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Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community


Deer DNA Study in the Sierra Nevada and Central Coast Ranges

Deer DNA Study in the Sierra Nevada and Central Coast Ranges

A buck with a collar walks through brush on a hillside
A young woman attaches a trail camera to a dead tree trunk.

Deer population estimates are an important element of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) management decisions regarding the species – including setting quotas for deer-hunting seasons, acquiring land and identifying habitat improvement projects. Historically, CDFW has relied upon helicopter surveys to obtain these population estimates, but such surveys can be problematic. While they are effective in open and largely flat areas, they are less so in tree-laden areas where deer are hidden from sight. They can also be extremely expensive.

Now, thanks to emerging DNA technology, scientists are exploring a less invasive, cost-effective alternative: Analysis of what the deer leave behind.

The use of DNA is not new, of course – CDFW has used hair or tissue samples to extract DNA and identify individual animals for years. But scientists are finding that the painstaking collection and analysis of deer droppings is particularly useful because it allows them to gather the necessary information without physically touching (or stressing) the animals. And that, one might say, is the “bottom line.”

Fecal DNA analysis is being used by wildlife biologists in the North Central Region as part of a six-year region-wide study of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that will provide population estimates in areas where data has previously been lacking. CDFW scientists, in cooperation with UC Davis, will use the deer pellets to take a genetic “fingerprint” designed to help estimate deer populations.

Starting in 2016, a crew began setting transects for pellet collection in the standardized sampling locations (known to hunters as deer zones X6a/b, X7a/b and X8) which are located in Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer and Alpine counties. After starting points were randomly selected, habitat information and pictures were collected along with fresh pellets. After the pellets were removed from the area in an initial sweep, scientists revisited the transect once a week for three more weeks to collect new samples. Between July and September of 2016, biologists visited 43 different transects in the summer range and collected and analyzed 458 fresh pellet samples. Staff also captured 20 does and seven bucks and fit them with satellite collars that produced data that helped identify summer home ranges.

CDFW will also use DNA to identify individual deer to help gather buck/doe/fawn ratios. Biologists will then combine the DNA data with home range data from collared deer to calculate the estimated number of deer in the population. This year staff have already completed another 36 plots and collared 18 more deer. Another series of pellet collections is scheduled next year, with a goal of continuing until all 17 counties in the region have been sampled.

Although several DNA projects are occurring across the state, this project is the largest landscape-level study for deer in California. The study is funded through CDFW’s Big Game Account, a dedicated account that provides research and management funds for game species. The University of California will conduct the laboratory work and statistical analysis.


The Long Journey of Heenan Lake’s Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

The Long Journey of Heenan Lake’s Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

fingerling trout in a man's hands
Alpine lake under blue sky and mixed clouds
two boys in small boat hold two fish, each
A small building, trailer, and five trucks on an isolated hill

For generations, anglers in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains fished for one of the most cherished fish in the west, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). These native beauties are prized for their size, with some growing as large as 40 pounds in the Tahoe Basin.

Sightings of these brown and red native fish have been documented as far back as 1853. But as the population of the state grew, especially during the Gold Rush, the fish were nearly wiped out by mining, development, dams, water diversion and other human factors.

Today, LCT are listed under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, and CDFW has increased its commitment to angling enthusiasts by providing more opportunity to catch this historic fish. This effort includes greatly expanding the number of waters and fish planted in recent years.

Every spring, staff from the American River Hatchery in Gold River make the 100-mile journey from the hatchery to the tiny spawning buildings on the shore of Heenan Lake. This pristine body of water is surrounded by granite peaks in remote Alpine County. It is usually not accessible in the winter, cut off by the snowpack, and is only open to catch and release fishing for six weeks a year. It is also the state’s only source of LCT broodstock (groups of mature fish used as the source for eggs and reproduction). Ultimately, the 800,000 eggs spawned at Heenan Lake each year support recreational angling opportunities at multiple locations in the eastern Sierras.

The staff will make the journey up and down the mountain several times over several weeks to spawn the eggs on site. The process involves carefully bathing the eggs in iodine and suspending them in cheesecloth in aluminum jars about two feet tall, before making the journey back to Sacramento or to other state hatcheries. Some of the eggs head to destinations as far away as Filmore Hatchery in Ventura County.

Once at the hatcheries, the eggs are placed in “hatching jars,” where chilled, UV-filtered river water circulates over them continuously. After two to three weeks, the eyes of the baby fish are visible inside the eggs. These “eyed” eggs will be addled—a process in which the eggs are siphoned through a tube in order to shake them up. This causes the infertile, diseased or dead eggs to turn white, allowing hatchery technicians to easily identify, pick out and discard them. After the fry hatch, they are moved to deep tanks in the hatchery building, where they will spend approximately five months growing before being moved outdoors to large round tanks.

The fish will be planted as fingerlings or sub-catchables (fish that weigh 1/16th-1/6th of a pound) into various high-mountain waterways on the east side of the Sierras. At the time of release, they are still too small to be caught, but they will quickly grow to be trophy-sized fish for the state’s anglers who want to make the journey into the high altitudes.



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