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Science in the National Parks

May 1, 2015

We were so encouraged by our reader’s report about the conference of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) that we decided to attend the conference of the National Park Service (NPS), “Science for Parks, Parks for Science” at UC Berkeley, March 26-27, 2015.  As we have reported many times, the National Park Service is heavily engaged in native plant “restorations.”  Their projects are some of the most aggressive in the Bay Area and some of the most successful, because they seem to have greater resources than other local managers of public land.  Therefore, we were curious about their assessment of those efforts.  Are they starting to have doubts, as expressed by some of the presentations at the CNPS conference?  This is a brief summary of what we learned.

The angry old guard

The keynote speaker was E.O. Wilson, the granddaddy of “biodiversity.”  He spoke of his desire to safeguard biodiversity by preserving one-half of the Earth as “protected areas” and the closely related goal to connect all protected areas. This lofty goal should be compared to the current figure of 13% of the earth which is presently protected and the internationally agreed-upon goal of 17%, according to the second speaker, Ernesto Enkerlin, Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

The moderator, Steven Beissinger, Professor of Conservation Biology at UC Berkeley, asked Professor Wilson a few pointed questions:

  • “Can working landscapes play a role in conservation?” Professor Wilson said. “That is a stupid, dangerous way of looking at conservation.  Parks cannot be evaluated in terms of their value to humanity.  The natural world is valuable in its own right.  Emma Marris and Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy are pushing this; they have the least experience with studying the natural world.  This dangerous thinking must be countered immediately.”  Granted, Emma Marris is a science journalist, but Peter Kareiva was an academic scientist at University of Washington for decades before becoming Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
  • “Must protected areas be devoid of people?” Professor Wilson said “Of course not.  Indigenous people might be included.”  In fact, indigenous people have been evicted from many protected areas around the globe.  Furthermore, virtually the entire population of the US is not indigenous.  Where does that leave us?
  • “Given the challenges faced by conservation, is triage necessary to prioritize projects to focus on the most important and threatened species?” Professor Wilson said with some feeling, “That’s ridiculous!  We CAN bring them all back, we must SAVE THEM ALL!”

Professor Daniel Simberloff, the well-known invasion biologist, was another speaker who believes it is necessary and possible to eradicate all non-native plants and animals in our public lands.  He also called out by name Marris, Kareiva and others for their criticism of invasion biology.  Frankly, we think these personal attacks are unseemly in the context of what should be considered a scientific debate about the most effective methods of conservation.  The moderator, Professor Holly Doremus (UC Berkeley, Boalt Hall), asked Professor Simberloff a few tough questions as well:

Most other speakers at the conference had a less sanguine view of our ability to “save every species” and “eradicate every non-native species.”  The need for “triage” was repeated in many presentations and descriptions of past and present projects were often pessimistic about the prospects of success.  Climate change and its impact on the environment was the dominant theme of the conference.

All loss, no gain

Mission Blue butterfly.  Wikimedia Commons

Mission Blue butterfly. Wikimedia Commons

The endangered Mission Blue butterfly exists only in a few locations in the San Francisco Bay Area:  Twin Peaks, San Bruno Mountain, Milagro Ridge in San Mateo County, and the headlands of Marin County.  We recently reported that the 32-year effort to restore butterfly habitat on San Bruno Mountain has been plagued by natural succession to native coyote brush that competes with the butterfly’s host plant, 3 species of lupine.  The status of the butterfly population on San Bruno Mountain is unknown because of inadequate monitoring.  Save Mount Sutro Forest has reported that the butterfly population on Twin Peaks remains very small despite repeated attempts to move butterflies from San Bruno Mountain.  We learned at the NPS science conference that the effort to restore butterfly habitat in the Marin Headlands in order to increase the butterfly population there has experienced its own difficulties.

