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The Vista

November 2021

Don’t be scared: Rats and other creepy crawlies are protected by the MSHCP

Crawling through the chaparral, coastal sage, and other brush, the San Diego Desert Woodrat, also known as Neotoma lepida intermedia, is a small mammal that calls western Riverside County home. While the woodrat has San Diego in its name, this creature can also be found locally, but shouldn’t cause you nightmares. These foragers eat leaves, seeds, berries, parts of flowers, and yucca shoots — and will leave you alone.

The woodrat prefers to live in large cactus patches and rock outcroppings and can be found throughout the Great Basin and the Mojave and Colorado deserts. These sedentary woodrats avoid open areas and prefer to live near primary food sources. They are known for being quite adaptable, as they use various vegetation and woody materials to create large dens or middens with multiple entrances to house multiple generations of woodrats.

Rats aren’t the only spooky species protected by the MSHCP. The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) and Coast Range Newt (Taricha tarosa tarosa) also are nearby. The Turkey Vulture is a large, dark bird that consumes carrion (dead animals). Its large wings form the letter “V” – Very scary.

The Coast Range Newt does not hang out in a witch’s cauldron. It has been spotted in lands southwest of Lake Elsinore and the Santa Rosa Plateau.  The Coast Range Newt feeds on small invertebrates and secretes toxins to repel predators. What’s creepy is that it’s been observed walking through fire!

Conserving the areas where the San Diego Desert Woodrat, Turkey Vulture, and the Coast Range Newt live will require the preservation of vital habitats within western Riverside County. While they may be scary animals to their prey, this trio is essential to their respective ecosystems within the MSHCP.

Box Springs Mountain

I-215 Central Project was Central to Traffic Relief

Interstate 215 is a major highway in western Riverside County that connects the communities of Murrieta, Menifee, Perris, Moreno Valley, and Riverside. Once a little-known road to San Diego that spanned empty fields and hills, I-215 now is a primary route for many residents.

The Riverside County Transportation Commission began construction of the I-215 Central Project in early 2013 to widen the highway for a 12.5-mile section between Scott Road in Menifee and Nuevo Road in Perris. The project was referred to as the “Central” project, due to a similar project on I-215 to the south between Scott Road and Murrieta Hot Springs Road, and a proposed long-term project on I-215 to the north between Nuevo Road and Route 60.

The I-215 Central Project added a lane in both directions to provide three continuous northbound and southbound lanes between the 60/215 interchange and the 15/215 interchange. Most of the widening occurred within the I-215 median. The project also widened or replaced bridges, ramps, and flood control channels and resurfaced other lanes on the highway to create a smoother ride for commuters and other travelers.

Since the opening of the new lanes in October 2015, the project has helped improve traffic flow in these growing communities.

The I-215 Central Project is one of several projects granted permits through the MSHCP. The MSHCP provided permits under the umbrella of federal and state agencies. The $123.5 million project created more than 2,200 jobs as the region was recovering from the Great Recession.


Save the Butterflies and Mountain Lions!
Grants Will Evaluate Better Methods for Preservation

Have you ever walked through a garden filled with bees, butterflies, and birds and wondered why they like these plants? Creatures of all kinds thrive on diverse plants for protection, food, and shelter, and the Quino Checkerspot Butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino) is no exception. Larvae feed on the leaves of plantain, the host plant, while adults feed on the plant nectar.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently awarded the RCA a $15,036 Natural Community Conservation Plan Local Assistance Grant (LAG) to help fund an evaluation of one of the Quino Checkerspot Butterfly host plants and soils. The grant is designed to find out which soil types best support the species host plant, California Plantain (Plantago erecta). Based on annual monitoring trends, the butterfly is no longer present in areas that were reliably detected, such as Warm Springs Creek.  Understanding whether certain soils host plants for more extended periods each spring can have a lasting impact on how the RCA manages this species conservation.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife also awarded a $98,309 LAG grant to the University of California, Davis, to use Mountain Lion (Puma concolor) fecal DNA for genetic evaluation and to estimate the number of mountain lions in the Santa Ana Mountains.  The evaluation will then compare the results with those of other non-invasive sampling methods. The RCA is a key partner in this grant effort. LAG grants fund priority tasks needed to implement the Western Riverside MSHCP that further allow us to efficiently conserve species and habitats.

The Vista: Special Edition

October 5, 2021

Help Shape Our Growing Region!
Membership Applications Available for our Stakeholders Committee

The RCA Board of Directors is committed to engaging the public to share the benefits of the MSHCP in western Riverside County.  To build on this effort, Chair Natasha Johnson plans to reinstitute the Stakeholders Committee this year. Membership applications are available now and are due October 25.

Committee members will give input to the RCA Board by reviewing implementation plans for the MSHCP. The committee is intended to bring together people with varying perspectives who share a common interest in the MSHCP’s success and who can help the RCA make continuous improvement. Members also will help increase awareness of the conservation plan and its benefits to western Riverside County.  

Members will be appointed by Chair Johnson and approved by the RCA Board of Directors. The Committee will meet as requested by the Chair or Board — at least twice per year.

The Stakeholders Committee, which will be appointed annually, will include up to 16 members, with membership from the following:

  • Groups representing property owners affected by the MSHCP
  • Groups representing environmental interests implicated by the MSHCP
  • Groups representing the building industry within the area affected by the MSHCP

To apply, go to Prospective members can submit the completed form online or can print a copy and submit by email to or by U.S. mail to:

Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority
Attn: David Knudsen
4080 Lemon Street, 3rd Floor
Riverside, CA 92501

For questions, please contact David Knudsen via email or by calling (951) 787-7141.

September 2021

Squirrels, Rejoice! The California Black Walnut will Bear Fruit this Fall

The California Black Walnut is a lush, beautiful tree found throughout southern California. In western Riverside County, this tree grows primarily among Coastal Sage Scrub, Grasslands, and other plants on the Santa Rosa Plateau. It also lives in more densely populated areas like in around the City of Corona.

The species is a low-growing hardwood tree. It prefers drier slopes not prone to flooding or erosion, but it thrives near groundwater and intermittent streams. While wildfires can destroy its surroundings, the California Black Walnut is resilient. Wildfires create bare ground, where sunlight allows seedlings to take root and grow new trees.

From March to May, the tree sprouts new leaves and begins to flower. During this time, the fruit (or walnuts) begins growing once flowers have been pollinated. The walnuts reach full maturity in the fall, attracting squirrels and other foragers for immediate snacking or to save the nuts for winter.  Although not as showy as New England’s fall foliage, the California Black Walnut trees can provide a splash of color once summer turns to fall. It produces fruit in the spring, harvest in the fall, and finally goes dormant in the winter.

The California Black Walnut has a typical lifespan of 20-30 years. The tree tends to develop heart rot at this age, and older limbs start to dry out, becoming infested with termites, wood-boring beetles, and fungi and making forage for other insects, birds, and mammals. However, some hardy specimens have lived nearly 100 years.

The species is threatened by urban development and agricultural activity. The California Black Walnut is one of 63 plant species protected by MSHCP. The MSHCP seeks to protect these trees by preserving 6,100 acres of suitable habitat in large blocks. Significant acreage is required so that the California Black Walnut has the opportunity to spread its seedlings. 

Box Springs Mountain

A New School Year, A New School Resources Page

With the new school year under way, the RCA is eager to help students learn about protected habitats and sensitive plant and animal species in western Riverside County.

As part of the RCA Board of Directors’ renewed priorities to increase educational opportunities for students of all ages, staff gave the RCA School Resources webpage a mini makeover. The new webpage features our Species of the Month series, which includes 28 animals and plants, and includes kid-friendly presentations, videos, and stories from The Vista e-newsletter. Please check back often, as more species will be added.

The webpage identifies species by scientific classification (mammals, plants, reptiles, etc.) and notes if they are endangered, threatened, or of special concern to state and federal agencies. The Western Riverside County MSHCP provides habitat several species that face potential extinction.

If your school is planning a field trip, there are several nature centers near MSHCP protected lands that offer activities and tours. The webpage includes links to the Hidden Valley Nature Center and Wildlife Area, the Ameal Nature Center at Sycamore Canyon, and the Santa Rosa Plateau, all of which offer field trips and other educational opportunities.

Finally, the webpage has links to outside resources to help students complete classroom assignments.

