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The Conservancy's Donna Leon is a rising star.

Donna is one with nature

Open space, nature and animals have always been a passion for Donna Leon.

Donna was raised in Fallbrook and before she found her way to The Escondido Creek Conservancy, she knew animals and nature would be her future. She recalled growing up on a large property with her home on the middle of hill and a small creek below and was surrounded by the native chaparral, along with deer, mountain lions and coyotes.

Donna said she always found the animals fascinating and how they navigated the terrain. However, her grandparents instilled in her a passion as an advocate for land, which put Donna on her path as a land management assistant with the Conservancy.

“I always wanted to work with animals or nature,” she explained. “Any sort of living non-human thing.”

After high school, Donna worked several jobs including as a ranger for a non-profit and the San Diego Humane Society as an adoption counselor to match dogs with families. But there was a burning desire for more, so Donna returned to the classroom and earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Cal State University San Marcos in 2019.

After graduating, she was hired by the Conservancy as an administrative assistant to work alongside Rita Petrekova, director of finance and operations. And for nearly two years, the dynamic duo worked to secure the Conservancy’s Land Trust Alliance accreditation.

The two put in more than 2,000 hours, bonded over Thanksgiving and put a tremendous amount of work into securing the prestigious certification.

After seeing Donna’s talent in action helping the Conservancy secure accreditation, she was promoted  to a full-time position in her natural habitat, the open lands of the Conservancy, where she spends time monitoring the land and animals. Out on the preserves is her sanctuary where she can dive deep into learning more about the plants and animals. In fact, Donna can’t get enough. She loves to learn.

But she also takes her duties seriously, saying her biggest responsibility is create and maintain wildlife corridors, especially for mountain lions so it is easier for them to reproduce and keep a healthy population.

Her day-to-day responsibilities includes monitoring the preserves to identify species, “chasing butterflies,” locate birds, document plants in bloom and seeking out non-native species and creating action plans for their removal.

“I love my job. I tell people I get paid to hike, chase butterflies and identify birds,” Donna said laughing. “I love it. It’s peaceful.”

The non-native issues center on mustard plants, Donna said. The non-native weed spreads like crazy, overtakes the habitat and creates a toxic chemical from the roots that kill native plants.

As for non-native animals the red-eared slider turtle, a common pet, is an issue as people released them into the Escondido Creek, so education from the Conservancy to the public is key. The turtles take up habitat and nesting sites from the native Western Pond Turtle, Donna said. Also, the red-eared slider is aggressive and eats frogs, thus compounding the impact on the ecosystem.

But when Donna’s not taking on pesky turtles, she’s on the land learning.

“I’m excited every time I go out to learn new plant and animal species,” she explained. “I increase my count. If I know 100 birds, I want to know 200. I want to know all the birds or species in the area.”

And when it’s time to relax and take a beat, Donna is back in nature. She loves to hike, and her personal goal is to visit every national park in the country. So far, she’s been to 16 of the 63 with Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada as her current favorite, although the one she wants to visit most is Yellowstone.

Just be careful Donna, you may run into a smarter than average bear!