Connected Lands are Resilient Lands

By Dr. Tosha Comendant, Conservation Science Director

As one of only five Mediterranean ecosystems in the world, California is home to a globally exceptional array of plants and animals. Wildlife and their habitats have cultural and spiritual value, deliver essential ecosystem services, and support recreational benefits. In northern California’s Coast Ranges and across the West, subdivision and development splices the natural landscape into increasingly smaller fragments. For reasons we’ll explore, these disconnected landscapes offer less resilience, especially as our climate changes. This is why landscape (or habitat) connectivity has become a crucial component of conservation science and is the focus of Pepperwood’s Linking Landscapes for Wildlife initiative in our 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. To understand why connectivity is important let’s build our own well-connected landscape from scratch in our imaginations, and see how it behaves.

First, envision the core elements of your landscape: the natural bodies of water – streams, seasonal creeks, ponds, lakes, rivers, or the ocean. How are these water bodies connected to the land-based (terrestrial) habitats that surround them – perhaps a woodland, grassland, chaparral community, or desert? Imagine whether it is sunny or shady, and think about what plants grow here? Maybe, through this exercise, you’re imagining one of your favorite places to go hiking, camping, fishing or just a place that gives you peace.

Now that you’ve created a vibrant ecosystem, it’s time to layer in the wildlife. Who relies on the water bodies? Are there fish? Maybe you’ve already added birdsong and are imagining kingfishers swooping or peregrine falcons hunting. Perhaps there’s a large mammalian predator lurking about, stealing itself from the view of the prey animals like black-tailed deer. Add in some smaller creatures like snakes, salamanders, scorpions, insects, earthworms, even bacteria. Don’t forget to include yourself in this place – or maybe your whole family. People need healthy ecosystems too!

The scene is set, the players are in their positions. Now, transform this static and idyllic scene into the humming, busy, crowded orchestra of life that is a fully functioning ecosystem. On your mark, get set, go! Visualize the flow of life in motion! Cue the photosynthesizers to begin transforming carbon from the sun into energy. Cue the grazers and plant-eaters to consume this plant-made energy from the sun. Cue the predators to consume that energy now in the form of prey, large and small. Cue the decomposers to transform death into bioavailable nutrients in the soil. Cue the seed dispersers, and the nitrogen-fixers. Cue the rains and watch the water filter in, finding its eventual way to the bodies of water you imagined first.

Now you can take a step back and gaze at this imagined ecosystem in motion. Thanks to the activities of all living things, there are cycles of mass and energy and that help to to clean the air, filter the water, and nourish the organisms that inhabit this place. This is a well-connected landscape: one where occupants can move through the landscape as needed to get water, to find food, to find shelter, to seduce a mate, and to support the flow of nutrients, water, and energy.

Over the last decade, natural areas in the West – including forests, wetlands, deserts, and grasslands – have been converted to other uses at the rate of one football field every two and a half minutes. Remaining habitats occur in smaller and increasingly fragmented units due to the expansion of roadways and other human infrastructure that creates obstacles to wildlife movement. Losses of suitable habitat have put more than 300 California animal species at or near the brink of extinction, with many other western wildlife species also in severe decline. Sonoma County is known for its lush landscapes, yet it is accruing habitat loss 20% faster than other California counties and 80% faster than elsewhere in the US.

We face substantial gaps in knowledge of population size, distribution, and habitat requirements about most wildlife species. Understanding trends in species abundance and behaviors, such as dispersal and reproduction, are salient to local and regional conservation planning and stewardship actions. We are filling these gaps through our long-term monitoring using wildlife cameras at Pepperwood and Audubon Canyon Ranch’s neighboring Modini Mayacamas Reserve. We have also helped to expand this approach to other sites throughout our region, including partnerships with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. These results can help us to identify barriers to movement, evaluate effective restoration and stewardship measures, and educate everyone in our community to foster a culture of human and wildlife coexistence.

Critical lands surrounding Mount St. Helena, which we call the Heart of the Mayacamas, are the hub of multiple habitat corridors essential to the survival of plants and animals facing multiple threats from habitat loss and climate change. Working with our neighbors who steward these key habitats, we are utilizing the best available research to reduce both physical and social barriers to wildlife movement. This approach offers multiple benefits like increasing forest and grassland health, enhancing water supplies, reducing wildfire hazards, and protecting cultural values. Pepperwood´s holistic approach entails combining wildlife monitoring and landscape analysis with community outreach and local partnerships to increase the pace and scale of conservation actions.

Just for a moment, go back to that place you imagined. What sounds do you hear? Perhaps a babbling brook, a meadowlark’s song, the breeze gently rustling the leaves of the trees, a squirrel vehemently proclaiming its territory, a porcupine ambling through the underbrush, or a beaver slapping its tail on the water. What do you smell? Perhaps some wildflowers, or fresh rain on soil, grass in the morning, pine in the hot sun. Imagine what each of your senses will experience in this place. All of these elements are in motion, flowing through the landscape. You too, in all your motions of daily life, are connected to such places. The water you drink and the air you breathe, even the food you eat relies on these ecological connections. We are all connected, inextricably, to the Earth that surrounds us. Our health, and the health of future generations should be reason enough to want to protect it.

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