A Dead Bobcat, Hazardous Debris And More Issues The Santa Monica Mountains Are Dealing With Post-Shutdown
During the 35 days of the record-breaking federal government shutdown, most National Park Service workers were furloughed. At the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, dozens of biologists, rangers, administrators and other staffers were required by law to stop working and forgo their pay, halting research as well as wildfire recovery efforts.
When park staff finally returned to work Monday, they began assessing the damage -- both from the recent Woolsey Fire and the shutdown.
The first order of business, according to spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall, is getting employees their back pay. Some staffers started on that this past weekend, inputting hundreds of hours to make sure workers who've gone more than a month without a paycheck receive one soon.
The past few months of fires and furloughs have "been a lot for the park," Kuykendall told LAist this week, adding that some NPS employees had to find other work to make ends meet, including shifts at a coffee shop. Park staffers organized get-togethers and stayed in touch "to make sure they were OK," she said.
It's been especially hard on four Park Service employees, who lost their homes in November's devastating Woolsey Fire, then their source of income in the shutdown initiated by President Donald Trump.
Kuykendall also explained that the "lapse in appropriations" interrupted and delayed recovery efforts after the Woolsey Fire.
One critical task after a wildfire is rooting out invasive plants species that can muscle in on native plants and negatively impact the biodiversity in the mountains. No one has been around to do that for more than a month.
The fire also destroyed many structures within the park, including the Paramount Ranch Western set, a research facility, ranger housing and restrooms. Kuykendall said the Park Service had been in the midst of hiring contractors to remove "hazardous debris" from the charred remains of buildings. The shutdown happened before those deals were finalized, so that debris remains in the park.
There's also the effect on wildlife.
Researchers have been unable to monitor the location or health of hundreds of animals that were being studied throughout the park, including mountain lions, coyotes and raccoons.
The shutdown also hamstrung biologists' attempts to save one of the park's bobcats, whose remains were later recovered by state wildlife officials, Kuykendall said.
The male feline, identified as Bobcat 354, had contracted mange, a potentially fatal skin disease caused by parasitic mites. NPS biologists were attempting to locate, capture and treat the bobcat, as they'd done previously in 2017. Then the shutdown happened and researchers were forced into furlough.
"It's not a certainty that we would have been able to recapture the animal, but we were making those efforts to do so," Kuykendall said, adding the cause of the bobcat's death was not yet known.
One of the biggest impacts, according to Kuykendall, is the time lost on research and data collection.
That includes: losing more than a month's worth of data on how wildlife is using the Los Angeles River; a smaller window to capture and tag bobcats to expand a park study; and a blackout on monitoring the endangered California red-legged frog population, whose already fragile habitat faced new threats with the fire and rainstorms that followed.
One other "bummer" due to the shutdown, Kuykendall explained: a missed opportunity to add a new mountain lion to the park's regional study.
During the shutdown, a resident on private land reached out to Jeff Sikich, one of the park's mountain lion biologists, with a photo showing an untagged puma standing over a deer in her backyard. It was in a fragmented area of wildland near the 405 and 101 freeways where cougars have not been monitored. That's an exciting discovery for a mountain lion biologist, but all Sikich could do was look at the photo.
"Our employees are chomping at the bit to be able to do the work that they care about," Kuykendall said, explaining that federal law prohibits workers from doing any task related to government work during a shutdown, including checking their email. That's been difficult for many park employees, whose passion for nature led them to join the Park Service in the first place.
"It's really hard for them to sit on the sidelines and not be involved," she said.
Although the gates to the park were open during the shutdown, many areas and trails in the Santa Monica Mountains remained closed because of the hazards caused by the Woolsey Fire. A skeleton crew of law enforcement rangers worked through the shutdown to monitor dangerous areas and ensure public safety.
Kuykendall said there was not rampant misbehavior, although there was a break-in at a visitor center. A law enforcement officer in the park found and detained three juveniles, described as two males and a female. They were released to their parents and now face state charges of breaking and entering, possession of alcohol and possession of marijuana.
"Incidentally, the three youth told the officer that they were LAUSD students and there was a teachers strike so they decided to come to the mountains," she added.
Unlike visitors who destroyed the namesake trees at Joshua Tree National Park and went off-roading on fragile land, guests in the Santa Monica Mountains have treated the open areas of the park with respect, Kuykendall said.
"We're grateful that the public continued to come out the park and get their nature fix and did so in a responsible manner," she said. "We hope that we'll able to work through and open up more parts of the park soon."
Correction: A previous version of this story said the three juveniles were suspected of burglary, allegedly stole gift shop items and could face federal charges. New information provided by an NPS spokesperson clarified that they were not in possession of stolen items when detained and would face charged at the state level.
A previous version of this story also said three Park Service employees lost their homes in the fire. An NPS spokesperson later clarified that four employees lost their homes, as one property was owned by a couple who both work at the park.