Off the coast of California, a string of islands rise above the waves. Shaped by millions of years of tectonic, volcanic, and climatic events, the Channel Islands have played host to myriad plants and animals. Some, like the pygmy mammoth, disappeared thousands of years ago, while others, like the island fox, are now thriving after narrowly escaping extinction at the turn of the 21st century.
Considered by many to be the Galapagos of North America, these islands, designated a national park in 1980, have been used by humans for millennia.
The arrival of Europeans more than 250 years ago led to the introduction of numerous non-native species. With that and later contamination by the chemical compound Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, in the mid-20th century, waters around the islands and the wildlife they supported forever changed.
Over the last several decades, scientists, biologists, land managers and local communities have rallied together to help restore these islands to their rich and biodiverse origins.
Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern California share stories and personal memories of these unique islands.
“They hold a very near and dear place in my heart,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor for the Service’s Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, who grew up in a family of recreational fisherman and spent summers fishing around Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands with his uncles and cousins.
Later on, he took up diving and marveled at the beautiful diversity of the marine ecosystem teeming with more than 2,000 marine species of fish, plants and other marine life. Waters around five of the Channel Islands are designated as a national park and a national marine sanctuary.
“But then I would look at the islands above water. It was barren, there was little plant life there,” he said.
Henry didn’t realize at the time that he would be involved years later in one of the most comprehensive restoration efforts ever attempted for island ecosystems, on the very same islands he admired throughout his childhood and adolescence.
“I started to see the islands changing before my eyes,” he said.
Annie Little and Robert McMorran have similar stories. Little took her first trip to Anacapa Island when she was 10 years old, a spark that led to her love of seabirds and other island wildlife. McMorran spent time in his early career living on San Clemente Island researching and supporting the recovery of endangered birds, a job that inspired his long-term commitment to restoration of the Channel Islands.
Years later, Henry, Little and McMorran all dedicated their careers to wildlife conservation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service played an important role in the recovery of these island ecosystems along with land managers from The Nature Conservancy, National Park Service, Catalina Island Conservancy, U.S. Navy and many other conservation partners.
The Channel Islands are the traditional home of the Chumash people, who established villages across the northern islands and portions of the central California mainland. Later, Spanish exploration and the colonization of the Americas left a complex history of human activity on these islands.
Fisherman and tradesmen used them as a base, and by the mid-1800s, ranching on some of the islands became a profitable venture. They then became working landscapes to raise and graze sheep, cattle, pigs, goats and other livestock. In some areas native vegetation was decimated.
With humans, came other nonnative invasive animals like cats and rats that impacted native seabirds. “I saw with my own eyes the damage they could do to native ecosystems,” McMorran said. The presence of feral pigs attracted non-native golden eagles that preyed on the island foxes to the point of near extinction on three of the six islands they inhabit. Golden eagles took up residence on the islands in the absence of bald eagles that left due to the impacts of DDT.
From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, millions of pounds of toxic chemicals, including DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl were discharged into ocean waters off the Southern California coast. Most originated from the Montrose Chemical Corporation manufacturing plant located in Torrance, California, one of the largest DDT manufacturing plants in the world at the time. Because these chemicals are slow to break down in the environment, they left a lasting impact on the marine ecosystems.
The chemical influx into the food web proved to be disastrous for peregrine falcons, California brown pelicans, bald eagles and a variety of seabirds. When these birds ate contaminated prey, the chemicals affected their ability to metabolize calcium, resulting in egg-shell thinning and ultimately reproductive failure.
Twenty to 30 peregrine falcon pairs nested on the Channel Islands before 1945. During the DDT era, their entire population was wiped out in less than a decade.
Once a stronghold for bald eagles with at least 25 nesting territories on the Channel Islands, they also disappeared by the early 1960s. And in 1970, only a single California brown pelican chick survived out of 552 nests on West Anacapa Island, the most critical breeding location for California brown pelicans in the U.S.
All three ill-fated species were listed on the first Federal List of Endangered Species, the precursor to the Endangered Species Act on 1973, as a result of their steep population declines. In 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S., and efforts began to restore these iconic birds back to their island homes.
Recognizing the importance and uniqueness of California’s Channel Islands and the species that call the islands home, agencies and organizations channeled their expertise and funding into projects designed to restore the ecological health and balance of these island jewels.
