Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
For some public properties, livestock grazing can be an important land management tool to help maintain specific habitat conditions, control invasive weeds and reduce fire hazards. In areas invaded by non-native vegetative species, it is necessary to control vegetation height and density in order to keep habitats functioning for certain sensitive species. For instance, the burrowing owl requires low vegetation cover in order to forage for prey effectively and prevent predators from approaching unseen. Other species that have been known to benefit from managed livestock grazing include California tiger salamander, Yosemite toad and certain sensitive butterfly species.
Controlling the height and density of non-native annual grasslands through grazing has also been shown to help increase forage efficiency for many species of raptors, and it’s used as a tool in some areas of California to maintain sensitive vernal pool habitats.
For years, local, state and federal agencies, as well as non-government organizations, have utilized livestock grazing on public lands. It is important to have many tools available for habitat management because it can sometimes be complicated. Factors such as the presence of listed or protected species, compatible public land uses and erosion -- as well as other land management practices such as herbicide application, mowing and prescribed fires -- must all be considered.
CDFW’s Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in San Diego County recently hosted a livestock grazing workshop presented by Rancher to Rancher (R2R) program spokesperson Kent Reeves, and UC Davis researcher Dr. Christina Wolf. The goal of the R2R program is to provide information and educational resources to private ranchers about evolving livestock management practices intended to promote native ecosystem health, and therefore, more sustainable grazing programs. More than 40 participants, including local private ranchers and representatives from about a dozen government and non-government organizations attended the workshop. Participants learned about developing progressive management practices, such as the use of increased stocking densities for shorter, more frequent durations, in order to increase carbon sequestration in the soils. This method is currently being studied as a way of encouraging native grass species as well as combating changing climate conditions.
Brush habitats were created and put into Lake Perris to provide fish with habitat to feed and reproduce. The habitats will be completely submersed when the lake is filled to capacity.
The exposed lakebed gave CDFW fisheries biologists the opportunity to safely construct different kinds of habitat for the fish in Lake Perris.
Rock Reefs and Spawning gravel areas have been created and placed in more than 100 places around Lake Perris that will be utilized once the lake is returned to full capacity.
Rock Reefs constructed along the shore of Lake Perris, most about 1,000 square feet provide cover for juvenile fish and forage species.
135 Pipe Caves were constructed from PVC pipe and will provide spawning habitat for catfish.
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.
More than a decade ago, Southern California freshwater anglers were disappointed to see a tried-and-true fishing spot dramatically affected by an emergency lake drawdown. Due to seismic concerns with the Perris Dam, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials deemed it necessary to reduce the water level at Lake Perris near Riverside by several thousands of acre-feet.
The drawdown exposed about 25 feet of bank around the perimeter of the lake. Since water was not going to be available for years while the dam was assessed and repaired, CDFW embarked upon a fisheries habitat mitigation project (funded by DWR) to create new fish habitat in the remaining water and the now exposed lakebed.
The project had two phases. The first was to immediately create fisheries habitat in the drawn-down portion of the lake in order to maximize use of the remaining water. The second was to build new habitats on the temporarily exposed areas, with the hope of benefitting both sport-fish species and anglers when the lake is eventually refilled.
After 12 years, both phases are nearly completed.
After the initial water level reduction, teams from CDFW and DWR began working to prevent the immediate collapse of the lake’s fishery. The initial work, which took three years, involved the creation and placement of about 400 fish habitats made of recycled Christmas trees and citrus limbs. The man-made shelters ensured the fish would have places to hide and reproduce.
After the initial triage, CDFW biologists began to place additional habitats into the remaining water of Lake Perris. These habitats, made of thousands of tree trunks, citrus limbs and whole tree stumps would eventually give the lake’s fish an additional 1,500 refuges for safety.
The citrus limbs were drilled with a ½” hole in the base and multiple limbs were tied together as compactly as possible and attached to a concrete block with polypropylene ropes to weigh them down. They were then placed strategically in different parts of the lake. These citrus habitats should provide cover for the warm water fish for at least 10 - 15 years.
Due to their bulk, increased buoyancy and weight, the single tree stumps were placed individually around the lake and weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored.
Because the lake will be refilled to capacity once dam repairs are complete, it is important that the scientists are able to carefully track each habitat location. They worked in quadrants, placing 20 - 60 bundles into each to create “communities.” The grouped communities increase localized productivity of the warm water fish native to the lake and contribute to maintaining the warm water fisheries while the lake is in its reduced capacity. Each of the quadrant’s corners was marked with GPS, enabling scientists to record and monitor data specific to each location.
The second phase of the project was the implementation of a Fishery Habitat Plan for the exposed lakebed above the drawn-down area. The implementation of the plan is a requirement of the Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement between CDFW and DWR.
As with the below-water work that had already been completed, CDFW scientists carefully planned what kinds of habitat to create, what materials to use and where to place them in the open, exposed lakebed in order to provide the best environments for fish when the lake was fully restored. Areas were selected for habitat placement based on accessibility, proximity to existing natural habitat directly affected by the water reduction, avoidance of areas utilized for construction activities, distance from swimming areas and consideration of boating hazards.
Multiple types of habitats were designed and installed in Lake Perris, including:
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Citrus tree stumps, weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored were placed individually around Lake Perris to create small habitats called communities.
# # #
California’s drought emergency was officially declared to be over last year, but its deleterious impact on fish habitat is still being felt in many parts of the state -- especially in arid parts of Southern California. In order to help offset these effects at one site in northern San Diego County, CDFW biologists and other staff recently toiled to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.
