Restoring Wetland Habitat May Help Reverse “Staggering” Extinction Rate for Birds

With the state’s recent bout of wildfires in October, you may have missed a pair of landmark studies released to the public around that same time, detailing a calamitous decline in bird populations and the increased threat of extinction to hundreds of birds due to our warming climate. One of the reports is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the other is from the National Audubon Society.

According to the Cornell study, North American bird populations have dropped by 30 percent over the last 50 years, with 2.9 billion fewer birds alive now compared to 1970. To put the enormity of those numbers into perspective, consider the warblers at your bird feeder, the Cooper’s hawk you and your family see in our local canyons, or the brant resting in giant flotillas in Mission Bay or along the Chula Vista bayfront. Now take away every fourth bird you see. That’s how devastating the research is in these new extinction reports.

What’s most striking is not only the number of birds lost, but the variety of birds affected. The Cornell study finds even common species of birds have undergone “staggering losses” due to habitat destruction, loss of insects and other food sources, predation from cats, and collisions with glass buildings. And in the coming decades, what’s going to remain the biggest culprit of all? Climate change.

Audubon scientists utilized 140 million observations made by trained birdwatchers and professional researchers to map the range of 604 North American bird species. They then used the latest climate models to project how each species’ range will shift as global warming and other human impacts advance across the continent. In chilling detail, the results demonstrate how birds will be forced to relocate to find favorable homes over the next several decades. Unfortunately, many will not survive the process. Birds are a critical indicator species, and if an ecosystem is broken for birds, it’s unlikely to remain healthy for humans.

While this newly-available data may be shocking, it needs to be taken as a call to action, not despair. According to the Audubon study, if humanity can act quickly and dramatically cut carbon emissions to hold global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, at least 76 percent of vulnerable bird species will be in a stronger position to survive. Nearly 150 species would no longer be vulnerable to extinction at all. But if that’s to occur, we as a region must to do our part to provide greater natural habitat and sequester carbon.

Wetland restoration will accomplish both. In particular, San Diego Audubon’s ReWild Mission Bay feasibility study demonstrates the potential for local habitat restoration, and the ReWild Coalition has been working for several years to develop an alternative that restores native wetland habitat in northeast Mission Bay. At the same time, cutting edge research by local and international institutions are showing how effective coastal wetlands are at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere – at a rate 10 times that of forests.

This new field of Blue Carbon research also points to positive and proactive steps we as a community can take. Restored wetlands in the ReWild Mission Bay project will sequester carbon, lock away some of the carbon released by cars as they hurtle by on I-5, and help curb the worst effects of climate change. Implementing such changes will not only benefit our native and migratory bird populations, but also help local fish and plant species similarly at risk from climate change.

Wetland restoration will also result in cleaner water in an area of Mission Bay notorious for slow rates of circulation, and will create greater climate resiliency as sea levels rise. According to a new Citizens Coordinate for Century III (C3) proposal that fully incorporates the ReWild Coalition’s “Wildest” wetland restoration plan, a revitalization of northeast Mission Bay Park could also create greater public access and significant space for low-cost camping options, so more San Diegans from around the city can visit, and enjoy, the bay for longer durations.

Before Mission Bay was dredged and landscaped into the park it is today, it was a wildlife-rich estuary of the San Diego River. The implementation of the “Wildest” plan at the mouth of Rose Creek is the kind of restoration opportunity San Diegans can be proud of, and one that will have a regional impact as a scholastic and eco-tourism draw, serve as an opportunity to combat our climate crisis, restore control over our bayfront, and put Mission Bay on par with the city’s crown jewel of Balboa Park.

Just a few days ago Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined a coalition of mayors from across the U.S., including New York, Austin, Phoenix and Denver, to steer policy that combats climate change and protects the environment. We applaud the mayor for doing so, and call on him to fully invest in Mission Bay  wetland restoration in order to advance those goals right here, at home, in San Diego. Now that’s a legacy worth pursuing.