Surveying for Survivors

By Veronica Davison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Researchers study Santa Rosa, California’s Ledson Marsh to document changes to the ecosystem after the 2017 Nun Fire. ©Veronica Davison

Santa Rosa, California is well known for vineyards, arts and culture. But the locals know that one of the many benefits the city has to offer is outdoor recreation. Trione-Annadel State Park is among the area’s most popular parks, with 5,500 acres of rolling hills, streams, meadows and woodlands. The Ledson Marsh area of the park started out as a reservoir to water eucalyptus trees, but it is now home to cattails, tules, native grasses, and a variety of critters, including salamanders, snakes, lizards, rabbits, turtles, scorpions, and frogs. The marsh’s most prized species is the threatened California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii).

In October 2017, the Nuns wildfire ripped through Ledson Marsh leaving charred vegetation and wildlife behind. While prescribed burns are an important land management tool that can benefit an ecosystem and provide a measure of safety for surrounding communities and firefighters, severe wildfires can damage soil, watersheds and water quality — affecting people and wildlife. Prescribed burns are controlled, researched and planned. They are slow-moving ground fires that allow area wildlife time to relocate. Although there could be loss of individuals, it does not negatively impact wildlife populations. Wildfires, on the other hand, are often so fast moving that wildlife is overwhelmed by the fire’s intensity and speed.

A Sierran tree frog (Pseudacris sierra) appears in Ledson Marsh in the wake of the Nun Fire. ©Veronica Davison

The Nuns Fire hit during the driest part of the year. Not only did the upland area surrounding the marsh burn, the marsh itself burned. According to Sonoma County Water Agency Senior Environmental Specialist Dave Cook, the “marsh had no standing water when the fire burnt Southern Annadel State Park. Nearly all of Ledson Marsh’s watershed burned, including the marsh.”

With a specialization in wildlife, Cook has studied Ledson Marsh for over 20 years. His data and observations help track how the marsh has changed over time. “It’s rare to have the volume of pre-fire data about this unique habitat Dave has collected over the years,” said Jennifer Norris, field supervisor of the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office.

Nearly six months after the wildfire ripped through the Ledson Marsh, several of Norris’s staff joined a team of volunteers who work with Cook to collect water samples, count amphibian egg masses and document other observations at the marsh. “These data, coupled with Dave’s research, will help us better understand the short- and long-term impacts wildland fires have on wildlife and their habitats,” Norris said.

See this story as a story map at the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office website.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is a Strategic Partner of The Wildlife Society.


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