Solving Problems That Don’t Exist—Yet

If you see a big blue bird on Santa Cruz Island, you’re looking at a very unusual conservation problem.

Unusual because right now there isn’t really a problem.

The island scrub-jaywhich occurs nowhere else in the world – appears to be doing just fine. Its population, though small (roughly 3,000 individuals), appears stable. And it’s not listed as threatened or endangered. Moreover, the entirety of its range—Santa Cruz Island, just 20 miles off the coast of Southern California—has been protected by The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.

But unfortunately, land protection alone won’t secure the future for this species—the only island-endemic landbird in all of North America.

Looking out from the island toward the southern California mainland we can see a number of threats on the horizon. In many ways, looking toward the mainland is like looking to the future.

On the mainland, for example, West Nile virus is now prevalent. Remarkably, the disease is not yet on the island—but it is surely only a matter of time before it arrives. When it does, it could have serious implications for the jay: West Nile tends to be lethal for birds in the jay family and mosquito-transmitted diseases like West Nile are likely to become more prevalent with global warming.

Disease isn’t the only climate change worry for the island scrub-jay. Southern California is expected to be warmer and drier in the future. Among other things, that could exacerbate fire risk. The mainland is already renowned for catastrophic wind-driven wildfires. The 2003 “Cedar Fire” near San Diego, for example, burned an area the size of Santa Cruz Island within just the first 10 hours.

So it’s quite conceivable that an accidental spark on the island on the wrong day could burn all the habitat of the island scrub-jay. Which brings me back to the problem with the island scrub-jay: Its risk of extinction in this era of rapid climate change is actually uncomfortably high.

Fortunately, though, that narrow stretch of water has bought us a little time—time to be proactive.

So now we are developing a “biosecurity plan” for the island, to help reduce the likelihood that new invasive species will get out to the island, and to reduce the risk of wildfire.

We’re working with an exceptional group of collaborators—including researchers from the University of California Wildlife Health Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and Colorado State University—to implement a vaccination program designed to increase the likelihood that when West Nile virus gets out there, more of the jays will survive.

In other words, we’re applying the principles of conservation science, anticipating the challenges ahead, and working proactively to reduce the risk of extinction of this species. And in that regard, the conservation problems of the island scrub-jay aren’t so unusual, after all. The business of conservation in this era of global change is figuring out what species are threatened by the changing climate, and figuring out what we can do — today—to help them make it to the future.

One of the big reasons scientists like to study islands is because they represent microcosms of bigger and more complex issues. It’s easier to get your head around a problem. So it is with the island scrub-jay: With action today, the conservation problems facing the island scrub-jay do indeed seem tractable.

For me, that’s one of the more unusual things about the island scrub-jay problem. Often, the complexity and crisis of climate change can seem so overwhelming. But in this particular case, we have real clarity about what we can do about it.

And we have the opportunity to do it.

By proactively addressing the threats to this iconic island species, we’ll gain important practical experience for the work conservationists in general must become expert in if much of the diversity of life on Earth is to accompany us into the future.

(Image: Island scrub-jay. Image credit: Cameron Ghalambor)

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  1. Interesting article.

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