During the latter half of the 20th century, ranching and hunting activities waned on many of the islands. The National Park Service and other land managers led the charge to restore balance to the island ecosystem by removing invasive species and promoting the recovery of native wildlife and plants.
With extinction of the island fox on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, and an imminent threat on the San Miguel islands, scientists and natural resource managers across government agencies and private organizations rallied around a common mission to bring the island fox back from the brink.
A captive island fox breeding program was initiated in 1999, and golden eagles were captured and relocated to northern California, with the last pair removed in 2006. Land managers also worked to remove the nonnative species including feral pigs that were preyed on by golden eagles. The subspecies were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2004, a further catalyst for recovery efforts.
McMorran worked with a multitude of partners to prepare a recovery plan for the subspecies. He says, “Having seen foxes in the wild sparks a lot emotions for me. They’re a symbol of the islands coming back to life.”
“Recovery actions to save the island fox were rapid and remarkably successful, a testament to the teamwork, tenacity and dedication of so many partners and members of our community,” said Channel Islands National Park superintendent Russell Galipeau.
With populations flourishing after little more than a decade, those who worked on island fox recovery—some dedicating their entire careers to the effort—breathed a sigh of relief. Today, island fox numbers have bounced back to historic levels.
In 2016, three island fox subspecies were removed from the Endangered Species list, marking the fastest recovery of any land mammal in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
“People who didn’t know about the island fox were as excited about their recovery as those who had been working on it for years,” Henry said. “People from across the world were hearing about this remarkable recovery and it was all taking place right in sight of where we live. It really drew attention to the islands on a national scale.”
Funds from the Montrose Settlement Restoration Program were made available to restore the natural resources in the Southern California marine environment that were harmed by DDT and polychlorinated biphenyl, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, seabirds and fish restoration.
The funding allowed for an extensive bald eagle recovery program and multiple on-the-ground seabird restoration projects ranging from invasive species removal to native vegetation planting.
Little, who coordinates the Service’s program involvement, asserts that removal of invasive species from islands has been one of the most effective tools for seabird conservation. “By removing invasive predators from their nesting islands, we remove a significant threat during a critical stage in their life cycle,” she said.
Between 2002 and 2006, 61 bald eagles were released onto Santa Cruz Island, expanding upon an earlier reintroduction of 33 eagles on Catalina Island that began in 1980.
Little has been involved in bald eagle recovery efforts for more than 15 years and recalls the celebratory moment a bald eagle chick hatched on Santa Cruz Island for the first time in more than 50 years in 2006.
“It’s a powerful story of perseverance and hope,” she said. “Since that moment, we have continued to witness the successful recovery of the bald eagle with eagles now breeding on five of the eight islands.”
In 2017, there were 17 known bald eagle nesting pairs throughout the Channel Islands that successfully produced a total of 17 chicks.
Today, there are 60 resident bald eagles on the Channel Islands and their successful recovery continues. Pelican productivity on Anacapa Island has also started to show signs of improvement. From 1985-2006, the Anacapa Island nesting colony produced about 4,600 nests every year.
In 2006, the Service estimated the entire California brown population at around 70,680 nesting pairs or 141,360 breeding birds.
The peregrine falcon also made a dramatic recovery since the end of the DDT era and today number more than 50 nesting pairs on the Channel Islands.
All three species have been removed from the Endangered Species List due to their remarkable recovery.
The restoration of native plant communities has been integral to restoring balance to the island ecosystem. Native plantings on East Anacapa Island continue to play a pivotal role in engaging the local coastal community in island conservation.
Community groups, schools and conservation organizations have all made the one-hour nautical voyage to this seabird haven to help construct a greenhouse and plant more than 7,500 native plants including giant coreopsis, island buckwheat and oldman sage. This native vegetation provides important habitat for nesting seabirds.
The Montrose Settlement funding will dry up in the near future, but Little says its positive impacts on the island ecosystems will remain for years to come.
“We would not have been able to achieve half of what was accomplished were it not for the successful partnerships of this restoration program,” she said.
Henry says the restoration of the Channel Islands—from the remarkable recovery of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and California brown pelican, to the comeback of the island fox—“symbolizes what is possible when people work together.”