The restoration of butterfly habitat to the Marin Headlands was controversial because about 500 Monterey pines were destroyed to make way for the lupine scrub required by the butterflies.  The pines had been planted by the military over 100 years ago.  They were heavily used by raptors during their annual fall migration through the Bay Area.  The Marin chapter of the Audubon Society was therefore opposed to their destruction.  As usual, this opposition was ignored by the National Park Service, which manages that property, and the trees were destroyed in about 2009.

NPS has been engaged in the effort to restore the habitat needed by the Mission Blue since the trees were removed.  Those engaged in that effort presented a poster at the NPS science conference which reported:

  • In 2010, NPS and its collaborators attempted to promote the growth of the 3 species of lupine required by the Mission Blue by removing all vegetation mechanically and with prescribed burns, then seeding with lupine.
  • Neither burn nor mechanical treatments resulted in increased lupine species cover after one or three years. In fact, both mechanical and burn treatment resulted in increased cover of non-native forbs and grasses after three years.

In other words, 500 trees were destroyed, which were heavily used by migrating raptors, but Mission Blue butterflies did not benefit from the destruction of these trees because efforts to restore the habitat they require have been completely unsuccessful.  This is a familiar scenario:  all loss and no gain.

Karner blue butterfly - USFWS

Karner blue butterfly – USFWS

We also heard a presentation about a 20-year effort to “restore” the habitat required by an endangered butterfly (Karner blue) at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.  The complete failure of that effort is attributed to changes in the climate, considered “abnormal:”

Despite advances in our understanding of habitat needs of the Karner blue, and extensive management to meet those needs, Karner numbers at Indiana Dunes have fallen more than 99% over the past fifteen years, with precipitous declines associated with historically abnormal weather in 2012. We have documented a role phenological [seasonal] mismatching between the butterfly and its host plant plays in this population decline and the sensitivity of this species to habitat fragmentation.”

One wonders what “abnormal” weather means during a time of extreme changes in the climate, which are not expected to return to “normal.”  The speaker predicted that the likely outcome for the Karner blue at Indiana Dunes is its complete disappearance and probable replacement with a different butterfly species which is better adapted to the new climate.

Reality Check

Doug Johnson, Executive Director of the California Invasive Plant Council, made a presentation about new digital tools to identify populations of plants considered “invasive:”  CalWeedMapper and WHIPPET.  These tools will enable land managers to set priorities for attempts to eradicate these plants.  Using  a thistle species as an example, he showed a map that indicated this “invasive” plant is present everywhere in northern California, but there are isolated pockets of it south of there.  These small, isolated populations represent potential opportunities to prevent its spread before it is so widespread that eradication is impossible.  This is an example of triage, which was the dominant theme of the conference. 

Oxalis in Glen Canyon Park, San Francisco

Oxalis in Glen Canyon Park, San Francisco

Mr. Johnson was recently interviewed by Bay Nature about a non-native species of oxalis, which San Francisco’s so-called Natural Areas Program has been attempting to eradicate for many years by spraying it with Garlon.  Garlon is the most hazardous pesticide used by the Natural Areas Program.  Mr. Johnson expressed his opinion to Bay Nature that it is futile to attempt to eradicate oxalis: “‘It’s not a target for landscape-level eradication because it’s way too widespread.’”

On March 13, 2015, the California Invasive Plant Council published its final reassessment of Blue Gum Eucalyptus (available HERE).  Cal-IPC has downgraded its rating of invasiveness and ecological impact from “moderate” to “limited.”  Although the detailed assessment is less than perfect, the overall rating itself is an improvement.  We are grateful to our readers who sent comments to Cal-IPC on its deeply flawed first draft of the reassessment.

In other words, the California Invasive Plant Council seems to have entered a new era of realistic expectations.  This looks like a BIG step forward to us, because if that viewpoint is adopted by land managers it should mean less destruction and less use of pesticides.

