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Climate and Environment

OC Is Getting A New Wildlife Preserve. Here's How It Will Help A Cute Little Endangered Shrimp (And Other Species)

A tiny shrimp, about an inch long, swims amid twigs and rocks in a shallow pond
The San Diego fairy shrimp is one of the oldest mollusks on the planet — they've existed for the past 250 million years
(Joanna Gilkeson
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After operating as a privately owned oil field for more than 80 years, Banning Ranch in Orange County has been purchased by conservationists, and is going to be rehabilitated and preserved. That was announced Monday.

Now known as Randall Preserve, the 387-acre property is quite unique. It's one of Southern California’s few undeveloped pieces of land along the coast, hosts a whole bunch of different ecosystems, and is a critical home for several endangered and threatened species, including the adorable little San Diego fairy shrimp.

“It’s a great opportunity in an urban setting to really showcase how you can do habitat restoration, increase wetlands to address sea level rise, in an urban setting while still having public access,” said Guillermo Rodríguez, California State Director for the The Trust for Public Land, one of the organizations involved in the purchasing of the land.

But what are the next steps, and what can be done to help the most vulnerable animals there?

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Step One: Undo A Half Century Of Damage

Now under the purview of the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, big moves will be made to assess and begin rehabbing the land over the next two to three years.

The oil operation will be dismantled, the wells will be capped, concrete debris will be removed, and the soil will be sampled and remediated where necessary.

At the same time, the land, plants, and animals will be surveyed, and a resource management plan will be drawn up. Stakeholders will determine the best path forward to help restore the nearly 400 acres of marshes and mudflats, coast bluff scrub, and grassland communities.

An aerial view of a large, open piece of land crisscrossed with dirt roads. Across the top left corner, you can see a channelized river and beyond that housing developments.
An overhead view of the Randall Preserve, previously known as Banning Ranch.
( Fred Emmert, Air Views
Courtesy Banning Ranch Conservancy)

“I think that when anyone undertakes large scale restoration projects they have to think of the long game,” said Christine Whitcraft, a wetland ecologist at Cal State Long Beach.

“Doing different actions will speed up restoration. So for example you can bring back native plant communities relatively quickly with targeted plantings and using larger plants. But to expect the overall ecosystem to come back in terms of functioning, it’s at least a five- to 10-year time scale.”

While it’ll take some time to figure out how to best move forward, I reached out to ecologists and biologists to get an idea of what can be done to help some of the most vulnerable species found at Randall Preserve.

San Diego Fairy Shrimp

One of the oldest mollusks on planet earth, this tiny little shrimp has been around for the past 250 million years and has been listed as federally endangered for 29 of them.

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A closeup of a hand holding a glass vial that contains several inch-long shrimp
The San Diego fairy shrimp is listed as endangered.
(Lisa Cox

This subspecies of fairy shrimp can be found in vernal pools in San Diego, Riverside, and Orange Counties. The pools are depressions in the earth that fill with winter and spring rains, that can grow to acres in size, and then dry out over the course of the year. And because of development 95% of them have disappeared from the area over the past 150 years, though they can still be found on Randall Preserve.

Each shrimp can grow to a whopping one inch in size, and is an estimated six or seven calories. So, eat a couple hundred and you’ve got a decent meal, especially if you’re a migratory bird heading south.

“At a place like Banning Ranch where you already have suitable conditions, you could go out and just grade depressions and create more habitat for them. And that would probably be one of the best things done out there,” said biologist Tony Bomkamp, a retired adjunct faculty at Cal State Fullerton who studied the fairy shrimp for more than 25 years.

Belding’s Savannah Sparrow And The Coastal California Gnatcatcher

Listed by California as endangered, this rare subspecies of Savannah Sparrow has a healthy population at the preserve.

The bird lives in Southern California’s salt marshes year round, a problem given that development has caused more than 75% of the region’s coastal wetlands to disappear.

The birds often nest in relatively low lying areas, in dense patches of pickleweed. Expanding their habitat within Randall Preserve, including by planting more salt marsh vegetation, could help.

The California gnatcatcher, listed as federally threatened, hangs out in coastal sage scrub, which includes plants like lemonade berry, sage, and California buckwheat. Bomkamp said the birds would benefit from expansion of the scrub habitat, some of which is occurring naturally, as areas go undisturbed for extended periods of time.

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Jacob Margolis helps Southern Californians understand the science shaping our imperfect paradise and gets us prepared for what’s next.