• The Missing Link

    The race to protect a crucial wildlife corridor.
    By Jane Braxton Little
    Photographs by Ian Shive
 

A

n hour’s drive north from Los Angeles,

just east of the vast agricultural fields and sprawling subdivisions of the Central Valley, lies a still-wild sliver of old California. On the edge of one of the nation’s most populous places, the slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains descend in a cascade of grass-covered flanks from almost 8,000 feet.

Rugged and remote, this geological jumble of a mountain range forms a slender neck that links the public lands surrounding Los Angeles with the national forests of the Sierra Nevada to the north, and it joins the remaining grasslands of California’s Central Valley with the Mojave Desert to the southeast. For millennia it has nurtured the seasonal migrations and territorial shifts of wildlife moving up and down canyons in one of the most vital corridors in North America.

Most of the Tehachapi (pronounced tuh-hatch-a-pea) range is owned by ranchers whose families have worked the land for generations, their cattle sharing watering holes with mule deer and bobcats. But with urban sprawl pressing from the south and west and wind power development from the east, wildlife and ranchers alike face an uncertain future.

Over the past four years, a consortium of landowners and conservation groups has worked to protect a vital 50-mile wildlife corridor through the range. And last year, when The Nature Conservancy purchased the 15,000-acre Tollhouse Ranch, the deal secured the final link in a 270,000-acre ecological corridor that joins vast ecosystems to the east, west, north and south.

“This is a linkage of continental significance,” says E.J. Remson, the Conservancy’s project director in Southern California, who struck the Tollhouse Ranch deal.

The scale of this protected corridor would be noteworthy anywhere in the world, says Tom Maloney, executive director of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, one of the major partners working to protect the range. “But to accomplish this in Southern California is staggering—audacious!”
A Hodgepodge of Habitat

On a chilly June morning, Remson eases his Toyota 4Runner past a collection of weatherworn buildings that announce the headquarters of the Tollhouse Ranch. White-faced cows and their moon-eyed calves hustle off the dirt road onto hillsides where spring wildflowers have faded to a tawny brown.

The Tollhouse Ranch represents some of the highest-quality remaining grasslands and oak savannas in California, says Remson. Only 15 percent of these ecosystems is protected. The ranch’s picturesque, rolling hills comprise more than 9,000 acres of grasslands and 5,000 acres of blue oaks—a long-lived species found only in California.

Despite the longtime presence of cattle and non-native grasses, Tollhouse is amazingly diverse, says Conservancy ecologist Zachary Principe. Pacing near a carpet of purple needle grass, arms in constant motion, he launches an impromptu review of Tollhouse’s ecological riches in short staccato bursts: “Endangered Bakersfield cactuses. Rare burrowing owls. Western bluebirds off the charts.”
“And there’s the San Joaquin Valley,” he says, one arm stationary long enough to point west toward a ridge. Just beyond it are endless rows of industrial-scale orange orchards, pistachio groves and vineyards that give way to the sprawling housing developments taking over California’s southern Central Valley.

Located just east of Bakersfield, the Tollhouse Ranch sits on the front lines of encroaching urbanization. Every year, Bakersfield’s subdivisions have crept closer and closer, gobbling up the valley floor between the city limits and the foothills of the Tehachapi range. Although the growth has slowed in the economic downturn of recent years, east of Tollhouse several large ranches have sold to developers.

“Development was going fast and furious on both sides, with Tollhouse caught in the middle,” says Remson. Now protected from future sprawl, Tollhouse will continue to serve as a working ranch, operated by its former owner.

All told, the Conservancy has protected nearly 32,000 acres on three neighboring ranches in the Tehachapis. In 2008, the Conservancy purchased a conservation easement on the Parker Ranch, allowing ranching to continue but forever limiting development of the land. Two years later, it bought the Caliente Ranch from a developer who had already won county approval to subdivide part of the ranch into 20-acre parcels.
These three properties link in the south with the massive Tejon Ranch, where 240,000 acres was protected in a landmark 2008 conservation agreement reached by the Sierra Club, Audubon California, the Planning and Conservation League, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Endangered Habitats League, and the Tejon Ranch Company. The deal also established the Tejon Ranch Conservancy.

Not only will protecting the ranches will help secure a crucial wildlife corridor for species to migrate, the land itself is an absolute ecological priority, says Conservancy ecologist Principe. “Four ecoregions come together here in the Tehachapis,” he says, giving the range an immense diversity of species. Here the Central Valley meets the South Coast range, and the Mojave Desert meets the Sierra Nevada. “By conserving land here,” says Principe, “we protect several ecoregions at the same time.”

This collision of ecosystems also produces a strange mix of species not typically found in close proximity. An elusive and endangered San Joaquin kit fox—a bushy-tailed denizen of Central Valley grasslands—may be found burrowing beneath a high-desert species like pinyon pine. A Joshua tree—the icon of the Mojave Desert—may stand next to a blue oak from the savannas of the Sierra Nevada.

This hodgepodge of habitat is increasingly important at a time when climate change is spelling trouble for many species. Plants and animals alike are being forced to adapt to new conditions. Because the Tehachapi ranches encompass a range of elevations from 800 feet to nearly 8,000 feet, they afford species some flexibility. No one knows exactly how the habitat will change, says Principe, “but we’re preserving the canvas so species can find the right niche under the changes we expect.”

