Copeland Creek Understory Restoration

By Jana Johnston and Jessi Laughlin

We were tasked with collecting base line data for the under story vegetation of Copeland Creek. To do this, we measured whole plot species richness as well as absolute and relative cover of herbaceous species by using a point intercept method and percent cover of shrub species using a line intercept method . 

Our two objectives were 1) to increase ground cover of native species to 25% or greater by 2020 and 2) to ensure a 1 meter radius around native plants with 0% Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) cover.

First, we located and mark all seven transect lines. The transect lines were established by previous classes so we were provided with GPS coordinates to locate these points. Once we found the point we marked each one by hammering a piece of PVC pipe into the ground and spray painting a bright pink arrow pointing to the location. Once we found all seven transects we moved on to data collection.


Megan Gaitan marking our first transect of the day. Photo © Jessi Laughlin

We used a point intercept method to measure herbaceous species. To do this we extended a measuring tape from the PVC pipe to the top of the creek bank facing north. Next we walked along the transect line with a flag dropping it at every half meter. At each point we recorded every species (or bare ground) the flag touched, as well as within a 5 cm radius of the flag. For any unknown species we encountered, we documented them on our “unknown species master list” and took a small sample to take back to the lab for identification.

We also collected whole plot species richness of herbaceous species. To do this we flipped a coin, student ID, car key or any other flippable item we had, to determine whether we would measure the east or west side of the transect. Once we decided this, we walked along the transect with a meter stick recording all species present within this area.


Transect line crossing an unknown species. Photo © Jessi Laughlin

To measure percentage of shrub cover we used a line intercept method. Using the same seven transects, we took the measurement (meter) of any shrub foliage overlapping our transect. From these measurements we were able to calculate percent cover of each species for each transect. We also measured the shrub height at every 2m along the transect.

 During this process we encountered several stabbing, stinging and poisonous plant species and acquired a few injuries along the way. We discovered, as we were expecting, that many sections of the creek have been over taken by invasive species particularly Himalayan blackberry. Himalayan blackberry is a huge problem because it can grow extremely fast and large, choking and shading out other plant species. For more information check out the problem species blog post. However we also found that many native plant species are thriving including snowberry, California grape and California rose.

Based off of our data it’s clear that in order to promote a healthier creek habitat the Sonoma State community and future Restoration Ecology classes need to focus on removing Himalayan blackberry especially around the native plants we are hoping to keep alive. Removing the Himalayan blackberry will allow for planting of more native species that will have a better chance of succeeding along the riparian corridor.

One of the most interesting parts of this process was seeing the dramatic shift in vegetation from the overgrown black patches to the bare redwood grove up stream.

Throughout this process we created a step by step lab guide for future students to use to collect the same data we did. As the creek restoration project continues, students will be able to document the progress of the understory vegetation and will hopefully see a shift from an invasive dominated habitat to a more healthy, fully-functioning native understory system. 


Studying Tule Elk at Point Reyes

By Jana Johnston and Brian Mcissac

Long Windy Drive to Tomales Bay


Driving to Tomales Point in Point Reyes, CA. Photo by J. Johnston


Map of Point Reyes National Seashore. Our class went to the Tule Elk Reserve at top left corner.

The weather could not have been better as we climbed into the vans and headed to Point Reyes, CA. Today’s field trip was a combination of Hall Cushman’s Ecology class and Caroline Christian and Wendy St. John’s Restoration  Ecology so we had quite the crowd. The real stars of the group were graduate students Eric and Caprice who are currently conducting research in this area and set up a little experiment for us to participate in. Today’s goal was to learn about the current research experiments being conducted at Tomales Point and to get some hands on experience gathering data.

History Lesson by Hall Cushman

Although he always has something interesting to say, Prof. Cushman had to compete for attention with the stunning view, herd of elk and breaching whales and dolphins in the distance. He along with Eric and Caprice gave us the low down of the 18 year


Professor Cushman pointing out enclosures. Photo by  J. Johnston.

(and counting) enclosure experiment taking place before our eyes. The native tule elk (cervus canadensis nannodes) was near extinction in the late 1800’s due to lack of habitat because of the booming ranching business. However, the species was reintroduced into this area in 1978 and the research experiment began 20 years later in 1998.

Research currently being conducted by Prof. Cushman and a team of graduate students is looking at the recovery of the landscape after decades of cattle grazing and the effect of the re-introduced tule elk population. This area has a long history and a continuing competition with cattle ranches which has had a huge effect on the landscape as you can see in the picture below.  Notice the extreme


Elk grazed (back half) vs cattle grazed (front half) landscape. Photo by J.Johnston.

difference between the elk and cattle habitats! You can see the change from a dry brown grassland to a green shrub dominated landscape as you drive through the fence.

Data Collection


Students measuring transects. Photo by J. Johnston.

After eating lunch on the sides of the cliff overlooking the ocean and the endless rocky shoreline to the north, we got down to business.  Split into
several groups, some of us were sent into the coyote brush (bacharris pilularis) and lupine (lupinus arboreous) dominated upland habitat while others stayed in the grassier lowland nearer to the cliffs.  We created a number of 60 x 15 ft. transect lines chosen randomly so as not to introduce bias into the data.  We then measured the total ground cover created by the lupinus and bacharris as well as the amount of elk droppings that could be found within our study plots.  Our data was then compiled and made into the chart that you can see Eric holding in the picture below.


Lab assistant Eric C. holding rough graph of field data. Photo by J. Johnston.


You can see, as Hall and company had expected, that the general trend in the area is that the more cover you find in a given area, the more elk scat there will be, indicating that the elk prefer to congregate in areas with cover.

And now we ask ourselves, how is this data useful to us?  What can we determine of the elk and their relationship with their environment?  Is this how it’s always been?  It is important to consider that Tomales Point is not a pristine ecosystem, it is a novel ecosystem that has been greatly affected by the exclusion of its native ungulate populations of tule elk and, most likely, the pronghorn (antilocapra Americana) as well as the eradication of coyotes (canis latrans), wolves (canis lupus) and the California grizzly bear (ursus arctos californicus), an extinct subspecies, and the Coast Miwok people who formerly managed this land.  Although the coyotes have recolonized from populations that spread from more northerly territories and predate the elk calves, the wolf was the main predator that kept the tule elk in check.  Populations were forced to move much more frequently and therefore the necessary disturbances they provide to plant communities was spread out over a different range of distance and time.  I think it is important for us to consider the relationships between all of these factors, from predator-prey interactions to controlled fire regimes, in order to better guide our understanding and decision making in regards to the healthy restoration and maintenance of such a complex environment.

Getting Home

I will end with this: If you ever ride in a van with Wendy, ask her to sing.  Seriously.  Grease, Disney, whatever you want, man. Elk bugling is nice, but they’ve got nothing on Wendy.