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LeoMar Preserve: California gnatcatcher performing a call in San Diego County chaparral. Photo by Richard Murphy Photography
California gnatcatcher performing a call in San Diego County chaparral. Photo by Richard Murphy Photography
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Conservancy continues to build Olivenhain’s LeoMar Preserve

By Ann Van Leer

The LeoMar Preserve in the Olivenhain community of Encinitas is a prime habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher, a perky little songbird threatened with extinction due to the destruction of its native coastal sage scrub habitat associated with urban development.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as much as 90% of this iconic southern California habitat has been lost to development.

Often what is left is fragmented, leaving native wildlife dodging cars and people to forage for food and raise their families. Importantly, when we protect habitat for the gnatcatcher, we are also protecting thousands of other plants and animals that share the same habitat, including pollinators like butterflies and bats.

Good News! We now have two additional key habitat properties in escrow, one which will become part of the LeoMar Preserve in 2022, and the other we hope to save by the end of 2023!

The first property is 49 acres, located at the base of Paint Mountain. The Conservancy is excited to announce that we have reached agreement with the property owner to purchase the $2.47 million coastal sage scrub-rich property and are now in escrow. The owners had done pre-development work on the property for home construction.

Unique to the LeoMar Preserve area are abandoned mineral mines, some of which have become homes for wildlife. According to Natural History Museum biologist Drew Stokes, “most people don’t realize that even when they innocently explore a cave or mine, they are potentially threatening shy and reclusive wildlife.

Many mine openings are small and remaining structures are fragile, but mines have a useful second life if they can be protected as they are attractive to tiny creatures like bats, who are looking for secure places to rest and roost.”

While bats get a bad rap, they are a valuable part of a healthy ecosystem, spending evenings feeding on small insects, including flies and mosquitos, often while also pollinating.

Near this target preservation property on Paint Mountain, biologists have observed the very cute (in the way that mothers understand) Townsend’s big-eared bat. Per the State of California, this bat is a Species of Special Concern and a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, primarily due to habitat loss.

According to Stokes, this rare creature has highly specific roosting requirements which limits its distribution to areas where caves or abandoned mines exist. When we protect land in the LeoMar Preserve area, we are also protecting bat roosts, critically important to managing and conserving species locally.

The second property, 96 acres, comes to the Conservancy as a transfer from our esteemed conservation partner, the Endangered Habitats Conservancy (EHC).

The acreage was slated to become part of the Bridges development in Rancho Santa Fe and, instead of becoming houses, was saved in 2011 by the EHC working closely with the Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Town Council that fought hard to protect it.

As we create the LeoMar Preserve, it made sense to incorporate this property into the preserve for land management efficiencies. We are greatly appreciative of EHC’s stewardship and gift of the property. We will take very good care of it.

In 2021, The Escondido Creek Conservancy (Conservancy) saved two properties from development in Olivenhain near Rancho Summit Road. These first two properties, totaling 103 acres, became the start of the Conservancy’s newest wildlife preserve, called LeoMar Preserve, named after two of our founders, Leonard Wittwer and Martha Blane.

The LeoMar Preserve was created as part of the Conservancy’s “Missing Lynx” campaign,, to connect protected landscapes, including lands in the Carlsbad area, with protected lands in Elfin Forest and Harmony Grove, so that native plants and animals will always have a refuge, and wild California will persist into the future.

The Conservancy owns or manages 3,000 acres of wildlife habitat in North San Diego County.

The Conservancy is looking for support to protect more land for wildlife. Please contact us at [email protected] if you can help!

Ann Van Leer is executive director of the Escondido Creek Conservancy.

Read more articles from the Escondido Creek Conservancy in The Coast News!