A historic and species-saving effort was celebrated Tuesday morning in Imperial Beach. Seven federally endangered light-footed ridgway’s rails were released by teams at Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge who have been working to reverse the bird’s declining population.
“We’ve done our first release here in Tijuana Estuary because historically this has been one of the two most important wetlands as far as the size of the population,” said Brian Collins, Refuge Manager for TSNWR and San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Experts from the wildlife refuge explained the birds were once abundant in Southern California wetlands, but their populations rapidly declined to less than 50 percent due to the loss of over 90 percent of its salt marsh habitat. In 1970 they were deemed federally endangered.
More recently the population of the birds across Southern California has steadily declined since 2016 due to both direct and indirect effects of El Nino conditions such as elevated water levels, according to Collins.
Additional negative effects resulted from hypoxic conditions, inadequate oxygen supplies, created during the temporary closure of the Tijuana River mouth such as a the declining population of the rail’s prey, and exposure to avian predators during the high water levels.
“They’re non-migratory so while they can move with great difficulty from wetland to wetland, they tend to stay in one place,” Collins said.
On Tuesday they were able to release a new group of seven healthy light-footed ridgway’s rails into the wild near North McCoy Trail.
Since 2001, conservation partners such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy, San Diego Zoo Global, SeaWorld San Diego, Living Coast Discovery Center, and others have been working together to bolster the population with a captive breeding program.
Veterinarian Mike and Patricia McCoy are heralded as the people who helped save the largest coastal wetlands in Southern California in the 1970s and 80s.