Endangered Species: Not Just a Polar Bear’s Issue

During a meeting of the UC Irvine Environmental Law Society a few weeks ago, we were having a discussion about getting involved with an environmental cause. While the currently popular subject of polar bears came up, I was surprised that nobody knew about the local species that are in need of our help.
In California, there are 289 endangered species, and many of them can be found in Orange County. With the help of UCI professor Dr. Peter Bryant’s Natural History of Orange County Web site, I put together a short list of a few local species of concern for you to discover.
California red-legged frogs, Rana aurora draytonii, are found locally, and are a species considered near-endemic to California. This means that they are found almost exclusively in California, with the exception of small populations in Baja California. Unfortunately, development has eliminated over 70 percent of their habitat. They can vary greatly in color, but have characteristic red coloring on the underside of their hind legs and abdomen. These frogs can be found in the canyons of the Santa Ana mountains, in riparian habitats. Through the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, there are guided hikes in these canyons which might yield views of this species.
Light-footed clapper rails, or Rallus longirostris levipes, are a species of chicken-like birds found in estuaries or wetlands where fresh water and saltwater meet. Our local Upper Newport Bay is one of the last remaining strongholds of this subspecies. The light-footed clapper rail is a gorgeous cinnamon-colored bird that is aptly named. Its call sounds like a person clapping his or her hands together starting slowly, and then building speed. This is actually one way to locate the species, and birders often use this technique at dawn to identify them.
California gnatcatchers, Polioptila californica, are another endangered species, and one I am particularly fond of due to the large amount of attitude coming from such a small creature. They are tiny birds, found in coastal sage scrub plant communities. They are bluish-gray with black caps on their heads and have a distinct mewing call, often described as sounding like a kitten. In California, this species is in decline because its habitat needs are so specific, and when we build beautiful, big new houses on prime coastal real estate, we push them out. A great local spot to find this species is at Crystal Cove State Beach.
Another species which requires coastal sage scrub habitat for survival is the Pacific pocket mouse. Pacific pocket mice, Perognathus longimembris pacificus, are a species that a few of you may already be familiar with, as it was cited often in the fight against the proposed toll road that would have cut through Trestles State Beach. These mice are small, and feed on seeds and some insects, living in sandy coastal habitats. They were thought to be extinct until 1993, when a small population was discovered. They are under threat not only from habitat loss, but from predation by non-native species like Argentine ants and domestic pets like cats and dogs.
Salt Marsh Bird’s Beak, Cordylanthus maritimus maritimus, is a very cool endangered species of plant found in Southern California. This is a hemi-parasitic plant, meaning it can photosynthesize to a certain extent, but also sends out roots to steal nutrients from other plants. It lives in salt marshes, and actually concentrates and excretes salt from its leaves, giving the plant a crusty appearance. This species can be found at Upper Newport Bay, though you may need to browse through a Jepson Manual before heading out to try and get a look.
A species endemic not only to California but found only in Orange County is the Laguna Beach Live-forever, Dudlea stolonifera. It’s a small, bright yellow flower, and currently there are only around 10,000 known plants. That’s it. It’s pretty difficult to find much information about this rare plant, but currently there is research being done on it, which can be found though the Orange County Society for Conservation Biology.
This is just a small collection of the vast amount of species that are threatened or endangered right in our own backyard. Not enough people understand that conservation isn’t just about the highly visible issues, like polar bears and rainforests (not to downplay their importance by any means), but I feel that what is right in our own backyards is just as deserving of our effort and attention.