Saddle Mountain welcomes exciting wildflower bloom after wildfire

April 22, 2021

Posted in: News Articles

Saddle Mountain welcomes exciting wildflower bloom after wildfire

Our Saddle Mountain Open Space Preserve is home to an incredible variety of plants and wildlife, including the critically endangered Clara Hunt’s milkvetch – an itty-bitty purple and white flower. Those found on Saddle Mountain are one of only six small populations in the world, and all are found nearby in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Last year, the Glass Fire burned across nearly the entire preserve and we’re now working neighbors and community and government partners to learn from the land as it responds to the fire. We survey the milkvetch population on the property annually, and for the last two years we’ve partnered with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) as part of a species status review. During this type of review, plant species covered by the Endangered Species Act are surveyed every five years to ensure that they have the appropriate level of protection.

Over time, we’ve seen a decline in the Clara Hunt’s milkvetch population on Saddle Mountain, which has been mirrored by similar declines across its small range, putting it at risk of extinction.  To prevent even more loss, Stewardship Specialist Monica Delmartini worked with CDFW to develop a research proposal for a series of prescribed burns in the grassland next to  the preserve. Because the plant only grows on poor soils and in areas without competing plants or thick thatch, and because milkvetch belongs to a plant family that often is stimulated by fire, Ag & Open Space staff and CDFW scientists theorized that burning could help improve habitat for the plan. Before we could put our plan into action, the Glass Fire unexpectedly beat us to it and burned the grassland where the milkvetch grows. However, just as we suspected, fire appears to have had a positive impact on the milkvetch populations within the Glass Fire area.

In the year before the Glass Fire, we found only two Clara Hunt’s milkvetch on the property. But, on a site visit a few weeks ago we spotted… 53!

A larger population of this plant is found on the neighboring Hayfork Ranch, which is protected with an Ag + Open Space conservation easement, and also partially burned in the Glass Fire. Protecting these critical milkvetch populations is a team effort between Ag + Open Space, and the O’Brien family who owns Hayfork Ranch. On a recent visit to their property, CDFW and Ag & Open Space staff found an estimated 2000+ plants in four separate locations! We look forward to continuing our partnership with the O’Briens as we work together to help protect this tiny-but-mighty plant.

While Clara Hunt’s milkvetch is still in peril and distressingly rare, this explosion of plant growth after the Glass Fire is an early indication that proactive management can enhance habitat and help these plants thrive. Read on to learn more how we will continue to care for Saddle Mountain in the coming years here >>

We’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge Mid O’Brien, who owned Hayfork Ranch up until his passing in February 2021. Everyone at Ag + Open Space will remember Mid as a wonderful, kind man who was an active and supportive partner in stewarding his own land, and our adjacent preserve. Mid’s son and daughter-in-law continue to live on the property, and are also wonderful partners in this work. We’re grateful to the entire O’Brien family for their ongoing partnership.