If you are a teacher or administrator in western Riverside County and would like more information about our school resources, please email


Getting to Know the RCA: Meet and Confer

The RCA was created to achieve one of America’s most ambitious environmental efforts, the Western Riverside County MSHCP which provides coverage under the Endangered Species Act. As the July 2021 “Getting to Know the MSHCP: Joint Project Review” story explained, the MSHCP allows the RCA to review Permittee projects within areas potentially needed to complete the 500,000 acres for habitat conservation. If a project does not meet the requirements of the MSHCP, there are ways to resolve the issue.

If the RCA finds a project inconsistent with the MSCHP during the Joint Project Review process, the RCA and Permittee start the “Meet and Confer” process. This process allows the RCA to meet with the Land Use Permittee (city or County). For private projects, the applicant is also invited to attend. At the meeting, additional conditions of approvals and other measures may be discussed to reach an agreement.

If resolution is reached between the RCA and the Permittee, no further action is needed.  However, if no resolution is reached, projects then go to an Elected Official Ad Hoc Committee. Details of this process will be included in the future edition of Getting to Know the RCA.

Since the MSHCP was created, the RCA has held only nine Meet and Confer discussions of the more than 800 project reviews it has processed. The RCA is committed to working with the Permittee and project applicants to ensure that habitats are protected, development occurs sustainably, and ultimately the MSHCP conditions are being met.  


August 2021

The Downy Woodpecker Pecks in Western Riverside County

Often thought of living only in dense forests, the Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, is found right here in western Riverside County. This bird is the smallest species of the woodpecker family in North America, with its habitat reaching north to Alaska and south to Florida.

Male Downy Woodpeckers quickly peck on a tree to attract area females during nesting season. Both males and females spend up to three weeks excavating a hole up to 12 inches deep in a tree trunk or branch to lay three to seven eggs.

The species migrates from higher elevations during winter and to lower elevations in spring, where it nests and forages for food. They can be found sparsely distributed throughout the western Riverside MSHCP area in riparian scrub/forest/woodland and oak woodland/forest habitat. Most of the woodpecker’s day is spent digging at the bark of trees for insects, which make up 75-80% of its diet.

The Downy Woodpecker is easily spotted because of the bright red feathers on the back of its head, although it’s usually high in a tree. If you want to see the birds up close, there is a slight chance you can attract them with a birdfeeder. The Downy Woodpecker has been seen drinking from hummingbird feeders and eating birdseed from feeders while cohabitating with other bird species. The species also can be spotted around Prado Basin/Santa Ana River, Alberhill Creek, Temescal Canyon, or Railroad Canyon, so birdwatchers should keep their eyes peeled.

Currently, the Downy Woodpecker is threatened by rising temperatures and loss of riparian and oak habitat in woodlands in southern California. This can make finding a good spot to create a nest more difficult for these birds, due to more competition for remaining locations. The MSHCP will conserve 34,080 acres of habitat within the MSHCP Plan boundary for the Downy Woodpecker, helping it to continue to thrive in our area. This bird is one of 146 species protected by the MSHCP.

Box Springs Mountain

City of Moreno Valley – Located Within Vital Conserved Lands

High above the eastern slopes of Box Springs Mountain is a large “M.” You can’t miss it, especially at night, when it’s illuminated with different colors. The “M” is a sign that you are near the City of Moreno Valley, but could easily signify the city’s role in furthering the Western Riverside County MSHCP as the “M” is located on the Box Springs Reserve, which is within the MSHCP.

As one of the Permittees of the MSHCP, the City of Moreno Valley is an important partner in meeting the MSHCP’s ambitious conservation goals. The city was the first to adopt the 2020 Nexus Study in March, a major step toward ensuring financial stability for the plan.

Within the MSHCP boundary area of 1.26 million acres, 32,705 acres or 2.6% is located in the Moreno Valley city limits. The city is near vital wildlife linkages that many species need in order to survive, as well as supporting genetic diversity, access to food and water, and migration.  The city boundaries also are near the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, a section of MSHCP Public/Quasi-Public land that is part of the Reserve System.

In the MSHCP, Moreno Valley is completely within the Reche Canyon/Badlands Area Plan. This Area Plan is essential for several of the 146 species that the Western Riverside County MSHCP protects, including the Bell’s Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli belli), Stephens’ Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi), Nevin’s Barberry (Berberis nevinii), and Mountain Lion (Puma concolor).

As of the MSHCP 2019 Annual Report, the City of Moreno Valley had 1,030 acres conserved within its boundary, partially due to its proximity to the San Jacinto Wildlife Area and the Riverside Clark Acquisition. As the MSHCP continues to make progress toward conserving 500,000 acres of land, the RCA will continue to work with city to ensure conservation goals are met. Public infrastructure projects in the city have provided significant funding. As member of the Regional Conservation Authority, the City of Moreno Valley receives Measure A funding.

Land conservation, animal and habitat protection, and land development are all taking place in Moreno Valley.  By working together, this region can accomplish the goals of the MSHCP and meet the infrastructure needs of our diverse communities.

The Transportation Connection: The 91/Perris Valley Line

“All aboard the 91/Perris Valley Line with stops in Perris, Riverside, Corona, Fullerton, Buena Park, Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs, and L.A. Union Station!” Commuter and weekend riders on Metrolink’s 91/Perris Valley Line may hear this announcement while riding this 84-mile passenger rail corridor, which offers a convenient alternative to driving on southern California’s congested highways.

In June 2016, the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) and project partners extended the line 24 miles from the Riverside-Downtown Station to the Perris-South Station, the first Metrolink extension in more than 20 years. A significant portion of the extension occurred on the San Jacinto Branch tracks that have been in place for more than 100 years. Numerous environmental approvals and permits were needed, and the Western Riverside County MSHCP helped assist the approval process, allowing the project to move forward to construction and protecting the region’s habitat.

Like many transportation projects in western Riverside County, the 91/Perris Valley Line – or 91/PVL – is near natural habitat identified for conservation or protected by the MSHCP. Located near Box Springs Mountain Reserve, Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park, and crossing the San Jacinto River, the rail line traverses rugged and beautiful land that Riverside County has long depended upon to move goods.

The 91/PVL is near an important wildlife linkage that connects Box Springs Reserve and Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park. This corridor is vital to species, including the Bell’s Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli belli), Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), Coastal California Gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica californica), and Bobcat (Lynx rufus). With the San Jacinto River beneath the tracks and identified as a linkage, environmental studies for the 91/PVL considered water flow and wildlife movement.

During construction, mitigation strategies were used, including limiting work near the San Jacinto River to only the dry season while preserving narrow endemic plants identified for protection under the MSHCP. Permits issued by wildlife agencies required RCTC to follow the Endangered Species Act and MSHCP provisions while also mandating training on these provisions for team members and construction crews before ground-disturbing activities.

The 91/PVL is another example of how infrastructure development and habitat conservation can work together to benefit our communities.

Sycamore Canyon Wildlife Area

Recreation and Nature Come Together at the Sycamore Canyon Wildlife Area

There’s no need to travel far and wide to a National Park to find nature. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park in Riverside is the perfect place to scratch your nature itch. Whether you are a casual hiker, a mountain bike rider, or a trail runner, the park offers options for all of these activities.

The 1,500-acre park is bordered by Central Avenue, Alessandro Boulevard, and Interstate 215 near the Canyon Crest and Mission Grove neighborhoods. The dirt parking lot on Central Avenue provides easy access to the trailhead and the Ameal Moore Nature Center. Sycamore Highlands Park is a great alternate starting point.

At the Ameal Moore Nature Center, you can check out exhibits, hands-on learning opportunities, and other events for adults and children. Please call ahead for hours. The center has covered outdoor benches to prep your gear before hitting the trails or to cool down after your hike, ride, or run.

The park offers several trails with plenty of curves, hills, steep slopes, and rock formations to explore. On the trail, you might spot the Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus), Bobcat (Lynx rufus), or the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), all protected by the Western Riverside County MSHCP.

As a vital endpoint for a wildlife linkage between Box Springs and Sycamore Canyon, the park provides a pathway for Bobcats and other species. During your visit, you may encounter piles of brush and rocks and hollow trees, which offer shelter for some animals. Please look from a distance to avoid frightening animals and to not disturb these habitat features.

