San Diego, Carlsbad, get $3 million in conservation grants

Deborah Sullivan BrennanContact Reporter

A $3 million grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will help protect wetlands in Carlsbad and vernal pools in San Diego.

The grant, announced this month, is part of a $44.8 million investment of federal funds under the Endangered Species Act Grants Program. 

Of this year’s grants, more than a quarter — $12 million — will go to acquire ecologically important land in Southern California. That includes a $2 million grant to the city of Carlsbad’s Northwest San Diego County Multiple Habitat Conservation Program, and $1 million to San Diego to conserve vernal pools, ephemeral ponds that fill with water in spring.

The money is slated for land purchases that help expand the agencies’ conservation plans. Those plans, known as habitat conservation plans or natural community conservation plans, aim to streamline environmental permitting, while preserving habitat for multiple species. 

“The funds will be used to acquire habitat for wildlife that complements what the city is already conserving under their local plan,” said Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife office in Carlsbad.

The $2 million grant will go toward buying parcels of riparian, or stream-side habitat, as well as coastal sage scrub, Hendron said. That land is home to five key coastal birds listed as threatened or endangered, including the Coastal California gnatcatcher, least Bell’s vireo, light-footed clapper rail, western snowy plover, California brown pelican and California least tern, according to the city’s application. It also supports endangered plants, and a host of other birds.

“It allows us to expand conservation within the city and in the neighboring areas, so that not only helps the rare plants and animals, but increases the opportunity for connectivity for large mammals, such as deer and bobcats and coyotes,” said Mike Grim, habitat management plan coordinator for Carlsbad.

The San Diego grant of $1 million will help the city purchase areas where vernal pools form in Otai Mesa, Kearney Mesa and Del Mar Mesa, said Tom Tomlinson, assistant director of the San Diego Planning Department.

The habitat supports endangered plants, and Riverside and San Diego fairy shrimp — rare freshwater crustaceans that live only in the pools.The city has mapped out 300 acres it would like to purchase, and it drawing up a conservation plan for vernal pools, which it will release for public comment soon.

“We’re already impacted over 95 percent of the vernal pools in San Diego, so we’re trying to conserve what’s remaining,” said Jeanne Krosch, a senior planner for San Diego.

San Diego County regularly receives the grants, illustrating the area’s biodiversity and the extent to which rare plants and animals are at risk, officials said. 

“Almost every year we’re year awarded money, which is great,” Grim said. “That just shows the density with which we have federally listed species.”

The agencies have to buy the land from willing sellers, but getting owners to part with San Diego real estate at the appraised price has been a challenge, officials acknowledge. 

Grim said that assembling big enough parcels to sustain wildlife is important to both endangered species and those that are still healthy.

“It’s not just about the endangered species and the threatened species,” he said. “It’s also about conserving enough land that animals that aren’t threatened don’t become so because of loss of range and habitat. That would be going backward. We want to go forward. We want to have the animals that are listed recover, so that we can take them off the list.” Twitter@deborahsbrennan