Montane meadow ecosystems are associated with seasonally moist to waterlogged soils in valleys, flats, gentle slopes, and filled-in lake basins in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. Both wet and dry types occur, and their plant species composition and stability are largely dependent on the underlying hydrology. These ecosystems are the most botanically diverse in the Sierra Nevada, and they have high wildlife values because of their abundance of food and cover.
Mountain meadows play a key role in effecting watershed condition and water flow in the Sierra Nevada. Restoration of degraded meadows is the first step in improving overall watershed function and could have major effects on surface and subsurface flow regimes influencing water delivery downstream, far removed from source watersheds.
Montane meadows also play a unique and crucial role in the ecology of many bird species found in the Sierra Nevada. A substantial subset of Sierra species is dependent on meadows for breeding habitat, and the population density of many forest-inhabiting species is often highest at meadow edges. Perhaps even more importantly, montane meadows serve as critical molting and pre-migration staging areas for dispersing birds (particularly juveniles) of a broad array of species, some of which do not actually breed anywhere near the meadows.
Historic and current human activities (most notably livestock grazing, but also water management, recreational activities, logging practices, agriculture, and fire suppression) have compromised the viability of meadow habitat throughout much of the Sierra. Two of California's endangered bird species, Willow Flycatcher and Great Gray Owl, depend critically on montane meadows.
Recent research suggests that meadows may have an important role in carbon storage. Research at the University of Nevada found that restored meadows in the Northern Sierra Nevada averaged 20 percent more soil carbon capture than those that did not receive restoration treatments, with one site increasing by 80 percent. The downside of this, from the perspective of climate change, is that meadows that are dried up and no longer functioning are net emitters of carbon dioxide. Between 60 and 70 percent of the meadows in the Sierra Nevada have been dried out due to human related activities. Reversing this trend is one way to reduce carbon emissions in California, and the state has funded additional research activities towards achieving that end.
The Sierra Nevada Meadows Data Clearinghouse hosted by University of California, Davis, highlights the recent and ongoing assessments, research and restoration on meadows in the bioregion.
Derlet, MD, R.W., J.R. Carlson, PhD. 2006. Coliform Bacteria in Sierra Nevada Wilderness Lakes and Streams: What Is the Impact of Backpackers, Pack Animals, and Cattle? Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 17, 15-20. (54KB PDF)
Kattelmann, R., and M. Embury. 1996. Riparian Areas and Wetlands. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final report to Congress, vol. III, Assessments and scientific basis for management options. Davis: University of California, Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, 1996. (523KB PDF)
Ratliff, R.D. 1985. Meadows in the Sierra Nevada of California: State of Knowledge Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-84. Berkeley, CA: Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; 52 p. (2MB PDF)