If you plan to visit this summer, hit the trails early. The sun rises along Box Springs Mountain Reserve side and provides a beautiful view of Riverside and the rest of the Inland Empire. This is also an excellent time to spot birds and other species hunting for food. Make sure to bring plenty of water as temperatures rise throughout the day. While mountain biking is allowed, do not build jumps or berms, which can harm sensitive native plants and species.

Land preservation not only safeguards the region’s natural beauty, but also provides recreational opportunities for our communities to enjoy.  The goal of the MSHCP is to preserve 500,000 acres with a portion of that land open to recreational activities.  Click here for information on recreational activities in your area.

July 2021

Tough and Toxic: California Newts

It’s fire season with drought conditions, but the California Newt has it made in the shade. A pair of California Newts were observed walking through wildfire flames but emerged unscathed. This is most likely due to a coating of slime over their bodies that can provide protection from high temperatures. A very cool superpower indeed!

Also known in the scientific world as Taricha torosa, the California Newt, formally known as the Coast Range Newt, is named after the coastal mountain ranges it inhabits, spanning from Humboldt County to the Mexican border. In western Riverside County, the California Newt lives in small streams and pools. The amphibian measures about 5 to 8 inches in length, is typically reddish brown with a yellow-orange belly, and has a lifespan of 10 to 15 years. It lives on lands southwest of Lake Elsinore along Highway 74, southwest of Corona, and in the Santa Rosa Plateau.

Don’t’ mess with this tiny, tough, Taricha torosa. The California Newt secretes poison through its skin to repel most predators. This potent neurotoxin can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. The poison also can be ingested through the eye or other mucous membrane or through a cut in the skin, so take care when handling newts. When threatened, the newt closes its eyes, extends its limbs to its sides, and holds its tail straight out. This reflex exposes its bright orange belly as a warning to possible predators.

The California Newt spends most of its time hunting for small insects to eat. Though it prefers areas around water, the newt will travel up to a mile over land to catch prey. The newt likes hunting for insects by catching them with its sticky tongue. On the darker side, newts are known to eat their own eggs.

The newt’s survival is threatened by a couple of non-native species, the Mosquito Fish and the Crayfish. These invasive species can help control pest populations like mosquitos, but prey on the eggs of this newt. Often, the mere presence of these species will cause the newt to pack its bags and leave.

Through the Western Riverside County MSHCP, 85,020 acres of safe breeding environment and other necessary habitat is being preserved. That is about as large as the entire city of Philadelphia. By conserving this habitat, the fire-walking California Newt will have a suitable and safe place.

Nexus Study Graphic

Nexus Study Adoption Promotes Viability of MSHCP, Certainty for Development

Member agencies of the Western Riverside County MSHCP — including the County of Riverside and 18 cities — each adopted the RCA 2020 Nexus Study this spring. Adopting the Nexus Study ensures the viability of the MSHCP and provides certainty for housing, infrastructure, commercial, and industrial development.

Why does the viability of the MSHCP matter? Homebuilders, local agencies that build our infrastructure, and commercial and industrial developers all depend on the permits granted through the MSHCP by the federal and state governments. These permits allow mitigation for the federal and state Endangered Species Acts and the California Environmental Quality Act efficiently and cost effectively.

Without a Habitat Conservation Plan to provide a permit, builders would have to negotiate individually with federal and state governments to secure these permits on a case-by-case basis, which is time consuming and costly, and could delay progress and regional growth.

For the environmental permits to remain in place, the RCA must demonstrate that the MSHCP has the funding it needs to acquire land, manage habitat, and monitor species that may be affected by development. To do so, the RCA conducted a mitigation fee study, known as a Nexus Study, in 2019, the first fee study completed since the creation of the RCA in 2004. The Nexus Study determined that Local Development Mitigation Fees charged to local developers must be updated to continue to fund the MSHCP.

The RCA adopted a fee structure that will be phased in during a six-month period and that treats each acre to be developed roughly the same. Additionally, the RCA limited the fee increase by extending the deadline to acquire the 500,000 acres of reserve land called for in the MSHCP. Expanding the time frame for land acquisition spreads the fee over 15 additional years and lessens the impact of the increase.

In the months following the RCA’s adoption of the Nexus Study in December 2020, the member cities and County of Riverside held public hearings to discuss and adopt the new mitigation fee structure recommended by the Nexus Study. Now that all RCA member agencies have adopted the Nexus Study, the MSHCP can continue to protect our region’s species, preserve our open space, provide certainty, and promote economic opportunity.

Western Riverside County is making significant investments toward its commitment to acquire two-thirds of the MSHCP reserve. The RCA will also continue to advocate for our federal and state partners to meet their funding commitments to each acquire one-sixth of the planned reserve.

JPR Graphic

Getting to Know the MSHCP – Joint Project Review

Protecting sensitive habitats from potential impacts from development and other projects is one of the primary functions of the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan. The RCA has a robust process known as a Joint Project Review (JPR). This process is for projects that developers propose within MSHCP Criteria Cells. Portions of these cells make up the acreage of the MSHCP Plan area that the RCA is working to acquire as reserve lands.

A JPR is the step in which the RCA reviews projects for MSHCP consistency. Once a developer or project applies, the Permittee (the city or County of Riverside) will have the first opportunity to determine if the proposed project is consistent with the MSHCP. After that, the Permittee will submit the application to the RCA for review.

The JPR process follows strict deadlines. If the RCA does not complete its review or provide comments within 14 days, the RCA will forfeit its review and it will then be sent to the Wildlife Agencies for their review. The Wildlife Agencies must provide their findings within an additional 10 days. If a project is found to be inconsistent with the MSHCP, steps are in place to resolve issues.

The RCA conduct JPRs year-round. In 2021, the RCA has completed reviews of 10 private projects and three public projects, with 11 additional projects under review.

Learn more about the Joint Project Review and the Development Process.

Wildlife Refuge Bill Graphic

Western Riverside County Wildlife Refuge Bill Clears Hurdle: Now Included in INVEST in America Act

A bill to establish a wildlife refuge in western Riverside County was added to the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill this month, boosting federal support for the western Riverside County MSHCP.

Rep. Ken Calvert introduced H.R. 972 in the House of Representatives in February to establish the Wildlife Refuge Conservation and Recreation for the Community Act (Refuge bill). With Rep. Mark Takano as an original cosponsor of the bill, this bipartisan legislation creates the federal government’s framework to meet its land acquisition obligations in western Riverside County under the MSHCP Implementing Agreement, while allowing local governments to take the lead on development and transportation decisions.

Habitat conservation is vital for growing regions like Riverside County and does not have to conflict with fixing bridges, alleviating traffic, addressing the housing shortage, and growing our economy.  Indeed, open space, cleaner air, and protecting wildlife complement land and economic development.  The MSHCP aims to acquire and permanently conserve 500,000 acres of open space and habitat in western Riverside County to protect 146 native plant and animal species. This allows for a streamlined permitting process for the development of commercial, industrial, residential, and infrastructure projects, which accelerates project delivery and saves taxpayer dollars.

Because of the MSHCP’s benefit to infrastructure development, the Refuge bill was added in July to the House surface transportation reauthorization bill, known as the INVEST in America Act.

Including the Refuge in the federal transportation bill underscores the strong link between habitat conservation and transportation infrastructure. Rep. Calvert, Riverside County Transportation Commission Chair Jan Harnik, and Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) Chair Natasha Johnson wrote an op-ed for The Press-Enterprise that outlined the need for the Refuge and the benefits it will provide for our region, from open space preservation and recreation to sustainable development and economic prosperity.

In the weeks leading up to the inclusion of the Refuge in the surface transportation reauthorization bill, many partners expressed interest in the concept, including Senator Alex Padilla, who highlighted the importance of habitat conservation during a U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing earlier this year.

The RCA and RCTC will continue to educate members of Congress on the importance of the Refuge and work to address Riverside County’s transportation, conservation, and economic needs.

June 2021

Conservation Efforts Pay Off for Double-Crested Cormorant

 Imagine a flock of migrating birds so large that it blocks the sun. This was a regular sight in the early 1900s, when the Double-Crested Cormorant was abundant until a steep decline in the species began in the 1940s.

The black or dark gray goose-sized bird is about three feet long and typically has a wingspan of 4.5 feet. Its strong, webbed feet are used to swim underwater; the species can dive as deep as 72 feet to snag its catch of the day.  The birds spend about 18% of their day foraging for food but the rest of the time, this laid-back species is chillaxing. The Double-Crested Cormorant gets its name from tufted feathers that appear on both sides of the head only during nesting season.

Protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and listed as a state species of special concern, the population of the Double-Crested Cormorant, also known as Phalacrocorax auratus, is on the rise. The Western Riverside County MSHCP includes 16,100 acres of water conservation habitat in Lake Mathews, Diamond Valley Lake, Lake Skinner, Lake Elsinore, Vail Lake, Lake Perris, Mystic Lake, and the Prado Basin/Santa Ana River. The birds have been detected in seven areas, so the monitoring objective has been met for the MSHCP. Threats to the future of the Double-Crested Cormorant continue to be habitat destruction and environmental contaminants.

In the Prado Basin/Santa Ana River conservation area, a nesting site, or rookery, currently supports at least 35 nests. The Double-Crested Cormorant can lay three to four eggs in the spring.  When last monitored, 40 breeding pairs were living full-time in the Western Riverside County MSHCP. Though these birds live in large flocks, they are monogamous and raise their young together. The birds typically live to be 6 years old, with one old-timer recorded living more than 17 years.

The Double-Crested Cormorant is one of 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County MSHCP, the largest habitat conservation plan in the nation. This ambitious plan will permanently conserve 500,000 acres of open space and habitat for the identified native plants and animals, including 33 endangered or threatened species.

French Valley Wildlife Area Collage
Beyond Temecula’s Wine Country, Explore the French Valley Wildlife Area

Tourists from around the country are heading back to the Temecula Valley for wine tasting, weddings, concerts, dining, gaming, and hot air balloon rides. Just outside this bustling region is the lesser-known French Valley Wildlife Area, five miles northeast of Temecula and south of Lake Skinner.

Put down your wine glass and step away from the cheese platter for a change of scenery. The 702-acre French Valley Wildlife Area includes a chance to see coastal sage scrub, southern willow scrub, grasslands, and eucalyptus woodlands. Interested in an easy hike? It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and take in the sights and sounds of nature.  Birdwatchers may catch sight of Western Riverside County MSHCP protected species, such as the Burrowing Owl and Turkey Vulture, while those looking for small critters may run into the furry California Vole.

During years of plentiful rainfall, the wildlife area will be teeming with colorful wildflowers. Currently, most of the rolling hills feature only dry scrub, but they are still full of activity. Hawks, insects, and occasional wildflowers are visible, and you can hear birds chirping in the quiet area.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife established the French Valley Wildlife Area in 2007. Click here for more information and directions.

Overlooking chaparral landscape
Formation of Habitat Conservation Plans

The Western Riverside County MSHCP is the gold standard nationally, but a well-kept secret within California. With a goal of conserving 500,000 acres, it is the largest Habitat Conservation Plan of its kind in the country and protects 146 plant and animal species, including 33 that are endangered and threatened.

So, where did the idea of Habitat Conservation Plans start? It all began during the 1960s and 70s when the public became more aware of pollution and other environmental issues. The U.S. Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, creating new protections for species threatened by environmental concerns. One section of the bill allowed forming a new type of local, state, and federal partnership called a Habitat Conservation Plan or HCP to preserve at-risk species at the local level. HCPs protect the habitat and offer a pathway for commercial, industrial, residential, and infrastructure development to occur, while mitigating potential harm to the environment.

In 2004, the Western Riverside County MSHCP was formed to protect not only the 33 endangered or threatened species, but also 113 other plants and animals. The MSHCP is administered by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority and managed by the Riverside County Transportation Commission. Environmental permits held by the RCA have improved Riverside County transportation infrastructure by expediting multiple highway road, and transit projects.

Further, the MSHCP funds species monitoring, habitat management, and land acquisition through development fees for new projects. To date, 82% of the half million acres needed for the reserve have been acquired.

HCPs, like the Western Riverside County MSHCP, preserve land and protect habitat for growing regions like Riverside County, helping to enhance the quality of living for residents – now and for future generations.

Quino Checkerspot Butterfly
RCA Seeks $375 Million to Support Habitat Preservation

California’s unprecedented budget surplus and the return of Congressional earmarks (also known as Community Project Funding) have provided the RCA and agency partners an opportunity to request funding through area federal and state lawmakers. If successful, the funding will allow the RCA to purchase land toward the 500,000 acres being assembled to complete the Western Riverside County MSCHP.

The RCA staff are working with Congressional representatives and state legislators to request funds to purchase land for preservation. While there are no guarantees that the funding requests will be approved by Congress or the State Legislature, the RCA is optimistic that its partnership with federal and state lawmakers will continue to build support for the MSHCP. The RCA will continue to seek federal and state funding at every opportunity to help meet ambitious conservation and climate change goals under consideration in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

The federal and state governments are each responsible for acquiring one-sixth of the MSHCP-proposed reserve, and the RCA is to acquire the remaining two-thirds of land to complete the plan. MSHCP permittees have adopted Local Development Mitigation Fee (LDMF) increases that will be effective July 1, 2021. Western Riverside County’s fee payers and taxpayers are contributing their fair share to the plan, and the RCA is advocating for funding from federal and state partners.

Following a show of community support, Rep. Mark Takano and Assemblymember Kelly Seyarto submitted two of the RCA’s funding requests to acquire land for habitat preservation in the region:

  • Rep. Takano’s request included $3 million in Community Project Funding to the House Committee on Appropriations for the Kelvar and Wolfskill Acquisition Project near the San Timoteo Badlands. These lands would help link habitat between the San Bernardino National Forest in the San Jacinto Mountains with San Bernardino County and other conserved areas. This linkage would provide protection and mobility for MSHCP species, such as the Cactus Wren and the Los Angeles Pocket Mouse.
  • Assemblymember Kelly Seyarto’s request included $3 million for the Lake Elsinore Back Basin Acquisition Project. Completing the conservation goals for the Back Basin is a critical hurdle for further economic development in the area and has been a long-standing focus of the City of Lake Elsinore, the RCA, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Funding to complete habitat acquisition in the Back Basin could be a breakthrough opportunity for conservation, the local economy, and the state’s housing shortage.

The full list of RCA’s funding requests to Congressional and State legislative offices includes:


Federal and State Funding Requests
Project Amount Legislative Office
Kelvar & Wolfskill Acquisition $3 million U.S Representative Takano
Sage Acquisition $3 million U.S. Representative Ruiz
Eden Hot Springs Acquisition $3 million U.S. Representative Calvert
Wolfskill Acquisition $4.2 million U.S. Senators Feinstein and Padilla
Eden Hot Springs & Sage Acquisition $6 million U.S. Senator Feinstein
Lake Elsinore Back Basin Acquisition $3 million California Assemblymember Seyarto
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Section 6 Grant Funding $100 million U.S. Senate and House Delegation
Statewide Wildlife Conservation Board Funding $100 million (SB 45)

$100 million (AB 1500)

$50 million

State Senator Portantino

Assemblymember E. Garcia

Assemblymembers Medina and Seyarto

The RCA expects to learn the status of these funding requests in the coming weeks and months.

In the U.S. Senate Spotlight: Western Riverside’s MSHCP and Proposed Wildlife Refuge

The Western Riverside County MSHCP received national attention May 19 during a hearing about biodiversity loss by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Senator Alex Padilla noted the importance of Habitat Conservation Plans or HCPs, while referencing the proposed Western Riverside County National Wildlife Refuge and H.R. 972 authored by Rep. Ken Calvert. Senator Padilla noted the MSHCP’s role in facilitating sustainable development.

Executive Director Edmund Sullivan of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Agency provided testimony on behalf of the California Habitat Conservation Planning Coalition and requested Senate support for establishing the Western Riverside County National Wildlife Refuge.

In turn, the RCA sent a letter to Senator Padilla to thank him for his comments and interest in habitat conservation. The letter also requested that the committee include language in its proposed surface transportation reauthorization bill that would support more widespread use of HCPs for sustainable infrastructure development. This request mirrors language submitted by Rep. Calvert in the House of Representatives.

The RCA supports H.R. 972 and will continue to advocate for the establishment of a wildlife refuge in western Riverside County and for additional federal resources to preserve open space and responsible development.

May 2021

Plummer’s Mariposa Lily has Colorful History, Like its Namesake

The Plummer’s Mariposa Lily is a rare flower found only in a small section of southern California’s mountain ranges, including the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountains. The flower is designated by the U.S. Forest Service as a “sensitive species,” which means its population viability is a concern.

