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The Endangered Species Act hits 50 years old: Plants in Channel Islands cited as ESA success story

The Santa Cruz island Dudleya is one of two plants being taken off the Endangered Species List because of its recovery from near extinction.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Santa Cruz island Dudleya is one of two plants being taken off the Endangered Species List because of its recovery from near extinction.

Researchers, scientist, conservation leaders gather in Ventura to celebrate recovery of two endangered plants, and the ESA's anniversary.

They are the kinds of stories you hear on the news. A type of fish, a bird, a lizard, or a plant is teetering on the brink of extinction. With issues like loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change, many species are embattled.

So, it was refreshing this week to see more than a hundred researchers, and park officials gathering in Ventura to celebrate a victory: Two rare plants only found in the Channel Islands have recovered to the point where they can be removed from the Endangered Species List.

"One plant is Island Bedstraw, and that's a shrub that occurs formerly only on cliff sides, but since feral animals have been removed, it's come up in flat terraces. And, there's the Island Dudleya, which is a little succulent plant that's only found on Santa Cruz island," said Ken Niessen, who is a botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said the plants were largely pushed to the brink of extinction by non-native grazing animals introduced to the islands, like pigs. Once the non-native species were removed, the plants started to recover.

"It shows the Endangered Species Act Works," said Niessen. "It shows the value of planning, and collaboration, and execution."

Conservationists say this win is about more than about saving two plant species in the Channel Islands. It shows what’s possible if we put resources into saving endangered species.

"I think of them as laboratories or outdoor classrooms. You'll see generations of work culminating in today's event," said Ethan McKinley, who is Superintendent of Channel Islands National Park. He talks about the symbolism of saving the two species.

"We have hope. We know these things can work," said McKinley. He admits it isn't easy. "It takes a tremendous amount of work."

Researchers and conservation officials gathered at the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center in Ventura for a celebration. It’s not just honoring the plant’s recovery. It’s also a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which helped make saving the plants possible.

"The ESA is an incredibly powerful tool," said Matt Strickler, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

"99% of the plants and animals that have been protected under the ESA are still with us. But, the challenges to recover them are significant," said Strickler.

While researchers and conservationists are celebrating, they also acknowledge we are facing huge challenges, with other species in the Channel Islands still in crisis.

"We have 13 more (plant) species on the Endangered Species List," said McKinley. He said the goal is to get them off the list by 2035.

McKinley said as we commemorate 50 years of the Endangered Species Act, unfortunately, the need for it hasn’t dissipated. In fact, he said there are new challenges.

"What we're looking at out in the Channel Islands is really strong impacts from climate change, and invasive species...our efforts need to ramp up to face that challenge," said McKinley.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.