Amorous Newts and Grass Impersonations: A Cold Adventure on Sonoma Mountain

By Kathleen Grady

It was a cold and blustery afternoon on Sonoma Mountain two days before Thanksgiving. Most of the Restoration Ecology Class had already headed home for the holiday, but a few hardy souls interested in grassland restoration, California Red-legged Frogs, or the potential for extra credit points decided to band together on an unofficial, not-at-all-a-field trip type outing. We ventured to an area normally not accessible to the public—the Mitsui Ranch. This easement is managed by the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, a non-profit with the goal of making cattle ranching in California both ecologically sound and profitable.

Thanks to fellow Sonoma State student Keith Wellstone who is conducting research there, we were able to visit Sonoma Mountain Ranch and learn about the restoration techniques used at the ranch and the interesting organisms that call this beautiful place home.


View of the property at about 2,000 feet of elevation, photo courtesy of K. Grady

Grassland Restoration

First, we met Jeff Wilcox, the managing ecologist for the Foundation. He gave us some background about the history of Mitsui Ranch, and about California ranchland in general.

Mitsui Ranch is roughly 632 acres in size. Like much of California’s grasslands, it was overgrazed for many years and kept under fire suppression, which allowed non-native annual grasses to takeover as the dominant pasture plants. Although some are decent forage for cattle, many actually provide less nutrition for the cows, or, are downright inedible. The Foundation acknowledges that many of these non-natives will persist, but they are also trying to restore the California native perennial bunch grasses, both for ecological reasons, and for ecosystem services: the native grasses are often better for and preferentially eaten by cattle. The Sonoma Mountain Preservation Foundation proposes combining best grazing practices and management with restoration to enhance both sides of the equation.

Chief among the inedible is medusahead, Elmus caput-medusae, a grass with silica in its cell walls that produces a thick thatch layer that crowds out any other species. Fortunately, medusahead has almost no seed bank and with regular prescribed burning, it can be nearly eliminated from the system.


Medsahead monoculture, photo courtesy of Meridian Jacobs Weblog

Jeff took us out to a 10 acre plot that had been burned in 2014 and reseeded with a mixture of native grasses that were historically present or present in nearby systems, and are also known to be good cattle forage. Apparently with the drought last year, there wasn’t a ton of growth, but Jeff remains hopeful for this year. The plot is also further divided into transects for additional scientific research, and it includes a few small exclosure plots that will show plant growth in the absence of grazing.


Small fescue (Festucha microstachys) a native annual good for forage, photos courtesy of Robert E. Preston

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Jeff doing his Festucha impersonation, photo courtesy of C. Christian

Amphibians and Stock Ponds: A Benefit of Cattle Ranching

After visiting the grassland, we went to check out some of Keith’s study areas. He is doing spotlight surveys for threatened California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) at the Ranch. Following the mating season, he will also be surveying for egg masses. These frogs persist at Sonoma Mountain Ranch because of the cattle. Cows need water, and so active ranches maintain stock ponds for them. These muddy bodies of water provide choice habitat for Red-legged frogs.

Keith and Jeff both grabbed chest waders and nets and hopped into a cold stock pond to catch amphibians for us. Although we didn’t find any Rana draytonii, we did encounter another of nature’s wonders: Mating California Newts (Taricha torosa).

Photos courtesy of W. St.John, C. Christian, and K. Grady

Male newts’ skin gets slippery and their tail fins and forearms enlarge to swim after females more quickly and then grab on for mating. Several pairs were floating around in the pond. It was great to see them up close!

Photos courtesy of W. St. John and K. Grady

Working Lands Work

Overall it was a great, if chilly, visit to a local example of conservation in action. Working lands can be great resources for wildlife and people, helping us to maintain some of California’s wild places as well as providing us with ecosystem services, directly in the form of meat and dairy, and more indirectly, with carbon sequestration and open spaces. It was definitely a trip to be thankful for.


Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) by K. Grady