Meet Jim Coleman

We would like to introduce you to Jim Coleman. Aside from Jim serving as a member on our Board at Sonoma Mountain Institute he is also known as the well educated man behind a camera to us. Jim has an incredible eye and a knack for catching the most amazing footage when set out to work. It isn’t uncommon to see Jim out at our ranch once a week decked out in full camouflage with a camera in hand. Jim has an extensive bio that makes him highly qualified to be the best man for the job of tracking all living species found on our property.

In 2005, Jim earned a MS in Biology studying grassland restoration at Sonoma State University and since that time has been primarily focused on that work within the Occidental Arts and Ecology’s (OAEC) ecological preserve. In addition to Jim’s endeavors at OAEC, he has worked as a field ecologist for the California Native Plant Society in their efforts to help generate a vegetation and habitat map for Sonoma County. Jim works with private land owners such as Sonoma Mountain Institute in addition to various other land managers in establishing botanical and photo monitoring protocols that help aid in the successful conservation and restoration of healthy ecosystems. He has served as field ecologist on several restoration studies and mapping efforts of the endangered California Coastal Prairie. In addition to his work in terrestrial systems, Jim has also been active in the recovery of endangered Coho Salmon by helping to restore in-stream habitat. As an interpretive naturalist, Jim also enjoys his many opportunities to teach and lead people in their own nature awareness explorations.

We at S.M.I. have collaborated with Jim to create a website called, Sonoma Mountain Ecology Notes found at:

Aside from getting to see the amazing photography of so many species living on the Petaluma Ranch you can also subscribe to receive daily emails on the website to learn a little something extra about Jim’s particular featured species if you’re interested.

Sonoma Mountain Institute’s 2020 Annual Board Meeting

Due to Covid, our Sonoma Mountain Institute Board decided to play things extra safe this year and met for our 2020 Annual Board Meeting via conference call on December 21, 2020. Our Board consists of Brock Dolman as President, Mark Sindt as Treasurer, Kate Sindt as the Secretary, Jim Nelson as a board member, and Jim Coleman as a board member were all present. It was decided that everyone remain in their current roles within the board. Mark Sindt highlighted the projects and accomplishments from this last year of which were the following:  we will be starting a new blog that will include Jim Coleman’s photography, infrastructure is getting well established and it makes the flow so natural to keep cattle in place, and the new cattle guards are really nice and affordable so it’s an easy decision to make more of them.  He mentioned that we have a few new properties we look forward to managing in 2021. Mark said Matt Weger is back helping us with a new propagation project and that will lead to a new mapping project as well.  In regards to our Scientific Data monitoring, it’s exciting that we are still seeing an increase in new species each year.  To wrap the meeting up Mark went over the finances which included how the 2020 finances ended up in 2020 and the proposed budget for 2021. The board passed the proposed budget for 2021 and the meeting was adjourned.

Propagation is Back at S.M.I.!

This year the grow house was given a thorough makeover. The old tables were removed and new gravel was applied to the floor. 14 metal tables with 256 square feet total surface area were constructed for the plug flats. This is enough area for 144 flats. These flats have 144 cells/ flat totaling 20,736 cells or plants. 

Seed was acquired from Larner, Hedgerow Farms, and LeBallister’s. Purple Needle grass (Stipa pulchra) was collected from the Petaluma ranch. Seed purchased from Hedgerow Farms was provided with germination data. Germination tests were performed on all other seeds. This information was essential in determining proper sowing rates for each species.  We started sowing around September 15th and mature plants will start to be planted around Thanksgiving week.  This year we propagated and will plant the follow number of plugs: 3,600 purple needle grass, 1296 nodding needle grass, 1296 Meadow Barley, 1584 California Melic, 1584 Blue Wild Rye, 1296 Alkali Bluegrass, 3600 California Barley, 2106 California Oat Grass, and 3312 Idaho Fescue.

We took a look back at our records and we have been propagating and planting since 2012!  A fun fact is since then S.M.I. has planted a total of 112,400 various native grasses throughout the Petaluma property.  There have also been a total of 953 oak trees planted on the property that were all started from collected acorns since 2012 as well. 

