Natural Areas Plan: SFFA comments on the DEIR (Pt 3: Wildlife)

Bewick’s wren at nest site

One of the reasons we oppose the Natural Areas Program is that it’s harmful to the birds and animals of this city. They destroy habitat — the trees and thickets that serve as cover and breeding grounds, exposing song-birds to predators; they do not respect the breeding season even though they claim to do so; and they use pesticides that can harm wildlife, whether insects, amphibians or other creatures.

Read on for the details.

In this public comment, we will provide evidence that the Natural Areas Program has had a significant negative impact on legally protected wildlife as well as all wildlife in San Francisco’s parks.

  1. The Natural Areas Program has violated California Fish & Game Code, Sections 1600-1616 regarding streambed alteration and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act by conducting the destructive phase of their project in Glen Canyon Park during breeding and nesting season.
  2. The Natural Areas Program is violating the Endangered Species Act by using pesticides known to be harmful to butterflies on Twin Peaks, where they have been reintroducing the endangered Mission Blue butterfly for several years.
  3. The Natural Areas Program harms all of the animals in the parks by poisoning and eradicating the thickets in which they den and nest and the food which they eat.


The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) states that SNRAMP is consistent with all federal and state laws governing the protection of biological resources.  One of those laws is California Fish & Game Code 1600-1616 regarding the protection of fish and wildlife within “bodies of water of any natural river, stream or lake.”  These codes obligate those who are engaged in any “streambed alteration” to apply for a permit and “to propose reasonable project changes to protect the resource.”  (DEIR, page 274)

Islais Creek in Glen Canyon Park is such a water body which is protected by this law.  Accordingly, the Natural Areas Program applied to California Fish & Game for a Streambed Alteration Permit in preparation for their project which began in November 2011.  The Natural Areas Program made the following commitment to mitigate harm to wildlife in Glen Canyon Park in its Streambed Alteration Permit:

“It is the policy of RPD’s Natural Areas Program that no new projects will begin during the breeding season (December to May).  Follow up work in previously cleared areas may be done during the breeding season, however, because areas will have been cleared previously. Wildlife will not likely be using these areas for breeding.  This protocol has been effective in reducing impacts to breeding wildlife.”

The Natural Areas Program began to destroy the non-native vegetation in Glen Canyon Park in San Francisco in November 2011.  In addition to destroying valuable habitat with chainsaws, they also sprayed herbicides.  This destructive activity continued through winter and spring 2012 and cannot be dismissed as “follow-up work” on previously cleared areas.  The San Francisco Forest Alliance (SFFA) protested this destructive project many times but it has continued unabated to as recently April 27, 2012, when they pruned trees and sprayed herbicides.

Earlier in April, SFFA learned from a public records request that this project violated a legal commitment to the California Department of Fish & Game.  SFFA immediately brought this violation of NAP’s commitment to the attention of the General Manager of the Recreation and Park Department.  The head of the Natural Areas Program said that the violation was necessary because the grant funding for the project was about to expire.  To avoid losing the funding for the project, the birds and animals of Glen Canyon Park were subjected to this destructive project during their breeding and nesting season.

SFFA brought this violation to the attention of the California Department of Fish & Game.  Their regulations commit them to enforce the terms of the Streambed Alteration Permit, including the mitigation of potential harm to wildlife.  Violations of the terms of the permit are subject to “civil penalties” according to the regulations:  “A person who violates this chapter is subject to a civil penalty of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each violation.”

One month after informing California Department of Fish & Game of this violation, nothing seems to be done about it.  In fact, several weeks after sending this information to Fish & Game, another episode of destruction occurred in Glen Canyon Park on April 27, 2012.

As the breeding/nesting season is also the season during which migratory birds are occupying their nests and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act “…also applies to the removal of nests occupied by migratory birds during the breeding season,” (DEIR, page 273) we assume this law was also violated.

In other words, the legal commitments made by the Natural Areas Program to conduct the destructive phase of their project outside of the breeding and nesting season were not observed.  Furthermore, no action was taken by California Fish & Game to stop this project when it was brought to their attention.  The law is apparently ignored with impunity.

In addition to the violation of federal and state laws, the Natural Areas Program has also violated the commitments made in both the SNRAMP and the DEIR:  “In compliance with the MBTA [Migratory Bird Treaty Act], the SFRPD would avoid harming or removing the nests of these species and any migratory bird species.  Measure GR-4b (page 109) in the SNRAMP requires that vegetation management activities be conducted outside the breeding season (February 1 to August 31), unless these activities had already begun before the breeding season and had already removed nesting habitat or if a breeding bird survey was conducted prior to vegetation removal activities and had determined that no nesting birds were present.” (DEIR, page 305)

The commitment to California Fish & Game in NAP’s Streambed Alteration Permit and the commitment made in Measure GR-4B of SNRAMP are contradictory.  These contradictions should be resolved by the final EIR:  When is the breeding season?  What evidence is there that a breeding bird survey was conducted prior to vegetation removal activities which took place continuously from November 2011 to April 27, 2012?  Is the mitigation required by the Streambed Alteration Permit consistent with the caveats of Measure GR-4b?