The Take Away

The old guard is unprepared to compromise their firm belief that it is possible to save every species of native plant and animal and that every non-native plant and animal must be killed to achieve that lofty goal. They defend their indefensible opinion by attacking those who are looking for a more realistic approach to conservation. However, climate change is bringing more and more converts to this viewpoint, which was best expressed by one of the plenary speakers, Hugh Possingham, Professor of Mathematics and Ecology, University of Queensland in Australia.  He was asked how his model of “ecological parks” fits with the mission of the National Park Service to preserve the parks “unimpaired.”  We paraphrase Professor Possingham’s answer:

“The Australian conservation ethic is similar to the United States’.  We yearn for pre-invasion days.  When I grew up in Adelaide we had 7.5 hectares of pristine vegetation for the entire city, which had 750 species at one time and now there are 500 species left.  It’s a museum.  It isn’t a functioning ecosystem.  So, we have got to embrace the creation of ecosystems that are not particularly natural.  However, I’ve learned that the birds don’t care where the plants come from.  Where weeds have been ripped out, bird diversity has plummeted.  I have been converted to the European viewpoint of disturbed landscapes: that is, these new plants have value.  Australia is completely over-run with non-native plants and animals.  Australians would be willing to shoot all the feral cats, but the fact is it’s not possible because we don’t have the resources to attempt it, let alone succeed at it.”

Thank you, Professor Possingham, for your frank acknowledgement of the value of new species to wildlife and your acceptance of more realistic goals for conservation in the 21st Century.


Videos of the plenary speakers are available on the conference website, as well as abstracts of posters and presentations.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2015 6:47 am

    Milliontrees says, “Perhaps Professor Simberloff is unaware that there is little evidence of negative impact of plants he considers non-native. We don’t feel the need to be educated about harm that is more theoretical than real.”

    But it is real. I’ve sent you links to research you have ignored. You fall back on saying you write about eucalyptus, yet continue to make broad statements about invasive, non-natives in general. Choose your battlefield. If you are saying there are no detrimental effects to biodiversity posed by invasive, non-native species, you are flatly wrong. You pick and choose evidence to support your claims, but seriously (and knowingly) mislead readers.

    • May 1, 2015 8:00 am

      Here are two studies that were done on an international scale that report increased biodiversity as a result of introduced species:
      Dov Sax and Steven Gaines, “Species invasions and extinctions: The future of native biodiversity on islands,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 12, 2008
      Maria Dornelas, et. al., “Assemblage times series reveal biodiversity change but not systematic loss,” Science, April 18, 2014

      The first finds little evidence of extinctions on islands and an overall increase in biodiversity. The second is reporting on a much bigger scale:
      • “6.1 million species occurrence records from 100 individual time scales”
      • “35,613 species were represented…including mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, and plants”
      • “The geographical distribution of study location is global, and includes marine, freshwater, and terrestrial biomes, extending from the polar regions to the tropics in both hemispheres.”
      • “The collective time interval represented by these data is from 1874 to the present, although most data series are concentrated in the past 40 years.”
      Like most scientists who expect to find evidence of decline, this team of researchers was surprised to find little evidence of loss. Here are some of their key findings:
      • “Surprisingly, we did not detect a consistent negative trend in species richness or in any of the other metrics of α diversity.”
      • “There is no evidence of consistent loss of biodiversity among terrestrial plants.”
      • “Time series for terrestrial plants exhibit, on average, a positive slope for species richness.”
      • “Collectively, these analyses reveal local variation in temporal α diversity but no evidence for a consistent or even an average negative trend.” (Alpha diversity is species richness at the local level.)
      • “An analysis of slopes by climate regions reveals that temperate time series have a significantly positive trend…”
      As this study says, you may have observed a “local variation in temporal diversity,” but there is no evidence of loss of diversity on a global scale. There is no comparable study on a global scale that says otherwise.

  2. sandserat permalink
    May 1, 2015 1:26 pm

    GW says, “If you are saying there are no detrimental effects to biodiversity posed by invasive, non-native species, you are flatly wrong.”