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2020 Grazing Recap

The 2020 grazing season was marked by drought and plague… know…..the usual. That being said while the decision making was extremely stressful at times during the season overall went about as good as it ever has despite those challenges from the perspective of vegetation management, animal health and sheppard well being. Past years of experience set us up to have better developed relationships with cattle owners and suppliers as well as improved infrastructure and processes that made dealing with the challenges of 2020 much more manageable. 

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In 2019 during the Grassfed Exchange Conference that we hosted tours for and participated in we met an amazing team at the winecup gamble ranch from Elko, Nevada (, which stands at 1 million acres. While much bigger than us they have similar values around ecology and people. So we partnered with them to send us a little over half of our cattle. One of the nice things about working with a large outfit is that they can accommodate with much more flexibility our need for flexibility in management as dictated by the needs of the ecology. 

In the 2020 season we planned for around 12ish semi loads of cattle to come. In December we had around 1000 head of cattle, as many were very small at about 400lbs. We were then supposed to receive about 400 more or so in March and April to handle the huge spring vegetation flush of annuals that we are always trying to stay on top of. Managing these annuals who crowd out so many of the other diverse plant species has been a core of our management program and having partners that can send herbivores in spring is very key to making the program work. Getting the right number of herbivores across the 7ish properties we manage and over 4500 acres requires strong relationships, solid infrastructure, and the ability to adjust on the fly to manage adaptively. 

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The challenge of our season was really defined by rainfall, both quantity and timing. We didn’t receive our first sizable rainfall event until the end of November. We waited about 30 days or so until after that first event to receive cattle so we were on average about 3 weeks later then we planned on the inbound cattle. Having the flexibility in relationships to push these dates later as it was what seemed right for the ecology was very helpful. 

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The rains did come and it was a warmer than normal through January which created huge vegetation flushes late January and early February. However, we essentially received no rain from January 26th until March 7th and then it was only 1/10th of an inch. The extreme lack of rain meant that grass growth really ended up slowing in late February and we were moving into an over stocking situation quickly. We made two decisions in early March that allowed us to adapt. We sent home about 25% of the cattle from each ranch. Not an easy call or a fun one to make. However, our relationships allowed for this flexibility and people understood. 

Additionally, we reached out to the neighbors to the south Mike Green and Avery Hellman and received permission to graze both of their ranches to get us through the drought. This proved an amazing disastertunity as we are slotted to graze both of those properties this coming season in 2021, which will offset the loss of Hardy for this season. The rains came back through March intermittently with some rainfall in April. However overall we received around 14 inches on the rainfall year or about 36% of 2019 numbers. 

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Despite the lack of precipitation the adjustment we made to animal numbers and the expansion of management made for an overall great year. We had the healthiest animals we have ever had with literally 1 animal death out of the 1400 plus animals that were with us at the height of the season. That is .07% death loss vs the 2% industry standard. On a majority of the ranches we were able to stay in front of the annual vegetation flush that comes on hard in the spring. Since 2013 we have relatively increased species diversity at SMI over 300% in grazed plots. Managing this flush seems to be important to improving those numbers. 

Glen Ellen received three grazing rotations this year for the first time in a while. It was grazed twice in March and once to close out the season in June. We were able to pull cattle from our other properties back and forth throughout the season to make this happen. 

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The cattle team Byron, Ben and Matt with the occasional visit from Nate had a great year in terms of safe handling and effective management. The improved corrals and handling facilities, holding pens and improved truck access really paid off this season. Logistics were as smooth as they ever have been and spirits were high despite the drought and the pandemic. 

Scientific Data Results- Species Count

Each year that we have grazed on a piece of managed property we have compiled a list of all of the species found within our monitoring points.  It has been truly exciting to see through collected data the impact that grazing has had as the number of total species found on each property has only increased every year since we started managing grazing. 


Healthy Soils Compost Spread Update

As you know in 2017 we applied for and secured a cost share grant through CDFA for a broad acre compost application on rangelands. This year 2020 was our last year in the program where we applied our final 27 semi truck loads totaling 1,188,000 pounds of compost across 53 acres. This brings us to almost 3.5 million pounds of compost spread over the last three years across SMI.

