Looking to highlight Ramona’s natural resources by installing a nature kiosk in town, the Ramona Village Design Group invited Dave and Leigh Bittner of the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) to their March 11 meeting to discuss the idea and learn more about the institute and the Ramona Grasslands.
“It’s a great place for people from the city to see what kind of wildlife is out here,” Dave Bittner said of the grasslands.
Bittner said he and his wife started the WRI to do research and it became the headquarters for the grasslands. Wanting to preserve the grasslands and to protect the wildlife and endangered species found there, Bittner said they have worked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the County of San Diego, both of which have purchased many of the ranches in that area.
The purpose, Bittner said, is “to keep open space for future generations.”
Found on the grasslands, he said, are mountain lions, bobcats, badgers and raptors. Every Saturday in January and February there is a Hawk Watch where raptors such as the golden eagle, the wintering ferruginous hawk, the red-tailed hawk, the prairie falcon and the red-shouldered hawk have been seen. Bittner said last year about 4,000 people attended their Hawk Watches.
“The fastest-growing hobby in America is bird-watching,” said Leigh Bittner. “It does pull people in.”
Dave Bittner said that often people who come to the Hawk Watch ask where they could eat afterward. If a kiosk existed in town, he said he could direct visitors to there for more information about what is available to see and do in Ramona.
After hearing that the county and the TNC have bought many of the ranches in the grasslands — including the 70-acre Hardy Ranch, the 419-acre Cagney Ranch, the 1,231-acre Eagle Davis Ranch, and the 1,400-acre Gildred Ranch — Village Design Group member Ron Rodolff asked what parcels were left to purchase.
Dave Bittner said the only large parcels left are the Cummings Ranch and Montecito Ranch, both which may be developed. The rest of the parcels are small, 10 to 12 acres, but will be needed to connect parcels and trails, he said.
In the WRI newsletter, Bittner stated the Ramona Grassland Preserve could and should be as large as 7,000-plus acres when complete and include conservation easements, all county airport and Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) sprayfields and connective lands to other wild areas so wildlife can travel from one preserve to another.
Not everyone is happy about the expansion of the grasslands. The water district owns the Santa Maria Sewer Service Area Facilities adjacent to the grasslands. RMWD Board President Jim Robinson, who is a member of the village design group, voiced his frustration at the meeting in dealing with the various regulatory agencies involved with the grasslands and the impact they have on the water district.
The RMWD needs to expand the sewer treatment facilities to accommodate more customers, but, Robinson said, issues like the endangered arroyo toad and other endangered species have cost the district $300,000 in required environmental studies so far.
The grasslands, he said, “are going to strangle this town.” Robinson explained that, if the treatment plant cannot be expanded, there will be no sewer service to new customers.
The design group and the Bittners also discussed the proposed greenway park along the Santa Maria Creek and how the creek area needs to be cleaned up but there have been restrictions.
Dave Bittner said he would be happy to help with the greenway.
“It would be the best thing for wildlife in town,” he said.
The Bittners handed out flyers for the WRI fundraiser, “Preserve the Ramona Grassland” art and wine fair and silent auction, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 17. The fundraiser is being sponsored by the Highland Valley Studios at 18528 Highland Valley Road, where the event will be held. Village Design Group Chair Rob Lewallen, who is a musician, will be performing at the fundraiser.