Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Porcupine1: NRVP participants Greg Moore, Mike Maulhardt, Charles Brown and Ben Smith volunteered to service and maintain porcupine stations at Red Lake Wildlife Area.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but studying California’s porcupines hasn’t traditionally been a high priority for CDFW.
Wildlife research funding is limited, especially for non-game species, and species listed as threatened or endangered are typically given top priority. That means that scientists sometimes need to be creative – and frugal – in their efforts to survey and manage non-listed, non-game species.
Stacy Anderson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist specialist based in Rancho Cordova, recently conducted a pilot project that does just that.
Anderson developed an interest in the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in 2017, after acknowledging that anecdotal evidence seems to indicate their numbers are on the decline.
Porcupines have historically inhabited diverse habitats including Humboldt County, along the Sacramento River, in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, the southern Cascades, the Modoc Plateau and the Sierra Nevada. But in her conversations with unit biologists and wildlife officers in some of these areas, Anderson took note that many were reporting a substantial decrease in the number of calls from residents whose property – typically wood structures such as decks and outhouses – had been damaged by porcupines in recent decades. Informal surveys of veterinarians across the state also indicated a decline in the number of pet owners seeking quill removal from their pets.
Perhaps most telling, CDFW’s Sierra Nevada monitoring project, which has studied portions of the Sierra for the past nine years, has documented only seven porcupine sightings out of 750 stations surveyed via trail camera.
“We are worried about them because we don’t have a lot of sightings,” Anderson said. They live in low densities and they have only have one baby per year, so they don’t repopulate quickly.”
Recognizing the need to gather more information, Anderson and Evan King, another CDFW environmental scientist, launched a pilot effort last year to improve surveillance of porcupine, with a long-term goal of determining distribution and population numbers.
Anderson and King were inspired by the work of Uldis Roze, a researcher who has long studied porcupines in the Catskills of New York by using wood soaked in salt brine as a porcupine attractant. His research indicates that porcupines show a strong seasonality of salt use, which peaks in April through May and August through September. Because porcupines’ diet of plant matter is generally low in sodium (salt), they seek out other dietary sources of sodium to maintain normal levels in their bodies.
Anderson and King theorized that brined wood could be effective in attracting California porcupines, too. A plan was made to soak stakes made from 2x2s in a sodium brine to monitor activity. In theory, tooth scrapings on the wood could also be identified to species.
“It’s not a full-blown study – it’s just a way to test a plan of action that can maybe be used in a study later,” Anderson explained. “We don’t want to waste valuable resources on untested methodology, so this is a way to find out first if the methodology is going to work. It’s a low-cost, high yield approach.”
Twenty-three stations were set up for the 2017 pilot project, which was conducted from April to October. Members of CDFW’s Natural Resources Volunteer Program, who support departmental operations, supplied much of the labor, and the study costs were kept low. Expenses added up to less than $100, including salt for brining and wood. Trail cameras borrowed from other researchers were utilized to help monitor the stations.
Researchers were pleased to learn that the porcupines took to their efforts with a grain of salt (so to speak). They determined that brined-wood monitoring is more effective than traditional bait or game-trail monitoring, at least in the study area in northern Sierra and along the Sacramento River. Preliminary results indicate that the brined wood appeared to lure porcupines into the area of a camera station -- although most did not approach the wood and fewer still left a distinctive chew mark on the brined wood. But the trail cameras provided clear, useful photographs.
“We still have unanswered questions about this technique that will need to be addressed before we can consider it a success,” Anderson said. “However, our pilot efforts are promising.”
CDFW is seeking additional funding through state wildlife grants and collaborative efforts with other researchers and agencies to gain a better understanding of the North American porcupine’s status. Anderson plans to continue refining the methodology of her study, along with other survey techniques including habitat surveys, feeding signs, tree girdling, scat searches and the use of detection dogs.
Anderson also encourages members of the public to help CDFW’s efforts by reporting detections of live or “roadkill” porcupines.
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Porcupine photo by CDFW Warden Chad Alexander.
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 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.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently launched the first phase of a multi-year study of tule elk in Colusa and Lake counties. In partnership with the University of California, Davis and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and with the assistance of capture specialists from Leading Edge Aviation, researchers used helicopter net guns to capture and place satellite collars on 45 tule elk.
The technique of using DNA extracted from fecal pellets to study wildlife populations is a relatively new, non-invasive approach that minimally disturbs animals and enables surveys in low-visibility habitats where sight-based surveys would be relatively ineffective. It is also less costly than other survey methods, and therefore can be used more frequently.
While fecal DNA analysis has been used to estimate abundance and other population parameters in deer herds in California since 2011, this study will be the first application of the technique to free-ranging tule elk. The study results will guide future elk conservation planning efforts.
Tule elk are a native subspecies of elk unique to California. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, they numbered more than half a million statewide, but the population rapidly declined in the mid-1800s due to unregulated market hunting and habitat loss. In 1875, a ranch owner in Kern County took efforts to protect the last remaining tule elk and allowed them to multiply on his property, likely saving them from extirpation.
Since 1975, CDFW has captured and relocated more than 1,500 elk. As a result, there are an estimated 5,100-plus tule elk distributed in 22 herds throughout California today. See more information about the distribution, range and history of this unique animal in California.
Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Oregon State University recently published the results of a population study on fishers (Pekania pennanti) in northern California and southern Oregon. Led by CDFW Wildlife Statistician Dr. Brett Furnas and three coauthors, CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Richard Callas, CDFW Research Analyst Russ Landers and Dr. Sean Matthews of Oregon State University, the study produced the first-ever robust estimates of density and size of the fisher population in northern California.
