Fall 2011 Newsletter

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Director's Greeting

Claudia Luke, Director

The SSU Preserves quarterly newsletter has arrived! With this new digital format, we are excited about keeping in touch with the diverse and exceptional people learning, studying and volunteering at our Preserves. Our newsletter reflects our mission: to support academic excellence by creating training and research opportunities in place-based learning, community engagement, diversity, and sustainability. If someone you know would like to receive our newsletter, please forward them the Join Our Mailing List link (to the left or on our website).

Student Engagement: Coastal Prairie Restoration

Suzanne DeCoursey, Preserves Coordinator

The Sonoma State student interns look a little uncertain as they gather around the propane torch. None of them have used this ecological restoration tool before, and they watch intently as Kathleen Kraft of the Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center demonstrates how to turn on and light the gas. Blue flame erupts with a whoosh, and the interns laugh nervously at the dramatic display. Ms. Kraft instructs the students to guide the torch carefully around young native perennial bunchgrasses, sparing the natives but singeing the invasive annual grasses that hem them in. Unlike firefighters using a drip torch, the interns are not setting fires but burning individual plants; in essence heating the water in their cells and "boiling the plants alive," according to Dr. Claudia Luke, Director of the SSU Field Stations and Nature Preserves. The tool can't be used for this purpose during dry conditions; but on this wet, rainy March day, it accomplishes its task safely, easily and impressively. Many of the students confirm that operating it is "cool."

The interns are all taking advantage of a unique opportunity to learn about and participate in restoration of northern California coastal prairie. These grasslands are globally rare: they comprise a small percentage of grasslands worldwide, yet support more endemic plant species than many more well-known prairies such as those of the North American Great Plains. During their four-day training, the students discover the unique nature and threatened status of these ecosystems. They also learn how to tell the difference between perennial and annual grasses, and how to identify some common native and invasive grass and forb (non-woody herbaceous plant) species. They explore standard restoration strategies, such as prescribed burning and grazing, and gain practice using hand tools, weedwackers, and tarping and mulching techniques. After the interns complete their training, they will participate in grasslands restoration at six Sonoma County sites: Bodega Pastures, Bodega Marine Reserve (UC-Davis), the Fairfield Osborn Preserve (SSU), the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Ocean Song Farm and Wilderness Center, and properties administered by the Sonoma Land Trust. This will give them a chance to gain experience in a wide variety of grasslands management techniques, from shrub removal to sheep herding.

Because of its lands, facilities, and focus on research, education and management, the SSU Preserves are in a unique position to offer these types of opportunities to students. The interns will gain real-world, hands-on experience, and will interact with numerous agencies, landowners, educators and researchers. During their training, they will learn from local experts such as Wade Belew of Cotati Creek Critters, Kathleen Kraft of Ocean Song, ecology and education consultant Diana Immel, and SSU graduate students Andy Kleinhesselink and Josh Stithem. These experiences will give them a broader perspective on the environment outside the classroom, and serve them well when they graduate from SSU to bring their freshly-minted ideas and talents into the world.

Mammalian Herbivores as Drivers of Oak Performance & Survival

Hall Cushman, Department of Biology Faculty

Increasing numbers of tree species worldwide are experiencing reduced recruitment and vertebrate consumers are often implicated as drivers of these changes. The situation appears especially acute for oaks, which are often reported to exhibit reduced regeneration in California and many others regions of the world. Since 1996, I have been examining the influence of black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and various small mammals (primarily meadow voles Microtus californicus and deer mice Peromyscus maniculatus) on the performance and survival of three dominant oak species at SSU' s Fairfield Osborn Preserve − coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), black oak (Q. kelloggii) and white oak (Q. garryana).

In collaboration with my graduate student Laura Saunders, I have just completed two manuscripts on this work. The first paper summarizes findings from a 14−year− old exclosure experiment evaluating the impact of deer herbivory on the growth and survival of coast live oak. Our study explicitly focused on juvenile oaks − trees that had passed the seedling stage but were not yet saplings − because saplings rarely occurred at FOP and in the region more generally. The experiment revealed that deer herbivory dramatically reduced tree height, canopy area and survival. Collectively, results indicate that deer herbivory has had dramatically negative effects on juvenile coast live oaks, maintaining them in a stunted aboveground state and preventing them from reaching the sapling stage and becoming reproductive.

Our second project at FOP used an eight−year exclosure experiment to examine the influence of deer and small mammals on the performance of oak seedlings and juveniles as well as the forest community. These two herbivores by themselves each reduced oak height, woody species richness and the cover of non−oak woody species. We also detected deer x small mammal interactions for the abundance and percent cover of oaks, with deer having a negative effect on these variables when small mammals were present and a positive effect when small mammals were absent. We hypothesize that such interactive effects occurred because small mammals reduced the overall cover of woody understory species and indirectly increased the intensity of deer browsing on oaks by reducing protective woody cover.

Collectively, our findings indicate that deer and small mammals commonly have both individual and interactive effects on three dominant oak species, and that these adverse effects may be major factors responsible for the lack of oak recruitment at FOP and the surrounding region.

A Visit to The Fairfield Osborn Preserve

Lakin Khan, Writer and Docent

The long and winding road to the Fairfield Osborn Preserve seems a most appropriate approach to the 400-acre preserve spilling along the north-west slope of Sonoma Mountain. The fifteen minute drive starts flat, running through pastureland and fields, then quickly rises, past old farms and ranches, pastures on either side sprinkled with horses, cows and llamas. Each new curve on the climb reveals a different angle to the spectacular view of the valley floor spread out below, edged by rolling slopes and ridges and the round rumps of coastal hills. Quotidian and mundane tasks that narrow our vision fall away, deadlines fade as the wide vision, the big view dominates. The road winds through the last few miles of oak woodlands; we arrive at the gate of the Preserve already in a different frame of mind, prepped to breathe the oxygen-enriched air of a natural, not a manufactured, world.

Read More from Lakin