The Mission Blue butterfly is a federal endangered species which existed historically on Twin Peaks in San Francisco.  San Francisco’s Natural Areas Program has been trying to reintroduce the Mission Blue to Twin Peaks for several years, so far with limited success.  This reintroduction effort is reported by the DEIR. (DEIR, page 285)

Herbicides are being sprayed on Twin Peaks to control non-native vegetation.  Twin Peaks was sprayed with herbicides 16 times in 2010 and 19 times in 2011.

A recently published study reports  that the reproductive success of the Behr’s metalmark butterfly was significantly reduced (24-36%) by herbicides used to control non-native vegetation.  Two of those pesticides are used on Twin Peaks, imazapyr and triclopyr.  Triclopyr was used most often on Twin Peaks in 2010 and imazapyr in 2011.

The study does not explain how this harm occurs.  It observes that the three herbicides that were studied work in different ways.  It therefore speculates that the harm to the butterfly larva may be from the inactive ingredients of the pesticides which they have in common, or that the harm comes to the larva from its host plant which is altered in some way by the herbicide application.  Either theory is potentially applicable to the herbicides used on Twin Peaks and consequently harmful to the endangered Mission Blue.

The Endangered Species Act requires that the Natural Areas Program stop spraying these herbicides on Twin Peaks because they are known to be harmful to the reproductive success of butterflies.  Unless further scientific study exonerates these herbicides, the law obligates us to prohibit their use where the endangered Mission Blue butterfly is known to exist, i.e., on Twin Peaks.


The DEIR states repeatedly throughout the document that habitat will be improved by the eradication of non-native plants and the presumed replacement by native plants.  In fact this is offered as the basis for most claims in the DEIR that the “restoration” project will not harm the environment.  For example, although the DEIR acknowledges that the environment may be harmed by the methods used to eradicate non-native plants, this harm is theoretically mitigated by the claim that the eventual development of native habitat will compensate for that harm.  These claims are not supported by either the reality of restoration efforts in the past 15 years or by scientific evidence which does not substantiate a claim that native vegetation provides habitat for animals that is superior to non-native vegetation.

Although non-native vegetation has been removed repeatedly in many natural areas, the native plants that are planted in their place rarely persist for longer than a few months.  These newly planted areas are quickly over run by non-native weeds.  We will provide examples of such failed “restorations” in a subsequent section of this comment (Part V).

More importantly, neither SNRAMP nor the DEIR provide any scientific evidence to support the contention that native vegetation provides superior habitat to animals.  In fact, all available scientific evidence contradicts this claim.

Because eucalyptus trees are one of the primary targets for eradication, we will focus on the specific claim that the eucalyptus forest is a “biological desert.”   We are frequently told that “nothing grows” under the eucalypts and that they are not providing food or habitat to insects, birds, and other animals.

Professor Dov Sax (Brown University) tested these claims while a student at UC Berkeley.  He studied the eucalyptus forest in Berkeley, California, and compared it to native oak-bay woodland in the same location.  He found little difference in the species frequency and diversity in these two types of forest.

He studied six forests of about 1 hectare each, three of eucalypts and three of native oaks and bays in Berkeley, California.  The sites were not contiguous, but were selected so that they were of similar elevation, slope, slope orientation, and type of adjacent vegetation.  He conducted inventories of species in spring and autumn.  He counted the number of:

  • Species of plants in the understory
  • Species of invertebrates (insects) in samples of equal size and depth of the leaf litter
  • Species of amphibians
  • Species of birds
  • Species of rodents

He reported his findings in Global Ecology and Biogeography :

“Species richness was nearly identical for understory plants, leaf-litter invertebrates, amphibians and birds; only rodents had significantly fewer species in eucalypt sites.  Species diversity patterns…were qualitatively identical to those for species richness, except for leaf-litter invertebrates, which were significantly more diverse in eucalypt sites during the spring.”

Professor Sax also surveyed the literature comparing biodiversity in native vs non-native forest in his article.  He reports similar findings for comparisons between non-native forests and local native forests all over the world:

  • In Spain, species of invertebrates found in the leaf-litter of eucalyptus plantations were found to be similar to those found in native forests, while species richness of understory plants was found to be greater in the native forests.
  • In Ethiopia the richness of understory species was found to be as great in eucalyptus plantations as in the native forest.
  • In the Mexican state of Michoacán, species richness and abundance of birds were found to be similar in eucalyptus and native forests.
  • In Australia species richness of mammals and of soil microarthropods were found to be similar in native forests and in non-native forests of pine.