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So far the most recent soil data has been encouraging. Due to covid the RCD was unable to come out and help run the monitoring tests until late May. Due to the very dry year and the late sampling and covid we ran a triage version of the monitoring where we only sampled 3 out of the 7 treatment plots to one depth (as opposed to two). We also sampled 3 out of the 6 control plots to one depth as well. The data we got back showed our treated plots (3 out of 6) average carbon increased from 2.2% in 2019 to 2.4% in 2020 which is an 11% relative increase. To put that in perspective a ~ .08% overall carbon increase (.15% OM) in the top 6 inches of soil across all grazing lands in California, would result in 89.5 million tonnes of Co2E removed from the atmosphere. California emissions are approximately 457 tonnes per year. 

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This is in contrast to our control plots which were untreated and went from 1.98% carbon to 1.9% carbon on average or a 5% relative decrease. This decrease is in line with the research and observations of soil scientists that we are in contact with in California. This state of deteriorating carbon in annual rangelands in California is the impetus behind the healthy soils program and it is encouraging that the treatments are performing as expected. That being said the real test will be sampling in 2022 after no treatment applied in 2021. The theory is that the 3.5 million pounds we applied initiated a state change to kick the soil life into gear to create a positive feedback loop. So 2022 and beyond will be telling and the real test. But so far….so good!

Meet Kino & Sue

We do it for the ecology. Nurturing ecology and healing broad acre landscapes is what keeps us all coming in to work, and gets us up in the morning. However like all jobs, the technical challenges of the actual work are often far different then the idea of the work. We work to nurture the ecology by repairing relationships between herbivores and grasslands, keeping cattle from being any one place for to long or coming back too soon. For most of our ranches under management this is fairly straight forward, but for a few the challenge is circuitous. 

When a 800lb animal with four legs that can run 25mph decides it has no plans of attending your e-vite to the next pasture it makes things complicated. When the ranch is 1500 acres and the largest paddock is 380 acres with 1500 feet of elevation change 3 individuals canyons, 3 ecotones and 70% tree cover complicated becomes and understatement. For the last few years we had 1% of our cattle give us 90% of our problems. Animals, like people vary in disposition and when you have 1400 head, 1% trouble animals = 17 head. 17 head that don’t want to come home becomes a very large problem. 

Any problem becomes easier to manage with the correct tools and the correct skills. Difficult challenges often eventually make you better at your job. While we have dogs they were not the right type of dogs for this problem. As chance would have it we heard about some amazing dogs, the Australian Kelpie earlier in the year from a friend. He mentioned this breed and a ranch in Lone tree Wyoming There Marissa Taylor breeds and Trains Australian kelpies on a beautiful 40,000 acre ranch. The australian kelpie is an amazing smart dog that can work with few commands off of the handler. It is an amazingly calm and even dog that handles problematic cattle well by using very light pressure and allowing the cattle to find relief off that pressure by moving to you the handler. 

In october of 2019 Byron flew out to Lonetree to collect Trained Kelpies that Maissa Taylor located. Kino a male and Sue a female came from two different close trusted trainers to Marissa. He spent a few days working with the Dogs and Marissa getting better trained to work with the dogs. Once Byron got home he presented a few months working with small groups of cattle to get himself trained up with the pups. By the time the cattle landed in December he felt like the team was gelling. 

Over the course of the season the two dogs Kino and Sue and Byron became the team that loved to work together and were able to get far more done then Byron could have done in years past. The pups were able to calm down and work many a troubled animal and they directly contributed to a better experience for the entire SMI team and the cattle. They have been a great experiment and an excellent addition to the SMI team. The job wouldn’t be the same without them. 

Baby Barn Owls At The Ranch

This is the 11th year in a row that we have baby barn owls in this same box at our ranch in Petaluma. This year we were surprised to see that there are 7 baby owls in the box, when usually there are around 4. We were talking about how hard the parents must be working to feed this many babies. Just thought we would share this cuteness.

