California montane chaparral and woodlands

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The montane habitats of southern California share many species with the Sierras to the north and the lower-elevation Mediterranean woodlands and chaparral. Their communities, however, are distinctive in structure and composition, in addition to supporting a number of endemic and relict species. The ecoregion encompasses most of the Transverse Range that includes the San Bernardino Mountains; San Gabriel Mountains; portions of the Santa Ynez and San Rafael Mountains; Topatopa Mountains; San Jacinto Mountains; the Tehachapi, Greenhorn, Piute, and Kiavah Mountains that extend roughly NE-SW from the southern Sierra Nevada; and the Santa Lucia Range (part of the Coast Range) that parallels the coast southward from Monterey Bay to Morro Bay. Several of the mountain ranges in this ecoregion are complex and high, with peaks ranging up to 3500 m (11,485 ft) elevation in the Transverse Range. Such topography creates conditions for a wide range of natural communities, ranging from chaparral to mixed-conifer forests and alpine habitats.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    7,900 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Biological Distinctiveness
The California Montane Chaparral and Woodland ecoregion consists of a complex mosaic of coastal sage scrub, lower chaparral dominated by chamise, upper chaparral dominated by manzanita, desert chaparral, Piñon-juniper woodland, oak woodlands, closed-cone pine forests, yellow pine forests, sugar pine-white fir forests, lodgepole pine forests, and alpine habitats. The prevalence of drought-adapted scrub species in the flora of this ecoregion helps distinguish it from similar communities in the Sierras and other portions of northern California. Many of the shared Sierra Nevadan species typically are adapted to drier habitats in that ecoregion, Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) being a good example.

Some coastal sage scrub occurs on the southern slopes of the Transverse Range, although chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) chaparral and scrub oak chaparral cover most lower habitats. Higher up, cold chaparral dominated by manzanitas are interspersed with closed-cone pine forests, Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri) woodlands, and endemic bigcone Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) communities. Oak species are an important component of many chaparral and forest communities throughout the ecoregion. Canyon live oak, interior live oak, tan oak, Engelmann oak, golden-cup oak, and scrub oak are some examples. Mixed-conifer forests are found between 1371 to 2896 m (4,500 to 9,500 ft) elevation with various combinations and dominance of incense cedar, sugar pine and white fir, Jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, and mountain juniper. Subalpine forests consist of groves of limber pine (Pinus flexilis), lodgepole pine, and Jeffrey pine. Very old individual trees are commonly observed in these relict subalpine forests. Within this zone are subalpine wet meadows, talus slope herbaceous communities, krumholz woodlands, and a few small aspen groves. Herbaceous and shrubby species are very diverse and share affinities with the Sierras, Mojave Desert, and coastal and interior chaparral and woodlands. Numerous endemic plant species occur in many different communities.

In addition to these general vegetation patterns, this ecoregion is noted for a variety of ecologic islands, communities with specialized conditions that are widely scattered and isolated and typically harbor endemic and relict species. Examples include two localities of knobcone pine (Pinus attenuata) on serpentine soils, scattered vernal pools with a number of endemic and relict species, and isolated populations of one of North America’s most diverse cypress floras, including the rare Gowen cypress (Cupressus goveniana goveniana) restricted to two sites on acidic soils in the northern Santa Lucia Range, Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) found only at two coastal localities near Monterey Bay, and Sargent cypress (Cupressus sargentii) restricted to serpentine outcrops. Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) is also restricted to three coastal sites near Monterey Bay. The ecoregion supports eight endemic conifer species, the highest number for any ecoregion in the U.S. and Canada along with the Northern California Coastal Forest ecoregion [NA0519].

The Santa Lucia Range supports scattered populations of redwoods limited to fog-inundated coastal valleys. Coast live oaks and madrone form coastal evergreen communities intermixed with coastal sage and chamise chaparral. Higher up, one finds tan oak and canyon live oak woodlands eventually grading into forests of ponderosa pine, sugar pine, Jeffrey pine, Coulter pine, and serpentine-associated knobcone pine. The range also harbors the unusual and endemic Santa Lucia or bristlecone fir (Abies bracteata) between 610 and 1525 m (2,000 and 5,000 ft) elevation.

The ecoregion is also home to a few endemic or near-endemic vertebrates, such as the white-eared pocket mouse (Perognathus alticolis) and five endemic and near-endemic amphibians, largely Plethodontid salamanders. California condors once inhabited much of the ecoregion, with the western Transverse Range acting as a refuge for the last wild population. Winter aggregations of monarch butterflies occur at several localities near Monterey Bay and southward along the coast. Some larger vertebrate predators still occur in the ecoregion, including puma (Puma concolor), bobcat (Lynx rufus), coyote (Canis latrans), and ringtails ( Bassariscus astutus).

Conservation Status

Habitat Loss and Degradation
Approximately 30 percent of the ecoregion is supports relatively intact habitat, with the caveat that virtually all bunchgrass elements have been replaced by introduced annual grasses and fire suppression, grazing, and loss of riparian and aquatic habitats are a major problem everywhere.

