Protecting corridors is key to species’ survival, group says
Long before windmills festooned the San Gorgonio Pass, before Interstate 10 barreled through it and before homes and strips malls sprouted, animals rambled freely between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains searching for food, mates and shelter.
They still do, although they have to maneuver around some obstacles.
The Pass and some of its mountain canyons are among the 15 wildlife linkages between the southern Sierra Nevada and the Mexican border that are considered key to keeping native species thriving and preventing their extinction, according to a report released Wednesday by South Coast Wildlands, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that focuses on connecting wildlife habitat.
Other linkages in the Inland region connect such places as the San Bernardino Mountains through the Cajon Pass to the San Gabriel Mountains; the southern San Jacinto Mountains to the Palomar Mountains in southern Riverside County; and the San Bernardino Mountains through Morongo Valley to the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
“Essentially, if one of these linkages is lost, it reduces the ecological integrity of the entire network,” said Kristeen Penrod, conservation director for South Coast Wildlands.
In 2000, land managers, conservancy groups and academic and government scientists from such agencies as the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and state parks gathered at the San Diego Zoo. There, they identified 232 wildlife linkages in California, 69 of them in Southern California.
Some of those same scientists narrowed the critical list down to the 15 linkages released in the latest report, “South Coast Missing Linkages: a Wildland Network for the South Coast Ecoregion.”
The hope, Penrod said, is that the report will build awareness among county and city planners and the public to protect the linkages, improve them and prevent further destruction that could lead to the extinction of imperiled species.
And, she said, some conservancy groups and agencies will likely rely on the report’s findings when seeking funds to help buy habitat in the linkages.
“It’s going to take connecting a lot of people to connect these wildlands,” said Penrod, formerly of Idyllwild and now living in Washington state.
Through the Eyes of Wildlife
The linkage through the Pass is about 30 miles wide, stretching from the Badlands east to the Whitewater River and across 74,414 acres. River washes and places such as Stubbe Canyon carved in the San Bernardino Mountains near Whitewater and Snow Creek at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains are among the key entry points into the mountains for wildlife because they aren’t so steep.
The linkage crosses into the coastal plan and desert ecosystems, and is home to a diverse array of plants and animals such as badgers, mule deer, bobcats, lizards and others.
Steve Loe, a San Bernardino National Forest biologist, said it is particularly key for mountain lions, which roam over large territories. And Stubbe Canyon has a high density of black bears, said Loe, who helped identify the wildlife linkages in the report.
Even the wind that notoriously blows through the Pass has its own purpose for wildlife: It hurls grains of sand from the canyon floor eastward to maintain dunes in the Coachella Valley where rare crickets, lizards and plants live.
So far, about 35 percent of the linkage is either protected as public land managed by the San Bernardino National Forest, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or state parks, or preserved as open space by local groups such as the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, Friends of the Desert Mountains and the Wildlands Conservancy. The rest sits on private land that can be developed, or belongs to the Morongo Indian Reservation.
Visiting the linkage last week, Penrod, Loe and others showed the kind of obstacles faced by wildlife – the obvious: the din of freeway traffic on a bridge over a river wash; and the not-so-obvious: a billboard promoting a store at the nearby outlet mall that lights up at night when most animals roam the corridor.
“They’re nocturnal, they like darkness,” Penrod said.
She said installing sound barriers along the freeway would help funnel more animals beneath the bridge, and billboards moved farther from the wash would cut down on the glaring lights.
Then there’s the graffiti marring the bridge along Interstate 10 over Whitewater River that Penrod suggested was happening at night.
“They are little party places and certainly that would deter wildlife from using” them, she said
Geary Hund, associate director of the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, points out that some passes below the bridges have gravelly, concrete bottoms that prevent wildlife from getting a good footing. Some lack plants to shelter animals from predators. Others lack enough light to allow the animals using them during the day to see through to terrain on the other side.
Local conservation groups have already made a dent in preserving the linkage. Hund’s conservancy, Friends of the Desert Mountains and the Wildlands Conservancy have each bought more than 1,000 acres.
And local habitat conservation plans in western Riverside County and the Coachella Valley also have identified some wildlife corridors as important habitat that might be purchased.
Hund said the mountains conservancy has bought 10 5-acre plots in Stubbe Canyon from willing sellers in the last year but still has 30 to 40 to go.
And the group is keeping an eye on a proposal, in its early stages, to erect 420-foot-tall, energy-generating wind turbines up to the 4,000-foot elevation of the San Jacinto Mountains. The group wants to ensure that the plans take wildlife into consideration, said Bill Havert, the conservancy’s executive director.
Caltrans biologist Scott Quinnell said there will be opportunities for the state agency to consider wildlife movement as part of the numerous upcoming projects along Interstate 10 from Calimesa and Banning in the linkage area.
In some cases Caltrans already has. A freeway bridge over Noble Creek will no longer have big boulders on its underpass, which would have created large obstacles for wildlife, he said.
Mary Loquvam, executive director of South Coast Wildlands, said she hopes to create a linkage alliance with the Inland conservation groups to create one voice throughout the region.
She said the groups will have to work more with Caltrans, cities in the Pass, and water agencies that use the river washes for percolation ponds or other purposes so they understand what’s at issue.
Loe, who has long worked on wildlife corridors, said residents will also benefit from open space and having a place to recreate.
“We’re hoping these things are still here for our grandkids and great-grandkids and generations 20 times from now,” he said, from an overlook along Highway 243.
Slideshow: Wildlife corridors
By Jennifer Bowles
19 March 2008
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