Natural Perspectives: The return of vanished species

January 04, 2012|By Lou Murray and Vic Leipzig
  • Otters in the wild in Monterey.
Otters in the wild in Monterey. (Lou Murray )

When Vic and I were growing up, wolves had been extirpated from the lower 48 states and the California sea otter was thought to be essentially extinct.

The last gray wolf in California was killed in Lassen County in 1924. Gray wolves were hunted mercilessly during the early part of the 20th century, and were extirpated from the lower 48 states by 1926.

The list of animals in trouble in California went on. The last jaguar in California was killed in the Palm Springs area in 1860, but the species held on in Arizona until 1969. Tule elk were down to a herd of fewer than 100 by 1873. And pronghorn, once numerous in California, were extirpated by the end of the 1800s.

Grizzly bears used to roam our coast and local mountains. But the last local grizzly was killed in Trabuco Canyon in 1908, and the last grizzly in the state of California was killed in Tulare County in 1922. And yet its image is on our state flag.


The environment was in trouble. By the 1950s, pollution was rampant across the entire country, and wetlands had been drained. And yet people continued to damage the natural world.

Then the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. That seemed to wake people up to the environmental catastrophes that were happening everywhere. What had been a pristine and scantily populated land 200 years earlier was turning into a crowded cesspool.

The first Earth Day in 1970 flipped things around. Some people realized that we are not separate from the ecosystem; we are a component of the ecosystem. They began to educate others. The Earth was our mother, a blue planet that nurtured us and provided us with what we needed. But we were wrecking Mother Earth.

To turn things around, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Land was set aside as wilderness. And biologists began bringing species back from the brink of extinction.

The California sea otter, sometimes called the southern sea otter, once ranged from Oregon to Baja with an estimated population of 16,000. But it was very nearly wiped out. All that remained was a tiny band in the Monterey area.

The population expanded from that small group in Big Sur to 2,400 by 1995, but then the population declined somewhat. The cause is thought to be premature mortality from parasites carried by housecats and opossums. The population then began to grow again, reaching a peak of 2,800 in 2008. Since then, the numbers have once again dipped.

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