Native plants could bounce back, or disappear

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of hungry goats roamed Catalina as recently as a decade ago, gobbling every green leaf and shrub in sight, the island’s de facto brush clearance program.

After years of angst-filled debate over the voracious nonnative goat population, the animals were killed or removed so that natural chaparral and scrub could flourish. In this record dry year, the return of thick native vegetation along with nonnative grasses provided an abundance of wildfire fuel.

The ominous sight of Thursday’s massive fire line marching toward Avalon prompted a few residents to wonder whether the goat kill was a mistake. As 85-year-old Joe Voci said, they “kept the darn brush down.” But scientists strongly disagree and said Friday that the island is better off goat-free.


They said the fire’s aftermath will illustrate how the island is a kind of petri dish for the study of evolution and biodiversity and may prove to be a pivotal moment in restoring the native Catalina habitat.

The 4,000-acre blaze could help restore a natural balance to a swath of island ecology that was artificially changed by early settlers who introduced goats and pigs. Later, bison that were brought in for a film shoot took up residence and nonnative vegetation began to take hold. The nonnative deer population is also high.

Depending on nature’s whim, the clean slate of land in the burned zone could exhibit a display of long-dormant native plants next spring, including many that were thought extinct. Or it could spur their permanent loss, biologists said.

“This could be the beginning of a wonderful example of how we can restore a ruined ecosystem,” said Richard W. Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, a research and education group based in Escondido. “Or this could be the beginning of the end.”

Like other Channel Islands, Catalina contains an inordinate number of rare and endemic species of plants and animals that occur nowhere else in the world, such as the Catalina Island fox, no bigger than a cat.

For the last two decades, the conservancy, which oversees 88% of Catalina’s land, has gradually moved to rid the island of its invaders in the hopes of resuscitating native plants and the animals and insects that feed on them.

That produced raucous debates in the 1990s, especially when the conservancy organized helicopter hunts to kill goats and nonnative pigs. Animal rights groups protested vociferously.

Today, only two goats, both females, remain on the island, said Bob Rhein, conservancy spokesman. The goats’ removal “was the very best decision from a conservation point of view ... the natural system was not rebounding. But it is now.”

Scientists monitoring the island landscape report that endemic plants have been returning, especially around Avalon. Now they are waiting to see if the fire will provoke the germination of “fire followers,” seeds that sprout only when they are disturbed. And on Catalina, already known for its rare plant species, intriguing wildflowers and other plants may spring from the burnt-over earth.

Studies after a 1999 blaze on the island found “an unbelievable post-fire response of natives that were uncommon or rare and hadn’t been seen in a long time,” said Marti Witter, fire ecologist for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

But the flowers drew deer, hordes of them, which in goat-like style “decimated” the young plants, Witter said. She said a similar fate could be in store for native plants next spring if they are eaten before they have a chance to produce seeds.

“If it springs back and is eaten, it’s going to be gone forever,” Witter said.

Halsey agrees. He wishes that this week’s fire had not occurred for a few more years, giving the native habitat more time to mature.

For the island’s managers, there are more immediate concerns. The island is home to about 200 bison and more than 500 Santa Catalina foxes. Conservancy employees do not yet know how the animals fared in this week’s fire.

But they have good news about the five nesting pairs of bald eagles on the island. All were outside the fire’s range, Rhein said, and they and their four chicks were unharmed.