Sonoma Mountain Institute Vegetation Monitoring 2019


At Sonoma Mountain Institute, we collected plant species data on 72 stratified fixed plots, some paired with exclosures, on six properties to measure the effect of our grazing management on plant biodiversity and on native plant biodiversity. Total plant biodiversity rose on all properties, ranging between 50% and 300% relative increases. Native plant cover rose between 50% and 250% percent on three properties. On two properties native plant cover rose initially by 25% and 50% peaked around 2016 or 2017 before declining to no change. We suspect that changes in vegetation height and thatch depth drove some of these changes. We believe this information can help managers improve biodiversity results on the land, help us better understand prehistoric herbivory regimes, and guide our philosophical orientation towards conservation in the Anthropocene. 


Biodiversity conservation is probably the most important job of any land steward. Yet we have very little information regarding the most basic factors that drive biodiversity and native plant persistence on working landscapes. The biodiversity information that we do have largely focuses on individual species that are already at risk. We wanted to learn more about what factors drove vegetative biodiversity and native plant persistence so that those lessons could be applied to the vast majority of rangeland in California. 

In 2012, Sonoma Mountain Institute started a grazing trial on property in Sonoma County. We grazed that property using electric fence to create higher livestock densities and to control livestock graze/ recovery periods. As the years went on, we added more properties to our management and collected data from more plots on those properties as we added them. After grazing periods that ranged between several hours and several weeks, depending on the property, we removed cattle from a given paddock until the average grass plant in that paddock had regrown several leaves. Our recovery periods ranged from several weeks when vegetation was growing quickly, to six months or more during the summer/fall dry season in California. Than we would regraze that paddock. Every year we collected vegetation data from fixed, stratified plots on these properties. We were interested in monitoring changes in plant biodiversity and percent native cover with our management, as well as other ecological proxies, such as thatch depth, annual vs. perennial cover, vegetation height, etc. On one previously ungrazed property, this included the creation of grazing exclosures and monitoring vegetation in those exclosures, versus adjacent grazed plots. 


We hypothesized that by mimicking the movement of large herds of mammals, such as those that inhabited this part of North America and most other continental environments over the evolutionary history of those plant genera, we would increase plant biodiversity. Less clear to us was how this would influence native plant cover, as both North America and Eurasia (the native territory of most non-native plants in California annual grasslands)  have an equally long history of large animal herbivory. We hypothesized that plants from both continents should be equally adapted to herbivory. We wanted to collect data so that we could trace the different ecological mechanisms that created these changes.


Sonoma Mountain Institute contracted with a botanist to setup an experimental design and conduct annual vegetation monitoring. That botanist was not part of management on the different properties.

The experimental design that we settled on was a series of fixed plots, ten meters by ten  meters. We used a stratified sample so as to better quantify changes in areas that showed certain characteristics (areas with invasive species, areas with a high native component, open areas vs. areas with higher tree canopy coverage, etc). In these plots, the botanist cataloged all the different plant species that could be identified during peak phenology, which grazing events sometimes delayed. The botanist estimated percent cover for each plant species in the plot. In addition, thatch depth was measured, mid and high vegetation height and phenology were recorded. On one property (ungrazed in the decade prior to our management) we established five small grazing exclosures paired with a neighboring grazed plot. In addition, on that property one acre was excluded from grazing and a monitoring plot located in that exclosure. 



We were surprised by our biodiversity results. All the grazed plots added plant species. With between three and eight years of data collection, depending on the property, the number of plant species per plot has increased between 61% and 243% and all of our plots are still adding plant species. Most of these species came in the form of new forbs, both native and non-native, at low levels, though native grass species also increased substantially. Non-native grasses, both perennial and annual show declines. For example, on our Petaluma property, over half of the plots show substantial increases in native and non-native forbs and native grasses, while at the same time showing substantial decreases in non-native grass cover. This pattern holds on most plots on most properties. One exception being a property that had very high thistle density in the baseline (Walsh). Over a few years of management, non-native thistle densities dropped by an order of magnitude on several plots, confounding the grass/forb patterns that we see on other properties. The Petaluma property has a much higher increase in diversity. We are thinking about possible sampling explanations for that.

