Aislin Steill ’21 checks the batteries and replaces the storage disk in a wildlife camera.
Aislin Steill ’21 checks the batteries and replaces the storage disk in a wildlife camera.

The Biggest Lab on Campus

Bio students make exciting discoveries in the Reed canyon—and raise questions for its future.

By Katie Pelletier ’03 | May 3, 2021

Upland of the pond on the east side of the Reed canyon, the students meet up under some fir trees. They wield a variety of shovels and gloves. Some have salmonberry starts. Others carry SD cards and batteries. All seven students wear masks and sunny dispositions.

These students in Biology 308: Restoration Ecology with Prof. Julia Michaelsare here to check on living experiments in the biggest lab on campus. They have been studying ecological theory and putting it to the test in carefully devised restoration trials. Along the way they have tracked coyotes, identified an enigmatic crustacean found only in Portland, and raised new questions about the future of the canyon’s unique ecosystem. 

The canyon has been extensively restored in recent decades by Reed staff and students. But areas of the greenspace that the college doesn’t own have not been as intensively managed. On the east end of campus one such property is owned by the Ritmanis family who permitted the class to conduct land management trials there. “The Canyon has been well-restored and is serving as a model for how we might restore the Ritmanis property, someday, if Reed were to acquire it. No one has taken 'inventory' of this Ritmanis property before, until our class.” says Prof. Michaels.

The property holds a pond, wetlands, and forested upland areas. In all of these, students found many non-native species from nutria (a mammal that looks like a beaver with a rat tail and wreaks havoc on shorelines) to the tenacious English ivy and Himalayan blackberry vines. These invaders outcompete native species for resources, which has reverberating detrimental effects. The students calculated that 75% of the wetland vegetation in this area is invasive. Removing it is a daunting task. 

Take for instance the canary grass. All through the open marshy areas, where the Crystal Springs headwaters are found, canary grass chokes out native marsh plants, forming a dense monoculture. Stands of it reach nearly head high in matted fields, with new green spears pushing through. Endemic plants which would sustain native birds and mammals can’t grow in these conditions. But ecological restoration is a complex business. Not only would removing the grass all at once be a big job, it would create new problems for native plants and animals.  

Aislin Steill ’21 heads to a clearing. Back in February, when snow covered the ground, the students found coyote tracks here and installed motion-activated cameras to keep tabs on the cagey canines. They analyzed large batches of footage from the cameras, and by collecting and dissecting the coyote scat to determine their diet, Aislin and classmate Kit Gurin ’22 found that the coyote pack is reducing nutria populations. The pack’s presence is an indicator that the ecosystem is healthy enough to support an apex predator. Aislin and Kit explain that the tall canary grass provides important protective cover for the coyote. Pulling it up all at once could cause what is known as a ‘trophic cascade,’ in which removing one species reverberates down the food chain. The students are developing a plan to remove it in phases and replace it with native species, such as the Pacific willow, that also provide shelter to coyotes. Experiments include testing whether hand-pulling is enough, or whether root-pulling is indispensable, as well as whether shade discourages the grass. “If it can just be pulled up by hand and then shaded out by planting willow, this is an effective approach that community members could do on Canyon Day,” says Aislin. In the clearing they take note of some fresh scat and a layer of goose feathers—no doubt from the coyote dinner party they caught on their trail camera.

To develop restoration strategies, students have painstakingly observed the trees, plants, mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, fungus, water levels, soil pH, soil salinity, compaction, and other biotic and abiotic aspects of the canyon environment. Based on their findings and the ecological theory they studied, they presented a restoration plan to stakeholders such as Reed, Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and Wisdom of the Elders, a local tribal nonprofit that advised on culturally significant plants for students to include in revegetation. 

Delaney Brubecker ’21, who is measuring the ages of trees in the upland, noted that overstory in this section of the canyon is older, with little to replace it—especially after the recent loss of many aged trees and severe damage from a winter ice storm. She will invigorate the understory by planting native salmonberry. To help it grow, she and fellow students are testing whether it is effective to inoculate the roots with mycorrhizae, a fungus that can help increase the salmonberry's ability to take up nutrients without disrupting the nutrient balance in the soil. This could give it an edge over invasive species. 

Lulu Maturo ’23, who is testing the effects of changing water levels on native sedge, tells me about another exciting discovery. The Ritmanis pond may also be home to Stumptown Scud, an elusive crustacean that lives only in the Portland Metro area. It was first discovered in 1958 and not seen again until 2008, when it was sighted at Reed. It has the important job of helping to keep waterways clean, and it is a valuable food source to fish and amphibians. Lulu and classmate Elise Carlson ’23 reached out to experts at PSU to help verify their species identification. 

Prof. Michaels has been impressed with her students and the work they have done to implement smart, real strategies that will shape the canyon for years to come. “The students have had surprises, but have taken them in stride.” They discovered that the Ritmanis pond was shrinking, which added another complication to their restoration plan. Did this mean the open water area might soon become a wetland, and how would this affect revegetation of native plants? What would happen to the stickleback fish that live there, which the Intro Biology classes rely on for their labs? “They can’t say for certain, but they can strengthen restoration projects by accounting for these contingencies. That is what adaptive management is all about—planning for uncertainty,” says Michaels.

Michaels’s course in the Fall will pick up where these experiments left off and next year’s students will monitor the progress of these trials. To have a natural area like the canyon right here on campus creates a unique teaching opportunity. “This is my dream course,” Prof. Michaels says. “Being able to teach it with Reed students through a meaningful project in their own backyard is really special.”

Want to learn more about restoration work in the canyon? Look for QR codes on signs on canyon trails, posted by Bio 308, or go directly to the website.

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