Santa Cruz Island's plant restoration a model for others

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On a bright, warm California day, a couple dozen botanists gathered in a valley on Santa Cruz Island for a group picture.

Instead of saying cheese, they each shouted out their favorite native plant species.

These are the die-hard plant enthusiasts attending the first annual California Islands Botanical Extravaganza.

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It's a three-day conference where researchers learn about the history of this island off the coast of Ventura and the techniques used to help save its delicate ecosystem.

Santa Cruz is the largest of California's eight channel islands, and it's become a model of modern restoration techniques.

From paradise to moonscape

Today the island is thick with plants, many of them native, but it wasn't always this way.

In the 1850s, ranchers brought in sheep and cattle. These herbivores ate up the landscape. Soon, invasive plants, also brought in by farmers, took over.

Non-native boars were also brought to Santa Cruz and eventually became wild, tearing up the landscape as they spread.

Eamon O'Byrne, a researcher with The Nature Conservancy, says all of this caused much of the 97 square mile island to resemble a rocky, barren moonscape.

The Nature Conservancy purchased most of Santa Cruz in 1978 and began working to restore the island to a more natural state.

Creative cultivation

Some of the early efforts involved removing non-native animals. As late as 2008, hunters were still eradicating wild boars.

After more than a century of ranching though, some plants were almost extinct, like the Santa Cruz Island bush-mallow. 

US Geological Survey ecologist Kathryn McEachern says when scientists surveyed the island they found just four living specimens.

“So we were naturally quite concerned," she said. "Four individuals in the wild is not very many so our goal with that plant was to get more of it.”

They found ways to clone the bush-mallow and encourage it to spread. Now it's much more common.

Her team also developed a new way to find and eliminate invasive plants.

The old method was to walk the hills for hours, looking for thickets to eliminate with herbicide. But this was time consuming and could allow invasive seeds to travel on clothes from one area to another.

So her group used a helicopter to spot patches of invasive plants from above. Once found, they would lower down a team with plant poison and target the unwanted species.

“That did several things," McEachern noted. "One, made it possible to this very fast. Two, it made it very cost effective... turns out it’s a lot easier to fly to places than it is to walk there.”

Another challenge her team grapples with is making sure new plantings have enough water.

The island, like the rest of California, is dealing with a drought. But it gets plenty of fog.

So lately, McEachern has been setting up mesh fences around thirsty plants so the fog coalesces on the wire and drips down to the soil.

"Use the fog to your advantage to water your plants!” she explained.

Spreading good ideas

The California Islands Botanical Extravaganza brought together researchers from as far south as Mexico, as well as nearby Santa Rosa Island.

That's where Cause Hannah is a researcher and station manager for Cal State Channel Islands.

He says efforts on this and a few other Channel Islands are so highly regarded they are taught in conservation biology classes around the country.

"These are some of the major success stories,” he remarked.

John Randall is a lead scientist studying the south coast and deserts for the California Nature Conservancy.

He attended the conference even though he works on the mainland. He says places like Griffith Park and the Santa Monica Mountains are like islands of wildlife surrounded by the city.

"Some of the things we learn out here give us at least a conceptual advantage when we go and try and manage those properties like Griffith Park."

Another attendee, Luciana Luna, is visiting from Baja California, Mexico.

She is a conservationist with Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas where she's working to restore Guadalupe Island, a place once devastated by hunters.

Luna says her island, hundreds of miles south of Santa Cruz Island, shares many native plants.

She is inspired by the tale of Santa Cruz and hopes she can manage a similar restoration for Guadalupe.

"We're hoping to see something similar to this in 20 years or so," she said.

 

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