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San Diego
Monday, May 20, 2024

For Several Species, a Triumphant Return

CONSERVATION: Local Companies, Military Protect Endangered Flora, Fauna

In the northwest corner of San Diego County, a time machine of sorts exists.

Sprawling over 125,000 acres, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is an anomaly, an expanse of open space, the way California used to be. The base has served as farmland and ranchland, but development has so far been sparse. The base hosts 19 endangered species.

Preservation is the law. At some point, businesses and nonprofit organizations get involved in the military’s preservation efforts through the defense contracting process – the very same process the military uses to buy ships, aircraft and buildings.

Alisa Zych
Resource Management Branch Head
Camp Pendleton Environmental Security

Among the endangered species at Camp Pendleton is the Pacific pocket mouse – an animal once thought extinct. The base supports 90% of the mouse’s remaining natural population, said Alisa Zych, resource management branch head for Camp Pendleton Environmental Security.

The mouse is a distinctly coastal species, Zych said. However, in Southern California, there is little of its habitat — open space near the coast — that remains. One population of mice lives in Camp Pendleton’s Santa Margarita region and a second lives in the San Mateo region (a third population lives in Orange County, at the Dana Point headlands preserve).

Make no mistake: training Marines for future missions is Camp Pendleton’s reason for being. Still, U.S. Marine Corps leadership works with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to preserve habitat for the base’s threatened and endangered species. According to a 2018 report, the Marines make sure that the course for the base’s famous “Crucible” training exercise has minimal impact on the pocket mouse population.

The Marines have also partnered with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance for a Pacific pocket mouse conservation breeding program. Financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed.

The partnership takes in multiple government agencies and UCLA.

The wildlife alliance reported that during the spring and summer months of 2022, it helped with producing a record 31 litters, for a total of 117 pups. Many of these mice will be reintroduced into native habitats.

Pacific pocket mice can be hard to count because they are prone to booms and busts in population, Zych said. Prior to human encroachment and the loss of habitat, the tiny rodent inhabited coastal scrublands, dunes and riverbanks within about two miles of the ocean, ranging as far north as Los Angeles County and as far south as the Tijuana River Valley.

Factors that affect the mouse’s population may be many. Biologists say they might even include the introduction of Argentine ants.

A Navy Effort

The U.S. Navy also works to preserve habitat for its threatened and endangered species. In fact, the Pentagon announced an environmental victory in January: the recovery of five species from San Clemente Island, and their removal from the endangered species list.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said in January that the San Clemente Bell’s sparrow no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection. The same went for four plants: the San Clemente Island paintbrush, lotus, larkspur and bush-mallow.

San Clemente Island is the southernmost of California’s Channel Islands and is used for military training, including Navy SEAL exercises. The southern tip of the 21-mile long island is due west of La Jolla Cove. The Navy owns the 36,000-acre island; the military runs it as a far-flung part of Naval Base Coronado.

Until 1934, the island was used for sheep and cattle ranching. It once had a population of 1,700 pigs, which were removed in the 1970s and 1980s. At one time, San Clemente Island was home to more than 12,000 feral goats. The non-native species defoliated large areas of the island, according to a Fish & Wildlife report.

Going forward, the government plans to monitor the five species that have staged a comeback.

A January report from the Fish & Wildlife Service office in Carlsbad places the cost of monitoring the island’s population of San Clemente Bell’s sparrows at $345,500 per year, spent largely on density data collection and maintenance, as well as habitat monitoring. A program of monitoring the bird through 2031 is expected to cost $3.1 million, not counting possible effects of inflation.

Conservation Partner

Like San Clemente Island, Camp Pendleton was once used for grazing. Known in previous centuries as Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, Camp Pendleton also supported farmland. Today the Marine base spreads over roughly 195 square miles and is less than 20% developed.

In October, Fish & Wildlife presented the leadership at Camp Pendleton with its Military Conservation Partner Award, citing “significant contributions to natural resource management and listed species.”

The base is home to 19 endangered and threatened species on the federal government’s list.

“Camp Pendleton’s aggressive conservation of riparian, beach and estuarine ecosystems supports recovery of the tidewater goby, coastal California gnatcatcher, and numerous other fish and bird species, as well as the last remaining coastal populations of the arroyo toad,” said a statement from Fish & Wildlife. “Their fish passage projects on the Santa Margarita River and other waterways are contributing to recovery of southern California steelhead and other imperiled fish.

“Conservation and management of the least Bell’s vireo, California least tern, and western snowy plover have resulted in significant increases to on-base populations of these species. Predator control efforts helped enable the Pacific lamprey to return to Camp Pendleton after decades of absence.”

Camp Pendleton features 17 miles of coastline. Base officials manage approximately six miles of beaches and dunes to accommodate large shore birds such as the endangered least tern and the snowy plover, said Zych, whose specialty is ornithology. The birds prefer to nest on the beach; the dune habitat at Camp Pendleton is “pretty pristine,” Zych added.

A few miles inland, at a place called Wire Mountain, are vernal pools that are home to the federally listed Riverside Fairy Shrimp and San Diego Fairy Shrimp.

Off-Base Mitigation

The effort to preserve endangered species even spills off the base to another region of North County.

To mitigate development at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Fish & Wildlife and the Marines agreed to convert a former golf course complex in Bonsall into something more natural.

“The [Fish & Wildlife] service required offsets,” said Paul Sherman, national mitigation banking lead for the Burns & McDonnell engineering and construction firm.

Over the past two years, Burns & McDonnell has worked as the prime contractor converting 67 acres of land in an area called Moosa Creek into natural riparian protected habitat. Part of the effort is the removal of invasive species. Financial terms of the deal were unavailable.

The project at San Luis Rey Downs will benefit two endangered species, the least Bell’s vireo and the southwestern willow flycatcher.

Burns & McDonnell plans to finish final planting for the habitat before spring is over, Sherman said. After that, the company will shift its focus to monitoring and managing the property.

In an unrelated conservation footnote, the expanse of Camp Pendleton also supports a free roaming herd of plains bison.

The bison are definitely not native to the area. However, having once been on the 5 cent piece and having played a big part in the lives of plains Indians, the bison is a symbol of America. The bison has also been part of conservation efforts since its large populations were eliminated in the 19th century, when people of European descent settled the American West.


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