El Monte Project

Coastal Cactus Wren


The coastal cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) occurs in cactus scrub habitat, where cactus thickets grow at least 3 feet tall from Ventura County south to San Diego County. Since the 1990s, the coastal cactus wren has declined throughout its range due to habitat loss from urbanization, habitat degradation, and wild fires (Lynn and Kus 2021), and in 2008, it was designated a California Species of Special Concern by the Department of Fish and Wildlife (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  The already patchy distribution of its habitat combined with the more recent habitat losses has resulted in cactus wren populations that are diminished in size and distribution, and occur largely as islands in a matrix of generally unsuitable habitat (Lynn and Kus 2021).


Photo credit: Jerel Reeves. 2023.

What is Earth Discovery Institute doing?

In November 2021, the Earth Discovery Institute was awarded grant funding from the Wildlife Conservation Board to complete 15 acres of cactus scrub restoration on the El Monte Preserve in Lakeside, California. The Wildlife Conservation Board is a division of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and its the three main functions are land acquisition, habitat restoration, and development of wildlife oriented public access facilities.

What can you do?

This project would not be successful without volunteers.
In 2022, over 160 volunteers contributed more than 900 hours clearing planting sites of weeds and old irrigation pipes, planting 2,000 cactus pads and 670 coastal sage scrub plants, and watering the 15-acre restoration site. Now, over 2,000 native plants have been planted!
Starting February 2023 through spring, we will be hosting monthly volunteer events at El Monte.
Please sign up to be a volunteer and/or check our events page to RSVP and take part in this restoration project!
Cactus scrub is a form of coastal sage scrub, the second most abundant plant community in San Diego County. The term scrub applies to waist-high shrubs growing on flats or slopes (typically south facing) that receive much sun and little rain. Common scrub plants
include sagebrush (Artemisia californica), buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), true sages such as black sage (Salvia mellifera), and San Diego sunflower (Encelia californica). Combine these plants with large thickets of prickly pear (Opuntia ssp.) and/or cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.) cacti, and the result is cactus scrub. In San Diego County, cactus scrub has always been patchy in distribution, with the largest remaining concentrations occurring in the Otay River Valley, in the vicinity of Lake Jennings, and in the San Pasqual Valley.

Before: El Monte site cleared and ready for planting.


After: January 2023, months after cactus pads have been planted!

What is the El Monte Preserve?

The El Monte Preserve was purchased in 2016 by the Endangered Habitats Conservancy, a local nonprofit land trust, whose mission is to acquire, manage, monitor, and maintain land in Southern California for habitat protection and restoration, agricultural preservation, and other conservation purposes. Incorporated in 2005, EHC currently manages approximately 10,000 acres of conserved open space lands. These 10,000 acres, which includes the El Monte Preserve, are part of the overall 98,000-acre Preserve being assembled through implementation of the Multiple Species Conservation Program. Recon Environmental Inc. is a local biological consulting firm founded in 1972 that specializes in habitat restoration throughout San Diego County. Recon is the subcontractor for the project and is responsible for site preparation, cactus salvage, and general restoration expertise.


What is the Multiple Species Conservation Program?

The MSCP is a regional habitat conservation planning effort designed to protect suites of plant and animal species through a
system of preserves in San Diego County. The MSCP's goal is for local governments to acquire and protect large blocks of land that provide connectivity and critical habitat for rare and endangered native plant and animal species. This innovative approach to
conservation, whereby suites of species are protected instead of a single species, supports fully functional and intact ecosystems that will be more resilient to climate change and major disturbances, such as fire.

The MSCP is implemented through local government subarea plans such as the County of San Diego Subarea Plan, adopted in 1997. The County Subarea Plan will protect over 98,000 acres of habitat, when fully implemented.  As of 2020, almost 80,000 (81%) acres, which include the El Monte Preserve, had been conserved. Click here to read more about the County’s plan.

This page will be updated as the project progresses. Last update: February 13, 2023.


Barr, K.R., Kus, B.E., Preston, K.L., Howell, S., Perkins, E., and Vandergast, A.G., 2015, Habitat fragmentation in coastal southern California disrupts genetic connectivity in the Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus): Molecular Ecology, v. 24, no. 10, p. 2349–2363,

Kus, B.E. 2021. Cactus Wren Update: A Presentation to the San Diego Management and Monitoring Program. Given July 28, 2021.


Lynn, S., and Kus, B.E., 2021, Distribution and demography of coastal cactus wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) in southern San Diego County, California—2020 data summary: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 1138, 12 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ds1138.

Shuford, W. D., and Gardali, T., editors. 2008. California Bird Species of Special Concern: A ranked assessment of species, subspecies, and distinct populations of birds of immediate conservation concern in California. Studies of Western Birds 1. Western Field Ornithologists, Camarillo, California, and California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento.

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