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.

Biodiversity: More Is Not Always Better

Happy Biodiversity Day! Most of us have heard the word biodiversity being tossed around as an important subject that requires our attention, but why is biodiversity so important? This topic is much more difficult to address than you might think. Biodiversity refers to the level of variation of life within an ecosystem. Plants and animals have everything they need to live sustainably together in an ecosystem that has healthy biodiversity. Although biodiversity is a crucial subject in restoration science, there can be a misunderstanding that more biodiversity is always better. Researchers are finding that the types of species in an ecosystem are just as important as the number of species and more isn’t always better. Save The Bay confronts this issue of biodiversity every time we design a habitat restoration plan for tidal wetland transition zones within the San Francisco Bay.

biodiversity
Biodiverse restored transition zone habitat at Eden Landing with invasive monoculture of mustard on the other side of the fence.

To better understand this idea that more biodiversity isn’t always better when designing habitat restoration plans, let’s first consider what habitat restoration means and what’s being restored. Effective environmental restoration will restore ecosystem function. Ecosystem function involves biological, geochemical, and physical processes that vary between systems, but maintain a specific balance within each ecosystem, and that balance is delicate. Plants, animals, water, and earth all contribute to how ecosystems function, and when one of those contributions change, so do the others. Those changes not only displace the effectiveness and sustainability of food webs (Zedler and Kercher, 2004) but they also affect ecosystem services that humans rely on, such as food, water, medicine, transportation, employment, inspiration, shelter, and protection… to name a few. For example, an important ecosystem service that wetlands offer humans is their role as breeding and nursery grounds for economically important fish species, including the Pacific anchovy, California halibut, rainbow trout, and Chinook salmon. Tidal wetlands also provide important feeding and stopping grounds for migrating birds, which not only contribute to maintaining healthy populations of those economically important fish species, but also help to maintain healthy native insect and rodent populations.

Once researchers learned the importance of biodiversity and discovered it was diminishing, so began the mission to determine the cause for this great loss. Many factors have contributed to our worldwide decrease in biodiversity, and tidal wetlands are among the greatest victims. 90% of the San Francisco Bay wetlands have been destroyed due to bayfill, contamination, industrial use, and fragmentation. This hardship makes life difficult (if not impossible) for the San Francisco native species that depend on a healthy wetland habitat, and therefore, the wetlands have developed a decreased immunity to invasions by non-native species. Invasive non-native species thrive when conditions are difficult for the natives and they often completely take over entire ecosystems if left unchecked. Not all non-native species are invasive, just the ones that demolish the native diversity. And San Francisco Bay has the greatest number of invasive species anywhere in the western hemisphere.

As environmental scientists learned more about the intricacies of biodiversity, it became apparent that diversity should reflect the needs of the resident flora and fauna, since both are so interconnected. This observation may indicate that, while biodiversity offers the benefit of ecosystem stability, restoring an ecosystem to a sustainable functioning state should be the ultimate goal. So, rather than focusing on the blanket idea of increasing biodiversity across the board, researchers and practitioners have begun to implement the idea of restoring the biodiversity that has been lost in a particular area. That means that if a particular ecosystem historically was home to only a few species, practitioners are better off trying to restore the functions that those few species provided to that area, which is the entire point of restoration. Save The Bay works hard to understand and recognize the specific ecosystem functions at each of our sites and the specific native plant species that are capable of supporting those functions. Join us on one of our community-based restoration programs to ensure that the flowers have bees for pollination, the birds have a place to perch and nest, and the salt marsh harvest mouse has sufficient refugia during high tide.

Reference:
Zedler, JB and Kercher S. (2004). Causes and consequences of invasive plants in wetlands: Opportunities,
opportunists, and outcomes. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences. 23(5):431-452.

Notes from the Field | California’s Bounty

Arrowhead Marsh
A glimpse of the diverse ecosystem of California — Red-winged Blackbirds fly over Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland. Photo: Rick Lewis

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area I spent my time exploring the multitude of wonderful and diverse parks and open spaces that dot the landscape. Each place has a unique history and I never ran out of new things to discover. As the seasons changed I found new plants and animals right in my own backyard. As I grew older I ventured further from my home Bay getting my hands wet river rafting the American and Trinity rivers or backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness high in the Sierra Nevada. These experiences opened my eyes even wider to the immense biodiversity that exists in California. Think about the vast array of ecosystems found all around this state; from the giant Redwood forests to glaciated mountains to the salt marshes that ring the Bay; these places support an outstanding variety of plant life.

California is so unique that Conservation International has designated it as a biodiversity hotspot. These hotspots are also experiencing a significant amount of habitat loss. Of the 7,031 vascular plants found in our hotspot, 2,153 are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else. These plants grow in part of the California Floristic Province, which is marked by Mediterranean-type weather with wet winters and hot drought conditions during the summer and fall. The barriers that made it so difficult for the first waves of pioneers to reach the golden fields of California were the same factors that protected it from outside genetic influences from other places, allowing unique species to prosper here. The high peaks to the east and north, the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the wide expanse of arid deserts in the south aided what we see today.

It is up to us to protect these endangered and endemic plant communities. As Californians, let’s take pride in our unique home and become better stewards of the land around us. These plants have taken millions of years to evolve in balance with their surrounding. More recently, people have had an enormous impact on California’s natural wonders. Our state is quite bountiful, but instead of working outside the forces of nature we must find a balance with these important and beautiful places and endemic plants. Human interactions with the land put many endemic plants at risk of extinction, but human intervention can help preserve them.

Save The Bay is dedicated to protecting and restoring native plants in salt marshes that make up a part of this amazing ecosystem. If you want to learn more about the native plants that grow in our biodiversity hotspot, sign up to volunteer on one of our restoration programs!