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San Diego County Biodiversity Threatened By Climate Change

February 11, 2019 1:14 p.m.

GUEST: Michael Wall, vice president of science and conservation, San Diego Natural History Museum

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Related Story: San Diego County Biodiversity Threatened By Climate Change


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

San Diego County is a biodiversity hotspot. The unique Mediterranean climate and landscape create an environment where diverse species from plants to animals thrive. But climate change invasive species and habitat destruction pose a major threat to the natural habitats. Here to help explain those Michael wall vice president of Science and Conservation at the net will be giving the second annual state of our region's biodiversity talk tomorrow night. And Michael Wall joins me with a preview. Welcome Michael. Thank you very much. So why is it important to understand the state of the region's biodiversity.

We're dependent on what scientists call ecosystem services and so these are the things that biodiversity when when we're talking about biodiversity we're talking about plants we're talking bugs we're talking about bee you know the whole the whole lot of anything that's alive and all these things do things for us. And sometimes you know it might not be a parent. Most people know that plants create oxygen and that's really good for us because we've got to breathe that in. But there's other ecosystem services that biodiversity supplies to us like pollinating the food that we eat and so on that are sort of essential to us as human beings so to turn a blind eye to biodiversity is really to turn a blind eye to our future.

So what is the state of the county's biodiversity.

It's fine. You know there's there's a lot of people in the county and in the region including you know across across the border in Baja California that are doing a lot of great work trying to understand our biodiversity and preserve our biodiversity. But it doesn't change the fact that we're faced by threats like you mentioned in the intro like climate change. These are difficult problems to tackle habitat destruction all these issues are impacting us just as much as they are any other place in the globe.

All right so our biodiversity is fine. We've got might be generous. Oh well I mean you mentioned habitat destruction. Is there anything else that you look at to understand the bite the biodiversity here.

So there's a lot of work going on in our region that has to do with connectivity and connectivity means is making sure that particularly animals that might be separated by all of our urban landscape in suburban landscape are able to still meet and hook up. And because the importance of that is that it creates more genetic diversity for all these animals and genetic diversity is sort of like the it's the miracle of life with a lot of genetic diversity it means populations are more resistant to disease and things that can go wrong for them.

So there's a lot of work going on the counties to preserve connectivity between are the green spots in our urban landscape and I think that's one area that San Diego excels and I have to ask you say that it's generous to say biodiversity here is fine.

How critical is our situation.

Oh you know I'm not going to say that we're going to hell in a handbasket. I mean it's but you know there are a number of endangered species in our region that are critically critically endangered. I mean the one that most immediately comes to mind is a little little south of the border. But in the Gulf of California is the Quita which is the smallest freshwater mammal it's a dolphin of sorts and arguably the cutest dolphin on the face of the planet but it is also the most endangered it's thought that the total population might be down to about 17 individuals right now.

And so that's not good.

And so you know what impacts is climate change already having on the biodiversity here.

You know there's all sorts of ways in which climate change can impact biodiversity because there's all sorts of ways that climate change manifests itself. But one thing that we're clearly seeing is what are species there like kind of losing the southern portion of their distribution or they're moving up in altitude. That kind of makes sense right. If the world's getting a little bit warmer the things that kind of are living in in a certain temperature niche they have to go either north to get to colder temperatures or they've got to go up in altitude to get to colder temperatures.

And so that local example of that would be there used to be flying squirrels and logical chipmunks up in Idlewild area of the San Jacinto Mountains. And those are no longer present. It's not like they're extinct but they're no longer present those mountains because they move north and they can't go any higher on the mountains and they already were so they they ran out of altitude.

So we're getting to a point where our biodiversity may not be so diverse after a while.

Right. And that's the most critical point is that what we're seeing is sort of a homogenization of you know our natural heritage. And that's that's dangerous for the same reason it's dangerous for these endangered species to lose their genetic diversity. It's really dangerous for us to lose our biological diversity because we lose that redundancy and ecosystem services that they provide.

And you mentioned you know that the expansion of the border wall is also having an impact. Is that right.

It's not saying anything profound to say that a wall is going to stop the movement of animals just as it's supposed to stop the movement of immigrants. And there are certain species in which this is going to have a really major effect on in particular. We had a researcher speak at the museum recently about the Jaguars that actually used to move freely across the border not in San Diego County but over in Arizona and New Mexico. And there's bison as well that historically would move back and forth across the border. And now they're clearly not able to do that and we run into the same problems that we're isolating populations from one another and that's that's bad for their genetic diversity.

And you know something that might surprise people to hear is that when the economy is good so as biodiversity what's the connection there.

Well I think maybe a another way to phrase it is that for us to really secure biodiversity we have to have a secure economy because just watch a little bit of news and you understand the struggle that people are dealing with on a daily basis trying to get food on to their table. And it's hard to think about preserving natural history when you're just trying to preserve your family. And so you know having a stable and good economy is important to biodiversity and also what we're finding is that if we can tie the preservation of biodiversity to economics then it makes a lot more sense to people right.

We're talking we're talking numbers we're talking dollars and so there's been some interesting ways that people have employed that there's bat friendly tequila that you can buy that is grown in I guess a garden a plantations where they actually let some of the flowers come to flower. Normally they don't let them come to flower before they make tequila but the bats then drink the nectar from that flower. And so then you've got that friendly tequila.

Mm hmm. All right. Well you know let me ask if there is a takeaway from this state of our biodiversity what is it and what can we all do to minimize the threat to our environment and the life within it.

I think the biggest takeaway that we want people to walk away with is having a better understanding of the threat itself because a lot of this we can do individual things. We can buy that friendly tequila but you know a lot of the threats that biodiversity is facing habitat destruction invasive species climate change those are those are sort of societal level problems. And the solution to societal level problems individual action is important but it also requires political action. And so the more people are aware of the issue I think the better educated you know choices they can make at the ballot and when they're talking to their representatives.

I've been speaking with Michael Walsh vice president of Science and Conservation at the net. Michael thanks again for joining us. Thanks so much. And again Michael wall will be giving a talk on the state of biodiversity at the net tomorrow night 7:00 p.m..