The showy lavender, pink, or white petals bloom from May to July, with two to six flowers on each plant. The key distinguishing characteristic of this species is the fur-like appearance of hairs on the inside of its petals.

Though it appears delicate like a butterfly (mariposa means butterfly in Spanish), Calochortus Plummerae is a hardy species much like its namesake, Sara Plummer Lemmon. A progressive 19th century botanist, Plummer earned high marks in chemistry and physics in college, volunteered as a Civil War nurse, and then traveled solo to California. She hiked throughout the west in search of plants during a time when a woman’s place was in the kitchen, not on hillsides. Plummer was an early advocate of forest conservation, the second woman to be named to the California Academy of Natural Sciences, and a champion for nearly 10 years to make the golden poppy the California state flower, which became official in 1903.

The Plummer’s Mariposa Lily is one of the 146 species is protected under the Western Riverside County MSHCP. Currently, urban development threatens the future of this species. The conservation goal for the lily is to include 167,580 acres of suitable habitat within the MSHCP area. Once the total acreage is acquired, 72% of the species’ total potential habitat will be protected for future generations to enjoy.


Diamond Valley Lake
Diamond Valley Lake: A Local Gem

Diamond Valley Lake’s Wildflower Trail in Hemet is open through the end of spring, offering a chance to grab the family to view a variety of plants and animals. In 1992, the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District and the Metropolitan Water District agreed to protect thousands of acres of land surrounding the lake. Through the Western Riverside County MSHCP, the reserve became part of larger conservation area that not only protects plant and wildlife species, but also is a recreational area.

Each spring, the Metropolitan Water District opens the Wildflower Trail, a 2.1-mile loop near the lake. The trail is open to visitors Wednesdays to Sundays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be accessed next to the Diamond Valley Lake boat launch.

On the trail, plant life is abundant with coastal sage, grassland, poppies and wildflowers of various shades. Visitors also may spot Bell’s Sage Sparrow, the San Diego Horned Lizard, and the infamous Stephens’ Kangaroo Rat.

For long-distance runners and walkers, Diamond Valley Lake also features a 5.9-mile North Hills Trail and a 21.8-mile Lakeview Trail that are open year-round.

Overlooking chaparral landscape
Who are the Permittees?

It takes a range of Permittees – along with Partner Agencies – to implement the Western Riverside County MSHCP, a 500,000-acre habitat reserve to protect, restore, and maintain habitats for the conservation of 146 species. Collaboration with permittees expedites construction of needed infrastructure, particularly transportation, and provides greater certainty in the development process.

The Permittees include the 18 western Riverside County cities and eight other agencies including the County of Riverside, Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Riverside County Transportation Commission, Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Permittees are responsible for processing permits, collecting fees, and implementing the MSHCP goals. Permits granted to private development and public infrastructure projects allow the MSHCP to provide coverage under the U.S. and California Endangered Species Acts. Without permits and accountability of the Permittees, delivery of the MSHCP would be in jeopardy and would create uncertainty and increase these project costs. RCA works closely with Permittee staff to determine if certain projects conform to and further the goals of the MSHCP.

Quino Checkerspot Butterfly
Reflecting on Endangered Species Day – May 21, 2021

Endangered Species Day provides a day of reflection for work that has been completed and future work that is needed to protect species at risk of extinction. The day is commemorated annually on the third Friday of May, which is May 21 this year. In the United States, there are approximately 1,300 species listed as endangered or threatened, of which 287 are in California.

Within the Western Riverside County MSHCP, 11 species are considered endangered:

  • Coastal California Gnatcatcher
  • Least Bell’s Vireo
  • Stephens’ Kangaroo Rat
  • San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat
  • Riverside Fairy Shrimp
  • Quino Checkerspot Butterfly
  • Arroyo Toad
  • Southwestern Willow Flycatcher
  • Western Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
  • California Red-Legged Frog
  • Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog

Most of these species are listed in the “School Resources” section of the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority website. Dig deeper here or plan a trip to one of the RCA reserve areas to see landscapes, plants, and animals of Riverside County, like Diamond Valley Lake (featured above) or Sycamore Canyon.

Everyday is Endangered Species Day at the RCA. As the administrator of the MSHCP, The RCA’s leadership is vital in conserving lands in western Riverside County so that future generations can see these species survive and thrive. Otherwise, if these habitats disappear, the species will face a higher rate of extinction in the wild.

April 2021

The Secret Life of the Granite Night Lizard

The sneaky Granite Night Lizard, with a tongue-twister scientific name of Xantusia henshawi henshawi, is found in the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, Potrero, San Jacinto mountains, Wilson Valley, Anza Valley, and Aqua Tibia. This unusual herptile is our RCA Species of the Month. Read on and watch our brief video.

The Granite Night Lizard is one of the 146 species protected under the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) and is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern in California.

As its name suggests, this lizard prefers to spend its days tucked into the crevices of granite boulders, waiting until dusk to venture out for food. Because of its secretive nature, the lizard’s fate is tied to the existence of these granite boulders and rock outcroppings it calls home.  It searches the cracks of these rocks for small insects like spiders, beetles, and moths. Sometimes the Granite Night Lizard also eats the skin that it sheds.

Historically, this lizard has been difficult to document because of its nocturnal lifestyle. Riverside County is one of the most northern areas of the Granite Night Lizard’s known habitat range.

The Granite Night Lizard will be conserved by preserving 297,143 acres within nine core areas designated in the MSHCP. This species cannot survive without protecting the flaky, exfoliated boulders that take thousands of years of erosion to form. The most significant threats to the Granite Night Lizard are development, agriculture, and collection.

RCA Online Tool
New Online Tool Tracks RCA’s Progress to Conserve Land

How is the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) making progress in your area? With 18 cities and multiple unincorporated areas in western Riverside County, it can be hard to visualize the MSHCP’s goal of acquiring 500,000 acres of reserve land.  This info just got easier to see with a nifty new online tool, the Annual Report and Rough Step Dashboard.

Launched last month, the new dashboard provides an easy way to look up a specific city or county area and visualize our progress towards conservation goals and funding for local transportation improvements from Measure A, the voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements in Riverside County that is tied to implementation of the MSHCP.  With this dashboard, anyone can keep track of the progress the Western Riverside Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) is making toward preserving land in their community.

Conserving land is no easy feat and requires several points of data to measure performance. The Annual Report Dashboard is accompanied by the Rough Step Balance Dashboard. A Rough Step is a measurement in the MSHCP to track if conservation efforts are keeping pace with development, based on areas of the county called Rough Step Units. Western Riverside County is separated into nine units, as shown on the map. On the dashboard, it is easy to tell if a Rough Step Unit is in balance between conservation and development. Detailed data about the types of lands being conserved is also shown in this dashboard.

Let us know what you think about this new tool by sending your feedback to

Grant Cycle
The Grant Cycle: Applying, Spending, and Reporting

Grants are a boon for conservation agencies such as the RCA. Grants awarded by other organizations offer an opportunity for the RCA to purchase needed land, supplementing local development mitigation fees.

RCA actively pursues state and federal grants. However, grants may be difficult to secure or spend. The application process can be lengthy, and they often have conditions the grantee must meet.

Applying for a grant takes planning and research. Before applying, RCA and its partners consider the grant amount, eligibility, timelines, requirements, and current conservation priorities.

RCA is currently focused on spending three grants totaling $26.7 million that federal and state partners have awarded to help the RCA purchase Additional Reserve Lands. In particular, the RCA is using federal Section 6 grants, also known as Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation HCP Land Acquisition grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. RCA also received a state grant for conservation in the Jurupa Mountain area. This grant was secured through the state legislative process championed by Assembly Member Sabrina Cervantes.

Stay Connected
Do you Like or Follow us?

Communication is key to the success of the MSHCP. One of the RCA’s renewed priorities, due to the consolidation with the Riverside County Transportation Commission, is to strengthen communication and education with stakeholders, news media, and the public about the MSHCP and progress toward its completion.

Stay connected by following our revamped social media channels. Our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram handles are all now @WesternRCA, and we recently launched our YouTube Channel. You also can visit our website,, or email us your thoughts at

March 2021

Cleveland National Forest
Rep. Calvert Introduces Bill to Create Wildlife Refuge

“It would take an act of Congress” to create the Western Riverside County Wildlife Refuge. And that is exactly what western Riverside County congressional leaders are working to do.

