Management actions to protect endangered species and conserve ecosystem function may not always be in precise alignment. Efforts to recover the California Ridgway’s Rail (Rallus obsoletus obsoletus; hereafter, California rail), a federally and state listed species, and restoration of tidal marsh ecosystems in the San Francisco Bay estuary provide a prime example of habitat restoration that has conflicted with species conservation. On the brink of extinction from habitat loss and degradation, and non-native predators in the 1990s, California rail populations responded positively to introduction of a non-native plant, Atlantic cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). California rail populations were in substantial decline when the non-native Spartina was initially introduced as part of efforts to recover tidal marshes. Subsequent hybridization with the native Pacific cordgrass (Spartina foliosa) boosted California rail populations by providing greater cover and increased habitat area. The hybrid cordgrass (S. alterniflora × S. foliosa) readily invaded tidal mudflats and channels, and both crowded out native tidal marsh plants and increased sediment accretion in the marsh plain. This resulted in modification of tidal marsh geomorphology, hydrology, productivity, and species composition.
Our results show that denser California rail populations occur in invasive Spartina than in native Spartina in San Francisco Bay. Herbicide treatment between 2005 and 2012 removed invasive Spartina from open intertidal mud and preserved foraging habitat for shorebirds. However, removal of invasive Spartina caused substantial decreases in California rail populations. Unknown facets of California rail ecology, undesirable interim stages of tidal marsh restoration, and competing management objectives among stakeholders resulted in management planning for endangered species or ecosystem restoration that favored one goal over the other. We have examined this perceived conflict and propose strategies for moderating harmful effects of restoration while meeting the needs of both endangered species and the imperiled native marsh ecosystem.