Conservationists are creating a home for wildlife north of LA

When Zachary Principe wants to show people one of his favorite views, he takes them to the top of Bear Mountain, a sky island in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles where California condors dwell in the branches of sugar pines.

The mountaintop 6,805 feet above sea level is a haven for mountain lions, mule deer and lynx and is only about a two-hour drive from Southern California’s 18 million people. “But it’s off-limits for development,” said Principe, project manager for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, “because we bought the place.”

Bear Mountain is among the most recent additions to the conservancy’s new Frank and Joan Randall Tehachapi Preserve, which consists of nine working cattle farms acquired in chunks over the past decade as a last line of defense against urban sprawl and increasing climate pressures spread over the mountain ranges of the region.

On a recent summit tour, Principe and Cara Lacey, the latter director of the conservancy’s wildlife corridors, gazed out from a promontory that offered a window into a bygone era of Southern California, a hub of overlapping ecosystems and working ranch cattle grazing in green pastures.

Cara Lacey and Zachary Principe in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Zachary Principe, project manager for the conservation agency, and Cara Lacey, the conservation agency’s director of wildlife corridors, hike along a ridgeline overlooking a connection of overlapping ecosystems in the Tehachapi Mountains.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

“The reserve is a Grand Central Station of wildlife corridors that maintain gene flow in native wildlife,” Lacey said, “by connecting them to swathes of undeveloped habitats that run from the Sierra Nevada to the Baja Peninsula.”

These include the Mojave Desert to the east, the snow-capped granite peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada to the north, the grasslands and coastal areas of the San Joaquin Valley to the west, and the vast oak savannas of the Tejon Ranch to the south.

The ranchlands were secured with approximately $65 million in grants and financial agreements arranged by the Nature Conservancy in conjunction with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Department of the Navy.

These include a $50 million donation from Frank and Joan Randall, a couple of Western iconoclasts who wanted to help transform the ranchland into an eco-friendly home for wildlife as well as a healthy place to raise cattle.

“In my lifetime I have witnessed massive changes in the state of nature and seen open spaces disappearing throughout Southern California,” said Frank Randall. “Time is not on our side. We must act now.”

“That’s why Joan and I are so excited for this reserve to come to fruition,” he added, “and to know that we have made every effort to ensure that this special place is here and in good hands, now and in the future.” .”

Some conservationists see the reserve as a crucial part of a future network of protected areas stretching from Canada to Mexico that would be “rewilded” with reintroduced species to mimic the biodiversity of pre-Columbian America.

Its current protected neighbors include the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve, the 246,812-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, and the 240,000-acre Tejon Ranch preserves.

“We’ve done an amazing job protecting much of the land between Los Angeles County and the Sierra Nevada,” said Michael Sweeney, the Conservancy’s executive director for the California region. “As beautiful as these lands are, they are but shadows of their former selves.”

That’s because they lack many once-common native species important to their ecological health — pronghorn, bighorn sheep, tule elk, grizzly bears, wolves and jaguars, Sweeney said. “We have always had great ambitions to revitalize this country.”

A black bear at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy's new 72,000-acre Randall Nature Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains

A black bear at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy’s new 72,000-acre Randall Nature Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.

(Greg Warrick/Conservation)

For now, however, “we intend to continue running the ranch as a management tool for building nature, with livestock helping to hold back the invasive weeds, among other things,” Sweeney said.

Scientists say the encroaching development threatens to fragment rangelands and cut off corridors for wildlife with roads and suburbs, diverted watercourses and weekend crowds.

Even free-roaming dogs and cats would appreciate the region’s endangered plants and animals, including Bakersfield cacti, arroyo toads and the rarely seen brick-red slender Tehachapi salamander, which spends most of its life underground and, having none lungs, absorbs oxygen through his skin.

A scientific study of the yellow-spotted ensatina salamander by Robert Stebbins, the late pre-eminent expert on reptiles and amphibians in western North America, became a classic of biological research.

The nocturnal salamander is one of seven Ensatina species, each of which occurs in a limited range in the mountains and foothills around California’s Central Valley, including the Tehachapi Mountains.

Stebbins’ work aimed to solve a biological mystery: Why are two species of a creature in California virtually identical except for color?

The differences between the salamanders found in the mountains surrounding the Central Valley are striking. In the western ranges, they are mostly reddish brown with orange bellies. In the eastern range, however, they are dark with bright yellow patches—and the colors lighten toward the southern end of the range.

He came to believe that the salamanders from common ancestors in the north evolved independently and adapted to their environment – as if they were on separate islands. The theory is highlighted by renowned biologist Richard Dawkins in his 2004 book The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.

“There’s so much more to discover in this reserve,” Sweeney said. “Future projects include a comprehensive biological study.”

Photograph of a golden eagle and mule deer in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.

Photo of a golden eagle and mule deer at the nonprofit Nature Conservancy’s new 72,000-acre Randall Nature Preserve in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles.

(Greg Warrick/Conservation)

To balance the needs of cattle and wildlife above and below ground, select slopes are grazed to keep grasses and shrubs low enough for hawks and golden eagles to more easily spot gophers and other prey. In other areas, grazing is controlled to prevent erosion and allow native plants and flowers to thrive. Fences will be erected along the waterways.

According to a recent study by researchers at UC Davis and UC Agricultural and Natural Resources, moderate livestock grazing around ephemeral ponds that form seasonally under certain conditions results in greater numbers and diversity of native plants.

“Livestock grazing can be used as a means of conservation, provided you have a plan,” said Ken Tate, co-author of the study. “It’s on the shoulders of land managers to set goals and then achieve them.”

From its southern boundary at Tejon Ranch, Randall Preserve rises to the snowy heights of Bear Mountain, an isolated mountain that offers comfort to creatures including a perennial spring backed by stands of sugar, ponderosa, and Jeffrey pines, black oaks and elderberry bushes are rarely visited by hikers and mountain bikers.

Down the mountain, the conservancy is working with the California Department of Transportation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to convert an agricultural bridge spanning a busy section of Highway 58 through the Tehachapi Pass into a modified black bear game drive. Pumas, lynx and mule deer.

“We are only just beginning to understand the ever-changing complexity of the ecological rhythms of life in this vast conservation area,” said Principe.

“The good news,” he added, “is that we can now see them changing in their own time, and not because of developmental pressures.” Conservationists are creating a home for wildlife north of LA

Tom Vazquez

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