Saturday, February 27, 2021     Volume: 21, Issue: 52

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 23rd, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 7 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 15, Issue 7

The living laboratory: Santa Cruz island offers educators and researchers a living model


Santa Cruz Island has a more Mediterranean climate that yields several microclimates that support varying forms of wildlife.

The North America of the Pleistocene Epoch—a geological time period that spanned from about 2.5 million years ago to 11,000 years ago—was a continent of tumultuous change. During that time, several glacier-heavy cycles shaped the landscape and even lowered sea levels hundreds of feet, exposing the continental shelf that lies under water again today.

Also during that time, several large, connected landmasses were separated from the mainland—what’s now known as the coast of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles counties—by a trivial amount of seawater. It was trivial, at least, to the pygmy mammoth, whose skeletal remains have been found on the northern parts of the Channel Islands chain.

Though the glaciers melted and sea levels rose, dividing the island chain as we know it today, more motivated species couldn’t be kept from staking a claim on the increasingly isolated land. After the mammoth came its hunter: Homo sapiens sapiens—modern humans, the remains of which, found on the Channel Islands, represent the earliest proof of humans in the Americas, dating from 13,800 years ago.

Today, much of the Channel Islands is protected habitat, including Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the islands at 96 square miles. But it wasn’t always protected, as UCSB Santa Cruz Island Field Station Director Lyndal Laughrin knows all too well. His decades-long career on the island has allowed him to witness a lot of change, most of which has come in the form of efforts to return the island to a state more resembling when it was populated by Chumash Indians, not Cal State grad students, researchers from the Nature Conservancy,
and campers.


A bastion of research

Lyndal Laughrin, who first stepped foot on Santa Cruz Island as a graduate student in 1965, has been the UCSB Field Station director for the last 40 years.

When Laughrin first visited Santa Cruz Island almost 50 years ago, it was still mostly privately owned. UC Santa Barbara managed a small, provisional field station primarily for the geology department, and private parties were still using Santa Cruz to ranch cattle and sheep and grow grapes for wine production.

“I very first set foot on the island in the summer of 1965. That’s when I was trying to figure out what I would do for my graduate work,” Laughrin told the Sun in early April. “I realized there was some potential, but I was working on birds at that time, so I did my master’s degree with mockingbirds on the UCSB campus.”

Laughrin’s academic concentration had been in zoology, specifically vertebrates. After completing his master’s, the young zoologist was drawn to Santa Cruz Island’s largest native mammal, the island fox. Little research had been done on the fox at the time, and UCSB had expanded its field station to include resources for biologists, so Laughrin began his doctoral work researching the creature.

“Not much had been done on them except just basic description, so I did a lot of natural history stuff: food habits, lifestyle, basic ecology, population numbers, that kind of thing,” he said. “I did a fair amount of trapping of the foxes and marking them so we could tell individuals, and tell who is mating with who, and see how big their territories are. I did a lot of food analysis—what they are eating—by looking primarily at their scat.”

It was during this time, the mid 1970s, that the field director abruptly left. Laughrin, who’d already spent a fair amount of time on the island, stepped in as an interim director. The position settled into a permanent one not long after. While getting used to the various requirements of that job, Laughrin was approached by California Department of Fish and Game to expand his research.

The island fox—a subspecies of grey fox specific to the island—nearly went extinct on Santa Cruz Island, but recovered thanks to collaborative efforts by the Nature Conservancy, UC Santa Barbara, and the National Parks Service.

“They asked me if I could look at all the islands and do some population research on all six of the Channel Islands’ foxes,” he said. “So I went out to each island and did some basic trapping, counting, and comparing between the islands.”

While conducting his own research, Laughrin was also in charge of overseeing and facilitating University of California field research. During any given school week, the UCSB Field Station might house students and faculty from UCSB, other University of California schools, or other state universities. Besides biology, geology, and botany students, anthropology and archeology students arrived to uncover ancient Chumash sites on the island, which was home to perhaps as many as 2,000 natives.

“That’s the other cool thing about this job,” Laughrin said. “I’m sort of a biologist with a specialty in birds, small mammals, ecology, and behavior, but [I’m] sitting at the dinner table with all these people coming and going with their specialties and studies. I pick up a little bit of everything.”

A radical change came to Santa Cruz Island in 1980, when it was bought by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy. As it stands today, the National Park Service owns a quarter of the island, with the remaining miles overseen by the Nature Conservancy. The UCSB Field Station on Santa Cruz Island sits in the same valley as the Nature Conservancy headquarters, which is essentially the ranching complex adapted to aid researchers and conservationists.

UCSB, the National Parks Service, and the Nature Conservancy have had to collaborate in several ways over the last few decades, especially after efforts by the latter to restore the island to its native state. Nobody could foresee the challenges that would arise from such efforts—not even Laughrin, who lives on the island, and whose research would end up helping the island fox return from the brink of extinction.


The challenges of restoration

The island scrub jay is the only endemic animal species on Santa Cruz Island.Long thought to be a subspecies of the mainland scrub jay, the island scrub jay is now considered its own species.

