Tejon Ranch Conservancy

 

The Tejon Ranch Conservancy is huge on a number of levels. The acreage involved is mind boggling: the Ranch is 270,000 acres, including 178,000 acres that Tejon Ranch has set aside for preservation and another 62,000 acres of acquisition areas that are available for the conservancy to purchase. Tejon Ranch will be able to continue their ranching activities on the land, but the areas set aside for preservation cannot be developed. A historic agreement was reached in 2008 between Tejon Ranch and various environmental organizations (Audubon California, Endangered Habitats League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Planning and Conservation League) to preserve this land. In exchange, the organizations agreed not to oppose Tejon Ranch’s plans to develop approximately 30,000 acres located in other areas of the ranch. The working out of this agreement between Tejon Ranch, the Sierra Club, and other organizations is a huge accomplishment. In addition, having this vast and essentially closed ranch opened to a conservancy that allows public access represents a wonderful opportunity for citizen science groups like NAFHA to explore this large, under-explored area and help determine which species and subspecies are present.

The Tejon Ranch Conservancy area includes relatively pristine habitats from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley on up to pine-covered ridges in the Tehachapi Mountains over 6700 feet above sea level. Having driven Interstate Highway 5 along the “Grapevine Grade” for many years, I often gazed longingly at the habitat visible from the freeway. In addition to springs marked by lush grapevines right by the freeway, there are steep rocky slopes leading up to the high county. So when in the winter of 2008 I heard from some friends that bird-watching trips were being allowed on the Ranch, I inquired about the access. I was eventually able to contact Mike White of the Conservation Biology Institute, an organization that was involved in negotiating the conservation agreement with the Ranch and initiating the newly established Conservancy’s science program. Mike has since joined the Tejon Ranch Conservancy as Science Director.

As I learned more about the area, my interest grew. The following summary is from a 2003 report titled “Conservation Significance of Tejon Ranch, a biogeographic crossroads” prepared by Mike White and others at the Conservation Biology Institute:

The ranch is a precious and irreplaceable piece of California’s natural heritage – a hotspot of biological diversity that lies at the confluence of four major biogeographic regions. It is a haven for rare and endemic species, ancient oak trees, endangered California condors, rare native vegetation communities, and intact watersheds and streams – and all so near the largest metropolitan area in California.

The report includes a list of species and subspecies endemic to the Tejon region, including the Tehachapi Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps stebbinsi) and the Yellow-blotched Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater). The report also includes a list of taxa with contact zones in the vicinity of Tejon Ranch, including California Mountain Kingsnakes (the formerly recognized Coastal and Sierra Nevada subspecies of Lampropeltis zonata), Rubber Boas (Charina bottae/umbratica), Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum piceus/ruddocki), and Rattlesnakes (Crotalus helleri/oreganus). Clearly there are some interesting herps to explore. While some famous herpetologists have visited the ranch, the limited number of previous observations provides an opportunity for visitors to help contribute to the understanding of the area. Visits also allow us to populate the NAFHA database, which previously had no data from Tejon Ranch.

Mike and I made plans for a reconnaissance visit as soon as the roads into the high country were re-opened (grading is required each year after the winter rains) and for a later NAFHA trip. Kent Vansooy, the 2009 SoCal NAFHA President, joined Mike and I on April 5, 2009 for the recon trip. It was cool and windy as we started our day down in rich green grasslands with scattered valley oaks along the southern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. We then drove up Tejon Canyon, searching for areas likely to produce herps during our later trip. Despite the cool temperatures, we found a couple of adult Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) and lots of San Joaquin Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus). We located a number of spots with surface water along Tejon Creek that looked promising for a visit later in the season. As we continued up-slope, we explored rocky terrain high on a grass-covered ridge with sweeping views of the surrounding areas. Our final stop was a steep stretch of El Paso Creek near Lopez Flats. We hiked along the deeply shaded, Sierra-like creek and found a Yellow-blotched Ensatina in addition to congregations of thousands of Ladybird Beatles ("ladybugs").

We returned to Tejon Ranch on June 21, 2009 for a Southern California NAFHA Chapter field trip. In addition to several Tejon Ranch employees, we had the following attendees: Mike White, Sam Sweet, Jeff Lemm, Kent Vansooy, John Reinsch, Lee Hull, Patrick Martin, Nick Freeman, Mary Freeman, Alex Battey, Hannah Battey, Chris Evelyn, Noel Graham, Jonathan Hakim, and me (Todd Battey). After Mike gave an overview of the conservancy and we all signed the required liability waivers, we piled into Tejon Ranch vehicles and headed off to our first stop.

We dropped down into the San Joaquin Valley and parked at Comanche Point. The previously green grasslands were sun bleached and straw-colored. The group fanned out with hopes of finding San Joaquin Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki) and Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizards (Gambelia sila). After an hour of searching, all we had found were Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburiana). Then Lee called the group over to see the first rattlesnake of the day, a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus), which was possibly an intergrade with Southern Pacific (Crotalus helleri). After crowding around it for pictures, we hopped back in the cars to head for the next stop. Apparently, Jeff in the lead vehicle commented “this berm along the dirt road would be a good spot for a leopard lizard.” Moments later they spotted a Blunt-nosed Leopard that we were all able to gather around and see. It was unusually cooperative and no one laid a hand on the lizard, which is a state and federally endangered species.

