6,500 acres near UC Merced to be protected

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 22, 2014 

About 6,500 acres of grassland, hills and vernal pools that touch the north and east side of UC Merced are officially a nature reserve, after a University of California Board of Regents vote Wednesday.

The board voted to fold the 6,561-acre Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve into the statewide system, which is made up of 38 other reserves spanning more than 750,000 acres.

The UC Merced land, which is already used for research by students, is unique within the UC system for its vernal pools. Co-director Christopher Swarth compared being recognized by the UC system to a baseball player being called up from a farm league. “You’re part of the team, and so all kinds of fantastic things happen,” Swarth said.

The reserve will receive full funding based on a combination of funds from the campus and an endowment from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, according to records. UC Merced staff uses the interest from a $2 million endowment from the Hewlett Foundation to maintain the reserve and fund research, Swarth said.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, more than 90 percent of California’s original vernal pool habitat has been lost. The vernal pools and grasslands near Merced are home to plants such as the succulent owl’s clover and Hoover’s spurge, as well as animals such as the fairy shrimp and tiger salamander.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands, where a layer of dense hardpan soil allows the water to pool without seeping into the ground. Animals such as fairy shrimp and tiger salamanders thrive in the seasonal waters because they are free of fish, Swarth said.

During the dry season, the shrimp eggs lie in the dry ground until they are stimulated by water. The salamanders use ground-squirrel burrows as homes until the rain comes. “We have an opportunity to expose people, to educate people about rare and unusual animals that have interesting life cycles,” Swarth said.

Year-round, the reserve is also home to a number of songbirds, coyotes, birds of prey and many other animals. Reserve staff has recently found signs of an American badger, which would be uncommon in the area.

The reserve could also benefit from a greater visibility as part of the statewide system, faculty said. Professors or students from other UC campuses may see the reserve as a place to study grasslands, soils, vernal pools or endangered species. “To have the vernal pools set aside to learn how to maintain them, that’s incredible,” said Martha Conklin, faculty director of the reserve. “It’s an ancient landscape. The soils here are over 1 million years old.”

Conklin said she would like to work lessons on the reserve’s features into kindergarten through 12th-grade classes in Merced and across the region. Classes to train teachers about ecosystems, hydrology and endangered species, among other lessons, are already planned for March and April.

Staff has plans for maintaining the land while allowing it to be open to visitors. Cattle continue to graze the land, Conklin said, which is considered a good practice for maintaining vernal pools. She also said the staff has a goal to add an “interpretive center” for visitors, which would allow people to see the habitat without trampling it.

Some professors have plans for research.

Steve Hart, an ecology professor, says he plans to study how soils affect the development of grasslands and vernal pools on the reserve, among other studies. Jessica Blois, an assistant professor, plans to have field trips for her freshmen and sophomores who will study the ecosystems of the animals on the reserve.

Faculty and staff say they hope to give students an opportunity to study a unique system adjacent to the campus. One former student said he’s been in those shoes.

The land may look barren to the untrained eye, said David Araiza, 28, who graduated last year with a degree in biology from UC Merced, but it’s teeming with life. Araiza, originally from Stockton, said he spent some time on the reserve collecting grass samples as part of a study on cow-grazing.

Finding a vibrant animal community in what amounts to UC Merced’s backyard was eye-opening, he said.

“As much as I liked the outdoors, I don’t think I had as much an appreciation for some of the sights in the Valley,” he said. “There’s a lot of understated beauty that I don’t think even pictures really do it justice.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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