Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.


Group Releases Report on Regional Effects of 2003 Wildfires on Endangered Species, Calls for Additional Environmental Review for Development Projects

Contact: Monica Bond, Center for Biological Diversity (909) 659-6053 x304
More Information: Fire and Forest Health Web, Report

Idyllwild, CA — The Center for Biological Diversity ("Center") released a report Tuesday analyzing the potential regional effects of the October 2003 southern California wildfires on four species listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The coastal California gnatcatcher, least Bell's vireo, Quino checkerspot butterfly, and southern California mountain yellow-legged frog have U. S. ranges restricted to southwestern California, and their habitats were all impacted by the recent fires. The report also calls for federal, state, and local agencies to conduct supplemental environmental review of projects that may impact these species because baseline conditions have changed as a result of the fires.

In October 2003, more than a dozen wildfires swept across southern California, burning over 740,000 acres. About 95 percent of the fire burned in chaparral and coastal sage scrub. Government agencies often assess local impacts of individual fires on species of concern, but no data were available about the cumulative impacts of all the fires on these species. The proliferation of extremely large development projects and regional permits authorizing significant amounts of "take" of these species in southern California, prompted the Center to conduct the analysis of the potential regional impacts of the fires.

The Center used GIS data provided by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Game to analyze the potential effects of the 2003 wildfires on known locations, modeled habitat, and designated critical habitat for each species throughout its range. The results indicate that wildfires burned 19% of critical habitat and 27% of known locations of the Quino checkerspot butterfly; 12% of modeled habitat for mountain yellow-legged frog; 4% of known locations, 16% of critical habitat, and 28% of modeled habitat for the California gnatcatcher; and 3% of critical habitat and 2% of modeled habitat for least Bell's vireo.

"We recognize that fire is a natural and important ecological disturbance in southern California," stated Monica Bond, Center biologist and primary author of the report. "However, burned habitat can be rendered temporarily unsuitable for these species until vegetation re-grows. The information in the report can be used as a starting point to re-evaluate the baseline conditions for these species in the wake of the 2003 fires." The response of organisms to fire also is complicated by human-caused impacts such as the invasion of non-native species and fragmentation and isolation of habitat patches due to urban sprawl. These impacts also must be evaluated with respect to changes in baseline conditions.

"The federal and state wildlife agencies must consider the local and landscape-level effects of the fires when determining the cumulative impacts of current and future development projects and large-scale habitat conservation plans in the region," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney for the Center.

U. S. Geological Survey research indicates that past fire suppression and fuel buildup are not responsible for chaparral fires because extensive fires are the norm in these habitat types -- although humans are responsible for most ignitions and have increased fire frequency over the past century. While fire is natural and inevitable in southern California, developers must be responsible for siting and designing development projects to protect human communities from fire. Experts suggest that avoiding development in fire-prone areas, using fire-resistant building design, and providing defensible space around communities are the measures most effective at preventing loss of homes and human life.

The Center for Biological Diversity (“the Center”) is a non-profit, public interest environmental organization dedicated to the protection of native species and their habitats through science, policy, and environmental law. The Center has over 9,000 members throughout California and the United States.


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