Native Cover: 

Percentage of native cover increased dramatically on three of the six properties and increased to a lesser degree on two properties. However, on two properties where native plant cover increased by 25%-50% until 2017 and 2016, when native cover decreased until it settled at +2% (Mitsui) and +8% (Glen Ellen). Two of the three properties that have increased native cover seem to have plateued around 2016 (Petaluma after adding 60% native cover and Pangea after adding 250% native cover.) There was only a modest increase in percent native cover on one property (Walsh at 5%). Cayetanna percent native cover is 145% greater in 2019 than at the baseline and continuing to rise. There were some plots that showed declines in native grasses, though many increased.

Percent Relative Change


PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh

PetalumaGlen EllenCayetannaPangeaMitsuiWalsh


Thatch levels have decreased on most plots and on all properties, even on properties that were much more heavily grazed when we took over management. Much of that can probably be attributed to the fact that we rested all heavily grazed ranches, sometimes for an entire season, before grazing, so our monitoring process didn’t capture the lowest thatch levels. In general, in the first year of grazing thatch depths dropped very substantially and by the second year of grazing they were between one and two centimeters and where they hold steady. 

Perennial and Annual:

In general, when looking at the properties as a whole, there has been no change in the percentage of annual and perennial species on all the plots. However this conceals the fact that plant species have changed dramatically. Many plots dominated by annual grasses in the baseline see a big increase in perennial forbs. However, many plots that were dominated by perennial non-native grasses in the baseline see large decreases in those species, with annual grasses and forbs increasing. 

Plant Height:

Plant heights on the Petaluma property are confounded by the fact that the sampling period (2013-2019) included some of the driest and some of the wettest years on record for Sonoma County. Our baseline data was collected in 2013, after the driest water year on record. Despite that, the mid level height for our baseline (pre-grazing) was tied the for highest vegetation heights. “Mid Level Vegetation” heights were highest in 2016, when an average water year coincided with a low stocking rate. “High vegetation” heights do not seem to be nearly as impacted by grazing and track closely with precipitation. The more rainfall, the higher the highest plant in the plot grows, regardless of grazing intensity. 

Another confounding factor is the sampling date. Growth rates at peak phenology are very high, so sampling a week earlier or later in the season can have a huge impact on veg heights measurements. It seems likely that sampling bias affects our height measurements to a certain degree as this was not something we considered at the outset of the trial. Anecdotally vegetation heights over the last three years have been much higher on most of the properties, as high rainfall and management factors coincided to create much higher vegetation heights.

Even with our sampling problems, increases in species diversity native cover track closely with changes in vegetation height, as vegetation heights increase fewer species are added. This pattern is most noticeable on the properties where we have the highest sampling densities, Petaluma and Glen Ellen.

The impacts of vegetation height on species factors seems to be greatest as the vegetation is taller. Patterns were most distinct at Glen Ellen, where vegetation heights are much higher than on the other five properties. We would expect this pattern to continue until bare ground started to increase, offsetting increases in stem count that come from shorter vegetation heights. 

Blue- Vegetation Height, Red- Plant Species Numbers, Yellow-Native Plant Percent Cover


We setup exclosures on a ranch that had not been grazed for many years before our grazing management. Some of those exclosures were paired plots where we had exclosures immediately adjacent to grazed plots. We have thrown out the data on one of those exclosures for reasons that we will discuss. The grazed plots added over 60% more plant species over the course of the study than the ungrazed plots. It is important to note however that the ungrazed plots still added plant species, but at a much lower rate. The ungrazed exclosures had no change in percent native cover while the grazed plots had a 125% relative increase in native cover. 

However, our plot located inside a one acre grazing exclosure added species and native species in line with many of the other plots, a perplexing result.

One of the exclosures was accidentally grazed on the first year of the study (2013). At the time we thought this was a big mistake but now it is one of the more interesting data points. In the first year after the baseline, biodiversity and native cover were the same on the two plots, as we would expect since management was the same, both increasing in-line with what we saw in all the grazed plots. But species were added at a lower rate in the exclosure in the next two years as grazing was discontinued. By the third year, nonnative grass levels jumped back to pregrazing levels and by the end of the period (2019) the exclosure is starting to lose plant species and native cover, reversing gains after grazing was no longer allowed. No other plot has demonstrated this pattern. 


