers, while area scientists use words like “severe,” “alarming,” and “unprecedented.” City managers are watching urban forests bend under the heat; county officials fear the next wildfire.
Paul Collins has worked at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History for 42 years. As its curator of vertebrate zoology, he’s seen droughts come and go. “This one is drier,” he said with conviction. “Grasslands are really burned. Animal populations are getting hammered. This is certainly an extreme event.”
By Paul Wellman
CASUALTIES: The Animal Rescue Team cares for orphaned coyote pups.
Nowhere to Run
You don’t have to go far to acquaint yourself with the evidence. Along Loma Alta Drive, look across the city, and you’ll notice dozens of dead pine trees poking through the green like fire torches. Keep heading uphill to La Mesa Park, and you can meet its new resident: a young coyote. It arrived in town skinny and edgy. It’s now plump and surprisingly bold, trotting along playground paths in the middle of the day. One Mesa resident admits she feeds the outsider raw chicken. “He loves it,” she said.
Less than a mile away, a whole family of coyotes wanders between Elings Park and Honda Valley Park next to Miramonte Drive. Their yips and yowls bounce along the corridor every few nights, startling neighbors — including this reporter — who’ve lived in the area for years and never heard such sounds. “Carnivores are learning there’s good stuff to be had, like cats, dogs, and pet food,” said Collins. “Once you get a group moving to a semi-urban area and they mate and have young, they become urban coyotes.”
Collins, always measured and hardly an alarmist, has been logging the calls he receives about wildlife encounters. The list keeps growing. “People are seeing things they’ve never seen before,” he said, like bobcats in their backyards. He also has records of mountain lions on the Mesa and in Hope Ranch. Farther outside the city, key wetlands that normally support an abundance of life are dry as a bone, and that loss of habitat is contributing to the invasion.
By Paul Wellman
NO FEAR: The coyote in La Mesa Park has grown accustomed to its human neighbors.
Perhaps less visibly, the drought is taking a toll on the building blocks of the food chain. Without rain, plants are producing fewer seeds and roots for little herbivores such as mice, moles, and rabbits to nibble on. Insect populations have thinned out, and many pollinators such as bees and beetles are now in a sort of hibernation until the rains return.
Some animals will stop breeding because they don’t have the necessary energy. When that happens, whole populations of unique subspecies can disappear. That’s a real possibility for a colony of chipmunks that lives atop Mount Pinos and is in danger of “blinking out,” forever altering that ecosystem. The same goes for the giant kangaroo rat in the Carrizo Plain, where thousands of acres of grassland have turned to desert. White-tailed kites, with fewer voles and other rodents to hunt, are starting to reproduce less often. And egg clutches of other birds are shrinking, as well. A chick will be pushed out of its nest if there’s not enough food to go around.
The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network — which, in an average year, takes in a little more than 3,000 sick and injured animals, mostly birds, reptiles, and small mammals — has already rescued 300 more than usual. “We’re seeing an increase in songbirds and a huge numbers of crows,” said Julia Parker, the organization’s director of animal affairs. “We call them ‘teacup crows’ because they’re so tiny and underfed.” Insectivores, like scrub jays and woodpeckers, are now common patients at their facility, as well as a number of cormorants that recently came in “emaciated.”
The Animal Rescue Team in Solvang has also broken its record, said executive director Julia Di Sieno last week, for taking in bobcats, foxes, badgers, squirrels, deer, mice, bats, skunks, buzzards, and more. “Right now, I have 12 orphan coyote puppies. I’ve never had that many,” she said. “In my heart of hearts, I know it’s connected to the drought. These animals coming into neighborhoods are desperate.” She reminded anyone with pets, especially chickens or rabbits, to keep them safe at night.
The California Roadkill Observation System says more deer were hit in 2014 than last year, and the California Department of Transportation says it’s seeing an extremely high number of collisions between cars and wildlife as animals are forced to cross into traffic, searching for green grass.
But the fauna that can’t just get up and move — such as federally endangered steelhead trout, tidewater gobies, and three-spined sticklebacks — along with similarly threatened species of amphibians dependent on constant water — such as the arroyo toad, red-legged frog, and tiger salamander — are in especially dire straits. Many of the tributaries along the Gaviota Coast have dried up, forcing remaining populations to either cannibalize themselves or cram into smaller and smaller areas. That makes them easy pickings for predators, said U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist Chris Dellith. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”
White-tailed kites, with fewer voles and other rodents to hunt, are starting to reproduce less often.
To see what’s happening in the wilds, head to Paradise Road. There, you’ll be greeted by line after line of desiccated oaks. On the north side of Figueroa Mountain, you’ll see entire stands of dead fir and pine glow orange like New England foliage in the fall.
Last month, the California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection announced approximately 12.5 million dead trees now blanket Southern California. In 2014 alone, an estimated 3.3 million trees died, nearly double 2013 mortality rates. As a result, the board announced it’s adopting emergency regulations so landowners can cut down dead and dying trees without having to go through the time-consuming process of applying for removal permits.
“The drought is having compounding effects on the landscape,” said board director George Gentry. These emergency regulations are aimed to allow people to protect their homes and land this summer from catastrophic wildfires and hazardous falling trees.”
According to CalFire, 2,313 wildfires burned through the state between January 1 and July 4 last year. During the same time interval this year, there were 3,129. Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, said he’s surprised how many visitors to Los Padres National Forest were unaware prior to their trip how dry and dangerous the conditions are: “We get a lot of questions from folks who’ve been hiking and camping about all the dead trees.” Madsen said Forest Service crews have had to work harder and longer to clear fallen trees from fuel breaks, but with moisture levels so low, “even a green tree can still easily burn.”
Every two weeks, Tom Himmelrich, a vegetation management captain with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, takes fuel moisture samples from Tepesquet, Harris Grade, Cachuma, Refugio, and West Gaviota. He tests chamise, an evergreen chaparral shrub that’s a good indicator of overall dryness. Anything at 60 percent or more means it’s dry and ready to burn, especially with low humidity or wind. The average fuel moisture at the end of June was 61 percent and dropping. Out in the field, Himmelrich said the difference is obvious. More of the brush is dying sooner, especially the shallow-rooted manzanita bushes.
Other vegetation, less perfectly resilient to such atypical weather, is losing its battles against the sun. The conifers and oaks that have died and turned to kindling likely suffered one of two fates.
One possibility is that the arid soil shut down their plumbing, so they stopped photosynthesizing and starved to death; embolisms formed in the trees’ long siphons that run from their roots to their branches, and the whole system lost pressure. That’s why plants wilt.
The other is that the trees — parched, weakened, and unable to muster defenses against ever-present pests — succumbed to bark beetles. Normally physically pushed back by oozing sap created by a tree when it’s healthy, the swarming destroyers burrow in and lay larvae that feed on living wood. Bark beetles proliferate in warm weather and send signals to others of their kind when the getting’s good. Other types of insects, including spruce budworms, and a whole range of different fungi similarly attack a tree when it’s vulnerable.