Our next stop was an abandoned school house in the lower portion of Tejon Creek, which drains north into the San Joaquin Valley. This area had a mix of oaks and grassy hillsides, riparian growth along the flowing creek, and some artificial cover around an old building. We found another rattlesnake, a Sierra Garter Snake (Thamnophis couchi), a couple of Gilbert’s Skinks (Pestiodon gilberti rubricaudatus), several Baja California (formerly Pacific) Chorus Frog tadpoles and metamorphs (Pseudacris hypochodriaca, which has been split from P. regilla, formerly Hyla regilla), and many San Joaquin Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus).

We then moved up to an oak woodland area on the middle portion of Tejon Creek. We took advantage of the shade provided by the oaks for a lunch break, then the group fanned out to search the area. The highlight of this spot was a single Yellow-blotched Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater) along with a few more Gilbert’s Skinks and many more fence lizards.

We continued our ascent and stopped along a steep grassy slope with granitic boulders. Again the group spread out and soon turned up two more rattlesnakes, including one of the largest I’ve ever seen. We were not able to move it from its ledge before it slipped into a crack, but it was about as thick as my forearm. The rattlesnakes at this stop looked more like the Southern Pacific species (Crotalus helleri). We also found more fence lizards, which apparently are the Great Basin Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes) at this elevation. I was able to noose male and female fence lizards in full breeding colors. Another Gilbert’s Skink was also found.

We then explored the top of the ridge and turned up several Pacific Gopher Snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer), more rattlesnakes (C. helleri), and more fence lizards. As we began working our way down-slope, we checked a cattle pond for new frog species, but only found more Baja California Chorus Frog tadpoles.

Our last planned stop was El Paso Creek, the steep and shaded stream with the ladybugs. The accumulation of these insects was even more spectacular than the previous visit. We found large logs so completely covered they were solid red. We also found a pair of Ring-necked Snakes (Diadophis puctatus), another Sierra Garter Snake, another Pacific Gopher Snake, and many more fence lizards.

After exploring the creek, we followed the dirt road down Winters Ridge to return to the lowlands. On the way down we came across something completely unexpected. I was driving the last vehicle, following Sam’s truck as the road traversed steep terrain, when Sam stopped and looked up. We followed his gaze to a large vulture perched in an oak just above the road. My first thought was “Turkey Vulture” but then I noticed the large black head and realized we had stumbled upon a California Condor. We pulled past the huge vulture to place the sun at our backs, got great looks, and took lots of pictures. After we were content with our views and pictures, we continued down and rejoined the rest of the group that had driven past the Condor without noticing it. The other vehicles went back up to see the big bird and were lucky enough to see a Golden Eagle fly in and spook the Condor, which then flew right over their heads! What a way to finish the day.

After the trip, Jonathan Hakim, data-meister, stepped up to the task of compiling the GPS coordinates and associated image files. I later added all the photos I was able to get from the participants and returned all the information to Mike. This information was incorporated into the Conservancy’s species database, which had very little herp data. There was also a flurry of H.E.R.P. database activity, changing the coverage of the Ranch in the database from non-existent to a good first cut.

I believe that these sorts of mutually beneficial field trips to conservancy areas are NAFHA at its finest. They can provide the herpers access to habitats they would otherwise not be able to visit. They provide an opportunity to collect data for the H.E.R.P. database. In cases like Tejon there is the possibility of collecting data that could contribute to our understanding of the current distribution of the herps, which may be useful to the conservancy and the broader scientific community. The large number of observers a NAFHA outing can round up increases the probability that the group will find the various animals that are active during the visit.

Another advantage of visiting conservancy areas for NAFHA outings is they are generally controlled areas. There are locked gates limiting access to Tejon Ranch, as is usually the case with conservancies. This limits the potential for attendees to return to the area for illegal or excessive collecting. This is a growing concern for the Southern California Chapter, being located so close to a major population center.

 

We look forward to many more opportunities for our NAFHA chapter to team with the Tejon Ranch Conservancy. We continue to conduct NAFHA field trips and have establised boardlines at various study sites.  Information collected is funnelled into the conservancy records and the H.E.R.P. database. It is our hope that our involvement in herp surveys will help the conservancy make well-informed decisions about the natural resources of this very special area.  A summary of NAFHA trips to Tejon Ranch is provided below. 
 
  • April 5, 2009: reconnaissance trip to Tejon Ranch attended by Kent Van Sooy (Southern California NAFHA Chapter President), Todd Battey (SoCal NAFHA Education Specialist), and Mike White (Conservation Science Director of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy)
  • June 21, 2009: first open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • September 20, 2009: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • March 28, 2010: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • May 15, 2010: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • May 22, 2010: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • September 19, 2010: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • April 17, 2011: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • May 15, 2011: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch, where Tehachapi Slender Salamanders were found at the highest documented elevation for this species
  • March 31, 2012: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • April 28, 2012: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch
  • May 6, 2012: open NAFHA field trip to Tejon Ranch, where a Rubber Boa was photographed and a California Mountain Kingsnake was sighted
  • May 15, 2012: Todd Battey became a Tejon Ranch Docent and conducted his first solo trip to Tejon Ranch
  • June 20, 2012: Todd Battey conducted a solo trip to the Sierra Pelona region of Tejon Ranch to establish another boardline

For more information about the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, please visit their website at this address: www.tejonconservancy.org

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Todd Battey
2009 Education Coordinator
Southern California Chapter