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CALIFORNIA

Preserve and Tejon Ranch look for common ground for wildlife, public

A preserve and Tejon Ranch are working together to create wildlife corridors and public access

Two of the largest private landowners in Southern California this week launched discussions on proposals to connect the Tejon Ranch Co. and adjacent Wind Wolves Preserve with wildlife corridors and public access.

Under consideration are proposals to create freeway underpasses that would allow a variety of creatures — black bear, mountain lion, tule elk, bobcats and badgers — to migrate east and west of Interstate 5, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

Other proposals call for development of campgrounds, hiking trails and interpretive centers on the eastern edge of Wind Wolves Preserve, near where Tejon Ranch plans to build a phased, master-planned community of 12,000 homes and apartment units.

Until now, the 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch and 99,000-acre preserve, established in 1996 by the nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy, kept a wary distance.

"Regardless of whatever differences of opinion there may have been in the past, we are looking forward to a good working relationship with the Wildlands Conservancy," Tejon Ranch spokesman Barry Zoeller said. Most of Tejon Ranch is on the east side of I-5, and the preserve is on the west.

Dan York, vice president of the Wildlands Conservancy, based in Oak Glen near Yucaipa, said, "We're both hopeful that these discussions signal a new chapter in our relations."

Framed by forested mountains and watered by streams meandering through converging ecological zones — Coast Ranges, Mojave Desert, the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley — the Tejon Ranch and nearby Wind Wolves are crossroads for species that normally do not share habitat.

Since 1996, Wind Wolves has brought in more than 157,000 Kern County students to learn about its striking topographical and biological diversity firsthand. It also helped fund transportation costs for those students, many of them from schools receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

In March and April, Wind Wolves is only place in Southern California where visitors can see thousands of endangered tri-colored blackbirds building nests — alongside tule elk browsing in meadows festooned with wildflowers.

Wind Wolves is home to more than 400 tule elk, descendants of 21 animals transplanted in 1998, and to the largest known population of the federally endangered Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew, a tiny, nocturnal insect-eater with beady eyes and a long snout.

The conservancy plans to showcase Wind Wolves as a center for scientific research, education and eco-tourism during a two-day nature festival this weekend. The free event coincides with the conservancy's 20th anniversary.

Nineteen years ago, conservancy officials weren't sure the property was worth buying. Much of the landscape was damaged by overgrazing and off-road vehicles. Oil field waste pits were fatal attractions for small mammals, hawks and owls.

But with developers targeting the land for subdivisions, the conservancy acquired the property for $140 an acre, then set to work "re-wilding" it by covering waste pits, securing water rights, restoring ponds and putting fences up along streams to protect them from cattle.

Conservancy officials named it Wind Wolves because the rippling grasslands conjured images of invisible wolves running free. California has no wolf population.

Today, the Wind Wolves Preserve is one of Southern California's ecological bright spots.

On a recent day, Landon Peppel, a biologist and manager of the preserve, drove a visitor up a narrow dirt road with panoramic views essentially unchanged since explorer John C. Fremont established a ranch there in the 1850s.

"This is what much of Southern California looked like a few centuries ago," Peppel said, standing on the brow of a hill overlooking a vista of rolling grasslands and wildflowers: lupine, cream cups and California poppies.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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