Hanging by a Thread

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the importance of connectivity in the Northern Rockies

By Rob Breeding

MOUNT RUBIDOUX, Calif. — When we visit my hometown of Riverside, Calif., my daughters and I like to get some exercise running Mount Rubidoux, a semi-famous landmark in this part of the world. In the winter, especially when the smogless skies get an extra scrubbing from the Santa Ana winds, Mount Rubidoux offers unobstructed 360-degree views of Southern California’s Inland Empire.

You can’t quite see the Pacific from here, but that’s because the Santa Ana Mountains get in the way. Those mountains are where one of my old grad school profs, Paul Beier of Northern Arizona University, used radio collars to show how mountain lions use even the thinnest thread of connectivity to move between habitat islands created by encroaching suburbia. Even narrow culverts running beneath urban freeways are used by traveling wildlife.

On a clear day as I run I can see dozens of these habitat islands scattered across the Inland Empire. I distract myself from my workout by recreating in my mind the wildlife wonderland this natural landscape must have been before it became prime human habitat. I know there were valley quail everywhere, which is enough to get my attention.

The mountain offers a great view of the La Sierra Hills. I grew up in a valley there in a subdivision carved from the orange groves, which dominated the landscape when I was a kid. Beyond the homes and the remaining groves were the hills where we played. And when we played we sometimes flushed coveys of quail. This explosion of birds — which still startles me even when it comes on the nose of a pointing bird dog — would scare the heck out of us kids.

Though the groves are now gone and the homes have spread even further up the slopes of the hills, the birds are still there. My home covey lives within the city limits of Riverside, so I’ll never hunt them. But on our visits the dogs and I still play with the birds a bit, though it’s a game of point and flush with these quail.

Just knowing the covey remains makes me happy.

The Santa Ana River flows past the west flank of Mount Rubidoux. Flow is probably an exaggeration as the Santa Ana, especially in this winter of continuing drought in California, is just a trickle now. As recently as the 1950s, before most of the river was diverted to supply water for the millions who now live along its banks, steelhead trout would have swam past the base of Mount Rubidoux. The fish apparently travelled upriver from the Pacific to spawning grounds in the mountains which bound the views north and east.

There are still remnant populations of native steelhead in the many of the streams of Southern California, a treasure that was “rediscovered” in the wild trout renascence 30 odd years ago, but the fish can’t get this far up the Santa Ana anymore. Still, the river bottom remains a highway of connectivity for wildlife. West of the mountain the river bottom becomes a tangled jungle of willow, palm and an invasive water reed similar to bamboo. Feral hogs run rampant, as do the occasional deer and the lions which are compelled to follow.

To the east I can see the Box Springs Mountains. At the base of the mountains is my old undergrad alma mater, U.C. Riverside. My brother-in-law works there and one of the guys on his crew recently spotted a bobcat on the edge of campus. The Box Springs remain connected to the distant mountains north and east by thin corridors as well.

It’s sometimes easy to overlook the importance of connectivity in the Northern Rockies. The Rockies are oceans of habitat surrounded by islands of humanity, the mirror image of my old SoCal stomping grounds. Still, there are lessons for us in this lost land of quail and steelhead. Don’t take it for granted. Grow along a smart, rather than willy-nilly, path. Let’s make sure we never push wildlife to the brink, so that it exists only in our imaginations when the wind provides a clear view of the past.

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