2020: A Year Like No Other
The past year has challenged all of us in ways we could never have anticipated. Despite months of warranted civil unrest, the transition to fully remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating through a turbulent election season, Defenders’ Washington D.C.-based headquarters, six field offices and satellite representatives across the nation managed to continue giving a voice to wildlife by advocating for imperiled species and habitat conservation.
The California program was no exception. While adapting to myriad unexpected challenges, our incredible team of conservation advocates worked statewide to stand up for wildlife and wild places.
Introducing the California Team
At the helm of the California team is Pamela Flick, who assumed the role of California program director this year and continues her work to advance species and habitat conservation statewide. In the Mojave Desert, Tom Egan weighs in on renewable energy and endangered species issues as California desert representative, with a special focus on the Agassiz’s tortoise and desert pronghorn. Jeff Aardahl, our California representative, works on protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species in the Mojave and Colorado deserts while advocating for responsible renewable energy projects. Rachel Zwillinger, our water policy advisor, provides expertise on implementation of environmental laws that affect Central Valley wetlands and the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Andy Johnson, who joined Defenders this year as a California representative, is our sea otter expert who focuses on marine and coastal issues. I also joined the team this year as California program coordinator and focus on legislative tracking, program administration and outreach!
The California program is also fortunate to work with several excellent contractors: Kim Delfino, Kate Kelly, Gena Bentall and Hal Candee.
In the Mojave and Colorado deserts, our team worked tirelessly to protect California’s state reptile, the Agassiz’s desert tortoise, as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). We submitted a comprehensive petition to the California Fish and Game Commission to uplist the tortoise’s state listing status from threatened to endangered. The petition was unanimously approved, which granted temporary endangered candidacy. Defenders will continue our work to ensure that the desert tortoise receives the protections necessary to give this species a fighting chance at long-term survival.
Defenders also supported CESA protections to list the iconic Joshua tree as threatened. This success paved the way for our work next year with regional planners to improve long-term protection plans for Joshua trees in a landscape that is rapidly being transformed by renewable energy development and climate change. Another prominent desert species, bighorn sheep, was elevated by Defenders this year through interpretive outreach and promotion of important wildlife corridors and lambing habitat. By continuing ongoing collaborations with our conservation partners next year, we plan to contribute to the removal of cattle grazing from vital habitat for desert tortoises and bighorn sheep on public lands. Defenders will also contribute to the efforts to reintroduce and monitor endangered Sonoran pronghorn on the Chuckwalla Bench.
Much of our work resulted in statewide strides for wildlife conservation. We submitted comments to the California Off-highway Motorized Vehicle Recreation (OHMVR) Division on their proposed regulation changes in 2020, which resulted in cancellation of the proposals. The OHVMR Division attempted to give priority to off-highway vehicle recreation over maintaining wildlife populations and their habitats in all areas where off-highway vehicle recreation is allowed, which is contrary to California law. We also successfully fended off the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken wildlife protections in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. For two years, Defenders organized widespread opposition to amending this plan, which came to fruition this year when the Trump administration formally abandoned its efforts. With the change in federal leadership, we will have an opportunity to fully implement this groundbreaking, landscape-level conservation plan for California deserts.
Central Valley Wetlands & the Bay-Delta
Moving north, our achievements extend into California’s Central Valley waterways. We helped defend endangered Bay-Delta fish against the Trump administration’s efforts to gut Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections and divert more water for industrial agriculture. The new rules eliminated ESA protections that were critical for endangered chinook salmon during their winter- and spring-runs, Delta smelt and several other fish species. We filed a lawsuit in federal court to invalidate the dangerous new water operations, winning preliminary injunctive relief to protect fish during the summer and will continue litigating the merits of the case in the new year.
We worked to defend Bay-Delta species from changes to state regulations as well. Early in the year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife issued CESA permits to authorize the killing of endangered fish incidental to the operation of the state’s water infrastructure. We filed a lawsuit to challenge the new permits as their issuance was in violation of the CESA. Next year, we will work to invalidate these permits, which authorize water project operations in the San Francisco Bay estuary and its watershed to protect endangered salmon and other fish.
