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Home on the Range : 4,000-Acre Starr Ranch Sanctuary Is a Garden of Eden for Wildlife


RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — Out here at the foot of the Saddleback Mountains, the deer are so plentiful that Pete DeSimone doesn't even look up anymore when he encounters one. And the deer usually aren't interested in him, either.

Humans are a much rarer sight than wildlife at the 4,000-acre Starr Ranch Sanctuary that DeSimone manages for the National Audubon Society.

To preserve native Southern California species and maintain a pristine environment for scientific studies, the Audubon Society keeps the public out. Only visitors on organized Audubon field trips, scientists and university students are allowed into the sanctuary.

"I don't know if I could live anywhere else in Southern California," said DeSimone, who has run Starr Ranch for eight years. "I have the ability to walk down the road and see a gray fox with a rabbit in its mouth or walk past a deer.

"There's a wonderful mosaic of wildlife out here and I love knowing they're going to have their peace as long as the Audubon Society has this land," he said.

The wildlife preserve is bordered by large stretches of undeveloped land--the 80,000-acre Cleveland National Forest and 7,000-acre Caspers Wilderness Park are neighbors. To the east, civilization creeps toward the sanctuary with the ongoing construction of the Dove Canyon and Robinson Ranch housing tracts.

But except for the occasional uninvited hiker or mountain bike rider, Starr Ranch animals are left alone in their personal Garden of Eden.

On a recent tour, five groups of deer were spotted in three hours, even though the drive-through took place in the late morning when deer tend to seek shelter. A small dirt road winding through the sanctuary was covered with tracks from bobcat, quail, deer and other creatures.

DeSimone estimates that at least 75 bird species call the park home, including 23 pairs of endangered gnatcatchers and several types of breeding raptors. There are 35 kinds of mammals, from coyotes to mountain lions, and 360 plant species.

Tall and lanky with a bushy dark beard, DeSimone looks like the kind of man who would be at home in the wilderness. Although DeSimone and his wife do live on Starr Ranch, his isn't the life of a hermit.

Because his Audubon budget doesn't have all the money needed for projects like converting an old farm building into a bunkhouse for field researchers, DeSimone ventures often into the community on fund-raising trips. The ranch caretaker also coordinates scientific projects, the 8 to 12 annual field trips from local Audubon chapters, and leads Audubon field excursions to Costa Rica.

For scientists and educators, Starr Ranch is a living laboratory that represents what Southern California would be like if there were no people.

"The sanctuary has been really instrumental in our ability to train field researchers," said Alan Miller, a professor of biology at Cal State Long Beach. "It's hard to find a place that is relatively undisturbed that is so easily accessible."

Since 1979, Miller has taken classes out to the ranch to perform rudimentary field studies that teach his pupils the basics of environmental research. Several students have gone on to careers in environmental management and related fields, the professor said.

Major environmental works have taken place on the preserve, including a significant portion of a recently released study on mountain lions and a report that showed how human activity on even a small piece of open space affects surrounding fields and hills.

"We provide an undisturbed area where researchers can do their work on wildlife and wildlife habitat without worrying about people disturbing their equipment," DeSimone said.

Occasionally, a mountain bicyclist or hiker ignores the "no trespassing" signs, but most understand when sanctuary employee Curtis Kendall or DeSimone explains the need for privacy on Starr Ranch.

"Some people have the impression that we're kind of selfish," said Kendall. "We ask them how would they like it if we set up a barbecue in their back yard and they start to understand. To accomplish our goals, everything has to remain undisturbed."

Starr Ranch is one of a handful of privately held sanctuaries in Southern California. It is also one of the largest of about 100 wildlife preserves throughout the United States owned by the National Audubon Society.

Part of a 10,000-acre cattle ranch owned by Eugene Starr, the preserve was granted to the environmental group by the Long Beach oilman in 1973. The county purchased a 5,500-acre chunk of the original ranch, which is now Caspers Wilderness Park.

One of the things that makes the sanctuary important is its proximity to its bulkier neighbors, Caspers and the Cleveland National Forest.

Many larger birds and mammals, particularly predators, forage over a wide area. Although Cleveland National Forest is officially open to the public, much of its mountainous terrain lacks roads and trails and is seldom used by the weekend outdoors crowd.

Together, the three wilderness ranges form a corridor for wildlife to roam with limited human contact, DeSimone said.

With its diverse topography that includes deep, tree-filled canyons that are nourished by small creeks flowing through the sanctuary, many of the raptors such as red tail hawks and white tail kites flock to Starr Ranch to breed.

"The bird diversity is incredible," Miller said. Starr Ranch "is a very important island for reproduction for these larger animals (that) have lost so much of their habitat to development.

"If those big sections of open space provided by Cleveland National Forest, Caspers and Starr Ranch weren't there, the large species of birds and mammals would disappear altogether," Miller said.

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