Dr. Christy Wyckoff takes pond surveys and explains the day’s catch to a group of onlookers. Photo by Susan Palmer.
October 12, 2021
By Dr. Christy Wyckoff, Deputy Director
On November 3rd, I will be leaving the Santa Lucia Conservancy to apply all I’ve learned over the last seven and a half years to restore my own plot of land in Colorado. Working for the Conservancy has been the opportunity of a lifetime, filled with rare species, an inspiring landscape, and a mission I’ve come to adopt as my own. As the demand for housing drives urban expansion, humans will continue to expand into wild landscapes. The Santa Lucia Preserve poses the question: how can we do it better, with conservation and co-existence in mind? This grand experiment is proof that remarkable things can happen, and the Conservancy is a key partner in helping our human and natural communities reach their potential.
In 2014, I joined the small but aspirational team of 5 Conservancy staff responsible for the care and stewardship of 18,000 acres of the 20,000 acre Santa Lucia Preserve. Tasked with the goal to build our science program into one that leveraged the many local conservation and academic resources located along the Central Coast, I helped develop cutting-edge science and adaptive land management practices that advance our conservation objectives on The Preserve and serve as a model for land conservation across California. Today, land managers, researchers, and agencies reach out to us for expertise and collaboration on topics as varied as using cattle for invasive plant management to detecting endangered California tiger salamanders using just a cup of pond water.
Reflecting on my time with the Conservancy, I am proud of all that we have achieved together with The Preserve community.
California tiger salamanders had all but disappeared from The Preserve, undetected for 8 years until we launched our Conservation Grazing Program in 2013. Within two years we had tiger salamanders breeding on Peñon Peak again. To increase our ability to detect these rare creatures in our ponds, we worked with researchers at Washington State University to develop an environmental DNA test for pond water. The project was so successful it led to a grant-supported regional collaboration to study and develop better detection of tiger salamanders across the larger Monterey Bay area.
Through our collection and analysis of annual plant and wildlife data, we were able to show the early successes of six years of targeted grazing. The Conservancy Board was so excited about the trends that, in 2019, they authorized a major investment in growing our grazing program and funding the Conservancy’s first post-doc. The data-supported Grassland Initiative has allowed us to grow our cattle herd, revive our prescribed burn program, and crunch nearly 700,000 lines of data. Scientific publications from this analysis are expected in 2022 and the findings will continue to guide our adaptive management of The Preserve to maximize biodiversity and cultivate resilience to drought, climate change, wildfire, and invasive species.
In 2015 we kicked off the Where the Wildlife Wander camera trapping project, a three year Preserve community citizen science endeavor that collected over 1.5 million images and opened a window to the incredible wildlife thriving right outside people’s doors.
During the Soberanes fire of 2016, the Conservancy team worked closely with fire agencies to protect The Preserve’s natural resources and provide critical information to crews to keep them safe and effective. Once the smoke dissipated, we built upon those relationships to share The Preserve’s fire safety and resilience strategy with other communities at the wildland-urban interface. Our work resulted in many invitations to speak about our progressive approach to coexisting with fire and we were awarded ~$2 million in grant funds to further advance our fire management efforts on The Preserve.
Whether it was wildlife identification or giving science talks to The Preserve community, engaging with members was a highlight over the years. One of the education campaigns I am most proud of is the Rodenticide-free campaign to stop the use of poisons for pest management. It has been a true embodiment of “One Preserve,” with the Clubs and CSD taking a leadership position and shifting to non-toxic rodent management. Resident services stepped up by changing preferred providers from the toxin wielding EcoLab to IMP, a company founded on the need for better residential non-toxic options. Many members pushed for these changes and persuaded neighbors to go poison free. The work is not done, but we have made incredible progress.
As Covid-19 transformed the world around us in 2020, I stepped into the Interim Executive Director position and shepherded the organization through a tough year of the pandemic, local wildfires, and the transition between executive directors. Working closely with new Executive Director, Jamison Watts, since his arrival in November 2020, I am confident the Conservancy is in very capable hands.
Over the course of my tenure I was privileged to mentor 36 young professionals through our annual monitoring and research project internships, many of whom are now paying it forward in their own land management and conservation careers.
My time with the Conservancy has been formative for me. It opened my eyes to novel approaches on topics ranging from human settlements coexisting with nature, scientific methods for detecting rare and threatened species, shifting paradigms on grazing, and preparing for and responding to wildfire. I frequently reflect on how my work on The Preserve has prepared me for my next challenge: restoring grazing lands on the front range of the Rocky Mountains.
When I first purchased ranch lands in Colorado 15 years ago, I could never have anticipated the convergence of my career with the future of those lands. Now armed with the tools, knowledge, and network I have developed while at the Conservancy, I will, as I always say, ‘export the model’ and apply the lessons learned from The Preserve to another community in need of creative conservation solutions.
The Santa Lucia Conservancy’s mission on The Preserve is truly a model for other protected and rural landscapes. With a team 12 strong, the Conservancy has the energy and expertise to carry forward this incredible work. Though my last day as a Conservancy staff member is fast approaching, I will always be a friend, supporter, and promoter of the Conservancy and the grand experiment that is The Santa Lucia Preserve.