Rep. Ken Calvert reintroduced H.R. 972 on February 12 to establish the Western Riverside County Wildlife Refuge, with Rep. Mark Takano a cosponsor. If adopted, the bill would create boundaries for a new wildlife refuge in western Riverside County.

“I continue to support the establishment of the Western Riverside County Wildlife Refuge to conserve our natural resources and provide a solid planning foundation for the county’s future growth and transportation infrastructure,” Calvert said in a statement. “A number of stakeholders throughout the region contribute to the conservation needs of our wildlife. Transferring the land set aside for those needs into a federal wildlife refuge will allow for better management of conserved areas and establish necessary mitigation for our future growth.”

The Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan requires 500,000 acres to be established as conservation land. Of those 500,000 acres, 350,000 acres are existing National Forest lands and other state and federal lands. The federal government and state are required to acquire 50,000 additional acres toward the 500,000-acre goal, and the new wildlife refuge would enable the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fulfill its obligation as a partner in the MSHCP. The remaining 100,000 acres will be acquired through local processes including from private landowners through the RCA.

“A wildlife refuge in western Riverside County will enhance our partnership with the federal government to fulfill our common vision of aligning environmental conservation, infrastructure, and economic growth. By providing habitat and mitigation for endangered and threatened species, the RCA is critical to the quality of living in western Riverside County, and this refuge will be an important part of that success,” said RCA Chair and Lake Elsinore City Council Member Natasha Johnson.

Ferruginous Hawk Stalks Its Prey on Open Land

Flying regally over the Prado Basin and Mystic Lake/San Jacinto Wildlife Area, the Ferruginous Hawk is the largest North American hawk species and RCA’s March Species of the Month. It is one of 45 bird species designated by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP).

The Ferruginous Hawk, also known as Buteo regalis, forages within agriculture, grasslands, marsh, and other types of lands in the MSHCP. Its “Ferruginous” name relates to its iron oxide or rust coloring. This is a stealthy hawk that hovers over open land and glides to intercept ground prey. Its primary diet is small to medium sized mammals, such as hares, rabbits, ground squirrels, and gophers.

The Ferruginous Hawk’s conservation will be achieved by preserving at least 144,120 acres of suitable foraging habitat. Protecting this species is vital to the ecosystem conserved by the MSHCP. The MSHCP supports the Ferruginous Hawk’s survival by preserving foraging habitat it uses during migration to and from its nesting grounds (outside the MSHCP area) as well as for some birds that overwinter in the MSHCP area. Continued threats include habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Placentia Ave Interchange
Construction is Buzzing on I-215 Placentia Avenue Interchange Project

Drivers on Interstate 215 in Perris may see a beehive of activity on the Placentia Avenue bridge and surrounding areas.

Through RCA’s permitting process, which helps expedite transportation projects through the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, the Riverside County Transportation Commission’s I-215 Placentia Avenue Interchange Project is under construction.

Work started in August to build northbound and southbound on- and off-ramps, widen the overcrossing, add lanes to Placentia Avenue between Harvill Avenue and Indian Avenue, and construct large detention basins. The project recently reached a milestone with the opening of a new alignment of East Frontage Road. Crews also restriped lanes on I-215 for better driver visibility.

The growing population in the area has made this project vital. Once open in summer 2022, the new interchange will add access to I-215, enhance local traffic flow and drainage, and improve air quality by reducing idling vehicles.

The project is the first construction contract for RCTC’s Mid County Parkway, a new 16-mile transportation corridor planned between Perris and San Jacinto.  Learn more about the MCP and the Placentia project here.

Beauty Mountain
Getting to Know the RCA: Two Types of Lands

One of the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan’s goals is preserving land for 146 native animal and plant species. The MSHCP reserve includes two land types – Public/Quasi-Public Lands (PQP) and Additional Reserve Lands (ARL). When the plan is completed, the lands will total 500,000 acres.

PQP lands are 347,000 acres that are owned by the public or have quasi-public owners. These lands are managed for open space to contribute to the conservation of the 146 covered species. These lands were already in protection as open space prior to the MSHCP but became part of the MSHCP’s reserve system at the Plan’s inception. The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve, Lake Skinner, and the Hidden Valley Wildlife Areas are examples of PQPs lands, which provide recreational opportunities and conservation.

ARLs are those that the RCA and state and federal partners need to acquire to complete the 500,000-acre reserve. Unlike the PQP, these lands are to be managed at a higher ecological level and only for the conservation of the 146 MSHCP species. This limits recreation in these lands. While the 153,000 acres of this type of land needs to be acquired, there are 300,000 available acres. To date, 61,819 acres of ARL have been acquired.

February 2021

Chair Natasha Johnson
Message from Chair Natasha Johnson

I am excited and honored to serve as the 2021 RCA Chair. This year will bring both challenges and opportunities for our agency, and I welcome the chance to work with our partners and the public to make our county an even better place to live.

My highest priority is to remain focused on RCA’s mission to implement the Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, known as the MSHCP, by establishing a 500,000-acre habitat for the conservation of 146 species. The MSHCP also helps us expedite construction of the infrastructure we need, especially transportation, and provides greater certainty in the development process. To date, we have assembled 82% of this identified acreage.

Another high priority is to shepherd RCA through a period of change. In December, our board unanimously supported the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) becoming the new managing agency for the RCA.  The RCA consolidation with RCTC will bring about economies of scale, fiscal efficiencies, and a direct link between conservation and transportation infrastructure. The RCA board and I have every confidence in the RCTC management team and our success progressing forward.

Also critical to RCA’s mission is maximizing funding opportunities and creating greater financial stability. In December, after years of review, the RCA board adopted a long-term strategy to move us closer to the completion of the MSHCP. Included in this strategy is an increase in the Land Development Mitigation Fee, which funds to buy property from willing sellers to protect habitat. This fee has not increased since it was originally set in 2004, except adjustments for inflation.  Recognizing the current economic situation, the RCA board adopted the lowest possible fee evaluated, along with a phase-in of the increase over the course of the coming year. To continue receiving the economic and infrastructure benefits resulting from the MSHCP, RCA member cities and the County of Riverside have the option to adopt the new fee schedule by May 2, 2021.

Finally, we are focused this year on strengthening our communications to our stakeholders, members of the public, and local, state, and federal elected officials. Our goal is to be transparent about our conservation efforts to date, how to fund those continued efforts moving forward, and how we can work together on this important conservation mission.

Please know that the RCA is here to be a partner with you. If you have questions, please email our team. I look forward to a great 2021!

Hidden Valley Wildlife Area
Fresh Air Awaits at Hidden Valley Wildlife Area

Looking for a Saturday stroll and some fresh air? Lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail at the Hidden Valley Nature Center and Wildlife Area, overlooking the Santa Ana River, just east of Norco. Open to the public, the Hidden Valley Wildlife Area is part of the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) reserve system that will total 500,000 acres, once completed by the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority and MSHCP partners.

Spread across 1,500 acres, the wildlife area offers access to 25 miles of hiking, bicycling, and equestrian trails, where visitors can find rabbits, snakes, turtles, toads, and both the Yellow-breasted Chat and the White-faced Ibis, two of the 146 species protected by the MSHCP.

The reserve lands are primarily classified as a riparian ecosystem – an area heavily influenced by water, such as a lake or stream. These conditions support unique vegetation and a diverse range of species. Riparian ecosystems are estimated to be found in only 1% of the western United States.

The reserve is owned and operated by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District, which maintains the trails and manages the on-site Nature Center’s programs. The wildlife area is currently open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the Nature Center and educational programs remain closed due to COVID-19. Learn more about RivCo Parks’ pandemic safety measures here and follow CDC recommendations when on the trail. For other great places to explore nature in our MSHCP area, check out the recreational opportunities listed on our website.

Arroyo Chub
The Arroyo Chub is at Home in Santa Ana and Santa Margarita Watersheds

With its short chunky body and stout nose, the Arroyo Chub may not be a beauty pageant contender, but it is a resilient fish that has adapted to our region’s flooding and drought conditions. It is one of 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan and is center stage as RCA’s February’s Species of the Month.

The Arroyo Chub, also known as Gila orcuttii, has been spotted in various waterways in southern California. In Riverside County, the RCA and our partner agencies, which routinely monitor chub populations, have found the fish most recently in 2019 in the Santa Ana River and in 2010 in the Santa Margarita River. While the Arroyo Chub’s diet largely consists of algae, it also feeds on small invertebrates found in cool to warm, slow moving rivers, streams, and creeks.