It’s difficult to appreciate the size of the roughly 100-square-mile Santa Cruz Island without standing on one of its highest vistas. Two mountainous ridges cut across the island and create the valley where the Nature Conservancy and UCSB Field Station sit. The northern ridge, which faces the mainland of Santa Barbara, culminates at Devil’s Peak, the highest point on all the Channel Islands. The southern mountain chain is an older, more ancient formation.

“This red rock we are standing on, this is the oldest exposed rock on the island; it’s Jurassic age,” Laughrin explained from a ridge on the Southern chain. “[It’s] between 150 to 160 million years old.”

When the Nature Conservancy and National Parks Service took over, there was still a large population of non-native sheep and pigs leftover from the ranching that dominated the island for nearly a century. Though the pigs and sheep didn’t do much to disturb the island fox and other native animal species, the flora that grew free on the steep ridges was easy prey for grazers. The sheep, especially, were difficult to keep track of thanks to the miles upon miles of craggy hills in which they could hide and breed.

“Here’s a case where, basically, you didn’t want to deal with them, so they got pushed up in these high, rugged mountains, and got left all on their own,” Laughrin said. “There’s no predators, virtually no disease, and all they do is reproduce and eat everything down so it basically looks like a moonscape. They remove all the plants, native and non-native, so you get erosion problems, and all the life-sustaining sand is pouring into the ocean as fast is it can.”

The effort to remove the non-native animals from the island took quite some time and a lot of hard work, but ever since the sheep and others were removed, native grasses have thrived where they were once chewed to death.

Other than protecting and restoring wildlife, the Nature Conservancy cares for the historic late-1880s brick ranching buildings on Santa Cruz Island in the interest of cultural preservation.

“Once you get rid of the grazers, it’s pretty amazing how much residual native stuff was in the seed bank,” Laughrin said. “And without anyone there to eat it, it starts proliferating and recovering.”

But unknown to the Nature Conservancy researchers at the time, the sheep and pigs had attracted another animal that enjoyed preying on their small offspring: the golden eagle. This bird was included in 1965’s Bald Eagle Act as a protected species, but having it on the island posed a problem for the island fox living there.

“When [the problem] was identified, we had started finding dead foxes,” Laughrin explained. “The way the eagle kills an animal, it is very characteristic, like taking a glove off, and you end up with the skin off, kind of backwards, and the flesh is eaten away.”

The fox population on Santa Cruz Island began to plummet in the 1990s as the golden eagle grew more adept at killing them. Part of Laughrin’s research reveals why the small mammal was so quickly decimated by the bird.

“They’re naive in one sense because they have really not had much in the way of natural predators,” Laughrin said. “Behaviorally they have lost a lot of that fear that comes when someone is trying to munch them all the time, and that became a big problem when we had the golden eagles becoming a major predator on a series of northern populations.”

Why would the island fox be unaccustomed to avoiding the golden eagle if it evolved off of the coast of California along with the bird over the millennia? The answer lies in an older environmental disturbance that has since been adjusted: DDT. Though the chemical was banned in 1972, that wasn’t soon enough for some. The bald eagle had lived wild on the Channel Islands, but it disappeared in the ’50s when DDT was being used in the ranching there.

“Bald eagles are primarily scavengers or fish eaters,” Laughrin explained, “so they are kind of around the periphery of the island eating fish a lot and scavenging on dead things.”

The island fox, he explained, most likely evolved beside the bald eagle, which didn’t prey on the fox as a primary food source like it does fish. The fox’s crepuscular nature—being most active during the morning and evening—wasn’t just supported by the bald eagle; it was protected. Eagles are fiercely territorial, so any golden eagles that made the flight out to the island would meet an established and territorial bald eagle.

“It goes, the biggest and strongest wins the territory,” Laughrin explained, “but since the balds were in place, it seems they had the ability to harass and keep the goldens off the island.”

The bald eagle has since been reintroduced to the Channel Islands as part of a huge effort to restore the iconic bird’s numbers. But even more challenging was the task of removing the golden eagle, which—although it was technically invasive to the island—was still protected. The Nature Conservancy was tasked with the daunting challenge.

“It was a massively complex project,” said Eamon O’Byrne, the current California Islands project director for the Nature Conservancy, “so much so that it is now in text books.”

Santa Cruz Island’s sprawling length of more than 20 miles is due to a large mountain range that includes Devil’s Peak, the highest point on all of the Channel Islands.

The Nature Conservancy brought to the island several golden eagle experts who were adept at trapping the bird humanely for tagging and tracking purposes. They caught many birds with simple noose traps, Laughrin explained, but animals that tripped the traps but weren’t captured became wary of the bait method.

“It got kind of interesting because they have a whole suite of ways to catch them,” Laughrin said. “They had a couple where they would go to the nests and plant an artificial egg that had a hypodermic needle that’s spring loaded, so when the bird sits on the egg it kind of injects this tranquilizer in the bird, because usually when they settle, they put their chest on it, and there is a nice, big muscle there.