Remaining Blocks of Intact Habitat
The Ventana wilderness area in the Santa Lucia Range and the Ventura region of the Transverse Range have some of the larger intact habitat blocks. The northern extension of the ecoregions towards the Sierra Nevada has some large blocks, although much of this region is significantly impacted by grazing, cement mining, cotton, and windmill farms. Some larger, more intact blocks occur on Forest Service lands and the San Emigidio Ranch, recently purchased by the Wildlands Conservancy. The few blocks of conifer forests on the mountain peaks of the Transverse Range are all disturbed by development, grazing, logging, and fire suppression. Most of the designated wilderness areas are small and heavily used. Some of the best examples of native blue and valley oak woodlands occur in the inland valleys of the northern Santa Lucia Range, near Hunter-Leggett and the Ventana Wilderness.

Degree of Fragmentation
The entire region is heavily roaded and valley bottoms are largely developed. Fragmentation and isolation of intact habitat blocks is relatively high.

Degree of Protection
Much of the ecoregion falls within the Los Padres National Forest. The forests and chaparral of this National Forest suffer from intensive logging of low productivity ecosystems, overgrazing, air pollution, loss of aquatic habitats, heavy recreational use, and decades of fire suppression.

Types and Severity of Threats
Fire suppression is a severe problem throughout the ecoregion, allowing fuel loads to build up and increase the probability of ecologically devastating hot fires. Few large predators remain due to centuries of hunting and predator control. The high densities of deer, rodents, and other herbivores that has resulted from predator extirpation contribute to intensive grazing and seed predation. This effect results in dramatic changes to plant and animal communities throughout the ecoregion. Many springs, streams, rivers, and other aquatic habitats have been highly disturbed through land development, overgrazing, sedimentation, introduced species (18% of the flora), and water diversions. Extensive development around lakes and streams for resorts and vacation homes has altered many montane aquatic systems. The wide range of terrestrial species that depend upon critical water resources to survive, such as amphibians, have been severely impacted by the loss and alteration of aquatic habitats. High-impact recreational activities, such as off-road vehicles and hunting, cause significant damage of plant communities and mortality and disturbance of wildlife.

Mixed conifer and closed-cone pine forests are heavily impacted by air pollution from urban centers. Ozone from smog causes ponderosa pine and other species of conifer, shrubs, and lichen to weaken and die.

Suite of Priority Activities to Enhance Biodiversity Conservation

•Restore fire events to frequencies and intensities within their natural range of variation through management prescriptions such as controlled burns and fuel reduction (not salvage logging).
•Strictly protect ecologic islands and populations of rare species such as Gowen cypress and knobcone pine forests, vernal pools, and bigcone Douglas-fir and Santa Lucia fir groves. For example, strong protection needs to be given to Huckleberry Hill and its environs near Monterey to conserve several rare tree species.
•Protect the last blocks of foothill oak woodlands, a habitat type severely threatened throughout its range.
•Prohibit off-road vehicle use and grazing in fragile and rare serpentine plant communities.
•Prohibit further cutting of the last remaining groves and trees used by overwintering monarchs. These sites may experience rare environmental conditions that are necessary for the butterflies to survive. Some city governments near Monterey Bay recently voted to allow cutting of some of the butterfly trees for development, showing a disregard for the global rarity of this phenomena or the fragile nature of the scattered populations. Multiple butterfly sites may be necessary to allow long-term persistence of the butterflies in the face of natural weather events.
•The U.S. Forest Service must reduce timber harvest in these habitats characterized by low productivity and which experience significant periods of drought. Grazing and continued destruction of riparian and aquatic habitats must be curtailed on both federal and private lands.
•Air pollution is a significant problem, yet reduction in smog emissions from Los Angeles and environs is a very challenging hurdle.
Conservation Partners

•California Native Plant Society
•The Nature Conservancy
•The Nature Conservancy of California
•The Sierra Club.
•U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
•U.S. Forest Service

Relationship to other classification schemes
This ecoregion matches Omernik’s Southern California Mountain ecoregion (8). Bailey does not distinguish the montane areas of Southern California and incorporates the Transverse Range into four ecoregions that share boundaries in the region: Southern California Mountains and Valley Section (M262B), Central California Coast Ranges Section (M262A), Southern California Coast Section (261B), and Sierra Nevadas Foothill Section (261F, largely encompassing the Tehachapis and associated ranges). Bailey splits the Santa Lucia Range longitudinally into the Central California Coast Ranges Section and the Central California Coast Section. Küchler maps a variety of vegetation types within the boundaries of the ecoregion including chaparral, southern oak woodland, southern subalpine forests, Jeffrey pine forests, mixed hardwood forests, oak savannas, and mixed hardwood and redwood forests of the Santa Lucia Range.

Prepared by: David Olson, reviewed by Robin Cox, The Nature Conservancy.