Recreating a Lost Ecosystem – The Santa Barbara Independent


For decades, human activity had completely driven burrowing owls and other animals and plants from an open space beyond the bend of Storke Road as it made its way to Isla Vista. In the open space of the North Campus, some of these species are now returning thanks to the efforts of staff, volunteers and students to restore the old ecosystem to its former health and repair many years of ecological damage.

The deepest injury came in the form of a golf course laid out in 1965 on wetlands and adjacent highlands, which was later turned into an oil spill site in the 1980s. But even actions apparently benign also played an important role. When residents introduced tall Australasian trees such as eucalyptus, they offered the Red-tailed Hawk, already populated in California, vantage points from which raptors could pounce on their unsuspecting prey. According to greenhouse manager Wayne Chapman, planting a single eucalyptus tree is like “blasting a burrowing owl with a shotgun.” Other animals such as snakes and squirrels, which often build the burrows in which owls take shelter, are also victims of the hawk.

Long considered extinct, the Ventura Marsh Milk-vetch is undergoing resuscitation efforts. | Credit: NCOP

Since the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration purchased the land in 2013, Chapman, Director of Ecosystem Management Lisa Stratton and other staff have approached the project with great precision. Each elevation is built not only to accommodate its own inhabitants but also to ensure the survival of the collective ecosystem. Closest to the water are the mudflats where birds collect clams for food; further afield are the highlands populated by bees and other pollinators that breathe life into newly reintroduced plants. Although more than 100 acres of land now resembles the original land, restoration coordinator Andy Lanes highlighted sustainability measures taken in the face of emerging challenges. “With the rise in sea level, we need a buffer against the floods,” he explained. “We undertook this project in a way that allowed geological uplift and sedimentation to keep pace with sea level rise and also created an interior space that ecosystems can retreat into.”

In order to reintroduce the extinct plants, the restoration team obtains two kinds of seeds from the most genetically similar populations: one that flowers immediately and one that awaits perfect environmental conditions. Once both are planted, the growth process is monitored and recorded, with each specimen tagged to track germination rates. Since planting began in 2017, catering staff, volunteers and student workers have installed over 350,000 plants in addition to 650,000 purple needle weeds.

Artificial burrows are created to provide migrating burrow owls with shelter from predators and the elements. | Credit: NCOP

But despite all laborious human efforts, unexpected forces can often thwart their designs. Flocks of ravenous geese are a recurring threat to plants. Other times there are more positive results. At the end of the 1990s, two biologists met an unusual plant growing on an oil field; it was later identified as the Ventura Marsh Milk Vetch, considered extinct for at least 30 years. Today, Open Space is an epicenter of resuscitation efforts. “It’s possible that dormant seeds hitched a ride in the soil that was used to fill the oil removal site,” Chapman said. “These seeds can remain viable for decades. “

Restoration of the area is not limited to natural formations. Dotted across the landscape are planks of wood resting on the ground; Whenever predators approach or the sun gets too unbearable, snakes and other small reptiles can squirm below for shelter. Fences mark out areas in which animals can roam freely, preventing them from wandering on the roads. In Santa Barbara County, the summer months are often mercilessly dry; Chapman plans to install a guzzler, a sort of underground water fountain from which animals can hydrate.

And finally, there are the burrows in which the owls make their winter quarters. Some are of natural origin, while others were made from rocks by staff. Chapman noted that the first owls are expected to arrive now. “When an owl revisits Open Space, it usually comes back to the same burrow it last settled in,” he said. “This is how we know which ones lived and which died.”

Tours of the North Campus Open Space are offered every third Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and meet at the Carlton-Duncan Visitors’ Plaza. Free parking is available at 6969 Whittier Drive in Goleta.

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