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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Santa Cruz Cypress Is Recovering, Agency Says

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Friday reclassified the Santa Cruz cypress' status from endangered to threatened, due to a fourteen-fold population increase. The Service credited both the collaborative efforts of government and private partners, and the availability of better scientific information for the downlisting.

"As a result of the collective conservation efforts of federal, state, local and private entities, as well as improved science, the Santa Cruz cypress is one step closer to achieving recovery," Steve Henry, Field Supervisor of the Service's Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, said. "While there is still a lot of work to be done before it will be fully recovered, with the continued commitment of partners and the public I am sure we will get there."

The Santa Cruz cypress is a small conifer that grows only 20 to 30 feet high and can live up to a 100 years. It is found in just five populations in a 15 mile area in California's Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, according to the proposed downlisting rule published in September 2013.

When it was originally listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1987, it was believed that the total number of trees was approximately 2,300. The current estimate is 33,000 to 44,000 trees. "The latter estimate is variable due to mortality and regeneration following the 2008 Martin Fire that burned 520 acres of land," according to the action. "It is important to note that the updated estimates for species abundance and areal extent do not illustrate trends but rather improved information about the species over time," the agency said.

At the time the trees were listed, the species faced threats from development, logging, agricultural conversion and oil and gas drilling. Those threats have been significantly decreased due to the acquisition of lands for conservation by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Only one of the five populations is not in "permanent conservation ownership," but the agency deems it to be relatively safe because the land is owned by a "conservation-oriented landowner" and Santa Cruz County has designated those lands as sensitive areas and placed restrictions on development, according to the action.

While the trees are no longer in danger of imminent extinction, the definition of an endangered species, they still face various threats and are in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, meeting the criteria for threatened species status.

In addition to competition with non-native species, climate change, and hybridization with other species of cypress trees used for landscaping, the trees are still significantly threatened by the change in the pattern of natural fire frequency.

The trees need fire to successfully reproduce in large numbers. Fire both releases the seeds from the cones, and clears competing vegetation and opens the canopy for the seedlings. Because the five cypress populations are near developed areas, fire suppression efforts, such as fire breaks and fuel reduction projects, have lengthened the interval between fires. Several of the stands contain trees of roughly the same age, creating the risk that the trees will not be reproductively viable by the time fire returns to those areas.

On the other hand, human-caused fires can shorten the natural fire interval, wiping out seedlings and young trees before they are of reproductive age. "Other techniques such as mechanical disturbance of the ground, removal of litter and nonnative invasive species, and clearing the canopy to allow sunlight to reach the ground may need to be utilized to achieve regeneration of the species," according to the action.

Still, the agency and environmentalists hail the downlisting as a success for the ESA.

"The efforts of partners on behalf of the Santa Cruz cypress, such as the state of California, demonstrate the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act in catalyzing collaborative conservation," Henry said. "Recent increases in ESA delistings and downlistings indicate that the Act works when given enough time and resources."

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the agency's most frequent litigant, concurred. "The heartening rebound of this precious little California evergreen is the latest proof that the Endangered Species Act puts species on the path to recovery," Ileene Anderson, a senior CBD scientist, said.

The reclassification is effective March 21.

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