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Science Spotlight: Studying a “Foundation Species” in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

Science Spotlight: Studying a “Foundation Species” in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

a white-spotted fawn lies in straw as its leg is measured
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.

four deer are suspended in the air, in safety harnesses, from a red helicopter
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.

Driving up Interstate 5 through Siskiyou County in northern California, one cannot help but take notice of the looming, majestic land mass of Mount Shasta, the largest volcano in the Cascade system.

In this rugged region of the Golden State, mule deer are an iconic species, valued by recreationists and required by wild carnivores who prey upon them for nourishment. Mule deer are considered a “foundation species” because the large landscapes that are necessary for their survival can also be home to a vast array of other wildlife and plant species. But mule deer populations have dramatically declined in recent decades across many western ranges, and in Siskiyou County, this decrease has prompted researchers from CDFW and the University of California, Santa Cruz to partner on a multi-year effort to investigate the population dynamics of this high-profile species.

Since 2015, 51 adult female mule deer and 37 fawns have been captured in the Mount Shasta region. Biological samples, including blood and parasites, have been collected, physical measurements of body condition and age recorded and telemetry collars attached to each subject. Collars on adult deer provide a GPS location every hour and alert researchers when a mortality occurs. The collars also document movement details, including migration routes and the location of critical winter and reproductive ranges. The fawn collars feature location beacons that allow researchers to monitor both general movements and when a mortality has occurred. Once a mortality alert is sent from a collar, a search of the site and an examination of the carcass ensues to determine if the deer died from predation or other causes, such as disease or malnutrition. The collars have timed releases and are set to drop off the animal after 18 months. Researchers can then reuse the collars after retrieving them by following a GPS signal. This high-tech, high-resolution documentation of deer behavior is vital for prioritizing the conservation value of landscapes so they may be better protected in the future.

With the recent arrival of gray wolves to northeastern California, predators are a key focus of the mule deer project. Understanding the influence this large canid will have on natural prey species begins with establishing baselines of how current predators -- including mountain lions, bears, bobcats and coyotes -- are affecting prey in this region. Mountain lions, which rely on deer as the primary component of their diet, are a major focus of this study. Researchers have captured and affixed five adult mountain lions with GPS telemetry collars, allowing them to track and study rates of predation, feeding patterns and diet composition.

The analysis of fecal DNA combined with new statistical techniques is another way to study population density and composition across broad landscapes. DNA analysis allows researchers to determine the sex and identity of an individual deer, which is used to estimate densities and gender ratios. Researchers are collecting fecal samples throughout the mule deer’s summer range, in the hopes of reliably extrapolating estimates of density and sex ratios across the entire region.

This project, which began in 2015, is scheduled to continue into 2019, as researchers strive to gain further insight into the lives of mule deer and predators across this ecologically complex and breathtakingly beautiful region of the state.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos.
Top photo: Mount Shasta in winter.


Wire Cages and Hard Work Help Prevent Extinction of a Rare Native Plant

Wire Cages and Hard Work Help Prevent Extinction of a Rare Native Plant

a pink, anenome-like flower grows next to a granite rock, under a barely visible, protective wire cage
Lassics lupine grows under protective cages.

a man sits beneath a pine tree on a bed of dry needles, building a small wire cage
Richard Macedo, Habitat Conservation Planning Branch Chief constructs a cage to protect rare, endangered Lassics lupine.

a pink flower with daisy-shaped leaves grows next to a rock, under a wire cage
Lassics lupine grows under protective cages.

Biologists from three government natural resource agencies banded together this summer in an unusual effort to help preserve a species under threat of extinction. They lugged materials to build wire cages into the rough terrain of the remote Lassics mountains near the border of Humboldt and Trinity counties in an effort to protect their target. However, these cages were not built to trap animals; they were constructed to keep animals out.

The barren, green serpentine slopes of Mount Lassic, located in a seldom-visited part of Six Rivers National Forest, are home to one of California’s rarest plants: the Lassics lupine (Lupinus constancei). Lassics lupine is a short plant in the pea family that has bright rose-pink flowers. Only approximately 450 adult Lassics lupine plants were observed during 2017 monitoring of the species conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with assistance from CDFW.

Rodents such as deer mice, squirrels and chipmunks have been eating so many Lassics lupine seeds from the plants that, absent intervention, the species appears to be on the path to extinction within the next 50 years (Kurkjian et al. 2016).

Biologists believe that historical suppression of fires in Six Rivers National Forest beginning in the early 1900s may be indirectly responsible for the encroachment of forest and chaparral into Lassics lupine habitat. Fires that were put out quickly did not grow large enough to reduce encroaching forest, and therefore the forest expanded. With the encroaching vegetation came more seed-eating rodents that depend on vegetation cover for protection from predators.

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other researchers began an emergency attempt to halt Lassics lupine’s trend towards extinction. Each summer, biologists set off on the laborious hike up Mount Lassic to place cylindrical wire cages over as many flowering Lassics lupine plants as possible. Each cage is anchored to the ground to prevent rodents from squeezing underneath.

The cages are remarkably effective at stopping rodents when properly installed, and they remain on the plants for the duration of the growing season. After Lassics lupine fruits have matured, they often split open suddenly and send seeds flying through the air up to 13 feet away. The cages are then removed each year before the onset of winter snow.

“Protecting endangered species is California’s policy and plants like the Lassics lupine could disappear within our lifetimes,” explained Jeb Bjerke, a biologist with CDFW’s Native Plant Program. “We should do what we can to save these unique plants for the future.”

In 2015, in the midst of an historic drought, an 18,200-acre fire spread through the Lassics, killing many Lassics lupine plants and charring the chaparral vegetation nearby. The fire had little effect on the forest that encroaches into Lassics lupine habitat, but preliminary studies suggest that the fire may have reduced rodent density in the burned chaparral. Despite the apparent reduction in rodent density following the fire, the impact from rodents eating Lassics lupine seeds remains high. Continued caging of Lassics lupine plants therefore remains critical for preventing extinction of the species until a more permanent solution can be implemented, such as significant reduction of encroaching forest. However, such efforts are expensive to plan and implement. As the primary land manager, the U.S. Forest Service would likely be the lead agency in future protective actions.

In 2016, the California Fish and Game Commission received a petition to list Lassics lupine as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act and the species was designated a candidate species earlier this year. CDFW is in the process of producing a status review for Lassics lupine that will include a recommendation to the California Fish and Game Commission on whether listing the species is warranted. The legislature directs all state agencies, including CDFW, to seek the conservation of endangered and threatened species.

“I hope that CDFW can continue to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Lassics lupine from extinction,” Bjerke said.

For additional information on this subject, please see:

California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos by Jeb Bjerke



Recent Posts

  • Science Spotlight: Studying a “Foundation Species” in the Shadow of Mount Shasta Posted last week
    CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study. CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule ...
  • Wire Cages and Hard Work Help Prevent Extinction of a Rare Native Plant Posted 2 weeks ago
    Lassics lupine grows under protective cages. Richard Macedo, Habitat Conservation Planning Branch Chief constructs a cage to protect rare, endangered Lassics lupine. Lassics lupine grows under protective cages. Biologists from three government natural resource agencies banded together this summer in an unusual ...
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