The rewards of long-term habitat monitoring.

By 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.

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 are overwhelmed by the fire’s intensity and speed.

The charred remains of a salamander.

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.

By Spring 2018, Ledson Marsh was filled with water again, but was far from normal. The charred remains of wildlife, plants, and signage were a reminder of the devastating fire that ripped through the area.

Signage posted to inform visitors about the marsh was completely unrecognizable due to the intensity of the wildfire.

According to Sonoma County Water Agency’s 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, he has studied Ledson Marsh for over 20 years. Cook’s data and observations help track how the marsh has changed over time.

Biologists survey Ledson Marsh for signs of life after the Nuns fire.

“It’s rare to have the volume of pre-fire data about this unique habitat Dave has collected over the years,” said Jennifer Norris, Ph.D., field supervisor of the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office. Nearly six months after the wildfire ripped through the Ledson Marsh, several of Dr. Norris’ 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.”

Leif Goude and John Cleckler from the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office search for aquatic survivors in Ledson Marsh after the 2017 Nuns fire.
“When I found the newt egg masses attached to the reed, I realized that this species had somehow been able to survive despite the fire. That, and the new vegetation growth, gave me hope that the ecosystem would rebound and perhaps our target species, the California red-legged frog, had also weathered the event.” — John Cleckler, fish and wildlife biologist, USFWS.
California newt egg masses were signs of life returning to the marsh after the fire.
To participate in the survey, biologists like Sarah Markegard take special precautions to avoid contaminating the marsh by dipping their boots and waders into a disinfectant solution.
“It was and is a great relief to see how resilient the area is. While there was certainly a loss, the native populations survived and can continue to be enjoyed by the public.” — Leif Goude, fish and wildlife biologist, USFWS. Leif holds a western toad found in Ledson Marsh six months after the 2017 Nuns fire in California.
A California forest scorpion hides in the burnt soil after a forest fire.
A Western fence lizard at Ledson Marsh after the 2017 Nuns fire.
A propertius duskywing butterfly visits Ledson Marsh six months after the 2017 Nuns fire.
An alert black-tailed jackrabbit watches biologists survey Ledson Marsh.
A bright green Pacific treefrog sits on charred soil at Ledson Marsh.
“I wanted to go on the site visit because I didn't feel I could fully understand the effects of the Nuns Wildfire without experiencing it in person. I was right.” — Sarah Markegard, fish and wildlife biologist, USFWS. Sarah holds a tiny California slender salamander she found at Ledson Marsh six months after the 2017 Nuns fire.
Two survivors, a California newt and a yellow-eyed salamander discovered at Ledson Marsh six months after the 2017 Nuns fire.

Story Tags

Ecosystem recovery
Employees (USFWS)
Endangered and/or Threatened species
Work of the Service