Collecting Seeds to Conserve California

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Our first trip to the Wild Animal Park was not a visit to the Park itself, but rather it was to the “Back 900”, the 900 or so acres of unspoiled native San Diego habitat that surrounds the Park. We drove out into the backyard of the Park to collect the seeds of California sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Most San Diegans do not know about the many natural treasures our county houses. San Diego County is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, meaning that there is a tremendous diversity of plant and animal species that exists only here. Endangered species such as the California sagebrush and the California gnatcatcher, a tiny gray bird that depends on the coastal sage scrub ecosystem, can only be found here in our county.

I am pouring out the seeds that we collected to be weighed.

We collected seeds from nearly 100 different individuals of California sagebrush so that the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research could collect and store seeds with as much genetic diversity for the species as they could. There were many reasons to go out that day and collect seeds, and each reason is rooted in conservation. Because of the unique diversity of habitats in San Diego County, this species has a very limited range, and that range seems to be shrinking due to non-native and invasive species of plants throwing off the balance of the ecosystem. For the species’ sake, we collected seeds to grow at the Botanical Conservation Center and to plant later in places where the ecosystem has been damaged or degraded. But we also labored with the intent of helping the wildlife that depends on the coastal sage scrub ecosystem. The California gnatcatcher relies on that particular habitat for a variety of needs, and, with the decline of a dominant plant species like California sagebrush, the gnatcatcher is suffering. The conservationists at the Wild Animal Park grow plants and place them strategically to restore the habitat so it can best benefit the animals that need them. Some of the plants that are collected by the ecologists are going to be used for restoration purposes. Two main restoration projects are currently underway. One involves taking 20 acres of land, restoring half of it to its natural state, and observing how the wildlife reacts to its natural habitat returning. This project will be working closely with local land managers so that, in the future, there will be research and protocols to refer to when they are restoring land. The other active project involves restoring habitat for the coastal cactus wren. This bird is extremely picky, only nesting in cacti that are more than one meter tall, and is an endangered Southern California native species. To the conservationists at the Park, there is quite a bit of urgency in restoring its habitat.

The beauty of the Wild Animal Park is that it is a sanctuary and that it feels wild. But, for me, this beauty was surprisingly overshadowed by the majesty of the wilds of San Diego. Going out into the “Back 900” of the Park opened my eyes to the wonders hiding in our own backyards. It is easy to think of the exotic places of the world and see why they need to be saved, but it is hard for some to see why the coastal sage scrub of San Diego County should be preserved. The simple truth is that our county boasts more diversity of flora and fauna than a majority of the planet, and that should be grounds enough for us all to make an effort to conserve the unique beauty that we witness everyday.

Elise, Conservation Team