    I live next to a so-called restoration that has been going-on for over two decades.
    When these “restorors” came to us, they told us we had weeds. We were unaware,
    our wetlands were thriving, wildlife and bird populations were growing and our dunes were stable.
    After millions of dollars spent, many thousands of hours of labor, we have wrought
    drained marshlands, annihilated wildlife, out of control erosion and a depleted aquifer.
    While restorationists focused on species, entire habitats were destroyed.

    I see more damage from removing non-natives than non-natives ever posed. GW, If you are saying that there are no detrimental effects to biodiversity posed by mass removal of vegetation, you are flatly wrong.

  3. May 1, 2015 3:07 pm

    I agree about seeing horrific environmental damage caused by the nativist fanatics who are supported by Monsanto and Dow. A lot of money is involved with destroying our local parks, as the FEMA plan shows.

    It’s quite easy to see the devastation in many places, from the ugly herbicide sprayed areas in parks along the bay (for no rational reason) to the continued killing of trees and erosion.

    Recently, we were horrified to see steep sections of the Huckleberry trail in the EBRP had been trampled and left bare by well-meaning volunteers who had killed the little harmless forgot-me-not plants. It will be a disaster when the rains start. Not to mention the trees already cut down.

    At what should be some of our most pristine parks, like Pt. Reyes National Seashore, they are continuing their horrifying spraying of herbicide next to endangered Snowy Plover habitat by both Abbott’s Lagoon and the ocean side. Years of destructive bulldozing didn’t kill whatever plants they are targeting, and nothing will since the area is flanked by private ranches. But they are continuing to contaminate this fragile environment with poison.

    So many of the plant killers don’t even know native from non-native. How do they explain the oaks and bays being cut down in the EBRParks? Diseased is not the reason, since they all are, which is exactly why we need every health exotic tree we have.

    When UC Berkeley destroyed the small Mexican area near the entrance to put up one more building, they said the rare old redwood relative Taxodium mucronatum that they killed was diseased, but that species is almost immune to disease and looked just fine. They simply lied because it was in the way.

    As long as money is behind this, we will continue to lose our parks and the native animals will also suffer, as Million Trees explained. This travesty and tragedy must be stopped.

    • May 1, 2015 4:17 pm

      Thank you, Bev Jo. I always enjoy your comments because they demonstrate your deep knowledge of our public lands. You are out there, watching and seeing what is actually happening on the ground.

      For the benefit of other readers who aren’t as knowledgeable about public open spaces in the Bay Area, let me explain why native trees are sometimes destroyed by land managers. The “restoration” of the Serpentine Prairie on Skyline Blvd by the East Bay Regional Park District is a case in point. They knew full well that the approximately 500 oak trees they destroyed were native. They destroyed them because they consider them “invaders” into the grassland that they prefer because it was the landscape that existed prior to settlement. Of all the insane things that are being done by our land managers, the destruction of native plants and trees because of the selection of some arbitrary point in time which they are attempting to re-create is perhaps the worst. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t personally consider native plants superior to non-native plants. I just think it is crazy that people who DO claim to believe that native plants are superior are destroying them because they consider some other native plant more important for some arbitrary reason. It defies reason.

      • May 1, 2015 6:37 pm

        Near where I live many acres of native willow shrubs (mostly Salix petiolaris which is native to this bio-region) were poisoned to restore wetlands to some presumed pre-settlement condition. This was done on a site designated as a Scientific and Natural Area. It appears that natural succession was not considered. Also not considered was the use of these native shrubby willows by warblers and other birds as nesting sites. A number of native trees were also poisoned.

        The destruction of native species deemed as un-natural in the habitat where they might occur, even species native to a a particular bio-region, is apparently nationwide.

        • May 1, 2015 6:46 pm

          Yes, it is a serious problem in the Chicago area where hundreds of thousands of mostly native trees have been destroyed in order to “restore” prairie. The good people of Chicago have fought hard to prevent this pointless destruction. So far, they have been ignored.

