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The role of wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers in safeguarding wildlife

Wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers are where many of the incredible creatures we love call home. From black bears and trout that roam and swim in the Sierra, to bees, newts, and elusive desert dwellers, such as Chuckwallas, the wildlife that resides on our planet and their well-being play a more crucial role in our natural world than you may even imagine. Wilderness areas, by nature, are key in helping maintain the genetic diversity that is essential for the continued health and vitality of not just wildlife themselves, but for humanity. Bees, for example, are responsible for pollinating 75% of the world’s flowering plants and 35% of the world’s crops. This means we have bees to thank for one out of every three bites of food we eat. For today, National Endangered Species Day, we’ll explore the importance of wilderness in supporting wildlife, the threats wildlife face, and highlight a few California-specific endangered species and ways you can help.

2023 marks a significant milestone for wildlife conservation in the United States: the 50th Anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This landmark piece of legislation solidified our nation’s dedication to protecting imperiled fish, plants, and wildlife, along with the habitats that sustain them. Over the past half-century, the ESA has played a critical role in preventing the extinction of hundreds of species and promoting the recovery of many others. For example, they provided protection for the bald eagle in the mid-1900s by performing habitat protection and banning harmful insecticides. However, even with the great work accomplished by means of the ESA, many of our species face ever increasing threats.  Environmental degradation, habitat loss, and disease are just a few threats that are amplified by a rapidly changing climate.

Our March ED report discussed a study released by NatureServe, that showed a shocking amount of plants and animal species are in the United States are at a risk of extinction. The study brought together data from years of work and data to create a picture of how many species are imperiled. The report found that 34% of all plant species and 40% of all animal species are at risk of extinction in the United States. The study also looked at different ecosystem types to assess how much of those lands have been degraded or lost and concluded that 41% of these ecosystems are at risk of collapse.

While the study covers the entire United States, California stood out for several reasons, one of them being its size, geographic features, and landscape diversity. Because of this extensive diversity, it makes California the state with the highest percentage of at-risk plants and animals.

The benefit of wild places for wildlife:

Simply put, Wilderness areas provide a safe home for thousands of plant and animal species. Wilderness areas contain relatively undisturbed lands and waterways. Since logging and other harmful activities are prohibited, these places create vital living conditions for all wildlife. Our wilderness areas also provide us with the open space to safely view these animals in their natural habitat, giving us our own personal connection to them.

A few endangered or threatened species (federally listed) in California:

Desert tortoise

Desert tortoise – Desert tortoises are a keystone species, which means they have a higher influence over their ecosystem than other species in the system. Desert tortoises are a keystone species because they have a symbiotic relationship with other species that share their habitat. Certain species, like the Gila monster, roadrunners and burrowing owls, benefit from using the tortoises burrows after it has moved elsewhere. Desert tortoises eat a variety of grasses, shrubs, cacti, and wildflowers, and get much of their water from succulents.


Northern Spotted Owl photo by © Robin Loznak

Northern spotted owl – Northern spotted owls are an indicator species, which means their presence in old-growth forests indicates a healthy ecosystem. These owls can be found in northwestern California, western Oregon and Washington, and southwestern British Columbia. Northern spotted owls are non-migratory and prefer old-growth forests, particularly Douglas fir forests – that typically take 150 to 200 years to mature.

A Male San Joaquin kit fox. Photo by Peterson B Moose, USFWS.

San Joaquin kit fox –Small but mighty, this fox only weighs 5 pounds when fully grown. The San Joaquin kit fox roams throughout much of the valley floor and foothills of the San Joaquin Valley from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south. These foxes use their time wisely, as they commonly use dens constructed by other animals, and move around often. In fact, they can have up to thirty multi-chambered dens each year. This fox is specially adapted for its desert habitat as it uses its large, close-set ears to help dissipate heat, keeping it cool in the hot desert.


Small ways you can help:

#1: Advocate for the protection of  wilderness. Wildlife must have places to find food, shelter and raise their young. Logging, oil and gas drilling, over-grazing, and development all result in habitat destruction. Not just endangered species’ habitats, but all habitats should be protected so these impacts are minimized. You can take direct action by signing this petition to ensure local land managers in the BLM prioritize conservation as a means to protect their habitat.

#2: To know them is to love them. To love them is to protect them. Share information about one of these creatures above with a friend or family member. These animals are your nature neighbors. A step to protecting them is learning about how interesting and important they are.

#3: Volunteer your time. You might consider volunteering your time or skills to a local wildlife refuge or organizations that aim to promote and improve habitats for various species. Alternatively, if you have a particular affinity for a specific species, you could make a donation to an organization that works to protect them in that area.

#4: Learn and support the 30×30 initiative. Scientists say protecting 30% of our lands and coastal waters by 2030 can protect and restore California’s wilderness for plants and animals, help keep our oceans clean, and restore needed balance to our environment.

By preserving and designating wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers, we are taking a significant step toward a future where we can coexist with nature – ensuring the survival of species for generations to come.