A recently discovered plant in far western Santa Barbara County is now a candidate for the endangered species list: the Vandenberg monkeyflower, or Mimulus fremontii var. vandenbergensis, an annual herb whose green stalks and bright yellow flowers with red markings only grow on the sandy dunescape of Burton Mesa between Lompoc and Santa Maria. The more common sticky bush monkeyflower, which is easily spotted in the county’s chaparral, has orange flowers while the also common Fremont monkeyflower’s are bright red.
“It’s what we call a really narrow endemic,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist Mark Elvin, a botany expert who’s worked extensively on the plant that was only officially discovered in 2005. “It’s really a fascinating plant.”
While its historic range was a bit larger, today it only grows in seven sites located along the southern edge of Burton Mesa, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in the west to La Purisima State Historic Park in the east. Altogether, the species’ entire ecosystem is about five-by-two miles. Over the years, residential development, road building, military exercises, oil and gas drilling, wildfire-fighting, and other human impacts have disturbed much of the region, but those activities paved the way for a much worse villain: nonnative invasive species such as veldt grass and brome grass, which are quick to take over in disturbed areas, leaving the Vandenberg monkeyflower out to dry.
Despite its rarity and the fact that threats are considered imminent, being named as a candidate for the endangered species list won’t do much other than raise awareness. This annual list is put out by the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in hopes that knowledge of a species’ status will alert landowners and resource managers to be aware of its existence and work toward conservation. That way, FWS spokeswoman Lois Grunwald explained, there might be “enough conservation work in the interim to preclude the need to list” the Vandenberg monkeyflower, which was listed as a level three priority on a scale of one to 12, with one being the highest.
Even if the plant was to be listed, however, it wouldn’t change much, as plants do not enjoy the same Endangered Species Act protections as animals. “There’s no prohibition of take of unlisted plants,” said Grunwald, but she explained that any project run by or paid for by the federal government does have to consult with FWS on the plant. And the FWS does take flora seriously. “Plants are important because they are foundations of health ecosystems,” she explained. “When pieces become endangered, it’s an indicator that the health of the ecosystem is in danger and beginning to unravel. We’ve estimated that losing one plant can trigger the loss of 30 other insect or animal species.”
Though there haven’t been enough studies to know about which parts of the ecosystem rely on the Vandenberg monkeyflower, Elvin the botanist did see some solitary bees and native ants visiting the flowers during his work. He also noted that it seemed to have larger flowers than other plants in the ecosystem, which probably means that monkeyflower’s nectar is a favorite of bird and insect species. He’d like to learn more about every part of the plant, in fact. “The seeds of the plant are really small and really light, lighter than the sand grains where it occurs,” he said. “It would be great to radio-tag a seed and follow it. I would love to do that kind of stuff, but we don’t have the technology.”
Tech failings aside, Elvin explained that, while many plant species are rapidly going extinct worldwide — including Gambel’s watercress, a species only known to exist inside Vandenberg AFB that Elvin predicts will go extinct sometime soon — botanists in California are also discovering more plant species all the time, with more than 200 officially named in just the past five years alone. “It’s really quite a dynamic time in botany right now,” said Elvin.
And thanks to the Vandenberg monkeyflower, Santa Barbara County certainly has a page in that growing book.