LEARNING ON THE JOB
Interns discover the biodiverse and geologic mysteries of Tejon.
This summer, the Tejon Ranch Conservancy staff hosted two interns from California State University, Bakersfield.
Pia Keppler is a senior at CSUB. She loves the outdoors and is majoring in Environmental Resource Management. Keppler said that before she applied to this internship, she hadn’t given much thought to working for a conservancy. “I began researching the objectives and duties of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy and just thought, ‘Wow... this is my dream job!’ So, I am hoping to gain the full experience of a future career choice for myself.”
CSUB Intern Pia Keppler adding to her nature journal.
A few weeks into her internship, a few things surprised her. “I absolutely LOVED spotting wildlife and encountering evidence of their presence (tracks, bones, feathers, scat, etc.). It’s all a giant puzzle that tells a story on how the wildlife works on the Ranch. And the creeks! I could explore the creeks all day every day and never get tired of it.
“The Ranch is truly a hidden treasure with amazing biodiversity! I am most surprised that there isn’t more funding, given the important role the Conservancy plays. It’s truly amazing to see you guys in action and has really given me perspective about working with natural resources.”
Keppler can definitely see herself working in conservation. “My ideal job would be managing natural resources, specifically water sources, and/or as an ecologist for a wetlands refuge or conservancy.”
Keppler and fellow intern Jared Hansen examine rock samples in the field.
Jared Hansen is majoring in Geology as a junior at CSUB. This is not his first experience on Tejon Ranch. Hansen did his Eagle Scout project on the Ranch a few years ago. He enjoys the outdoors and gets outside every chance he gets.
Hansen describes his interest in this internship as an opportunity for growth, not just in work experience, but also in teamwork. In addition to geology and rocks, he knew the internship would expose him to other disciplines involving the many kinds of plants, trees, and animals found on the Ranch. “The ecosystems and biodiversity are very unusual compared to other lands that I have visited in the past. I am hoping during this internship that I can do my best as an intern and leave a legacy for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy to remember me by.”
CSUB Interns Jared Hansen and Pia Keppler trekked through some rugged country during their internship this summer.
He is driven to better understand how rocks and formations came to be over geologic time. “Every rock tells a history of its past and how it formed in and onto the earth over a period of time. I like looking at these precious earth materials (especially at Tejon Ranch) and unlocking any mysteries of their past. Studying and pondering questions about these earth materials allows people to understand what they are, over time. It makes me feel happy when I discover a mineral’s history. This allows me to share my knowledge of the earth and to tell people what I have learned because I unlocked the mysteries of its past. This is what makes me happy.”
This internship is a good stepping-stone for Hansen. “My Ideal career is to work for a mining company, where I can have the opportunity to use my geological knowledge in the field and travel around the world as a field geologist.”
Jared Hansen takes notes in the field.
Update on Bakersfield Cactus Populations
Bakersfield cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. treleasei) is a Federally and State Endangered cactus variety endemic to the southeast corner of the San Joaquin Desert. Historic populations continuously ranged from the foothills northeast of Bakersfield to the Wheeler Ridge area north of Grapevine Canyon.
Changing land uses over the last 200 years have resulted in the loss of at least one-third of the historic cacti range. Many remnant populations are isolated on small parcels with no vector for genetic exchange. Clonal reproduction through shedded pads is the primary way the cacti propagate. Some populations continue to be threatened by land use changes in addition to ecological constraints, such as drought and insect herbivory. Numerous extant populations occur on the conserved lands of Tejon Ranch and the property is a significant refuge for the species. Moreover, while most of the cacti on Tejon are naturally-occurring, there have been many successfully transplanted clusters in areas where it had been extirpated (locally died out).
Right: A small, healthy cluster of Bakersfield cactus in the vicinity of Tejon Creek, July 2020.
In May 2020, it became apparent that throughout the San Joaquin Desert, an outbreak of spur-throated grasshoppers (Melanoplus spp.) was far exceeding the typical numbers. Grasshopper outbreaks in California are a cyclical phenomenon known since at least the mid-1800s, although they have been poorly documented. Grasshoppers have a diverse diet. In a typical year in California, they prefer exotic annual grasses (i.e., Bromus spp., Avena spp.) now ubiquitous throughout the region. When outbreaks occur, grasshopper herbivory can significantly affect both native and agricultural species.
Right: Close-up of two spur-throated grasshoppers (Melanoplus spp.), May 2020.
In June 2020, grasshopper herbivory and subsequent mortality of Bakersfield cactus were reported on adjacent conservation properties. In July 2020, I started a Ranch-wide survey of known cacti locations (over 150!), with the goals of assessing the level of potential grasshopper damage, updating the database with what is currently alive, and identifying extirpated areas that would benefit from future restoration.
Right: Spur-throated grasshoppers resting on a mature Bakersfield cactus pad.
While the survey effort is ongoing, July’s data suggest that the grasshopper outbreak had a marginal effect on cactus populations on Tejon. At least 20 previously known sites are now extirpated, though this occurred from unknown causes long prior to the current outbreak. The remaining 100-plus known stands ranged from approximately 30% grasshopper-induced pad mortality to completely untouched. Most stands were in good condition.
Overall, as of July 2020, the Bakersfield cactus populations on Tejon Ranch were in good condition, having receded in some areas, but expanded in others. Going forward, these populations will warrant dedicated management efforts, including restoration efforts at extirpated stands.
Right: Example of grasshopper-induced pad mortality on a Bakersfield cactus cluster, July 2020. Note the recently deceased pads and associated grasshopper scars on the lower right.
Scouts BSA Fight Exotic Weeds and Install Wildlife Cameras
The largest riparian enhancement area on Tejon Ranch is centered at the confluence of Tejon and Chanac creeks. From 2015 to 2017, new water infrastructure and fence lines were constructed to create the 1,200-acre Chanac Pasture. This new pasture has the same grazing regimen as at Tunis Spring: cattle absence in the summer and presence in the fall and winter. This being a newer enhancement area, several components were missing, including tracking changes in habitat use by wildlife and consistent efforts to remove exotic plant taxa.
Scouts from BSA troops 2119 and 47 celebrating their victory over exotic horehound sage (Marrubium vulgare) in the Chanac Pasture, in early 2020 (before COVID-19).
In March 2020 (prior to stay-at-home orders), Scouts from troops 2119 and 47 conducted a wildland weeding effort in the Chanac Pasture, targeting the removal of invasive horehound sage (Marrubium vulgare). Armed with trash bags and spades, the intrepid Scouts bravely conquered a dense patch of the sage under a mature canopy of valley oaks (Quercus lobata). This is one of the most robust populations of valley oak south of Bakersfield and removal of exotics from their understory may enhance oak recruitment.
Right: A Scout engaged in the removal of an exotic tamarisk tree (Tamarix ramosissima) in a seasonally dry stretch of Tejon Creek, July 2020.
Later in July, the Scouts returned, this time from troops 188 and 194. The goal was twofold: installation of wildlife camera traps to better monitor changes in habitat use and opportunistic removal of several exotic tamarisk trees (Tamarix ramosissima) in Tejon Creek. One Scout, William Brown, completed the final requirement for his Eagle Scout through this project.
Right: Scouts working to install a wildlife camera trap in Tejon Creek, July 2020.
All in all, although the Conservancy’s programs have been fewer than usual this year because of COVID-19, science and stewardship work have continued to make progress. These projects would never have been accomplished without the help of partner groups, such as Scouts BSA, academic collaborators, and of course, our amazing and dedicated cadre of docents and volunteers.