The overall trend that we see from our research is one where plant species, including native species, increase through our management. The increase comes from native and non-native forbs (many species, all having quite low total cover percentages) and native grasses. These gains come at the expense of non-native grasses, both annual and perennial. 

Native percent cover did increase on all properties initially, but on two properties (Glen Ellen and Mitsui) it has declined back to no change since around 2016/2017. We are looking into possible causes for this. In addition, some plots did lose native grass cover over time. We are looking into what could cause this. One theory is that the old moribund material of some of the species was creating a large footprint, though only a small percentage of that material was living. This is supported by several of the plots that showed this tendency at the start of the trial have since regained their native grass cover.  

We think that increases in biodiversity and percent native cover on these properties occurred because we created herbivory regimes that more closely resemble the herbivory regimes that these plant genera evolved under. We hope to use this information to help land managers refine their biodiversity management. In addition, at the risk of being tautological, we hope to use this information to advance our understanding of prehistoric herbivory regimes. 

One of the first takeaways that struck us in our analysis of this data is how consistent our results were. Over five different properties all with different geologies and aspects, we achieved broadly similar results. These properties ranged from being very heavily utilized/overutilized by livestock at set stocking rates, to being completely ungrazed for a decade or more. When we started managing these properties, the management realities dictated that we use a wide range of livestock densities. Some of the properties were grazed using high stock density, with multiple livestock moves per day, others were grazed much more extensively, often with grazing periods that were several weeks or a month. The year-to-year results were also broadly similar, with similar numbers of species being added over the course of three or five years, despite the fact that our dataset spans both some of the driest and wettest years on record for Sonoma County. Recovery periods during the grazing season were relatively constant on all properties as was a summer/fall rest period, roughly from the first of July to mid December. 

This gives managers an interesting data point about how to allocate scarce management resources. We also think this suggests that there was a wide range of possible herbivory regimes over evolutionary significant periods. But we also think this suggests that it is easy for managers to create herbivory regimes that lie outside what was common over evolutionary history; decades of ‘set stocking’ and decades of herbivore exclusion being perhaps equally uncommon over evolutionary history. 

The plots with the highest biodiversity were under tree canopies, and the plots with highest biodiversity had high native plant diversity. Nowhere did we find very high biodiversity strictly with non-native plants. It is hard to know what is driving higher biodiversity under tree canopies. Trees might increase diversity by creating a range of sunlight conditions, through nutrient impacts, or some other means. But treed sites also tend to have less or no historic agricultural disturbance. Historic agricultural disturbance could have removed individual plants that have failed to recolonize the site, or could have altered soil properties in some important way. On our properties, areas with higher tree densities also tends to be on slopes (due to historic agricultural practices), tend to have lower herbaceous heights, etc..  

We think that this data also points to some of the possible mechanisms involved with species recruitment, often involving competition. First, thatch effectively competes for light with other species, particularly during the seedling stage. In addition, grazing reduces the height of the vegetation. During the drought of 2012-2013 when our baseline data was collected for our Petaluma property, precipitation levels were an amazing 20% of some of the subsequent years. Yet vegetation heights at the baseline were still higher in the ungrazed dry year than in the grazed wet years. Since herbaceous plants need to be rooted to the ground, we hypothesize that the “3:2 Thinning Rule” would suggest that there will be the potential for many more stems per plot when vegetation is short. With more stems per plot there is the possibility to have more individual plants per plot and with more individual plants there is the possibility to have more species. We could hypothesize that herbaceous plant biodiversity would increase with decreasing veg height until bare ground started to increase. At this point the manager would have the most possible stems, therefore the most possible species. Which is a hypothesis that needs to be tested.

In addition, we suspect that vegetation height could provide insights into the mechanisms driving the increase in percent native cover that we detected. Since the native plants in our area are much shorter on average than the non native plants, they would be disproportionately disadvantaged by very high vegetation heights and we could expect them to increase with lower vegetation heights. Percent native cover quickly declined with higher veg heights, while total species numbers were less sensitive. It took longer to remove every last species of a plant than it did to reduce populations. 