RCA has included the Arroyo Chub in the MSHCP conservation area with 4,580 acres of habitat that includes potential spawning and foraging opportunities. Most of the protected habitat for the fish is in the Santa Ana River. Over the years, the Chub has experienced a loss of genetic diversity due to habitat fragmentation, which has prevented its range of movement and connections to other habitats and populations. The Arroyo Chub also has been threatened with invasive species (e.g. Bullfrogs), and has been forced to contend with dams, development, and natural disasters.

Learn more by viewing the PowerPoint presentation given to the RCA Board of Directors on February 1.

SR60 Truck Lane
Route 60 Truck Lanes Construction Continues

A safer drive and less traffic congestion are on the way with the widening of Route 60 through Riverside County’s Badlands. Construction of the Route 60 Truck Lanes began in July 2019 and the new lanes are expected to open in 2022.

Led by the Riverside County Transportation Commission, in partnership with Caltrans, the project is widening a 4.5-mile section of Route 60 between Moreno Valley and Beaumont, from Gilman Springs Road to 1.4 miles west of Jack Rabbit Trail. It is one of more than 50 transportation improvement projects across western Riverside County that has been expedited through the environmental permits of the Western Riverside County MSHCP.

The project is adding an eastbound truck-climbing lane, a westbound truck-descending lane, wider inner and outer roadway shoulders, and a concrete median barrier to reduce glare from headlights approaching from the opposite direction.  Additionally, to help support native animal species, such as bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions, the project features two 20-foot by 20-foot wildlife crossings and wildlife fencing.

The project is funded by a combination of state, federal and local sources, including Measure A, Riverside County’s voter-approved half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. Measure A requires cities and the County of Riverside to implement the Western Riverside County MSHCP in order to receive local road funding.

To date, RCTC has invested $153 million of Measure A funds towards acquiring habitat for the MSHCP in support of regional transportation projects.

A Look at HANS: Habitat Acquisition and Negotiation Strategy

Through the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan, the RCA is continuing its goal to preserve a half-million acres of habitat for 146 protected species in western Riverside County.  The Habitat Acquisition and Negotiation Strategy is the process the cities, the county, and the RCA uses to determine if properties are needed for the MSHCP reserve system.

The private property owner may initiate a request to the city or county (known as the permittee) to evaluate his or her property for the reserve or may initiate this through submittal of a development application to the city or county. The permittee then analyzes the property and determines if all, a portion, or none of the property is needed to help complete the 500,000-acre conservation area. Once the permittee makes its determination, it sends its findings to the RCA, which works jointly with wildlife agencies to complete the evaluation process. If all or a portion of the property is needed, the RCA and the property owner begin negotiations to buy the land.

The HANS process occurs only on privately owned lands that are within “criteria cells” that are roughly 160 acres each, across a checkerboard pattern in parts of the MSHCP area. Single-family homes and mobile homes on single lots are exempt from this process, unless the owner approaches the permittee as a willing seller or wants to process it through HANS outside of a development application. Road projects and other public projects also are exempt from the HANS process.

December 2020

Hiking through a desert trail
Moving Habitat Conservation Forward: RCA Joins Forces with Riverside County Transportation Commission

In nature, mutualism is a symbiotic relationship in which both species benefit. Mutualism is now at work in leadership of the nation’s largest habitat conservation plan and one of California’s most innovative transportation agencies. The governing boards of the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) and the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) have approved an agreement that brings both agencies together under unified management, effective January 1, 2021.

Why would a transportation agency and a habitat conservation agency unite like this? The answer lies in the heart of the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) and in Riverside County voters’ approval of transportation dollars for habitat conservation.

Riverside County voters’ approval of Measure A in 2002 conditioned local road funding to cities and the County based on their participation in the MSHCP. To date, RCTC has invested $153 million of Measure A funds towards acquiring habitat for the MSHCP in support of regional transportation projects. This makes RCTC the single largest investor in the MSHCP.

“The MSHCP has accelerated approvals for dozens of critical traffic relief projects across western Riverside County,” said RCTC Chair and Wildomar City Council Member Ben J. Benoit. “RCTC and RCA have worked closely together in the past, and this consolidation of leadership will harness the strength of both agencies to fully implement our conservation and transportation goals.”

Funding for each agency will remain firewalled with governing boards for each agency maintaining their authority and oversight roles.

“RCA is building new momentum and is positioned for long-term success,” said Jonathan Ingram, Chairman of the RCA Board of Directors and Murrieta City Council Member. “The MSHCP remains one of the most important priorities for strengthening the quality of life in western Riverside County. I am grateful to the leadership of our Board of Directors and the RCTC Commission for taking this bold step to join forces to advance our economic, mobility, and environmental goals.”

The 500,000-acre MSHCP was designed by Riverside County’s visionary leaders who saw the need to protect our county’s nowhere-else-on-earth environment while allowing for economic growth and breaking free of traffic gridlock. The plan provides for the protection of 146 native plants and animals and offers public opportunities for hiking, cycling, and viewing species in their natural habitat. To date, RCA and its partners have preserved 80 percent of the land needed for the plan. While many might think building roads and protecting the environment are mutually exclusive goals, the MSHCP has set a national model for how those goals can be mutually beneficial. Now they will be led by the same team.

Southern Rubber Boa
The Southern Rubber Boa is Not Your Typical Rubber Snake!

The RCA December Species of the Month is a flesh-like serpent, the Southern Rubber Boa. This snake is one of the 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) implemented by the RCA.

The Southern Rubber Boa, also known as Charina bottae umbratica, is a nonvenomous member of the Boa family that usually grows to one to three feet in length. It is a very rare subspecies of the Rubber Boa that can only be found in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. They tend to live in underground burrows and hibernate during winter months in rotting stumps, rock outcrops, or other earthy hideaways until emerging in the spring.

In addition to being expert burrowers, these reptiles are excellent swimmers and climbers. They are constrictors like most in the Boa family, coiling around and suffocating their prey. Since they are not a large species, their prey consists of small lizards, rodents, and other snakes. These strange looking little snakes tend to roll into a ball when threatened or disturbed, protecting their head deep within their coils often elevating their head-like tails as a decoy.

The Southern Rubber Boa is listed as a threatened species, and the RCA’s partner, the U.S. Forest Service, is proactively working to preserve them in western Riverside County by protecting at least 2,577 acres of suitable habitat in the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. Monitoring objectives have been met through a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Construction of Mid County Parkway
Construction of Mid County Parkway Underway

The Mid County Parkway (MCP) project is one of more than 50 transportation improvement projects across western Riverside County that has been expedited through the environmental permits held by the RCA provided through permittees of the MSHCP. It was made possible thanks to partnerships with RCTC, the City of Perris, and the County of Riverside.

Construction began in August on the first phase of the project, the I-215 Placentia Avenue Interchange in Perris. Crews are building the new interchange in between Ramona Expressway and Nuevo Road, with opening expected in 2022. The interchange is anticipated to improve highway access, traffic flow, and air quality.

Funding and timing of future segments of the Mid County Parkway have not been determined.

The MSHCP is the only conservation plan in the nation created to expedite construction of transportation infrastructure, new economic development, and new housing while preserving open space for conservation. The MSHCP has expedited dozens of other highway and road projects across western Riverside County including the improvements to the 15/91 Express Lanes Connector in Corona, the Route 60 Truck Lanes between Moreno Valley and Beaumont, and the I-15 Railroad Canyon Road Interchange in Lake Elsinore. The MSHCP directly helps improve western Riverside County traffic by fast-tracking the planning of transportation projects by as much as five years, which has saved taxpayers millions since the plan was approved in 2004.

November 2020

SAWA Biologists
Portion of Santa Rosa Plateau Reopens to the Public

The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve has partially reopened after nearly a year-long closure as a result of the 2019 Tenaja Fire. Plans to reopen in the spring were temporarily halted after California issued a ‘stay at home’ order due to the pandemic. The Sylvan Meadows Multi-Use Area has also been reopened, with a more extensive reopening planned for later this year.

The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is an important partner in the 500,000-acre Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). Jointly owned by the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District (RivCo Parks), The Nature Conservancy, and the State of California, management of the reserve is performed by the Center for Natural Lands Management. This reserve is a hidden gem of Riverside County offering an ecological gold mine, including vernal pools with fairy shrimp that are visible during the wet months!