Defenders also helped ensure that the State Water Resources Control Board’s new wetlands regulations are used effectively, protecting sensitive habitat. In 2021, we plan to seek stronger Clean Water Act protections for the San Francisco Bay Estuary and its tributary rivers, craft recommendations to ensure annual fallowing of rice fields that will minimize impacts to threatened giant garter snakes, Pacific Flyway birds and other wildlife that rely on rice fields as surrogate wetland habitat. We will also protect the Central Valley Project Improvement Act Restoration Fund, which is a vital source of funding for wildlife refuges in California’s Central Valley.
Forests & Plains
In the coastal range of San Luis Obispo County, Defenders played a key role in protecting nearly 20 square miles of land as the newly designated North Carrizo Ecological Reserve, prioritizing native habitats for a wildlife corridor. The California Fish and Game Commission’s decision to conserve this land as an ecological reserve will ensure that the area’s population of tule elk, San Joaquin kit fox and pronghorn have room to roam in the future and allows for responsible renewable energy development.
In 2021, we will turn our attention to national forests as the U.S. Forest Service initiates forest plan revisions for five northern California national forests, two other forest plans in the southern Sierra Nevada and federal and state resources are directed towards forest restoration and fire prevention. We will continue carrying out our gray wolf coexistence work in northern California through increased use of wolf-livestock reduction tools and strategies.
Ocean & Coast
Along the Pacific, we successfully established a core sea otter team encompassing all four coastal states to address issues throughout the species’ range. We conducted outreach efforts to spread awareness about key sea otter issues through our virtual Sea Otter Awareness Week celebration Collaborating with government agencies, non-profit organizations and universities, we resurrected the Southern Sea Otter Alliance to plan and implement recovery efforts. To help fund statewide sea otter work for years to come, we sponsored and helped secure the passage of SB 587, the California Sea Otter Voluntary Tax Contribution Fund, which will continue this critical funding source for sea otter conservation through 2027.
Defenders and our partners have also worked tirelessly to protect Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area from ongoing vehicle traffic and its associated impacts. To do so, we collaborated to create the People for the Dunes Campaign and submitted detailed comments on drafts of a habitat conservation plan, environmental impact report and a public works plan.
As the new year begins, we’ll continue advocating for coastal wildlife by protecting whale and sea turtle entanglement in Dungeness crab fishing gear, critically evaluating proposals for floating offshore wind energy, promoting responsible aquaculture, cohosting symposiums with sea otter collaborators and working to decrease coastal wildlife disturbance.
Energy & Renewables
Besides our regionally specific achievements, the Defenders team worked on energy procurement initiatives that impact the entire state. Our team seeks to change the way energy planning and procurement is done in California so that conflicts with lands and water that are important for wildlife, plants and communities are avoided and impacts are minimized. To do so, we’ve monitored the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) Renewables Portfolio Standard proceedings, advocated for aggressive reduction of target greenhouse gas emissions and voiced our opposition to the procurement of new fossil fuel resources.
As the CPUC, California Energy Commission (CEC) and California Air Resources Board began their reporting processes in accordance with SB 100, Defenders advocated that energy planning and land use planning are one in the same. We also recommended that the agencies consider impaired lands that will be retired under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and that the team of representatives from these three agencies be expanded to include the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, the California Natural Resources Agency and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In the coming year, we look forward to working closely with the agencies on how best to incorporate land use and environment into energy planning.
The California team has also been integral to offshore wind energy planning in the state. We have been closely tracking the process of floating offshore wind energy and submitted comments to the CEC on its Advance to Next-Generation Offshore Wind Energy Technology research concept. As development of offshore wind energy is becoming a reality in California, we look forward to bringing the lessons learned in land-based energy planning to offshore wind avoiding and minimizing impact to native species and their habitat.
Our state legislative work centered around defending imperiled species in court and supporting bills that protected California’s wildlife. We spoke out in defense of the California spotted owl, native bumblebees and wildlife corridor ordinances in Ventura County. We contributed to AB 1788, which was successfully passed, banning the use of second-generation anti-coagulant rodenticides for use in the urban and suburban environment. The success of this bill greatly benefits predators statewide, including the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, mountain lions, hawks and eagles. As we look toward 2021, we plan to have an active role in the implementation of Governor Newsom’s 30 by 30 executive order in which California pledged to protect 30% of its lands and waters by the year 2030.
Defenders of Wildlife’s California program plans to sustain the momentum we have built up over the past year and carry more wildlife successes into 2021. We will continue to seek new opportunities to advocate for California’s precious wildlife and wild places and anticipate that our next year will be just as full of achievements as the last.