“This is the first time we’ve come up with a solid number of fishers, which is a starting point for tracking and monitoring populations,” Furnas said. “One of the most important tools we have used so far to help this species is reintroductions, so now -- with a baseline established and ongoing surveys planned -- we’ll be able to see if the population is really rebounding over time.”
Fishers in northern California and southern Oregon represent the largest remaining population in the Pacific states. The species once ranged from the state of Washington southward through Oregon and California. Currently, fishers occupy only a small portion of their historical range in that region. In California, fishers are found in the northern areas of the state and a small, isolated population occurs in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.
CDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been petitioned on several occasions to list fishers as threatened or endangered under their respective Endangered Species Acts.
In 2016, while considering fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the California Fish and Game Commission voted that the petitioned action was warranted in part, choosing to accept the petition in the context of the Southern Sierra Nevada Evolutionarily Significant Unit, and adopted findings to that effect, which were published on May 6, 2016. Although fishers are relatively well-distributed in northern California and in portions of southern Oregon, data from existing surveys and prior studies was used to estimate abundance. This information is critically important to assess the status of fishers and serve as a baseline for conservation efforts.
Furnas and his coauthors used data from camera traps, hierarchical modeling of detections and non-detections of fishers from the cameras, and information about fisher home range size to develop their estimate of population size. They estimated that approximately 3,200 fishers occur within the northern California and southern Oregon study area, with an average density of 5.1 to 8.6 fishers per 100 square kilometers.
Estimating the sizes of wildlife populations is challenging, particularly for species such as the fisher that are difficult to observe and occur over large areas. A final population estimate for the fisher would not have been possible without the cooperation of a variety of federal and tribal agencies, universities and private landowners who shared datasets that were combined to complete the modeling. With these data, Furnas and his coauthors demonstrated that estimating the population size of the fisher at large geographic scales is feasible. They also suggested that the methods used in their research could be used to estimate the abundance of other carnivores, including black bear, gray fox and coyote.
The study was published in the journal Ecosphere. More information / view publication
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.
CDFW wants to know if, when and where you’ve seen an elk in California – and they’ve just created a new online reporting tool that makes it easy for members of the public to share this information.
CDFW scientists will use the raw data to help guide their efforts to study statewide elk distribution, migration patterns and herd movement, population size estimates, habitat use, health and diseases, and causes of mortality.
“We have limited resources and our scientists cannot scan the entire landscape,” explained CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura. “This tool provides a way for us to leverage the many sightings of the wildlife-watching public. People often get excited when they see elk, and hopefully now they will channel that excitement by reporting the location and time of their sighting to our department.”
There are three subspecies of elk in the state – tule, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt -- and all three have expanded their range in recent years according to Figura.
CDFW has elk studies underway in the northern part of the state: one is focused on Roosevelt elk in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and the other is focused on elk in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Tracking and studying such a large mammal is a complex undertaking as elk herds are wide-ranging, and often graze and browse in areas that are not easily accessible, and there are only so many scientists to monitor their movements.
The launch of the reporting tool is just the latest effort to enhance the management of elk in California. Last year CDFW released a public draft of the Statewide Elk Conservation and Management Plan that addresses historical and current geographic range, habitat conditions and trends, and major factors affecting elk in California.
The plan will provide guidance and direction for setting priorities for elk management efforts statewide. CDFW is reviewing public comments on the plan and will incorporate appropriate changes into the final document prior to its release, which is expected soon.
CDFW Wildlife Branch Chief Kari Lewis has termed the plan an “important milestone” and explained that public feedback is a critical part of shaping the effort, which emphasizes a sharing of resources and collaboration with all parties interested in elk and elk management. This, she said, is essential to effectively managing California’s elk populations.
For more information about elk in California, please visit CDFW’s elk management webpage.
CDFW File Photo. Top photo: Group of Tule Elk.
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Surveying Ventura River in Ventura County
Snorkel survey in Hollow Tree Creek in Mendocino County
Hollow Tree Creek steelhead
Taking care of California’s fish and wildlife wouldn’t be possible without managing the resources upon which they depend. To that end, CDFW has an entire branch – and many scientific staff – dedicated to the scientific study, and planning and management of water resources.
Within the Water Branch, CDFW’s Instream Flow Program (IFP) is tasked with collecting and contributing data necessary to make all kinds of important management decisions about ecological function, fish rearing, spawning and migration and habitat suitability.
In the simplest terms, “instream flow” refers to the rate of the water running through a waterway in a natural environment. But when one considers all the interests competing for use of that water – fisherman, boaters, farmers, businesses, water districts, and fish and wildlife themselves – the complexity of the subject is evident.
Measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), instream flow can be measured at different times of the year in a specific location in a waterway. The fluctuations can tell scientists quite a bit about the ecosystem health of a watershed. While some watersheds have flowing water throughout the year and others are intermittent it is often the responsibility of water managers to distribute the water between uses. CDFW, a natural resource management agency, is faced with the complex task of identifying and recommending instream flows necessary for supporting natural resources. Determining instream flows are crucial so that aquatic, riparian, and terrestrial resources dependent on water will be considered and protected during water distribution activities.
Guided by the California Water Action Plan, the Public Resources Code and the Fish and Game Code, IFP staff conduct flow studies, collect field data, develop guidelines for quality assurance, conduct outreach and coordinate with other agencies and interested parties on program-related activities.
In the past year, some of IFP staff’s largest projects have included:
To learn more about these specific projects, please download the IFP’s 2017 Year in Review (PDF) document, available on CDFW’s website.
A Featured Scientist Q&A with the IFP manager Robert Holmes is also available on the CDFW Science Institute page.
CDFW photos. Top photo: IFP staff hold a planning meeting prior to a survey on the Ventura River in Ventura County
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