Sylvan Meadows, part of the Santa Rosa Plateau, spans 1,000 acres with over 10 miles of trails. Hikers and equestrians both have an array of trails to choose from, ranging in experience levels from easy to moderate. On these trails, visitors will get the chance to travel through shady oak woodlands, open bunchgrass prairie, and chaparral.

The Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve is a treat to hike in any season, with its 9,000 acres of protected land that boasts several different ecosystems, including woodlands and wetlands. Two thousand (2,000) of those acres were affected by the fire, but the good rainy season earlier in the year has sparked major regrowth of damaged plants. This reserve is home to over 200 species of native birds and 59 endangered, threatened, or rare animal and plant species, including Southwestern Pond Turtles and the famous Santa Rosa Plateau Fairy Shrimp

For more information and updates, visit RivCo Parks at

Los Angeles Pocket Mouse
Don’t Miss this Little Superstar, the Los Angeles Pocket Mouse

The Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority’s (RCA) November Species of the Month is a miniscule rodent, the Los Angeles Pocket Mouse! This little critter is one of the 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) implemented by the RCA.

The Los Angeles Pocket Mouse, also known as Perognathus longimembris brevinasus, is one of the smallest species of pocket mouse weighing from 8 to11 grams and is only about 4.5 inches long. It is mostly found in the coastal basins of southern California, from the San Fernando Valley east to Cabazon, south through the San Jacinto and Temecula Valleys to Aguanga, Warner Pass, Vail Lake, and Temecula.

These mice have hairs on their back toes which help them move through sandy soil. Their habitat consists of sandy soils in washes, uplands, and sand dune ecosystems. They are a fossorial species, which means they tend to burrow underground. The Los Angeles Pocket Mouse collects seeds, storing them in their fur lined cheek pouches, until they can stockpile the seeds in their underground burrows for future consumption. They are nocturnal and are active during the warmer months and hibernate during the cooler months.

While Los Angeles Pocket Mouse populations are declining, the RCA is proactively working to help the species in Riverside County by protecting at least 14,000 acres of suitable habitat for this cute little creature. Some of the habitat areas where you may come across one include the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, the Lake Perris Reserve, and the San Jacinto River. Species surveys for the Los Angeles Pocket Mouse are conducted for some projects that may affect their habitat so we can protect them in key core areas of the MSHCP Plan Area.

San Timoteo Canyon
San Timoteo Canyon – A Vital Linkage for Riverside County

To prevent habitat loss and fragmentation of local wildlife, the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) is committed to conserving habitat linkages that support healthy and resilient ecosystems for the 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). San Timoteo Canyon, located between Moreno Valley and Calimesa, is such a linkage for several species in Riverside County.

Thanks to the leadership of the Rivers and Lands Conservancy (RLC), San Timoteo Canyon has become a protected and permanent wildlife corridor for the region. Through a partnership with the San Timoteo Canyonlands Coalition, the County of Riverside, surrounding cities, and others, RLC was able to have the area designated as a California State Park in 2001. Since that time, RCA has worked with RLC to bring more than 2,100 acres of this area into public ownership.

Eventually totaling approximately 10,000 acres of land, this park will continue to serve as a critical wildlife linkage between the Badlands and the San Jacinto Wildlife area. This connection will help protect habitats and movement corridors for both Bobcats and Mountain Lions along with Raptors such as the Golden Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk. RLC also received a grant from Southern California Edison to prepare trail and restoration plans for the state park.

Preserving wildlife linkages such as San Timoteo Canyon is vital to the success of the MSHCP and its mission to establish a 500,000-acre habitat reserve to protect, restore, and enhance habitats for the conservation of 146 species. To date, the Western Riverside County MSHCP Reserve is over 80% complete at roughly 410,000 acres!

October 2020

SAWA Biologists
RCA Partners with San Diego Zoo Global to Translocate San Bernardino Kangaroo Rats to the San Jacinto River

San Diego Zoo Global, operators of the world-famous San Diego Zoo, are performing a study in coordination with the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) to translocate San Bernardino Kangaroo Rats to RCA lands in the San Jacinto River. Dr. Debra Shier at the Beckman Center for Conservation Research (at San Diego Zoo Global) and her team of experts have been working with this species for many years, including translocation. This species of Kangaroo Rat is one of the 146 covered species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP).

While the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rat has not had a lot of success with being translocated, this study has taken all that has been learned from past translocations to ensure this one will be successful for this endangered species. What does translocation mean? It is a fancy word for capturing the animals from one location, transporting them to another location that has been strategically evaluated and enhanced for the animals, and then releasing them where some of the animals carry small telemetry backpacks so they can be tracked over time.

If the translocation is successful, the San Bernardino Kangaroo Rats will remain on the RCA lands, expanding the population over time and strengthening the genetic variability of the population along the San Jacinto River. Currently, small populations of Kangaroo Rats present in the river show very low genetic diversity, which puts the species at risk.

San Diego Zoo Global is an international conservation organization that has been saving species for 100 years. This non-profit organization includes the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Their mission is to save species worldwide through their expertise in animal and plant care and conservation science.

RCA is proud to partner with great organizations like San Diego Zoo Global that help support regional conservation goals.

Clinton Keith Extension
New Fencing Planned for Interstate 15 from Temecula Creek South to the San Diego County Line Gives Mountain Lions a Safe Crossing

As we have spoken about in past newsletters, much is being done to ensure that Mountain Lions can safely cross the heavily travelled I-15 freeway, south of Temecula. In addition to the underpass study that is underway with The Nature Conservancy, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is currently in the process of installing wildlife fencing on both sides of the freeway from the southside of Temecula Creek south to the San Diego County line.

The fencing is specifically designed for wildlife so that animals cannot dig underneath it or crawl over the top of it. It has taken many years of work to learn just what kind of fencing will keep wildlife off our roadways, and particularly this cat.

This fencing was made possible thanks to great partnerships and is part of the ongoing I-15 Pavement Rehabilitation Project. Scott Quinnell, Senior Environmental Planner at Caltrans, played a critical role in finding the necessary funding to move the fencing forward to protect Mountain Lions in this area. The fencing also aligns with the work being done by The Nature Conservancy at the Temecula Creek Crossing, thanks to voter-approved Prop 68, which provided $4 billion in bond funds for state and local parks, environmental protection projects, water infrastructure projects, and flood protection projects.

Plans for enhancing the Temecula Creek underpass are expected to be completed over the next three years.

Mountain Lions were recently put under consideration for special protection under the California Endangered Species Act. If no action is taken to help these animals, they could face extinction within the next 50 years. Mountain Lions are already one of the 146 covered species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP). To ensure Mountain Lions continue to thrive in the region, the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority (RCA) acquires and manages lands that support live-in and movement habitat for these big cats. RCA is committed to ensuring that these majestic creatures continue to live and move safely within western Riverside County.

California Orcutt Grass
Look Out for the Mysterious Black Swift

The Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority’s (RCA) October Species of the Month is the mysterious Black Swift! This elusive bird is one of the 146 species protected by the Western Riverside County Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSHCP) implemented by the RCA.

The Black Swift, also known as Cypseloides niger, is a member of a family of birds known as the Swift. It is mostly found in British Columbia, California, and Oaxaca, Mexico and prefers forests and mountainous regions. The Black Swift is a larger species of Swift, often averaging seven inches in length. These birds are great rock-climbers that can hold on to the tiniest of ledges, thanks to their tiny feet.

Black Swifts build their nests from mud and moss on cliff faces, often behind waterfalls. The nests may be reused for years. They typically nest independently or in small colonies depending on the available nesting sites. You can expect these birds to nest for nearly two months! During courtship, the male will often pursue females in high-speed chases. The Swift are believed to form monogamous and long-term bonds.

Black Swift populations are rapidly declining and are expected to lose another 50% of their remaining population by 2033. The cause for their decline is still being researched as little is known about this species of bird, including where they migrate to in the winter seasons. To assist with conservation efforts for this species, RCA is working to set aside at least 34,020 acres of suitable habitat to include known nesting locations of the Black Swift at Tahquitz Creek within the San Jacinto Wilderness Area and a potential nesting location at the north fork of the San Jacinto River in the San Jacinto Mountains.

Flora, Fauna & Land Protected by RCA