      • May 3, 2015 2:03 pm

        Thank you, Million Trees. It is heart-breaking to see individual trees we love and entire areas destroyed for no sane reason. Along Highway 13, they are cutting trees again, yet they are not stopping tall redwoods from being covered and killed with Hedera Canariensis, which would take a fraction of the time or energy.

        I think that really the only explanation for much of this besides fanatical delusion of the nativists is about money. And that is why no “study” can be trusted, because the bias is about money and corporations involved.

        It should be a law that no tree be allowed to be killed without good reason that has to be proved. And when it’s our parks and/or a number of trees, it should be brought to a vote. The problem though is that the corporations have far more money and resources to make a massive media campaign to drown out those who say the truth and love the trees and animals.

  4. May 1, 2015 3:33 pm

    It seems more ecologists should be employed to study and monitor habitats before making decisions on changing it. Surely there needs to be a balance and some invasive species may fit in more than others to a habitat. Most land in Europe has had some influence of human handiwork.

    • May 1, 2015 4:07 pm

      What a good idea! Instead we see our landscapes destroyed by one simplistic mantra, “If it isn’t native it MUST be bad and therefore it MUST be KILLED.” That is the level of sophistication we see demonstrated repeatedly by the managers of our public lands.

      • May 2, 2015 12:01 am

        From blogging it is interesting to get insight into different places. So much of our nature here is man made from centuries before. Lake District and sheep. Highland heathers for grouse shooting…. Farmland birds in decline. But a project with farmers is now helping that.

  5. May 1, 2015 5:45 pm

    I agree with navasolanature too.

  6. May 16, 2015 4:04 pm

    It’s clear to me, from observing our local native animals, that many prefer introduced plant species to eat and nest and live in.

    Perhaps it would make more sense for those who really care about the most vulnerable native animal species to find out which of the strongest non-natives they prefer and provide them, which would be easier than poisoning and killing unsuccessfully. Has anyone even bothered to try that with the Mission Blue butterfly? If anything was discovered, would they suppress the information? They certainly deny that raptors and other animals prefer eucalyptus.

    • May 16, 2015 5:43 pm

      Apparently, the mission blue is dependent upon just three species of lupine as their host plant: “The larvae will only feed on the leaves of the three host lupine plants (Lupinus albifrons, Lupinus formosus, and Lupinus variicolor) native to their habitat. The plants are necessary for survival for the Mission Blue. Thus, the butterfly’s fate is closely tied to that of the three species of lupine as the plants provide food and shelter for the butterfly in its larval stage.” (Wikipedia)

      The host plant is the plant on which the butterfly lays its eggs. The adult butterfly has a much wider range of options for nectar plants.

      Butterflies with very few options for host plants are the most likely to be endangered. In the case of the mission blue, those who are trying to provide habitat for the mission blue are having a very hard time growing the required species of lupine successfully.

  7. Dave permalink
    June 1, 2015 10:10 pm

    So does anyone know the cost per butterfly on Twin Peaks or in the Marin Headlands? After years of failure to move butterfly populations to these areas there needs to be accounting of the rate of investment and return. It is a travesty that the people of the bay area –one of the most environmentally conscious place in the country if not the world — allowed the national park service to destroy 500 trees for an experiment that was predicted not to work and clearly failed. Where is the accountability?

    • June 2, 2015 6:07 am

      Good questions. Don’t know the answers. As for cost/butterfly on Twin Peaks, I don’t know the answer, but that’s knowable with a few public records requests. I saw the result of one such request a few years ago. Someone was paid $6,000 to count the butterflies on Twin Peaks in one season. He is a strong and vocal supporter of the Natural Areas Program. I wonder why?

  8. Dave permalink
    June 2, 2015 9:28 am

    That’s a good gig that appears to pay about $200-$400 per butterfly. I suspect the total cost of the effort is more in the tens of thousands of dollars per butterfly. If anyone reading this is a retired budget analyst for the pentagon we have a similar assignment for you. Inquire within 🙂

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