L.A. Is Now a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Here’s Why It’s a Big Deal

With urban nature threatened by pollution, climate change, and habitat loss, the city is making a push to preserve its beautiful biodiversity

You may not realize it while you’re inching along the freeway at rush hour, but Los Angeles is a certified wildlife habit. Yes, the whole city. That designation, made official on May 3 by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), is a significant one. Not only does it make L.A. the largest city in the U.S. to gain this kind of recognition from the 85-year-old conservation group, but the initiative, led by L.A. Sanitation and Environment (LASAN), but is also a way to keep tabs on local biodiversity.

“We saw the opportunity to certify the entire city with the National Wildlife Federation as an opportunity to do some great outreach and promote a lot of ideas and goals of our biodiversity program,” says Michelle Barton, environmental specialist for LASAN.

Historically, urban nature has been an understudied area, but interest in the subject has grown in recent years with the advent of apps like iNaturalist and eBird, which allow anyone to upload their own nature photos to potentially be used as data by researchers, and global events like City Nature Challenge, which was co-founded by community science leaders at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and California Academy of Sciences. The certification and LASAN’s related outreach programs are more ways to engage Angelenos in local nature at a pivotal time.

Los Angeles is located in the California Floristic Province, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. In other words, it’s part of a region that’s hosts a large variety of life, but also faces environmental threats. “In L.A., our biodiversity is threatened by pollution, by climate change, by habitat loss,” says Barton.

Anyone can apply to have a garden certified with the NWF so long as their space can provide food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young for local wildlife, while using sustainable practices. In L.A., people had been doing this on their own. Meanwhile, LASAN had created a biodiversity index to get a better idea of what species are here and how people are protecting them. “We decided that we really wanted to track the certification of spaces across the city as habitat,” says Barton.

The sites that were already certified became the data for the biodiversity index, but then LASAN realized that it was possible to have the entire city certified as well. “People were excited about it,” says Barton. Because of its size, L.A. needed to have more than 1,200 individually certified sites in order to meet the standard to have citywide certification. “I should say that we were lucky in that we were able to capture some historic certification processes,” says Barton. “We weren’t starting from scratch. Basically, anything that had been certified within the city limits counted towards this threshold of points.”

Several years ago, Esperanza Elementary School in Westlake received NWF certification for its own garden. Bringing the garden to life on the site of the former bungalow classroom was a process that included collaboration with LAUSD and community partner Los Angeles Audubon Society, as well as the students. The benefit has been connecting students with nature on a campus just outside of downtown.

“It shouldn’t be that a child needs to get on a school bus in order to experience nature,” says principal Brad Rumble.

Over the past few years, winged visitors to Esperanza Elementary have include the red-tailed hawk, eight-toothed cuckoo leaf-cutter bee, and willow flycatcher. When the painted lady butterflies passed through Los Angeles in 2019, many stopped by Esperanza’s garden. The sighting of a yellow-collared masked bee here was only the second in North America. And, after a burrowing owl spent 30 days on campus one winter, the school changed its mascot from the dragon to an owl.

Rumble sees the possibilities for Los Angeles following its citywide wildlife habitat certification. “This really shows tremendous potential at a time when we all are searching for solutions to these 21st century issues, like climate change, declining biodiversity, nature deficit, storm runoff, urban heat island effect,” he says. “This is really an opportunity—and it’s exciting, I think—that the City of Los Angeles is embracing this. Also, that the school district has shown an appreciation for this kind of innovation.”

More recently, LASAN partnered with Los Angeles Public Library for the L.A. BioBlitz Challenge, that began in June and runs through August 7. The event encourages participants to observe local nature and upload their findings to iNaturalist and emphasizes exploration of cold spots on their observation map. LASAN is also continuing to keep tabs on local spots that become certified wildlife habitats.

“Just because we’ve been certified doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop promoting the ideas behind creating habitat,” says Barton. “Those instructions are part and parcel with what we’re trying to teach residents across the city with our biodiversity program outreach. We’re definitely still promoting that and we will be tracking certification in the biodiversity index.”

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