A Conversation with Ecologist and FRLT Member Ryan Burnett

Meadows are some of our favorite places as humans. Who doesn’t love a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers? We love them for their open and lush freshness. We love to play in them: hiking, fishing, boating, picnicking, listening to songbirds and watching wildlife.

Breathing in a meadow softens our day and feeds our spirits.

But it turns out, Sierra meadows are not only beautiful, they are also very useful to us as a species. And absolutely essential to a broad diversity of other species. 

Meadow and Wetland on FRLT's Olsen Barn property

[PHOTO: Meadow and wetland with native vegetation on FRLT's recently conserved Olsen property. By Ryan Burnett]

To learn more about the importance of Sierra Meadows, we consulted wildlife biologist and ecologist, Ryan Burnett. Ryan is the Sierra Nevada Group Director for Point Blue Conservation Science. A resident of Chester, Ryan was an important team member in FRLT's effort (and success!) to save the Olsen Barn and Meadow. He is a FRLT member, and serves on our Land Conservation Committee.

Here are a few things we learned from Ryan about why it's so very important to conserve Sierra Meadows.

A Rare and Important Resource

Sierra wet meadows are a tiny fraction of the entire Sierra Nevada—perhaps only 200,000 acres, or 1 percent—yet they are disproportionately important in terms of biodiversity and the ecosystem services they provide.

An "Estuary" for Birds

Ecologist Ryan Burnett with a Swainson's Thrush
Humans know there's something very romantic about a meadow. Turns out birds do too. Sierra meadows provide a safe harbor a very high diversity and abundance of breeding birds. In fact, the majority of Sierra Nevada songbird species--and there are many!--utilize meadows during some portion of the year, either for breeding, a migration stop, fattening up for migration, or moulting.

[At Left: Ryan GPS tags a rare Swainson's Thrush for a meadow study.]

After breeding, Sierra Meadows provide a kind of safe “estuary” for young birds to mature after they leave the nest.

Young birds develop plumage quickly to enable them to fly from the nest. But once they leave the nest in July and August, they need to replace every single one of their body feathers before they migrate. And the adults must replace every feather upon their body, including their flight feathers, before they are ready to migrate (think of this as changing your oil, checking your tires, etc, before leaving on a really big trip!). This change, called moulting, makes it more difficult to fly and takes a lot of energy; meadows provide a safe haven to live and feed during summer moulting season. They are wet, their willows provide a large source of bugs for feeding, and they are dense, which provides protection and ease for hopping around and feeding.

Many state-listed endangered and threatened bird species depend on Sierra meadows, including Greater Sandhill Cranes, Willow Flycatchers, Great Gray Owls, and Yellow Warblers.

Water, Power, and Climate Change

In addition to beauty and wildlife habitat, Sierra Meadows provide a lot of really important non-biological services that benefit us humans. 

Meadows play a very important role in storing water and preventing floods.

Meadows allow the landscape to store more water later into the summer and keep it cooler, which is healthier. During heavy precipitation, a meadow slows the movement of water so that it doesn’t all end up in waterways immediately, reducing the chance of floods, and allowing water managers the opportunity to respond wisely.

Healthy Sierra meadows are sinks for sediment--meaning they capture sediment. Degraded meadows, on the other hand, are a major source of unhealthy sediment for waterways, which affects water quality, fish habitat, and operability of dams and hydroelectric facilities.

Finally, Sierra meadows play an important role in storing carbon, which is crucial for mitigating climate change. Healthy meadows store tons more carbon than degraded meadows that have dried up.

Sierra Meadows in Peril

Ryan Burnett surveys Humbug Valley
Meadows are one of our least protected landscapes in the Sierra Nevada. When the federal government began creating National Forests in the Sierra Nevada they largely focused on the forests and ignored the meadows. Also, many of the meadows were already homesteaded by dairy farmers like the Olsens and others, so a significant percentage of Sierra Meadows are privately owned.

Sierra Meadows are a laser focus for conservation and restoration because:

(1) Meadows are critically important for the ecological services they provide from supporting biodiversity to improving water quality.

(2) Meadows are rare and limited on the landscape.

(3) Many meadows are in rough shape, and climate change is an emerging threat. 150 years of intensive use, including unregulated grazing until the 1930’s, as well as being the site of roads and railroad grades, culverts and development, have left many meadows degraded.

That is why at the Feather River Land Trust, we focus our work on conserving and restoring meadows and wetlands that are so ecologically and culturally important.

The Feather River Country, with the meadows and wetlands it supports, supplies water to more than 20 million Californians. From flood prevention to water quality and quantity to climate change, meadows are essential to our future. 

With your help, the Feather River Land Trust has been conserving Sierra meadows for over fifteen years. Over the next three years, we plan to conserve 75 acres per day. But we can't do it without you.

Invest in our shared future.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015