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Unarmored threespine stickleback
Santa Clarita Valley Signal, February 1, 2009

In spite of sprawl, a tiny fish fights to survive
By Jim Holt

The unarmored three-spine stickleback is one tough little prickly survivor.

As a freshwater fish the size of a minnow, fighting for its life in a quasi-desert terrain, the stickleback has survived every single major drought since the glaciers from the most recent ice age melted about 10,000 years ago and has managed to dodge every predator two to 10 times its size.

It survived the dustbowl days of the "Dirty Thirties" and it outlasted Southern California's last extended drought in the early '90s.

But can it survive the ever-changing Santa Clarita Valley?

Local residents are invited to help answer that question in the next couple of weeks as Forest Service officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture get ready to give the fish an extreme home makeover.

Forest Service rangers with the Santa Clara/Mojave River Ranger District of the Angeles National Forest are drafting a plan to makeover a section of the Bouquet Creek, just south of the Texas Canyon Fire Control Station.

They want to improve the habitat conditions for the federally endangered fish, and want to hear from the animal's most recent neighbors - the residents of Santa Clarita Valley.

Some have already expressed contempt for the fish, however, using spray paint to deface signs put up to protect the stickleback on the banks of the Santa Clara River at the San Francisquito Creek confluence.

"There are signs of ‘No Off-Road Vehicles' posted near the confluence (near the western end of Avenue Tibbets) not to enter those areas because of endangered plants and animals. Someone has gone down there and (defaced) all the signs and painted over the word ‘No,'" local environmentalist Teresa Savaikie said.

"We're slowly killing the Santa Clara River," she said.

On Saturday, this reporter found at least four of the "no off-roading" signs systematically defaced with red spray paint covering the word "no" and a compacted dirt road bearing tire marks on the banks of the same creek.

The Santa Clara River is the stickleback's home. It lives primarily in tributaries that feed into the river.

It lives no other place on the planet. Both the critter and its creeks are unique in the world.

The Santa Clara River is still the longest free-flowing river in Southern California and the only one that winds through a pronounced and ruggedly dynamic topography of mountains from the desert to the ocean.

As the glaciers melted and the river sharpened those characteristics that make it unique, from desert to sea, it attracted hundreds of unique plants and animals, lizards, birds and fish.

None of them more profoundly affected than the unarmored threespine stickleback - unarmored because it has fewer scales than other sticklebacks, three-spined due to three spike-like fins on its back and stickleback because that's where the fins are.

Recent wildfires, coupled with the heavy rains of 2004 and 2005, and even the snow that fell six weeks ago, have converted a section of the Bouquet Creek near Texas Canyon from a single meandering channel of water into a "braided stream."

Rangers want to "un-braid" the stream and return it to its natural configuration.

"This is a highly endangered species, so it's important to we restore its habitat," said Stanton Florea, spokesman for the Forest Service of the Angeles National Forest.

"If the creek is restored and the habitat improved, this will allow it an area to reproduce," he said.

The stickleback has eluded predators all these years partly because it can swim where bigger fish cannot.

"Directing water into a single channel will allow for a steady flow of water for this stream quality and alignment," Michael J. McIntyre, acting district ranger, said in his notice to the community inviting input about the plan.

His makeover proposal for the creek is expected to enable officials in his office to comply with both the Endangered Species Act and the revised Forest Land Management Plan of 2005.

"The stickleback is a bellwether," said Ileen Anderson, biologist with the Center of Biological Diversity.

"If you can't keep a fish around that's been around for thousands of years, that's tough enough to weather the boom and bust of hydrology, then there's something else going on that isn't good for the fish but probably isn't good for humans either," she said.

In the last couple of decades, about 90 percent of the stickleback's habitat has been destroyed.

It's the next few years, however, that will prove the most detrimental for the stickleback as an unprecedented number of homes are expected to be built on both sides of the Santa Clara River inside the watershed of tributaries the wee fish calls home.

"It's hanging on in certain areas of the Santa Clara watershed and one of those is Bouquet Canyon," Anderson said.

The stickleback's home is less than 12 miles from some of Santa Clarita Valley's most ambitious home development projects.

The stretch of Bouquet Creek slated to be "un-braided," is about 11 miles from Tick Canyon where at least 492 new homes have been approved for construction.

It's also the same distance from almost 500 other homes scheduled to be built in Spring Canyon and also from the site in Soledad Canyon where the city has fought to keep Cemex Inc. from operating a massive sand and gravel mine.

For the stickleback, the slowdown in the housing market is proving to be the calm before the storm of bulldozers gearing up to transform land around creeks into single-family homes.

The county Department of Regional Planning has approved projects that usher in more than 2,420 new homes on the far side of Canyon Country. And if you count the developments that are pending, the population of Canyon Country will mushroom to include more than 3,800 new residents in the next few years, in and around the Santa Clara River and Highway 14.

While the stickleback calls all of Santa Clara River its territory, one of the valley's biggest developments is unfolding on the banks of the river on the other side of the valley. More than 21,000 homes are expected to be built as part of Newhall Ranch.

In its environmental impact report prepared for the state, Newhall Land and Farming Co. detailed how it intends to coexist with the stickleback by promising to preserve the river's watershed.

"It's not just encroachment," Savaikie said. "It's constricting the river."

Another challenge facing the stickleback, according to biologists is groundwater pumped from areas near creeks where it lives. Jeff Ford, acting water resources manager for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, said most of the groundwater pumped in Santa Clarita Valley is downstream from the fish's creek habitat.

"Up in that area, the local water companies do not have any wells," he said Friday. "Their wells are farther downstream. There may be some private wells in that area (near Texas Canyon) and this could potentially lower the (water) levels."

To comment on the stickleback or the agriculture department's plan to improve its habitat, send comments to Pete Johnston, by e-mail at Pjohnston@fs.fed.us or by mail to the department's District Wildlife Biologist at 28245 Avenue Crocker, suite 220, Valencia, CA, 91355.

© 2008 The Signal

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton