On Earth Day 2015, a look at the wild species that live in the East Bay regional parks

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The California Grizzly bear has been immortalized on the state’s flag, but the four-leg symbol is not around California anymore—at least not since 1924, when the last specimen was spotted in Santa Barbara County.

However, other creatures inhabit California’s land, water and sky. The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) includes more than 100,000 acres, 65 parks and more than 1,200 miles of trails in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. These parks, like the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, or the Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond, are home to hundreds of species, both native and invasive, and play an important role in protecting wildlife.

In addition to being a recreational space, these parks host several species, which EBRPD tries to protect by conserving or restoring their habitats. Naturalist Leanne Grossman, works at the district’s Crab Cove Visitor Center in Alameda, which connects people with the marine and shoreline life, said the parks host wildlife from pumas to bobcats, black-tailed deer to California ground squirrels; raccoons, black-tailed jackrabbits; a wide range of amphibians, reptiles, fish, invertebrates, plants and birds, like the endangered species Ridgway’s rail.

“It’s that diversity of the different ecosystems within the East Bay, that either were here before or currently exist, that we are trying to protect,” said Grossman. And these lands may have been home to species we don’t even know about yet. “Our parks are also a tremendous center of anthropological and archeological eco-history,” said Grossman, adding that new fossils may be discovered, showing us species that have become extinct, particularly those that lived in the ocean when the current Bay Area was underwater.

Some of the animal that make their homes in the parks are currently on the federal list of endangered or threatened species for reasons such as loss of habitat. Currently, the drought represents another threat to these animals and vegetation, said Grossman. She said that the drought could “prematurely change habitats, and animals may not be able to adapt quickly enough.”

“For example, if the ponds dry up,” she asked, “What would happen to the already-endangered Tiger salamander?” This salamander lives both on land and in aquatic environments, and needs water in order to breed.

Fire is another threat that comes with the drought, and although the parks district has its own fire department, drought can cause higher risk of fire, leading to the destruction of habitat.

But right now it’s possible to encounter a wide range of species that are still alive and that need conservation. The coyote is one of the animals that people might run into in the parks “that won’t hurt them,” said Grossman. She said that coyotes are often confused with wolves, but there are no gray wolves in the parks right now—in fact, none have been seen here in decades. The coyote is about 4 feet long and about a foot and a half tall; it has tall, pointed ears, and it’s white-gray to brown in color. “Coyotes would run away” if they see people, said Grossman.

Similarly, she said, a mountain lion—also known as puma—won’t attack unless it feels threatened, despite the large feline’s size. It can be 5 to 8 feet long. Their most common prey is the deer, but they can occasionally hunt squirrels and other rodents. Mountain lions have “a beautiful kind of golden or brown color, and the very tip of the tail has a dark spot, as if the mountain lion had tipped it’s tail in black ink,” Grossman described.

They coexist with a smaller feline, the bobcat, which is only 15 to 25 pounds; it’s half the size of the mountain lion and has darker spots in its legs. Although attacks by bobcats are rare, they can turn to hunting pets if they see themselves deprived of their natural prey, something to take into account when walking with dogs in the parks.

“People are thrilled and scared of the mountain lion, but I think people love to see deer,” said Grossman. Black-tailed deer, she said, “have been on this land for thousands of years” and “have definitely become less afraid” of people, adding that deer don’t have good vision but possess very good hearing and smell. That allows them to run from their predators—coyotes and mountain lions—perhaps even before they see them.

Regional parks are places where native species coexist with some invasive species, which might threaten their existence. That’s the case for the Western pond turtle, a species native to the Pacific coast that now has to share its habitat with the invasive species of turtle called the Red-eared slider. The Red-eared slider “seems to be pushing out the western pond turtle, at least in our pond, because it’s about a third larger, and by virtue of that it eats more and may lay more eggs as well” said Grossman, referring to the Crab Cove’s freshwater pond. “It doesn’t mean that the pond turtle is going extinct,” she added.

Isa Polt-Jones, a spokesperson from EBRPD’s public affairs division, said that “nearly everything we do” at the parks affects wildlife conservation. “ We always have research going,” she wrote in an email, listing several initiatives such as an integrated pest management program, which provides ecological practices for the control of plant and animal pests; and ongoing studies involving birds and turtles.

The red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander, the Alameda whipsnake and the Diablo sunflower are some of the species that have benefited from the EBRPD’s Resource Enhancement Program, created 17 years ago, states its website. Its main goal is to protect or restore animal and plants habitats that have been affected negatively by human activities or natural causes. In the context of this program, EBRPD has also developed public access to the parks, preserved open space and created landscape linkages between protected areas, states the organization’s website.

Anyone can become a member of the Wildlife Volunteers, a group of people of all ages who collaborate to improve the life of animals in the regional parks; other volunteer-based programs focus on habitat restoration. For instance, volunteers met on Aril 18th for a special activity for Earth Day, participating in activities to clear up and de-clog the shoreline, creeks, and rivers in three regional parks.

The parks’ educational programs include working people from all ages and backgrounds, said naturalist Grossman, and even preschoolers. “The goal is to get children out in of nature at an early age so they can enjoy it, but also come to appreciate it,” said Grossman. “Perhaps in the future, they will be the protectors of nature.”

People interested in signing up as volunteers for different programs can do it through EBRPD’s website. The site also offers a detailed calendar with activities that go from hiking to animal fed, and can be found here.

Below is a list of links to the images used in this story. These photos were not necessarily captured in the East Bay Parks, but they represent the species found here:

Puma or mountain lion by fPat Murray; a coyote by Yellowstone National Park; a Red-legged frog by Brent M.; Tiger salamander by Pacific Southwest Region; Alameda whipsnake USFWS Headquarters; Sunflower by Mathesont; raccoon by Mirko Zigelski; bald eagle by Doug Brown ; California ground squirrel by S. Rae ; Black-tailed jackrabbit by Dan Dzurisin; bobcat Valerie; Ridgeway’s rail by Andrew Fisher/USFWS; Western pond turtle by Richard Griffin; Red-ear slider by Dagmar Collins, Black-tailed deer TJ Gehling.

 

East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) has 65 parks in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Map source: EBRPD.

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