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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Partners with U.S. Navy to Delist Endangered Species on San Clemente Island

24 January 2023

From MC1 Sara Eshleman

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND – San Clemente Island is one of eight California Channel Islands. It is the Southernmost island in the archipelago, just 21 miles long, and it is best known for its status as a military training site.
SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND – San Clemente Island is one of eight California Channel Islands. It is the Southernmost island in the archipelago, just 21 miles long, and it is best known for its status as a military training site. Administered by Naval Base Coronado, it is operated by the United States Navy, and the service members who work on the island affectionately call it “The Rock.” So, it can be unexpected to learn that it is also a success story in the field of wildlife conservation. Though the general public may not think the Navy synonymous with conservation efforts, it might be surprising to learn that the Navy has been a diligent steward to the island’s immensely diverse flora and fauna since 1934, when it was acquired by the service. In exchange for using the island to conduct their military operations and trainings, the Navy has upheld the laws set forth by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and served as an advocate to the many protected plant and animal species that make their home on San Clemente Island. And today is a good day for five specific such specimens - the San Clemente Island paintbrush, lotus, larkspur, bush-mallow and San Clemente Bell’s sparrow, which have made a huge comeback.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the four species of plant and one bird species endemic to San Clemente Island will be removed from the endangered species list due to substantial resurgence, thanks to the efforts of Naval Base Coronado and Commander, Pacific Fleet wildlife biologists and botanists.

“I take care of all of the botanical resources out here on San Clemente Island,” said Bryan Munson, Botany manager aboard Naval Base Coronado. “San Clemente Island is the most botanically unique of all of the California Channel Islands. There are 17 plant species that are found here that are found nowhere else in the world. Of those, six are on the endangered species list, so the Navy is the sole steward for managing those species, and of those six listed, four of them are currently proposed to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act, which is a huge accomplishment.”

The announcement auspiciously coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Some of the specimens slated for delisting were amongst the first to be named by the protective article, which is indicative of the enormous coups this is for conservation.

“It’s amazing because it shows that the Endangered Species Act works,” said Munson. “And not just that the Endangered Species Act works, but particularly that the Endangered Species Act works on a very heavily utilized military island. And so, the Navy has promoted this recovery, the Navy has partnered with a variety of agencies; we’ve worked very closely with San Diego State University who’s implemented restoration sites and a lot of other programs on the island. And so, it’s just the culmination of everything. Showing that the Navy can do this on one of its most heavily trained areas in all of Southern California.”

San Clemente Island is home to the United States Navy Seals training facilities, and it also serves as is the primary maritime training area for the Navy Pacific Fleet, and other sea, air and land forces, housing the impact area known as the Shore Bombardment Area (SHOBA) on the Southern end of the island. Though the training schedule is heavy and frequent, only a small portion – just under 10% - of the island is utilized for the high-impact
evolutions, which leaves the remainder of the island open for the business of conservation.

Prior to the Navy’s acquisition of the island in 1934, San Clemente Island was historically used for livestock ranching, and scores of voracious goats, pigs and sheep scoured the landscape – leaving it resembling a moonscape – bringing the native flora and fauna to the brink of extinction. Part of the Navy’s conservation mission was relocating the non-native species (it is rumored that in the mainland town of San Clemente, one can purchase San
Clemente Island goat cheese rendered from relocated goats) to enable a comeback for native species. And make a comeback they did.

“Because this is a Navy island, the Navy is obligated to practice stewardship; to practice care of natural resources because ultimately, these are public lands, said Melissa Booker, wildlife biologist in charge of terrestrial wildlife and seabirds for Naval Base Coronado. “The Navy holds
these in public trust, and therefore, it takes care of them. So, when it comes off the Endangered Species list, that’s really a signal that all the work we have done is coming to fruition.”

In addition to the removal of non-native species, the Navy implemented erosion and fire control practices, constantly surveying and monitoring the programs. This led directly to the recovery of the five species, an unusually large number of organisms to be delisted at one time, yet apropos to the spirit of the 50th anniversary milestone.

“To be here in a historic moment is very exciting,” said Booker. “Particularly at a time when I think it’s easy to get depressed about what’s happening in our environment, when we see habitats being lost, when we see impacts; to have an area like San Clemente Island where we’re seeing the opposite. The species are recovering, the habitats are expanding, the populations are
resilient. This is I think the good news story that we all need. I think this is what makes us get up and come to work in the morning as biologists, what makes us have a belief in the Endangered Species Act, and what makes me proud to work for the Navy as a steward for the environment. So, I’m super excited, and I look forward to the future. I have a great faith in the fact that these species will continue to thrive, even without the formal protection of the act, because I really do believe that the Navy in this case is committed to stewarding these species and managing them.”

Yet, the work is not complete, and the Navy will remain committed in the development of delisting monitoring programs for the species, ensuring they remain in their new status quo.

“I think the biggest take home from this delisting is how all the different things marry together,” said Kim O’Connor, conservation program manager for Pacific Fleet. “I think if you asked the general public, they’d be surprised that an island that hosts this level of training is also recovering not just listed species, but ecosystem-wide recovery. But the nature of what we do out here creates large tracts of undeveloped land which are suitable habitat for wildlife, and then the funding from the Navy’s Commander Pacific Fleet program and the activities of the Navy in terms of being stewards of the environment has really led to the management of the threats and support for the recovery. So that is why we’re here.”

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