Wildlife, Wildfire & Winning Conservation

In an early celebration of Earth Day, I accompanied a hardy band of intrepid explorers learning about native wildlife, wildfire ecology and conservation efforts undertaken to date by Transition Habitat Conservancy in the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area of southern California. I was asked to provide background information on what Defenders of Wildlife does for our local denizens of the western Mojave Desert and how folks could become involved in protecting our natural heritage.

The Portal Ridge Wildlife Area, nestled between the southernmost portion of Antelope Valley and the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles — home to 4.3 million plus Angelinos — is a remarkable wild lands area situated in the far western Mojave Desert. Located squarely in the path of California’s legendary fire-carrying Santa Ana winds, this dynamic Wildlife Area offers important lessons about both wildfire ecology and real-world, rubber-hits-the-road, conservation. Defenders is working closely with the Desert and Mountains Conservation Authority, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Transition Habitat Conservancy and similar land trusts in encouraging the creation of conservation reserves that provide low impact, open space recreation opportunities for local communities.

The Portal Ridge Wildlife Area in southern Antelope Valley, California encompasses chaparral, ghost pine (Pinus sabiniana) forest, Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) woodlands and western Mojave streambed plant communities. It is currently recovering from the 2013 Powerhouse Fire and is managed by the Transition Habitat Conservancy as a keystone conservation property in the western Mojave Desert.

Antelope Valley is well known as the western extent of the Joshua tree — one of the oddest trees you can imagine, named by a group of Mormon emigrants crossing the Mojave Desert in the 19th century who believed it resembled Joshua reaching up to the sky in prayer. The Valley is also known for its extensive historical agricultural development, and more recently for expanding freeways and transmission lines, sprawling residential communities, massive solar panel facilities and wind farms which blanket the northerly-situated Tehachapi Mountains. Associated agricultural, industrial and residential development have resulted in a considerable loss of Joshua tree, as well as the elimination of the Valley’s namesake, the native pronghorn, or desert ghost.

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) at Avenue H and 90th Street West in southern Antelope Valley, Lancaster, California. Photo courtesy of Dan Potter.

Pronghorn, which tend to favor wide-open landscapes, were extirpated from Antelope Valley in the 1940s, as the result of over-hunting, habitat loss and degradation. However, private game ranching in the adjacent Tehachapi Mountains in recent years has resulted in a few escapees that have returned pronghorn in small numbers to the region.

While public lands and national forests fringe the outskirts of Antelope Valley and provide for varying levels of wildlife habitat protection, conservation planning has been less than robust across the substantial private lands that comprise Antelope Valley itself. Few large blocks of intact wildlife habitat and connecting corridors have been conserved, with long-term wildlife conservation in the area increasingly at risk. A few natural area parks have been designated, including the well-known California Poppy Reserve and Ripley’s Desert Woodland, but significant connecting lands critical to wildlife travel and long-term persistence of populations have been largely overlooked.

California towhee (Melozone crissalis) is a primary chaparral resident of the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area.

This Antelope Valley setting is ideal for putting California’s Regional Conservation Investment Strategy (RCIS) program to work in earnest. Adopted in 2016, this statewide Program encourages a voluntary, collaborative, non-regulatory conservation assessment process intended to result in high-quality conservation. Associated planning documents must be sponsored by a public agency and can provide numerous local benefits, including planning for, and management of open space.

The state-listed threatened Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni).

RCIS planning assures better long-term natural resource conservation, more informed open space allocation, facilitation of “least conflict project siting” and expedited project permitting. Project developers benefit from RCIS efforts because the program identifies regular and advance mitigation opportunities and provides for greater planning certainty while also facilitating the conservation of California’s declining and vulnerable species and supporting regional priorities.

The Antelope Valley RCIS was initiated in 2016 and we look forward to working with Transition Habitat Conservancy and others to further the intent of this ambitious program. Without appropriate planning, our expanding cities and infrastructure in Antelope Valley, unsustainable water use and increasing wildfire frequency/risk in undeveloped lands threaten our ability to conserve natural resources for future generations. Further, while wildfire is not new to the Valley, fire incidence has become more frequent and resulting wildfires today are much larger than historical fires.

Mountain lion (Puma concolor) foraging in the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area.

One of the important ways we can protect the Antelope Valley and the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area is to make sure that we consider wildfire and the role it plays in ecosystem function and everyday public use management in conservation planning. The supporting native plant communities in this area are wildfire-adapted, but balanced fire frequency is key to maintaining the Antelope Valley’s long-term health and the ecological processes of its plant communities, as well as the wildlife that relies on them. Where wildfire is too frequent, chaparral communities never reach their climax condition or provide maximal wildlife habitat. Where wildfire is too infrequent, the fuel loading which occurs within chaparral communities can degrade the quality of habitat for certain wildlife and primes the associated area for large-scale wildfire. Ideally, it is important to maintain a mosaic of different-aged chaparral blocks to provide optimal wildlife habitat while minimizing the degree of catastrophic fire risk.

Our band of intrepid conservationists exploring the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area.
A juvenile Coast horned lizard (Phrynosoma blainvillii) was a highlight of the hike, blinking to the mesmerizing clicks of snapping cameras.

Saturday’s hike through the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area was followed by an incredible presentation about some of the more “unseen” critters who call our western Mojave Desert backyard home, as well as the incredible progress made to date in conserving wildlands in the Pinon Hills, Portal Ridge and Fremont Peak regions of the western Mojave Desert. The presentation highlighted an extensive, custom photography and video-cam effort currently being conducted by researchers, which is transforming our knowledge of this area’s charismatic fauna by capturing images in early morning, late afternoon and evening hours. Folks were also interested in learning how Defenders of Wildlife employs science, public education, legislative advocacy, litigation, and proactive on-the-ground solutions to slow extinction rates and impede the overall loss of biological diversity.

American badger (Taxidea taxus) and great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), visiting a water source at the Portal Ridge Wildlife Area.
Black bear (Ursus americanus) bobcat (Lynx rufus) at Portal Ridge Wildlife Area.

Our hike and the presentation highlighted the importance of the Antelope Valley — how it has provided extensive low-impact recreation opportunities for the people in the Valley and nearby Los Angeles and how it has helped with recovery efforts for the state-listed threatened Swainson’s hawk and other at-risk species such as western burrowing owl, America badger, Coast horned lizard, bobcat and mountain lion. These important conservation lands and the fundamental ecological concepts of the role of wildfire in conservation, as well as all the sights and sounds of Spring, were in full display on Saturday as the gallant band of conservationists hiked over hill and dale on these vital open space lands.

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Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.

Defenders of Wildlife

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Defenders works on the ground, in the courts and on Capitol Hill to protect and restore imperiled wildlife across North America.

Wild Without End

Defenders is committed to the sustainable conservation of wildlife for future generations.