The only caveat to these general findings is that fewer species were found in new plantations of non-natives less than 5 years old.  This helps to illustrate a general principle that is often ignored by native plant advocates.  That is, that nature and its inhabitants are capable of changing and adapting to changed conditions.  In the case of non-native forests in the San Francisco Bay Area, they have existed here for over 100 years.  The plants and animals in our forests have “learned” to live in them long ago.

The scientific literature informs us that wildlife does not necessarily benefit from native plant restorations and sometimes they are harmed by them.  The assumption that native animals are dependent upon native plants underestimates the ability of animals to adapt to changing conditions.

Art Shapiro (UC Davis) has been studying California butterflies for over 35 years.  His own observations as well as the work of other scientists have informed him that “…the extensive adoption of introduced host plants has clearly been beneficial for a significant segment of the California butterfly fauna, including most of the familiar species of urban, suburban and agricultural environments.  Some of these species are now almost completely dependent on exotics and would disappear were weed control more effective than it currently is.”

He explains that this is particularly true on the coast of California because this is where the highest concentration of introduced species of plants is naturalized and the butterfly population is less diverse because of the cool, foggy climate.  There are apparently few non-native plants in the desert and alpine regions of California and so butterflies in those regions have not had the opportunity or need to adapt to new plants.

Professor Shapiro also speculates in this study that other insects have adapted to non-native plants as well:  “Introduced hosts, having a broader geographic range than native hosts, may permit the expansion of the insect population geographically.”

Birds have also adapted to non-native plants and trees.  Researchers at UC Davis surveyed over 1,000 ornithologists in 4 states, including California, about their observations of native birds and non-native plants.  Responses from 173 ornithologists reported 1,143 “interactions” of birds with introduced plants considered invasive.  Forty-seven percent (47%) of those interactions were birds eating the fruit or seeds of non-native plants and trees considered invasive.  Other interactions were nesting, perching, gleaning [eating insects], etc.

Interactions were frequently reported in non-native blackberry, which is found in most parks in San Francisco.  It is one of the most productive food sources for birds in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, it is being eradicated by the Natural Areas Program along with a long list of non-native shrubs which provide food and cover, such as cotoneaster, fennel, etc.  The loss of food and cover has a drastically negative impact on the animals that live in our parks.

The non-native blackberry also provides cover for wildlife.  It is an impenetrable bramble both physically and visually.  Birds and small mammals hide and make nests and dens in these thickets.  Coyotes are resident in San Francisco.  The thick undergrowth which has been removed in some parks by the Natural Areas Program now allows unleashed dogs to pursue them in areas where they were protected before.  If the safe havens of urban wildlife are destroyed, the animals may seek shelter elsewhere, a move that may be dangerous for them.  When animals move into residential neighborhoods they are considered a nuisance and are often killed.

Native plant restorations also require the use of herbicides to eradicate non-native trees and plants.   Herbicides are being sprayed in the blackberries and other berry-producing non-native plants which are a major food source for wildlife.  One study performed by the US Forest Service for the EPA reported that the use of Garlon significantly reduced the reproductive success of birds.    Garlon is also highly toxic to aquatic life.

Finally, we provide a current and local example of the scientific evidence that native plants do not provide habitat that is superior to that provided by non-native plants.  The California Academy of Sciences finds that several years after planting its roof with native plants, it is now dominated by non-native species of plants in the two quadrants that are not being weeded, replanted and reseeded with natives.  Their monitoring project recently reported that there were an equal number of insect species found in the quadrants dominated by native plants and those dominated by non-native plants.  Where equal numbers of insects are found, we can expect to find equal numbers of birds and other animals for which insects are food.


  • The final EIR is not in a position to reassure the public that the implementation of SNRAMP will not harm wildlife because the Natural Areas Program has violated the laws that theoretically protect wildlife.
  • The final EIR must prohibit the use of pesticides known to be harmful to butterflies on Twin Peaks where the endangered Mission Blue butterfly has been reintroduced by the Natural Areas Program.
  • The final EIR must provide scientific evidence that native plants provide superior habitat for wildlife.  If it is unable to provide such evidence, these claims must be removed from the final EIR.  Without such reassurances, the final EIR must conclude that the eradication of non-native plants will have a significant negative impact on the biological resources in San Francisco’s natural areas.
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1 Response to Natural Areas Plan: SFFA comments on the DEIR (Pt 3: Wildlife)

  1. Pingback: Natural Areas Plan: SFFA comments on the DEIR (Overview) « San Francisco Forest Alliance

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