Point Reyes National Seashore Initiates Major Ecological Vital Signs Monitoring Program

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Date: May 5, 1998
Contact: John Dell'Osso, 415-464-5135

This year Point Reyes National Seashore has initiated a comprehensive effort to establish an integrated, natural resource ecological monitoring program. This program will assemble and synthesize baseline inventory data describing the natural resources at Point Reyes National Seashore and will monitor those resources at regular intervals to detect or predict changes. The resulting information will be analyzed to detect changes that may require intervention and to provide reference points for comparison with other, more altered environments.

Superintendent Don Neubacher stated, “This program is critical to ensure the long-term health of Point Reyes for future generations. It will determine the present and future ecosystem health of Point Reyes, how key animal and plant species vary in population size and distribution, and provide an early diagnosis of abnormal conditions so that we can take corrective management actions if appropriate.”

The species and processes monitored will act as “vital signs,”, or indicators, of the overall health of the park’s ecosystem. Comprehensive inventory and monitoring studies are being undertaken on indicator species such as harbor seals, elephant seals, coho salmon and steelhead trout, neotropical migratory songbirds, spotted owls, intertidal invertebrates, tule elk, small mammals such as white-footed deer mice, reptiles, and amphibians such as the California red-legged frog, rare plants, and non-native invasive species. These species and processes, such as water quality and quantity, and air quality, provide early warning signals for ecosystem health.

The Point Reyes Ecological Monitoring Program will also analyze the effects of El Niño and global warming on the park’s ecosystems. The 1998 El Nino, for example, was both positive and negative on species monitored.

Superintendent Don Neubacher stated that part of the National Park Foundation’s Expedition Into the Parks program grant funded by Canon, USA, Inc. will be used to study both short- and long-term effects of El Niño on the colonizing northern elephant seal population at Point Reyes. Northern elephant seals were extant form Point Reyes National Seashore for over 100 years, but in 1982, an El Niño year, a colony was established. We have monitored the colony since then and it has grown exponentially at nearly 75% per year. During the severe winter storms this February, though, nearly 85% of the seal pups born were lost, and adult seals sought refuge at new colony sites along Drakes Beach and Point Reyes Beaches.

In response to this critical resource issue, representatives from Canon, USA, Inc. and the National Park Foundation will be presenting Point Reyes National Seashore with $40,000 for studying protection measures and the population recovery of the elephant seal population. Dr. Sarah Allen, ecologist of the National Park Service, stated that “During the coming winter breeding season, biologists, volunteers and docents will monitor the distribution and abundance of elephant seals and the survival of pups at the new colony sites.”

A major inventory and monitoring program for small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles was initiated this spring at the Seashore. “The goals of the initial inventory are to determine what species are found within the park and what habitats are utilized by various animals. Long-term monitoring will allow us to evaluate changes in both population size and the distribution of animals” stated Dr. Gary Fellers, a research scientist for the USGS stationed at Point Reyes.

Of particular interest is the federally listed threatened California red-legged frog. The California red-legged frog ranges from the Central Valley to the Sierra as well as along the coast from Marin Co. south the Baja California. Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few remaining places throughout the range of this frog where substantial, viable population of this rare, declining frog remain. Point Reyes is estimated to have a population of approximately 4,000 to 5,000 adult frogs.

Animals will be captured and released alive using a triangular-shaped array of traps including funnel traps for snakes; pitfall traps for salamanders, frogs, and lizards; artificial cover boards for amphibians and reptiles; Sherman live traps for small mammals; and TrailMaster cameras for small carnivores such as foxes and bobcats.

The biologists and volunteers of the Coho and Steelhead Restoration Project will be evaluating fish habitat characteristics; riparian vegetation composition and health; and land use activities. Project staff will also be assessing the status of coho salmon and steelhead trout populations by snorkeling habitat sections throughout the study watersheds and operating a smolt trap on a tributary of Olema Creek slated for habitat restoration.

Neotropical migratory songbirds are declining throughout the United States including Point Reyes National Seashore. Over 438 species of birds have been documented at Point Reyes, and 246 are categorized as rare. Monitoring studies will continue this year to analyze the decline, assess potential contributing factors, and develop an implementation plan for their recovery.

The Point Reyes Ecological Monitoring Program is being conducted in partnership with Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Farallon Islands Marine Sanctuary Association, Point Reyes National Seashore Association, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Service, Biological Resources Division. Funding for other aspects of this program is provided by other public and private organizations.

All of this inventorying and monitoring data is being compiled on the park’s Geographic Information System (GIS), a sophisticated state-of-the-art computer mapping system used to analyze and correlate complex spatial data. The GIS system provides graphical spatial representation of the data for integrating planning and long-term management. One example of this is the development of a vegetation map showing the distribution of over 70 plant communities at Point Reyes National Seashore and this will be used as a baseline to compare future maps to detect changes in the vegetation.

Point Reyes National Seashore comprises over 100 square miles, including 32,000 acres of coastal wilderness area. The park provides refuge for 22 endangered or threatened plants and animals and contains examples of the world’s major ecosystem types. The abundance and diversity of the ecosystems, and their components, are remarkable. Just in the marine ecosystem alone, more than a third of the world’s cetacean species occur off Point Reyes. The terrestrial landscapes are equally significant, diverse and rare, representing a high level of endemism. A total of over 500 vertebrate species occur within or adjacent to the park’s boundary. Thirty-three plant species are either federally listed as endangered or threatened, or are federal candidates for listing. Many species occur no where else in the world.

Now in it’s fourth year, Expedition Into the Parks sends volunteers to perform hand-on conservation and restoration work under the direction of resource managers and scientists. Point Reyes National Seashore is one of 49 national parks that since 1995 have received over $3.5 million from Canon, USA, Inc. through the National Park Foundation.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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