June 5, 1995
Board of Directors
East Bay Regional Park District
2950 Peralta Oaks Court
Oakland, California 94605-5369
Re: "Recovering" the Alameda whipsnake
Human beings think they own, and have a right to dominate, every square inch of the Earth, and all of the creatures that live there. This is exactly why we are losing around 100 species per day, worldwide! Just as we need a place to live, unmolested, wildlife also need a place to live, called a "habitat". We can live almost anywhere, but wildlife are not so flexible. For example, the Alameda whipsnake needs direct sunlight (to warm itself), cover (to protect it from hawks and other predators), rock or dirt burrows (to sleep, hibernate, or lay eggs), and northwestern fence lizards (its primary food). This restricts it generally to south-facing slopes with grass or partially open chaparral, especially with large rocks, which the lizards use to sun themselves.
The major cause of extinctions today is loss of habitat. Paving, home construction, golf course development, and farming aren't the only ways that habitat can be lost. Anything that can make an area less attractive or fruitful for a species can cause habitat loss. Have you ever noticed how most species of animal depart whenever we approach? The simple presence of humans, if too frequent or there are too many of us, can cause wildlife to abandon their preferred habitat, at least for a time. They can be thus deprived of preferred foods, mates, or other resources. This can cause loss of biodiversity, or even death, particularly where a species is on a "tight budget" (e.g. in the desert).
Roads are particularly pernicious, because they can be a physical or psychological barrier. A species such as the whipsnake that needs cover may be unable or unwilling to cross the road, and hence suffer loss of feeding or mating opportunities. When habitat is fragmented, the population can become inbred, fall victim to a natural disaster (e.g. a disease epidemic), or fail to have a large enough gene pool to weather habitat changes. A population can be wiped out, if it isn't large enough, or if the area can't be "reseeded" by individuals travelling from other nearby areas.
We have destroyed a huge amount of our own habitat, due mostly to the existence of roads and the automobile. For example, 67% of the land area of Los Angeles has been given to the car. Yosemite is now so full of cars that it frequently has to be closed to more visitors. If you think that can't happen here, you should have seen the Steam Train parking lot last Sunday! One can easily drive from here to the Sierras without seeing a single piece of land in its natural state. If we are this insensitive to our own needs, imagine how we attend to the needs of wildlife!
The Alameda whipsnake (Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus) is listed as Threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. Your Tilden Park Land Use Development Plan (LUDP) claims that "The District will protect and maintain plants and animals and their habitats that are officially listed under state or federal Endangered Species acts." (p.164) These are nothing but empty words. I asked your biologist, Joe Didonato, what the Park District is doing to get the whipsnake off the Threatened list. All he could say is that the areas that have been designated as whipsnake habitat are "not managed". This is not true. The LUDP on p.43 indicates four disjoint areas of Tilden that are whipsnake habitat. Some of them have roads through them! (The Park District prefers the euphemism "trail", but they are created and maintained by bulldozers, and they are roads.) The one near Wildcat Canyon Road has three mountain bike "trails" through it (the Skyline, Big Springs, and Quarry Trails)! I don't consider areas where bulldozers and mountain bikes are allowed to be "not managed".
Even the hikers probably have an effect on the snakes. I asked Joe if he thought the roads and mountain bikes are detrimental to the snake, and he said "no", and referred me to Karen Swaim's master's thesis on the whipsnake as proof. I read her thesis; it says absolutely nothing about the effects of humans, roads, or mountain bikes on the snake. And it couldn't! The only way one could test this hypothesis would be to close and revegetate the roads, and measure the effect on the snake. (A good design would be to measure the population; close the roads to bikes and measure again; close the roads to hikers and measure again; and, finally, obliterate and revegetate the roads and measure again. This would allow you to determine the effects of each of those three factors - - bikes, hikers, and roads.)
CEQA and NEPA put the burden of proof squarely on the developer. I don't have to prove that roads, hikers, and bikers harm the whipsnake (even though that is obvious); the Park District, before it allows those disturbances of the snake's habitat, has to prove that they won't harm it. You haven't done that (to my knowledge, no one has).
Karen did mention that the snake needs to stay under cover, to avoid being seen by predators. That would seem to imply that the roads are harmful, and inhibit the snake's movement. Indeed, only a few of her sightings were of snakes that had crossed a road ("trail"). I hiked the Quarry Trail Monday and found a young whipsnake in grass that had grown up on the trail. If I had been on a bike, I could easily have killed it (or its prey, a fence lizard), without even knowing it.
Animals need "wildlife corridors" that allow them the same access to the resources they need that we assume is our right. The areas indicated in the LUDP aren't large enough to hold long-term viable populations of whipsnakes. In fact, the area of Tilden studied by Ms. Swaim isn't even one of your designated areas, although it is prime whipsnake habitat. Clearly, you don't even know where the snakes are, so there is no way you can protect them! And without monitoring the snakes, you have no way of knowing whether their population is increasing or declining, nor whether your ("non") management is helping or harming them. There are no corridors designated, and there is no way for the snakes to safely cross Wildcat Canyon Road or South Park Drive.
The "human playground" theory of park management currently in vogue in the EBRPD, that believes the parks exist only to pleasure humans, is moving in exactly the wrong direction. It teaches people (nonverbally -- the most powerful form of education) the false idea that we are not dependent on other forms of life, and that treating them like property is okay. The Steam Train and its huge parking facilities teach children that a train is a toy that you drive to. Allowing visitors free rein throughout the entire park, even in the habitat of threatened species, teaches them that wildlife really don't matter. If bicyclists are bored with riding on roads, just give them the habitat of our threatened species! Of course!
The logical conclusion of this policy is a park without wildlife, containing only species that we choose to allow to be there. Such a place would be totally predictable, and hence of no value as a park. The reason we have set aside pieces of nature is that they provide delightful surprises. A "park" devoid of wildlife, and chock full of urban amenities like parking lots, amusement rides, camp grounds, and golf courses, no longer functions like a park, but like another stress-producing city. However, the best argument for protecting wildlife is not that doing so benefits humans. It is that it is immoral to do otherwise. As far as I am concerned, human-caused extinction is unacceptable.
A few suggestions: survey all EBRPD property for the presence of whipsnakes and other threatened or endangered species; remove all human artifacts (including feral cats) from those habitat areas, including trails and roads; close those areas to all human access (this will generate lots of publicity, which will be extremely educational); make sure that all habitat areas are connected by working wildlife corridors; close the parks to all motor vehicles; remove bicycles from all unpaved roads, since they will now have the paved roads to themselves; monitor the status of all endangered species, making sure that they have long-term-viable (100 years?) population sizes, with large safety buffers; make sure that all endangered species recover and thereby get off the danger list.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
Life on the Edge -- Volume I: Wildlife, pp.278-9.
Stebbins, Robert C., Western Reptiles and Amphibians (Peterson Field Guide), Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1985, pp.182-3.
Swaim, Karen E. "Aspects of the Ecology of the Alameda Whipsnake Masticophis lateralis euryxanthus", Master's Thesis, California State University, Hayward, December, 1994.
Tilden Regional Park Land Use-Development Plan and Environmental Impact Report, East Bay Regional Park District, Oakland, CA, July 19, 1988.