Biodiversity & Ronosaurus Rex’s Walk Around the Bay

Ronosaurus Rex, a.k.a. Ronald B. Richardson, recently completed a 350-mile walk  around San Francisco Bay. His journey inspired these reflections on the biodiversity of our region. 

On June 20, 2015, I finished a walk around the San Francisco Bay at every accessible point, including islands, bridges, piers, and docks. I had many incredible vistas, and I saw some wildlife, especially birds—but not as many animals as I would have expected on a 350-mile or more trek. That’s surprising, because the San Francisco Bay is a biodiversity hotspot, which is a biogeographic region rich in biodiversity that is under direct threat from humans.

The Bay is the heart of the California Floristic Province, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots: biologically rich areas that are threatened. These hotspots cover only 2.3 percent of the earth’s land surface, yet they support “nearly 43 percent of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species,” according to Conservation International.

So where are all the animals that rely on the Bay?

Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.
Salt ponds at Alviso Marina County Park. Showing the salt pond ringed by a man-made levee covered in invasive black mustard.

To answer that question, we need to take a giant step backward in time. The dinosaurs, as you know, were wiped out, along with about 75 percent of all species, at the end of the Cretaceous Period, opening many biological niches to the mammals, who quickly diversified. What you may not know, however, is that there have been at least five mass extinctions on this planet, and we’re in the middle of the sixth. The current extinction event began around 12,000 years ago and continues to this day!

You do not need to look fearfully skyward to find the cause—no mile-wide asteroids are smashing into the Gulf of Mexico and kicking up vast clouds of dust to block out the sun. No, this time the cause is much closer to home: you have only to look in a mirror.

The Wildlife I Saw—and Didn’t See—On My Walk

On my walk around the Bay, I saw many birds, including snowy egrets, great blue herons, pelicans, cormorants, geese, ducks, sandpipers, turkey vultures, and golden tail hawks. There are a lot of birds on the Bay, and we can thank Save The Bay and other environmental organizations for their numbers.

Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt
Snowy Egret on Lake Merritt

As for mammals, I saw some sea lions, a couple of deer (driven into urban areas by the drought), a red fox (a non-native species), squirrels, cats, dogs, and the carcass of a coyote, but little else. True, I am a loud and clumsy human who tends to scare away wildlife, and many animals, like the coyote and the bobcat, prefer to hunt at night. However on a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, I saw elk and deer everywhere, which shows that protected habitats do help wildlife flourish.

Reclaiming the Bay

The biodiversity of the Bay Area has radically diminished since the arrival of Westerners. One reason, besides overexploitation, is that settlers were trying to tame and reclaim the Bay. For the last 150 years, humans have tried to straighten out the line of the Bay, removing the tidal marshes that they saw as “wasteland”—literally “land that was wasted”—because they were not obviously useful for humans. Tremendous efforts were put into these projects, as well as huge amounts of money.

Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur
Tidal marshes and overpasses in Larkspur

It is only relatively recently that we have grasped the importance of these wetlands. I learned from signs on my walk that salt marshes are the kidneys of the Bay, cleansing the water by removing toxins and filtering trash. They are habitats with distinct plant and animal communities, including over 250 species of migratory birds.

Also, over 30 percent of the Bay has been filled in, reducing its area from 787 square miles to 548. In the mid-twentieth century, there were plans to fill in a full 60 percent of it. Following the Reber Plan, only a narrow shipping channel would have remained by 2020. Imagine the Bay Area without a bay! Not only would this have been a horrendous loss of natural beauty, it would have been a major tragedy for biodiversity.  The Bay fill project was stopped, but unfortunately, about 80 percent of the wetlands around the Bay and Delta had already been filled in or dyked.

Because of the loss of habitat, as well as invasive species like the invasive cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora hybrid (which has dominated many tidal marsh ecosystems, crowding out native species) and pollution (more than 250 million tons of raw sewage have been dumped into the Bay, not to mention all the industrial waste), 90 animals and plant species in the Bay Area are currently threatened with extinction, including the California Coast steelhead trout, California tiger salamander, the Bay checkerspot butterfly, and the Suisun thistle, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh
Cordgrass “monoculture” in a salt marsh

The Ongoing Mass Extinction and the Importance of Biodiversity

The loss of biodiversity in the Bay Area echoes trends worldwide. Currently, the extinction rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the normal background rate at which species go extinct. The current mass extinction, which began about 12,000 years ago, is actually occurring at a faster pace than the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Why does biodiversity matter? Ecosystems are interdependent webs, made up of species that have co-evolved to maintain a specific balance. When one species is lost, it can affect the other species in its ecosystem, sometimes catastrophically. According to “What is Biodiversity” from the National Wildlife Federation, biodiversity offers humans access to foods and materials, thereby contributing to a healthier economy. Many medical discoveries have come from research into new species. Each time one is lost, so is a potential human resource, such as medicine. Biodiversity makes it easier for ecosystems to adapt to disasters, such as the drought California is currently experiencing.

And, as the National Wildlife Federation puts it, we need to preserve biodiversity “simply for the wonder of it all. There are few things as beautiful and inspiring as the diversity of life that exists on Earth.”

Saving the Bay

When I first visited the Bay as a boy, I remember how it stank. Now, sewage must be treated, and industrial waste has been greatly reduced. Much more needs to be done, but feel free to take in a deep breath as you walk along the shoreline.

Yes, there is good news. Many migratory birds have returned to the Bay Area, and of the 90 threatened or endangered species in the Bay Area registered under the Endangered Species Act since 1973, none have gone extinct!

So, don’t you dare tell me that your individual efforts will not have an impact on the future of the Bay and the well-being of this planet. Every action you take affects the environment, whether positively or negatively. It is time for all human beings to come together to end the mass extinction that we have wrought.

What You Can Do

Here are a few things you can do: donate time and money to organizations like Save the Bay working to protect and restore the wetlands around the Bay, including the removal of invasive species and the restoration of native species. Do not dump pollutants into city streets, as they drain into the Bay. Recycle and reuse, as much as you can. Pledge to achieve zero garbage. Support politicians and policies opposed to global warming, as this phenomenon will have a dreadful impact on the Bay and our fragile global ecosystem.

However, my best advice for you is to take a walk around the Bay, even a short one, so you can see, as I have seen, how beautiful and important this grand estuary is to plant, animal, and, yes, human life!

Ronald B. Richardson teaches composition and literature at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco. He has written a book on the influence of narrative language on perception and behavior called Narrative Madness, and he has a successful blog at ronosaurusrex.com, where he writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and writes about metafiction and teaching. You can read more about his walk around the San Francisco Bay under nonfiction.