San Diego may not have the wild wetlands of the Midwest, with multitudes of frogs and salamanders mating in their vernal pools, but it does offer spring breeding of its own endangered species, like the San Diego fairy shrimp and western spadefoot.
The actual percentage of original vernal pools still intact is debatable, but if you believe local vernal pool expert, Dr. Ellen Bauder, 97 percent of vernal pools in San Diego County are gone.
Dr. Bauder, San Diego State University's only plant ecology professor, whose advocacy on behalf of the diminishing aquatic ecosystems recalls Dr. Seuss' diminutive Lorax (who spoke for the trees), is retiring and heading out of San Diego this month.
Her office still displays a 1928 topographical map with outlines of grazed vernal pools that once nearly covered the landscape of the college area. "These are our Galapagos Islands or Amazon rainforest," Bauder said. "You can see who's won this one, in San Diego County, and it's sure as hell not me."
Locally, vernal pools remain in such areas as Ramona, Escondido, Camp Pendleton, Chula Vista and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
Urbanization is to blame for much of the demise of these ancient pools, which have survived perhaps 125,000 to 400,000 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She has damaged discs in her spine and a titanium plate in her neck, the result, she says, suddenly twisting and craning her neck toward low-flying military aircraft (she called it being "dive bombed") while conducting vernal pool studies. But Bauder is one persistent scientist. When doctors told her she'd never walk again, she supervised her students' field work from a chair they hoisted. Originally a history teacher in Illinois, where she grew up, Bauder eventually discovered botany at a time when it was nearly impossible for a woman to get into a doctorate program.
She followed a long, bumpy road, balancing a long-distance family life with academia. Bauder is married to Union-Tribune business columnist Don Bauder and mother of two teenage sons. In 1987, at age 47, she earned a PhD in plant ecology with the guiding help of advisor Mike Barbour at UC Davis, an internationally known vegetation ecologist.
Since then, she says the conservation community is nearly unrecognizable.
Money has corrupted the conservation movement, Bauder charges, because its members often work for businesses contributing to the problem.
"There's no way her shoes will ever be filled," said David Hogan, one of Dr. Bauder's prodigies. "She is a beautiful mix of scientist and art conservationist." Bauder will finish her San Diego research projects remotely, from their new home in Colorado.
While some have called her "too organized" and "too ambitious," the 62-year-old has come a long way from Evanston, Ill. and left her imprint on the memory of many conservationists. She has fought what she considers the "destroy in advance, and worry about it later" attitude fostered by San Diego's Multiple Species Conservation Program, which basically "facilitates the permit to take endangered species."
Under the MSCP, 88 percent of San Diego's vernal pools are protected, said Keith Greer, MSCP program manager, who will use a federal grant to study what vernal pools are actually protected-which is actually an update of Ellen Bauder's 1986 version-and identify which projects cannot avoid disrupting vernal pools.
He is also working with two researchers to study the genetics of fairy shrimp, to help researchers decide which vernal pools are the highest priority to save and if they should salvage certain eggs to restore elsewhere, said one of the researchers, Marie Simovich, a University of San Diego biology professor.
Vernal pools can't be created where they previously didn't exist. But they can be restored.
The highest concentration of mostly intact vernal pools are at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station between the 805 freeway and Highway 67, east of Interstate 15. This also happens to be a possible new site for San Diego's airport and a potential 300-acre veteran's cemetery, where Bauder has been conducting long-term restoration.
"The preferred location of the cemetery represents an encyclopedia of San Diego's most endangered species and ecosystems," said David Hogan, who trained under Bauder's wing and now works as Urban Wildlands Program Coordinator for the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center of Biological Diversity, which has a San Diego office.
"A new airport at Miramar would absolutely spell extinction for vernal pools and endangered species," Hogan said. "There are many guns pointed at [the vernal pools'] heads right now."
Lawsuits abound in such environmental battles, including one against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over that agency's approval of the MSCP and failure to protect vernal pools. "Vernal pools are such an endangered ecosystem, they can't suffer any additional losses," said Hogan, who helped trigger the listing process of endangered species.
"I think right now the military is bold enough with the drums of war that it feels it can get away with anything," he added.
Out with the golf courses, is Bauder's suggestion. "Endangered species come ahead of golf," she said. "Is anyone arrogant enough to think we can restore natural lands to the point they were before human activity degraded them?"
From working on vernal pools, Bauder has learned that every year is different, and dependent on all that's come before. "You never get the exact same sequence of weather events. Every plant gets its year in the spotlight," she said.
The recent winter rains don't necessarily yield better vernal pools, because some species prefer the dry weather, she said.
Anyone who knows Bauder knows retirement doesn't equal extinction for the ambitious guardian, who now plans to publish her 20 years of data in popular and scientific journals, just like the ones she studied on the way to becoming one of the foremost vernal pools experts.