Another factor affecting our outcome might involve our use of relative cover estimates rather than absolute cover. Because we chose to use relative cover estimates, any increase in percent cover from some species will decrease percent cover for others. Our anecdotal observations suggest that a certain amount of the change in percent cover comes from an increase in forbs and natives grasses, rather than a decrease non-native grasses.

One of the burning questions to come out of our data so far is why exclosure plots have continued to add species, though at a much slower rate than control plots in the paired study. This is particularly perplexing in our one acre exclosure, which added more species than in the paired plots and is not very different from the average results on grazed plots. If these plots had been adding species at their current rate for any amount of time, there would be hundreds of plant species on these plots. However, some exclosures species counts are still in the single digits. One likely explanation is that the exclosures in our paired plots are too small and sunlight, or other impacts from grazed areas are affecting species composition inside the exclosure. This makes sense in the paired plots, however the plot in our one acre exclosure has added even more species than the paired plots. We feel like we have ruled out sampling bias because our research team has not encountered the same problem in other contexts using the same methods. This is one of many questions that we are in the process of creating experiments and hypotheses to test. 

Another observation from the exclosures is that vegetation patterns seem to track with climate in exclosures, with different components of the vegetation rising and falling with different precipitation regimes. However in the grazed plots, the effect of rainfall on species composition is much more muted. We think this is because management is having a strong effect on vegetation and the vegetation has not yet reached a new equilibrium around the management regime.


We are still working to understand the data that we are seeing. It is possible that we are measuring the birth of a new plant community. A lot of attention in conservation is devoted to native species. Often in conservation circles we encounter the paradigm that the native/non-native divide is a zero sum game; gains in one category are offset by loses in the other. Our evidence does not support this view. From a native plant perspective, even if we increase native plant species by only one percent and at the same time increase non-native species by fifty percent, we should consider that a success. We would like to see more native species on the properties we manage and we are pleased at the slow, steady increases that we are achieving and we are interested to see where native plant cover will go from here on our properties. At the same time it seems unlikely that our management is going to serve as a native plant filter. Maybe it is unrealistic at this point to think that is possible in California annual rangelands without herculean efforts that cannot be sustained over a landscape level and may have ecological costs that outweigh their advantages. 

At the same time adding floristic biodiversity, even non-native biodiversity, has huge benefits to conservation. It seems possible that low levels of many non-native plant species in close association throughout the landscape will encourage the naturalization process, as predators and pathogens that are adapted to one species are exposed to other possible prey and hosts. More interesting is the fact that an increase in non-native plant biodiversity probably encourages an increase in native animal biodiversity. For example, the huge increase in forb species, both native and non-native, that we have seen and the percent of the landscape occupied by forbs, should have a major positive effect on pollinator species, most of which would be native. What the impact would be on other components of native biodiversity, that are much harder to study than plants, such as birds or soil biology are all questions we are interested in exploring. 

S.M.I.’s 2019 Board Meeting

The 2019 Board meeting was held at our Petaluma Property on December 4, 2019. Our Board consisting of Brock Dolman, Mark Sindt, Jim Nelson, Jim Coleman, and Kate Sindt were all present. Mark Sindt reviewed the 2019 accomplishments within Sonoma Mountain Institute.  He mentioned that an apple orchard with 800 trees on 35 acres was removed from the Pike Property to create an area to be a new grassland.  Mark talked about the rainwater catchment system that we are trying to have installed.  Mark talked about projects that happened on the Petaluma Property such as re-siding the barn, new cattle guards were made and installed, 8,500 gallons of compost tea was sprayed, and 160 hours were spent pulling star thistle.   The grazing amongst all of the properties were discussed in addition to updates on the Healthy Soils compost spread, infrastructure, and educational outreach that has happened in 2019 at the S.M.I. Petaluma property. Mark went over the finances which included how the 2019 finances ended up in 2019 and the proposed budget for 2020. The board passed the proposed budget for 2020 and the meeting was adjourned.

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