For decades, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom made living rooms across America privy to parts of the natural world unknown and unseen by most from the comforts of a couch: winter sweeping Yellowstone National Park, Royal Bengal Tigers roaming India’s Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary, Emperor Penguins skirting Antarctic ice.
But now, cameras are turning to Monterey Bay.
Returning to television screens in January 2023 for a new iteration, the program, revamped as “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: Protecting the Wild,” will showcase a series of conservation success stories as a nod to moments of environmental optimism. Monterey Bay made the cut.
Last week, film crews took to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Moss Landing, Elkhorn Slough, and even below the ocean’s surface to tell a success story paramount to the Central Coast – sea otter and, in turn, kelp forest conservation.
“Our show is focusing on species that are doing better,” said wildlife expert Peter Gros, who helped host the original Wild Kingdom and is set to return for January’s re-imagined debut. “We’re hoping to affect the next generation and get them concerned about preserving wildlife and their natural world. … That’s why Monterey, and what (it’s) doing with research and studies, is so appropriate for us.”
Mutual of Omaha’s local feature strings together a narrative of sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula that goes back decades, but puts particular focus on the progress of the population since 2014.
Marine ecologist Joshua Smith – a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Barbara who will make an appearance on Wild Kingdom’s Monterey episode – explained that in the early 1900s, after the fur trade whittled down the thousands of sea otters peppering California’s coast down to a handful, a small surviving colony was discovered off the shores of Big Sur. Recovery efforts soon followed, a last-ditch hope at conserving California’s sea otters Smith described as “hugely successful.”
The number of otters rapidly increased up until the late 1990s, at which point numbers plateaued. The cause, Smith said, was that otters reached their carrying capacity, meaning Monterey Bay’s prey-limited waters were at their limit for how many sea otters it could support. That is, until 2014, as Monterey Bay’s kelp forest ecosystem began to change, beginning with the loss of a key predator.
In 2013, a catastrophic wasting event decimated sea stars all along the West Coast. Among the hardest-hit species was the sunflower sea star, predator of an avid kelp-eater: the purple sea urchin. Changes persisted from 2014-16, when a major marine heat wave warmed seas to temperatures unfavorable for kelp forest growth, as kelp thrives in cold water.
The twin scourges created an unlikely opportunity for purple urchins to creep out of the cracks and crevices they had long kept to, where they’d collect pieces of kelp drift easily accessible from their ocean cubbies. But with kelp less abundant, urchins spread their spines, storming the reef for whatever living kelp they could scrounge up.
Unbalanced conditions saw California’s kelp forests fall away, with Northern California losing 95 percent of its kelp forest in under a decade. Meanwhile, the Monterey Bay area fared a little better, losing about 60 to 65 percent. The reason? Local kelp forests have a staunch protector in sea otters, who prey on urchins.
No longer strapped for food, otters have taken advantage of the expanded urchin outbreak, Smith explained, prompting the first dramatic increase in Monterey’s sea otter population in over 20 years. Since 2014, the local sea otter population has increased from about 270 to 432, per research headed by Smith and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year. Smith said the Monterey Bay Aquarium and U.S. Geological Survey just concluded their annual count of sea otters for 2022. He’s awaiting the updated numbers, but the kelp champions’ progress is already clear.
“It’s a huge success story, having the otters actually maintain the patches of kelp forest they have,” said Smith, describing Monterey Bay as a “mosaic” of urchin barrens and remnant kelp forests. “Look at other places like Sonoma and Mendocino coast. There are no sea otters, and there’s no kelp. The kelp is gone. So having sea otters along the Monterey Peninsula has actually helped buffer this ecosystem from climate change.”
To bolster the buffer, Smith said sea otter conservation is still a hot item, both locally and across the state. Of particular note, he explained, is a current push to explore how sea otters can be reintroduced to other places along California’s coast.
“Right now, we’re at the level of a feasibility study,” he said. “Can it be done? What is the likelihood of a successful outcome if sea otters were to be relocated to an area they once inhabited before the fur trade? Those efforts are underway.”
He added kelp conservation is also an ongoing focus, like sending divers out to help otters with the groundwork of removing urchins from overrun reefs. Last year, for example, more than 150 Monterey Bay divers began training to thwart the urchins’ hold on the Central Coast.
Together, the confluence of conservation triumph offers Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom a comeback story it couldn’t refuse.
“I think for the people who are watching, many of them may not be aware of how complex the ecosystem in Monterey Bay is and how involved (the community) is at a local level in trying to preserve what they have,” said Gros, eager to expose the Peninsula’s impulse to protect to a larger audience. “Our show’s about public education, encouraging people to do the right thing, and exposing them to scientific knowledge so they know what needs to be done.”
To Smith, that’s the real value in a program like Wild Kingdom – bringing awareness to why balanced ecosystems are lifelines in the natural world.
“It’s so cool getting the word out about how important it is to have intact ecosystems,” he said. “Everything in an ecosystem has a part, so if you remove one of those parts, it’s like pulling on a bigger web. Some of these conservation efforts that have helped to fill those animals that were removed from the system are huge.
“And having those healthy, intact ecosystems has so many benefits, not just to humans but also for buffering the effects of climate change. Ecosystems are more resilient to climate change when they are intact. When they have all their key characters.”
Apart from Monterey Bay, other recovering ecological communities to be featured on Wild Kingdom’s new series include the Florida panther, an endangered species only found on the state’s southern swamplands; black bears in Washington state, rehabilitating after a wildfire drove them away from their habitat; and the California condor, whose population has been on the rebound since reintroduction into the wild in 1992.
Characterizing his hosting gig as the “best job in the world,” Gros said he’s “honored and flattered” to continue a long-held Wild Kingdom legacy of sponsoring research and popularizing the planet, but with a more modern and encouraging twist.
“So often it’s about the doom and gloom,” Gros said. “Sometimes, when I speak at universities, I ask students to do a show of hands for how they feel about the state of a planet, and there are some that say it’s too late. It’s absolutely not too late.
“We’ve had serious problems, and we still do. But we solve them. We work out solutions like we have with some of the species we’re talking about on this show. Like you have in Monterey Bay.”
Mutual of Omaha’s new series “Wild Kingdom: Protecting the Wild,” will debut in January 2023 on RFD-TV and digital channels. To learn more, go to https://www.mutualofomaha.com/wild-kingdom/.
Soruce : https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/06/13/mutual-of-omahas-wild-kingdom-comes-to-monterey-bay/