Bittner says it was the birds of prey, or raptors, that drew him to the Ramona grasslands. Two pairs of golden eagles -- which need wide, open grassland to hunt in -- live here year round, along with red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, kestrels, merlins (small falcon species), as well as barn and great horned owls. "The golden eagle," Bittner says, "is declining in this part of the country pretty severely. Having those two pairs here is pretty unique, and we can preserve those pairs if we can preserve this grassland."
Species of migrating raptors, which can be seen in the Ramona grasslands in winter, include bald eagles, burrowing owls, peregrine falcons, and prairie falcons. "Starting in December, through February, on a typical day, you could see 13 or so species of raptor," Bittner says.
"Feruginous hawks," he adds, "are the neat hawks we have out here. We get more of these here than anywhere else in Southern California. This is the kind of territory they like -- open grassland with little hills to sit on. Most of them are from Northern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and parts of Montana."
Bittner adds, "Feruginous hawks are a species that is declining throughout the western United States, and one of the reasons is they need wintering range, and that's one of the things that they're losing. We have that here. On a winter day here, you can see 12 of them flying around."
The $2.6 million used to purchase the land from the Cagney Ranch was a mixture of private and public money. The state supplied about $1.4 million, and the federal government granted the Nature Conservancy $660,000 for the purchase. The balance was made up of privately raised money.
According to Morrison, the Nature Conservancy plans to turn the land over to the county to be a nature preserve with "passive recreation use: hiking, bird-watching, but not overnight camping, not hunting, not vehicles."
As part of the deal, the county will reimburse the conservancy the million dollars that private funds spent on the land. That million should be covered by a recent grant of $1.5 million from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to the county for the purpose of restoring Santa Maria Creek, which runs through the Cagney property on its way to Lake Hodges.
Though the Cagney Ranch is only 10 percent of what Morrison calls the "core grassland," he believes the purchase is a major step toward preserving the whole habitat. "Usually in these kinds of deals, the conservation accomplishment is the hardest because people are wary. They are not sure that it is really going to happen. But we are hopeful that the Cagney acquisition will be the first domino of meaningful conservation in the Ramona grasslands."
The rest of the grassland is broken into plots as large as 1100 and 1600 acres possessed by only four or five longtime owners. That fact is a source of optimism to those who would see the habitat preserved. "If it were divided up into little tiny parcels," Bittner says, "there would be no way that you could afford it. Large parcels like this will sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of $6000 to $8000 per acre. Whereas, if you were to buy it all divided up into little lots, you would pay $50,000 for a lot. And it would be such a patchwork."
Bittner has met all the other grassland owners and says of them, "It becomes a battle between their emotions wanting to preserve it and the dollar figure. Most of them are willing to concede the dollars a little bit if they know it's going to be preserved. But we haven't yet had one walk up and say they'd like to donate the whole parcel. That would be nice, but the fact is, all these land stewards have had their land, with just a couple of exceptions, for many generations in their families. So they have a feeling for it. And they have an interest in seeing it maintained."