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Survival List : 16 Plants Found Only on Channel Islands Nominated as Endangered Species

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixteen plants that eke out an existence on the Channel Islands and nowhere else on Earth may become the newest additions to the nation’s list of 759 endangered species of plants and animals.

With such obscure names as fringepod, munchkin dudleya, alumroot and bush-mallow, the plants will not be missed in most households if they become extinct.

But the dwindling populations of those shrubs, succulents and herbs on the wind-swept islands off the Ventura County coast are irreplaceable links in the island ecosystems, said Connie Rutherford, botanist with the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Ventura.

“The islands represent this whole complex web of interactions among plants, animals, soil and hydrology, all working together,” she said. “When we start removing pieces one by one, at some point, the whole system fails.”

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In addition, she said, those plants, many of which are on Channel Islands National Park lands, are part of the nation’s heritage.

“And the national parks are supposed to maintain that heritage for the public,” she said.

The 16 plants, some with tiny pink or yellow flowers only half an inch across, were proposed for listing by the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Ventura office under the Endangered Species Act as a means of protecting their remaining populations. They are found on Santa Rosa, Anacapa, Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands.

Three more plants found on Catalina or San Clemente islands farther south were proposed for listing at the same time by the service’s Carlsbad office.

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Five of the plants have only one population, or one cluster, where they exist. Most of the others have fewer than 10 populations. One--the island alumroot--has 27 populations.

The proposed listings are part of a settlement of lawsuits brought by the California Native Plant Society and the Fund for Animals that challenged the Fish & Wildlife Service’s timeline for listing 160 plants in California and more across the nation.

The proposals, which are out for public and peer review, would normally become final one year after being published in the Federal Register. In this case, the listing would become final July 25, 1996.

But a congressional moratorium on final listings may hold that process up, Rutherford said. Nevertheless, even the proposal for listing lends the plants a measure of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The landowners where the plants are found must confer with the Fish & Wildlife Service on any current or upcoming projects that could affect the populations.

Landowners include Channel Islands National Park, which owns Santa Rosa, Anacapa and part of Santa Cruz; the U. S. Navy, which owns San Miguel Island, and the Nature Conservancy, a private agency that owns most of Santa Cruz.

The Nature Conservancy is already taking steps to protect the plant populations on Santa Cruz by developing a long-range conservation plan and analyzing information from a five-year plant-monitoring study, said Diane Devine, conservancy spokeswoman.

“But the biggest threat to those populations is the feral pigs on the island,” Devine said. “We have one area that is pig-free, fenced off to let us see how it [the area of plants] reacts after the animals are removed.”

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The conservancy also has pig hunts to kill some of the 3,000 to 4,000 feral animals on the island, the remnants of a now-defunct pig-raising operation.

The Navy, although the owner of San Miguel Island, cedes responsibility for its care to Channel Islands National Park.

Channel Islands National Park has also already begun to monitor and protect some of the rare plant populations, park Supt. Mack Shaver said.

The park is working on a long-range plan with the Fish & Wildlife Service to detail what species on parkland need protecting and how that should be done.

For the national park, however, the biggest problem is the Vail & Vickers ranching operation on Santa Rosa Island, where five of the proposed endangered plants have populations. Four more of the group of 16 plants once had populations on Santa Rosa, but have been wiped out due to natural conditions or ranching operations.

Ranch cattle and other livestock graze on the shrubs and native grasses, prompting some conservationists to insist that the operation be halted.

The park service is caught in the middle, Shaver said. When it bought the island from Vail & Vickers in 1986, it was on condition that the company be allowed to continue ranching for 25 years.

However, the legislation that authorized the purchase includes a caveat that gives the park service the authority to halt the permit if the operation harms the park’s resources.

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The proposal to grant the 16 plants endangered status will surely affect the ranching operation, Shaver said, although no details are worked out.

“But we still firmly believe we have an agreement with Vail & Vickers to allow them to continue ranching and grazing until 2011,” he said.

Shaver said Vail & Vickers, which has ranched on the island for more than 100 years, has been a relatively good steward of the land.

“They intended to make a profit and not to ruin the land that sustained the ranching,” he said. “But they definitely weren’t trying to maintain it as a natural ecosystem.”

A Washington, D. C.-based watchdog group, National Parks and Conservation Assn., has threatened to sue the park service over the ranching, alleging that the service is failing in its mandate to protect the natural resources on the island.

The park service is in negotiations with the group to head off the suit, and no decision has been made on whether the group will go forward, said Neil Levine, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.

Fish & Wildlife Service’s Rutherford said the park is making efforts to protect some populations by fencing them off from the cattle. But the limited number of plants make protection urgent and necessary, she said.

“It’s of much more concern when species have only a few populations,” she said. “It makes them much more vulnerable whether from fire, drought, storm or human accidents.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Endangered Plants

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed 16 plants from the northern Channel Islands for listing as endangered species. Their common names:

Name: Hoffmann’s rockcress

Description: perennial herb

Location: Santa Cruz

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Name: Santa Rosa Island manzanita

Description: shrub

Location: Santa Rosa

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Name: Island barberry

Description: shrub/vine

Location: Santa Cruz

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Name: Soft-leaved Indian paintbrush

Description: perennial

Location: Santa Rosa

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Name: Santa Rosa Island dudleya

Description: succulent

Location: Santa Rosa

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Name: Munchkin dudleya

Description: succulent

Location: Santa Rosa

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Name: Santa Cruz Island dudleya

Description: succulent

Location: Santa Cruz

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Name: Island bedstraw

Description: shrub

Location: San Miguel, Santa Cruz

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Name: Hoffmann’s gilia

Description: annual

Location: Santa Rosa

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Name: Island rush-rose

Description: shrub

Location: Santa Cruz, Catalina

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Name: Island alumroot

Description: perennial

Location: Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa

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Name: Santa Cruz Island bush mallow

Description: shrub

Location: Santa Cruz

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Name: Santa Cruz Island malacothrix

Description: annual

Location: Santa Cruz

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Name: Island malacothrix

Description: annual

Location: Santa Cruz, Anacapa

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Name: Island phacelia

Description: annual

Location: San Miguel

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Name: Santa Cruz Island fringepod

Description: annual

Location: Santa Cruz

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An additional three plants proposed for listing are:

Name: Santa Catalina Island mountain-mahogany

Description: shrub/tree

Location: Catalina

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Name: San Clemente Island wood-star

Description: perennial herb

Location: Santa Cruz Island

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Name: Santa Cruz Island rockcress

Description: perennial herb

Location: San Clemente Island


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