Update on the Flora of the South Fork Tule River Watershed

Okay, after a year hiatus I’m back blogging again! And expect more to come, now that I’m in the writing stage for my project, so stay tuned! For my master’s thesis, I am conducting a floristic study of the South Fork Tule River watershed located in the Southern Sierra Nevada in Tulare County, California. Floristics is the study of the distribution, number, and diversity of all plant species in a given area. The plant collections generated from such studies are important because they represent a “snapshot” of what the flora looked liked at that moment in time.

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View of the Canyon of the South Fork Tule River from the Mule Peak lookout on the Sequoia National Forest.
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Map of the Tule River Indian Reservation in relation to the rest of California. The reservation is located in Tulare county, near Springville, Ca.

A watershed is an area of land in which all the water from rain, underground springs, and snow melt is drained into a central place. I have used the boundary of the South Fork Tule River watershed as the boundary for my floristic study. The South Fork Tule River is part of a larger Tule River system that contains a North, Middle and South Forks. The South Fork Tule River and its tributaries, drain west through the Tule River Indian Reservation, down through private land where it is diverted for agriculture. Any remaining water flows into Lake Success, which is located on the branch of the Tule River about six miles east of Porterville. The Watershed encompasses 64,756 acres and the Tule River Indian Reservation occupies the majority of the watershed. Due to the historical exploitation of tribes from scientists and anthropologists, access to tribal trust lands in California for the purposes of field research, has been limited. It is my hope to use this floristic study to bring awareness to the need for more ethical collaboration between tribes and botanists to work together with the common goal of plant conservation.

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A herbarium specimen of Erythronium pusaterii, the final product of floristic plant collections. Herbarium collections represent the majority of data collected in floristic studies.

The objectives of my study are: 1) Document all plant species that occur within the watershed. 2) Create a checklist of the plant species. 3) Assess the status of rare plant species. 4) Create a reference herbarium for the Tule River Indian Reservation. A herbarium is a botanical archive that houses plant collections that represent and document plant diversity in nature. These plant collections serve as important resources for scientific research and education in plant taxonomy, conservation, ecology and genetics. Plant collections as old as one hundred years old can still be used for DNA extraction for scientific purposes.

I began this project in spring 2013, and have spent 63 days in the field. Prior to my study, 264 collections had been made from South Fork Tule River watershed with only 57 from the reservation. Poorly documented plant diversity on tribal trust lands such as the Tule River Indian Reservation, speaks to the need for more collaboration between Native American communities and botanists.

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Oreostemma alpigenum a member of the Asteraceae (Sunflower family). This species was found in most the the high elevation meadows within the South Fork Tule River watershed

Thus far I have collected 1355 specimens, representing 561 different species across 75 families, with the Asteraceae (Sunflower family) being the most represented with 47 different species. The genus most represented is Lupinus with 12 different species. While tribal trust land makes up only 1% of the total land area in California, these lands are often rugged and relatively unexplored. It is my hope that through my research, I will be able to foster relationships between the Native and scientific communities that will compel them to come together to work ethically and effectively to achieve the common goal of plant conservation.

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