This February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service honored two conservation partners whose collaboration and innovation has supported the conservation of rare wildlife and brought awareness to the threats facing animals native to the southern and central California coast.
“Our true strength lies in the synergy of our partnerships,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor of the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. “The staffs of the Santa Barbara Zoo and Coal Oil Point Reserve work diligently to recover some of our most imperiled wildlife species. Working together, their teams are instrumental in advancing our common mission of protecting at-risk species from extinction.”
The Santa Barbara Zoo, while home to more than 140 exotic and native species, places special emphasis on outreach, education, and research that benefits local, rare wildlife. Zoo CEO Rich Block champions the Zoo’s commitment to local conservation efforts.
“As all accredited zoos and aquariums are required to engage in research and conservation work that benefits wildlife, it was so clear that the Santa Barbara Zoo should be involved in the conservation of local species of special concern, especially those that are threatened or endangered,” said Block. “Being situated in one if the world’s biodiversity hot spots, the Zoo can capitalize on its location to participate in meaningful and productive ways to help ensure a future for many of these protected species.”
Over the past two decades, the Zoo has partnered with the Service on research and recovery for federally threatened or endangered species, from the California red-legged frog and island fox to the California condor and western snowy plover.
“The Zoo’s proximity to public and private lands that provide habitat for native wildlife has afforded us the opportunity, through partnerships with agencies like the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, to connect a large portion of our staff to on-the-ground conservation work,” said Estelle Sandhaus, Zoo Director of Conservation and Research. “Our proximity to these wild places enables us to share our first-hand conservation stories with nearly half a million guests who live, work, and play on the same lands that are so important for our native wildlife.
In addition to field support provided by all departments, the Zoo also employs five dedicated field conservation staff whose focus is the conservation of threatened and endangered species in the wild.
The Service collaborated with California State Parks and the Santa Barbara Zoo to reestablish California red-legged frogs across four state parks. The zoo is also heavily involved in a true partnership effort through the Service-led California Condor Recovery Program to recover one of North America’s rarest birds, the California condor. Zoo staff are involved in nest monitoring, and provide veterinary support that is instrumental to the program’s efforts. Today, after more than 40 years of recovery efforts, the population has grown from a staggering low of 22 birds in 1982 to more than 400 birds in 2017.
Santa Barbara Zoo also joined more than 200 individuals engaged in the recovery of island foxes on the Channel Islands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Due to these remarkable recovery efforts, Channel Islands foxes on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz islands were removed from the Endangered Species List due to recovery in 2016.
“Our team members, whether they come from a background of horticulture, retail, education, field biology, or veterinary science, are bound by a shared dedication to conservation,” Sandhaus said. “I'm continually inspired by the innovation we see across departments in finding new ways to support recovery of species in the wild.”
Most recently, the Santa Barbara Zoo received authorization from the Service to acquire and rear injured or abandoned western snowy plovers, before releasing them back into the wild. Just this past summer, Zoo staff worked with Coal Oil Point Reserve on the University of California campus to rescue, successfully rehabilitate, and release abandoned plover eggs and chicks for the first time. Previously, the closest fully-equipped western snowy plover rehabilitation facility was at Monterey Bay Aquarium, a 240 mile drive from the reserve.
“None of this would be possible without our important working relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Working side by side with the Service team members has been an enriching and deeply rewarding experience for all of us,” Block said. “The success of this partnership has inspired us to identify more ways that we can direct Zoo resources to support their important work.”
The Service also presented an award of recognition to the staff of UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve for many decades of active management and conservation efforts to promote the recovery of the federally threatened western snowy plover.
Sands Beach at Coal Oil Point Reserve provides important breeding and wintering habitat for these tiny shorebirds. While the area is open to the public all year, portions of the dry sandy beach are closed off to reduce disturbance from visitors near the wintering and nesting plovers. Docents of Coal Oil Point Reserve keep a watchful eye on the nesting birds, and educate visitors about what activities to avoid while enjoying the beach. Activities like kite-flying and dog-walking, can disturb these nesting birds, causing the adults to abandon their nests and leave their eggs or chicks vulnerable to foxes, crows, ravens and other predators.
The Pacific coast population of the western snowy plover was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993 because of declining populations, primarily due to habitat loss. Today, the site is an important wintering and breeding location for the tiny shorebird.
Marion Wittmann, Executive Director of the University’s Natural Reserve System, indicated research prior to 2001 showed that plovers were not able to successfully nest because of human-caused disturbances, such as dogs or beachgoers inadvertently walking through sensitive habitats. Armed with this valuable information, Dr. Cristina Sandoval, Reserve Director worked with the Service to design a management plan to protect these rare birds by seeking to change visitor behavior so that both the public and the wildlife could co-exist.
Trails were rerouted, signage was hung, and an army of trained docents, present from dawn until dusk, were stationed on-site to educate beachgoers about the plovers. In the summer of 2001, university scientists noticed that a mating pair of western snowy plovers had succeeded in hatching two marshmallow-sized chicks near a recently re-vegetated section of the dunes.
“Those tiny balls of fluff marked the first recorded snowy plover chicks on the Reserve in over 30 years,” Wittman said.
“This example shows that lost plover breeding sites can be recovered, an essential task to increase the number of western snowy plovers,” said Reserve Director Cristina Sandoval.
“Coal Oil Point Reserve offers one of the few places where plovers can be safely observed while nesting, with docents keeping a close watch on both visitors and the birds. People who experience this rare opportunity become ambassadors for the plovers,” she said.
Jessica Nielson, conservation specialist with the Reserve, monitors the population with the help of volunteers through the Reserve’s docent program. “The docent program plays a huge role in the ability of the reserve to balance recreational use of the beach with conservation. Our docents tend to have a background or interest in nature, ecology, and conservation,” she said. “They do a wonderful job of communicating their environmental interests with the public.”
“I’ve been really impressed with the community's positive attitude towards our conservation efforts. Often when I am down on the beach doing a survey of the population of plovers, beachgoers will approach me to see what I am looking at and borrow my binoculars to check it out! It's always fun to be able to point out a plover on a nest, or a clutch of recently hatched chicks,” she said. “People can't resist the cuteness factor of those chicks!”
Wittman said that the program exceeded anyone’s expectations, with an average of 30 pairs of nesting western snowy plovers each year. Now, she said, the program is considered a model for balancing human and environmental needs in protected areas.
The Service is dedicated to empowering our greatest assets – our local communities and our partners. We are proud to work alongside organizations like Santa Barbara Zoo and Coal Oil Point Reserve in our mission to save threatened and endangered fish, wildlife, and plants along the southern and central California coastline, and we look forward to what we can achieve together in years to come.
Ashley Spratt leads a team of public affairs specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura, California.