“But that backfired a couple of times where the bird went to settle and [the egg] fired but missed, and that freaked the bird out,” he continued. “The last one was just one of these really wily birds, and they had to chase it by helicopter. This was a method they had used in Wyoming.”

Even after the nesting pairs of golden eagles were removed from the island, immature eagles from the mainland would still journey over the Santa Barbara Channel in search of food and open territory, and without established bald eagles protecting the territory, they found easy prey in the form of the island fox, whose numbers dipped into the hundreds. The Nature Conservancy started a captive breeding facility on the island to restore the fox’s numbers.

“It’s a huge win; we were really worried that we had lost them forever,” O’Byrne said. “When you are under just 100 animals, you are really on the cliff edge, and to bring them back from the brink, I mean, they need constant monitoring, but they really took quite a beating.”


Learning and adapting

Today, Santa Cruz Island can claim a healthy population of island foxes that no longer requires captive breeding. Several nesting bald eagle pairs are present as well, and some of the highest mountaintops and hills are lush with native grasses and shrubs. Laughrin still lives on the island and acts as the field director for UCSB; he and his wife make up the entire U.S. Census population of Santa Cruz Island—and although his 40-year-plus career will soon end, research and preservation efforts haven’t slowed down.

“In the plant world, we are dealing with a lot of non-native plants now,” he said, “so there is research in how they interact with the native stuff. Again, [with] the endemic plants, there is a lot of concern with making sure they have robust populations, so we have people tracking where they live, how they are doing things, and how their population responds over time.”

Santa Cruz Island boasts many fascinating geological formations, including mountains, sheer cliffs, and seaside caves.

The valley that holds the Nature Conservancy and UCSB facilities is home to more than just native plants. The ranchers brought eucalyptus trees, and non-native grass seeds are always hitching rides on visitors’ shoes. Efforts to remove the invasive plants have begun, but their effect on the endemics is being researched as well.

“Certain species, like the Island Fox, they will need our constant aiding,” O’Byrne said. “We saved the fox; now we want to save the landscape on which it thrives and lives.”

Protected and supported fauna on Santa Cruz Island aren’t limited to the island fox. The island scrub jay is a relative of the scrub jay found on the mainland, and was long considered a subspecies of the mainland form, but most recently has been reclassified as its own species, making it one of the only endemic island species in North America. The bird—larger and a deeper blue than its mainland relative—is in danger of possible disease that could make the trip over the channel in the form of West Nile Virus-infected mosquitoes. The Nature Conservancy is collecting research with an aim to give the unique jay another, but not far-off, home.

“There is tantalizing evidence that the jay originally came from Santa Rosa Island,” O’Byrne said. “If we could find out that the scrub jay originally came from Santa Rosa, we could start another population there, almost like a backup population.”

Supporting the scrub jay on another island wouldn’t just boost the bird’s population, but would also help another threatened species: the Channel Island oak tree.

“If you did manage to establish a population on Santa Rosa, you wouldn’t just be saving a species of bird, you would be aiding the feeding of oak acorns all over the island,” O’Byrne explained. “They are very efficient at gathering and storing them; there is no cheaper and more efficient way to distribute oak acorns. It’s way more efficient than if humans did it.”

The island bush poppy is one of the many endemic plant species that has survived and thrived on Santa Cruz Island.

The Nature Conservancy would need collaboration from the National Parks Service and the UC system for such a feat. UC Channel Islands has field stations on both Santa Catalina Island and Santa Rosa Island, and collaboration on that level would be a big undertaking, but nothing unprecedented when Santa Cruz Island is used as a model.

“The evolution of the whole program at the university has been from a kind of slow startup that has kind of ramped up over the years,” Laughrin said. “It’s all walks of life we get out here: the biology, the birds, the bees, the plants, anthropology, geology, and sometimes we get artists who come out here too; it runs the gamut.”

Santa Cruz Island alone is still fertile ground for research projects, as graduate students in many fields know, but it also represents the potential of habitat and wildlife restoration.

“You have to admit it was a very successful ranching operation that was established on the islands,” O’Byrne said, “but that had a lot of unintended consequences on the plants and animals on the island.

“The fact is that ranching and agriculture are absolutely vital for human existence,” he continued, “but the question is, how are we going to do those things to benefit animals and nature? It’s really not an ‘either- or’ proposition. You can protect the needs of humans and nature if you are smart about it, and I think the work we are doing on the islands show that nature is resilient and can come back and thrive even after we do things that we didn’t really think about the consequences of.”

Santa Cruz Island gives a working model of what can be accomplished with an island as far as restoration is concerned. Researchers involved with the UC system, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Parks Service have decades of work to pull from, but there’s plenty more to be learned. 

“When you get down into the insects, there are probably still some endemic, unnamed insects on the island,” Laughrin said. “But, you know, that’s the whole idea of parks and preserved areas; we’re kind of setting aside and trying to hold these things, and keep it under control from our influence as best we can.

“That’s what the Nature Conservancy is all about, and it’s what we are trying to do here,” he continued. “[It’s to] remove all the non-native stuff and let the native stuff keep evolving, but that means we have to make up for lots of years of hammering the place.”


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