The vast Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County may look barren and inhospitable, but it is actually teaming with life: San Joaquin kit foxes and owls burrow underground, and wildflowers this year showed a colorful superbloom that drew thousands of people to the valley.
It’s a valuable and unique ecosystem that provides range land for a host of animals like elk and antelope who once called the grasslands of the Central Valley home.
Conservationists say the plants and animals that remain are threatened by an explosion of marijuana farms that took root in the past two years. They want to see cannabis cultivation banned in the area.
“The Carrizo Plain has the highest concentration of listed species in the lower 48 states, and we think it’s a sound land-use planning decision to direct cultivation away from that area for that reason,” Dave Hacker, a conservation and mitigation banking coordinator with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on June 20.
The issue is coming to head as the Planning Commission on Thursday will begin considering a commercial cannabis ordinance that might ban marijuana cultivation in the Carrizo Plain, with the Board of Supervisors likely to adopt a resolution in October.
The giant kangaroo rat in particular has been impacted by the farms, Hacker said.
To many, a rat is a rat. But that species — which only lives in that part of the world — is a keystone species, meaning others in the food chain depend on it either as prey or because of its contributions to the habitat.
The endangered kit fox, the size of a house cat with long, bushy tails, feed on giant kangaroo rats. The rats clear grasslands and store flower seeds, helping the endemic California jewelflower that add to the bright wildflower blooms the area has become known for.
Those plants and animals are endangered because their habitat has grown increasingly limited.
Add in a new, intensive use like marijuana cultivation, and the threatened species’ already tenuous situation becomes more fragile.
Already, dead giant kangaroo rats have been found in California Valley, an expansive, mostly undeveloped subdivision that has become home to hundreds of marijuana farms.
Some farmers are using rodenticide or traps to kill the rats, and land-grading for farms has cleared away the vegetation they feed on. It has also destroyed seasonal pools that are home to fairy shrimp, another endangered species.
“Our mission is to conserve all of California’s species, and these are listed as threatened or endangered because most of the habitat has been lost. Most of their habitat was lost to agricultural conversion (decades ago),” Hacker said.
Marijuana farmers are not the first commercial business to disrupt habitat in the California Valley.
In recent years, two large solar farms were built in the area, bringing construction and panel installations to thousands of acres of sensitive lands. Those projects got the go-ahead because the companies received permits for their activities by purchasing, donating and setting aside other land that was restored to mitigate the impact of the new uses.
That’s what marijuana farmers would have to do too to work there legally, Hacker said, but instead, many are operating outside the law.
Anyone who might accidentally take or injure an endangered species has to have a permit for their activities, Hacker said, and the application alone costs $7,500.
Some farmers in the area think the plants and animals have enough habitat. And in fact, more than 246,000 acres is protected within the border of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.
But Hacker said the large monument includes the surrounding mountain ranges, while the north end of the valley floor is where many of the endangered plants and animals live, outside the protected boundary.
He is not the only one who cares deeply about the future of the area.
“It’s been in existence for over 50 years,” California Valley resident Lindi Doud said of her town. “In hindsight, even though it works for the community and is peaceful and beautiful, it should probably never have been established as it sprawls across a huge swath of the Carrizo Plain — one of the last vestiges of San Juaquin grassland ecosystem, a sensitive habitat teaming with endemic and threatened species.”
County supervisors seem empathetic to their plight.
In response to Hacker’s comments at the board meeting, Supervisor Debbie Arnold said she’s concerned about the “critter conflict” brought by cannabis cultivation in California Valley.
Chairman John Peschong agreed.
“I do believe we have a critter conflict. We have endangered species in California Valley in the Carrizo Plain, and I do believe that we have a problem right now with the manufacturing and growing right there,” he said.