Forever and Ever

Bill Parker knows firsthand the changes these mountains have seen. His ranch in the Tehachapis has been a family operation since his great-great-grandfather homesteaded here in 1858. Today, Parker and his son, Tom, share the 10,000-acre ranch with coyotes, coastal horned lizards and hundreds of cattle.

Since he took over the ranch in 1990, Parker has watched a steady stream of neighbors transform their operations into ranchettes and one-acre developments. Others have been successfully wooed by solar and wind developers. “The cash flow you can get is hard to refuse,” he says. “True working ranches are dropping off like flies.”

Worried about holding off developers and keeping his own ranch intact for his son and grandchildren, Parker was looking for solutions when the Conservancy’s Remson stopped by to show him a map of California condor corridors crossing his property.
Parker Ranch—along with Tollhouse and Tejon—sits under the major flyway for California condors heading north to the Sierra Nevada. The endangered bird’s numbers had plummeted to just 22 individuals in 1982, before the condor started its slow recovery. Parker, who is a veterinarian with a second degree in crop science, was struck by his ranch’s importance to the impressive vulture with its nearly 10-foot wingspan.

“Keeping this place a ranch was number one for me,” says Parker. But after seeing the role of his ranch as a key part of the Tehachapi corridor, he adds, “I knew what I had to do.”
In 2008 Parker sold development rights for his ranch to the Conservancy. The conservation easement agreement allows him to run cattle on the land—“forever and ever,” he says—while ensuring that the land will never be built over with ranchettes.

Using the income he received from the Conservancy for the sale of his development rights, Parker has built more than eight miles of fencing to distribute cattle and keep them out of streams. He has installed two 5,000-gallon water tanks and a solar-powered pump, which moves water over three miles to troughs that help disperse his herds across the range. One trough has attracted a pair of golden eagles as well.

The changes have done as much for Parker’s cattle operation as they have for wildlife. Moving cattle to previously little-used areas has expanded his grazing grounds. His cattle are healthier, he says, and the range is, too. “Isn’t that an irony? That an environmental organization could improve a cattle operation—actually increase the carrying capacity of the land,” he says.

Cattle and Ecology

What’s ironic to Parker is no surprise to Maloney, of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. “Cattle ranching and conservation marry up very well in this country,” he says.

The sprawling 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch—the largest privately owned ranch in California—was established as a working cattle operation in 1843 and now supports up to 14,500 head of cattle. The innovative 2008 agreement reached by five environmental groups and the Tejon Ranch Company commits 90 percent of the ranch—a staggering 240,000 acres—to permanent protection. When the deal was signed, the Tejon Ranch Conservancy purchased conservation easements on 62,000 acres, while the ranch owners agreed to phase in additional conservation easements on 178,000 acres over 30 years. (This year, some 37,000 of those acres were protected.)

Despite more than 170 years of grazing, the habitat for wildlife is generally in very good condition, Maloney says. And recently scientists have launched a variety of studies to learn more about how cattle grazing affects the Tejon ranchlands, as well as how climate shifts may cause the plant communities here to shift. It’s an exciting opportunity to bring “global-scale scientific ideas” down to the ground, Maloney says.

Because of its vast size, Tejon Ranch is a place where scientists can test theories at a landscape scale. Fencing off 1,000 acres from cattle and feral pigs to study oak regeneration, for example, will not affect the overall operation as it might on a smaller ranch. If Tejon ecologists and cattlemen can demonstrate how ranching and conservation can go hand in hand in this landscape, says Maloney, it will bolster other efforts to keep small ranches as working landscapes.
50 Miles and Counting
Despite the significance of the Tejon and Conservancy acquisitions, the corridor they protect is narrow—less than a mile wide in places. And the protected lands are almost entirely on the west side of the Tehachapi Mountains, with very little east-side habitat conserved. As Remson and his team at the Conservancy work to strengthen the corridor throughout the range, they are paying particular attention to the east side’s more remote lands, which form a checkerboard of private and public ownership south of Sequoia National Forest.

This is critical habitat for the olive-sided flycatcher, Lawrence’s goldfinch and other migrating birds moving across the desert looking for water and places to roost to sustain them during their journey north. It is also ideal territory for wind generation.

The potential income from developing wind farms has drawn the interest of some ranchers in the region. And after several wind projects won local approval despite almost no data about their potential effect on the corridor, rancher Emmy Cattani—who is a member of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy board—kicked off an effort to inventory species around her family ranch, which lies just southeast of the Caliente Ranch.

“To many policymakers, no data equals no species,” Cattani says. After three years of working with volunteers, doctoral students, bird experts and others to conduct plant surveys, assess amphibian populations and track bird populations, Cattani’s efforts are beginning to pay off. The Kern County planning department recently began mapping some of the most sensitive and pristine areas along the corridor. Cattani hopes they will be designated off-limits to wind energy development. The research and the inventory, she says, “have helped us make a case … that these areas should be preserved.”
The results are also helping Remson and the Conservancy identify unprotected areas that are critical habitat for both resident and migrating wildlife, as well as areas that are less sensitive. The better they understand the habitat, says Remson, the better the Conservancy can prioritize the places that are most in need of protection and those that are more suitable for development.

For now, Remson and his team are working to bolster the corridor and build on the momentum created by their current success. “Fifty miles of property in California is not easy to preserve, but we’ve done it,” he says. The missing link is secure, and it only awaits expansion. “We know this works,” says Remson, for wildlife and for ranchers.

"Fifty Miles of property in California is not easy to preserve, but we’ve done it."

E.J. Remson, the Conservancy's project director in Southern California