By Kim Harris
Managing Editor 

Conservation is key at Skunk Hollow vernal pool

 

Last updated 3/14/2019 at 6:23pm

Shane Gibson photo

Using a catch net, CNLM Preserve Manager Kim Klementowski collects and observes the presence of fairy shrimp at the Skunk Hollow Vernal Pool, March 5. 

Hidden in a secluded area of unincorporated Temecula in French Valley lies a wonder of nature. Nestled in a quiet field surrounded by homes, fences and plenty of open space is Skunk Hollow, home to a variety of waterfowl, mammals and many endangered species of plants and animals.

While Skunk Hollow sounds like a nature lover's dream, don't pack a picnic lunch and expect to spend the day exploring the vernal pools. Due to the sensitive nature of this delicate ecosystem, the closest visitors can get is by visiting the Rancho Bella Vista Park and peering over the fence.

The 138-acre Skunk Hollow preserve consisting of a vernal pool – which can grow as large as 30 acres during a wet year – coastal sage scrub and annual grassland habitats isn't open to the general public. Instead, it was created to conserve the wetland habitat as well as several rare and endangered species including two federally listed fairy shrimp species – the Streptocephalus woottoni or Riverside fairy shrimp and Branchinecta lynchi or vernal pool fairy shrimp. Two federally endangered plant species, California Orcutt grass and San Diego ambrosia along with federally threatened coastal California gnatcatcher and federally endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly, also call the area home.


"The lands are set aside for conservation perpetually, so we are required to do management and monitoring at all our preserves, no matter what the species for which the land was set aside," Center for Natural Lands Management Preserve Manager Kim Klementowski said. "When the pool is inundated, we come out here and do the monitoring. We have to make sure the habitat continues to be there perpetually for these species specifically."

During the tour, Klementowski, who said she is super grateful for staff who watch over Skunk Hollow, was clad in hip waders and a ballcap – her normal field attire – as she explained her role with CNLM, including preparation of long-term and annual plans for preserve management, conducting day-to-day management of the preserves, monitoring sensitive plant and animal populations, providing weed control and conducting native habitat enhancement.

"I have such a diversity of tasks from January through June. I am 100 percent out in the field while still spending time in the office," she said. "Then comes the report writing and analyzing and organizing the data. July through December, I am quite office bound, while other staff continue to protect the preserve during the offseason."


Clearly excited to share her knowledge on the vernal pool, Klementowski, who joined CNLM in 2008, led this writer and staff photographer Shane Gibson nearly knee deep into the pool where she expertly spied and scooped up two vernal pool fairy shrimp, a male and a female.

Growing no larger than a single inch, these tiny water dwellers are amazing in their own right. Relatives of lobsters and crabs, fairy shrimp are a type of invertebrate called a crustacean with 11 pairs of appendages, used for swimming, breathing and feeding.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, the shrimp's habitat is limited to vernal pools in Oregon and California. Occasionally these tiny crustaceans will be found in habitats other than vernal pools, such as artificial pools created by roadside ditches and can be found in densities of as many as 200 shrimp per liter of water.

"I can tell this is a female vernal pool fairy shrimp right away because she has a heart-shaped egg sac," she said as she pointed out the inch-sized vernal pool shrimp swimming around upside down in a sample bottle. "These and other fairy shrimp are very much an indication of a vernal pool ecosystem."

Klementowski, who said she follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protocols while in the field, showed not only the female shrimp but also pointed out the nearly microscopic eggs carried in her egg sac, before releasing her back into the vernal pool.


"So Branchinecta lynchi will have subtle differences from other Branchinecta species," she explained. "They have a ridge or growth on the inside of their antenna."

Klementowski, who moved every 5 to 10 meters to document the pool, said she expects the vernal pool to be full for at least the next few months.

"Depending on the rains, probably late may early June, it depends on the weather, the rain and the temperatures," she said.

In addition to wading through the pool looking for the tiny crustaceans, she also does a waterfowl survey, that day there were ring-necked ducks hovering above the pond and flying in formation, while American avocet waded through the pond looking for food. A snowy egret flew through the preserve as black-tailed jackrabbits played in the distance.

She also checked the water quality and mapped the pond before taking to the water to sample fairy shrimp.

"So far I have only found the vernal pool fairy shrimp this year," she said. "Some literature says the Riverside fairy shrimp and the vernal pool fairy shrimp do not swim together, but I found them swimming together in 2017. There is the possibility the Riverside fairy shrimp have not come out yet this year, but could appear in the next week or so."

According to Klementowski, there are many reasons why the habitat is not open to the public.

"There are a lot of different reasons why preserves are established and whether the lands would be open to the public or not," Klementowski said. "Most of the lands are not open to the public because of the sensitivity of the resources. Specifically, Skunk Hollow is the last place where some of these species are found like Ambrosia Pumila which is San Diego Ambrosia, is only found in a couple of different locations in Riverside and San Diego County, that's it in the entire world."

The same goes for the Riverside fairy shrimp and the western burrowing owl, which can be found in the western United States, but has an incredibly low population throughout the region.

"This preserve and the vernal pool was set aside for conservation because of developments in the area," Klementowski said as she motioned toward the vernal pool. "The species that utilize the habitat here would not thrive as they are currently if there were a trail around the pool with people walking their dogs, management and monitoring would be quite challenging and more resources would be required."

The bottom line, she said, is that impacts need to be managed to maintain the endangered species throughout Skunk Hollow.

"We want to make sure that habitat is there for the long term," she said.

Center for Natural Lands Management manages 80 preserves throughout California and several in Washington. For more information on Skunk Hollow and other lands managed by CNLM, visit https://cnlm.org.

Kim Harris can be reached by email at [email protected]

 

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