The Sweetwater River is a second-order stream located within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The underlying rock is granite, which, as it erodes, creates sand that accumulates in the low-gradient portion of the river. Previous surveys in the Sweetwater River revealed a lack of high-quality spawning habitat for the rainbow trout population, which was reduced by 70 to 80 percent during the recent drought.
Seeing an opportunity to restore habitat to this waterway, South Coast Region fisheries biologists came up with a plan to place suitable materials into Sweetwater for the rainbow trout to use for new spawning grounds. Beginning on March 20, CDFW Environmental Scientist Russell Barabe, scientific aids Joseph Stanovich and Ken Sankary and volunteer Mark Berlin worked in the hot sun and dry conditions to rehab the streambed. Using a nearby dry stream channel, the team shoveled hundreds of pounds of rocks and materials through mesh screens to remove fine sediment and sand and clean the rock, called cobbles, to make them ready for placement into Sweetwater River. All the rock had to be moved one bucket at a time and poured into pool tailouts (the downstream end of a pool where the water gradually shallows) to create spawning beds about three feet square for rainbow trout.
Though similar work has been done in northern California – specifically two larger-scale projects in the American and Sacramento rivers, which served as the inspiration for this project – it had never been done in this small a stream before.
This small but important project could increase the spawning success of a drought-reduced population in a stream with easy public access. If successful, this project could be used as a model for future habitat restoration activities in other small trout streams. The fisheries team’s work is an example of how our scientists put the mission of CDFW – to conserve California’s fish and wildlife resources for the use and enjoyment of the public – into action.
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW Scientists hauling buckets of rocks to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.
Restoration project area. CDFW photo by Andrew Hughan.
Yellow and orange indicate restoration areas at the Ocean Ranch Unit of CDFW's Eel River Wildlife Area.
How does one best go about making an already bountiful and bucolic part of the Golden State even better? Sometimes, perhaps paradoxically, it pays to look to the past in order to be forward thinking in the present.
CDFW, Ducks Unlimited, and many partners have undertaken the Ocean Ranch Unit of the Eel River Wildlife Area Integrative Ecosystem Restoration Project Planning Process to enhance the estuarine and coastal dune ecosystem of the Ocean Ranch Unit in Humboldt County
The approximately 2,600-acre Eel River Wildlife Area was acquired to protect and enhance coastal wetland habitat, and was designated as a wildlife area by the California Fish and Game Commission in 1968. The initial decision to undertake an estuary restoration-planning project began more than a decade ago. After several years of monitoring to gather necessary data, Ducks Unlimited completed a feasibility study, funded by CDFW’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program and the California State Coastal Conservancy, in December 2015.
The primary goal is to restore and expand natural estuarine and dune ecosystem functions, including the recovery and enhancement of native species (including fish, invertebrates, wildlife and plants) and their habitats. These changes should also help mitigate current and future impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will likely result in saltwater inundation further upstream, which is expected to modify habitats (for example, the loss of tidal marsh migration inland) and the size and shape of the estuary.
The project has been a revelation for Michelle Gilroy, a CDFW district fisheries biologist who works primarily in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
“For the first time in my 30-year fisheries career, which began in the Eel River watershed, I am achieving a long-time goal of mine: To envision, develop and work through to completion, or near completion, a large restoration project,” said Gilroy. “This exciting project and the extraordinary team I am so very fortunate to work with is making that dream a reality – and in the Eel River estuary, one of California’s largest estuaries. It is definitely one of the highlights of my career.”
Improving the connectivity of tidal and freshwater habitats, and controlling or eradicating invasive plants, are key goals of the restoration project.
A feasibility study guiding the project analyzed the potential for expanding tidal functions within 475 of the 933 acres of the unit to aide in the recovery and enhancement of estuarine habitat and native species. Restoration of these essential habitats is vital to the recovery of anadromous salmonid populations in the Eel River, as estuaries provide critical nursery and rearing conditions for juveniles prior to ocean entry.
The unit is located within the Eel River estuary, a mile and a half north of the mouth of the Eel River and approximately four miles northwest of Loleta. The unit is comprised of a diverse set of habitats, including coastal dunes, riparian woodlands, tidal mudflats, tidal slough channels, salt marshes and managed freshwater marshes.
Prior to second-wave human settlements, this portion of the estuary, then inhabited by Native Americans, consisted primarily of salt-marsh habitat dotted with areas of spruce and hardwood forest, and native grasslands. An abundant fishery, which included the prized salmon, along with native plants, provided sustenance for the Wiyot people who lived around Humboldt Bay and the estuary. As Euro-Americans settled this region, however, they largely drove the Wiyot people off their traditional lands and began to repurpose portions of the environment.
By the end of the 1800s, most of the salt marsh and forestlands were drained and converted to farm and grazing land. This conversion of tidal marshes to pastures was done with purpose – but such perceived progress carried an ecological cost.
The construction of levees and tide gates to drain salt marsh increased sedimentation, flooding, and the amount and diversity of habitat and food supply for fish and wildlife declined throughout the estuary. This degraded the prior functioning, highly productive estuary ecosystem. In addition, invasive species now threaten the diversity or abundance of native species through competition for resources, predation, parasitism, interbreeding with native populations, transmitting diseases, or causing physical or chemical changes to the invaded habitat.
Despite these declines, the Eel River delta, which includes the Eel River Wildlife Area, today continues to provide vital habitat for many aquatic and terrestrial organisms, including state and federally threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species, and many state species of special concern. More than 40 species of mammals and 200 species of birds use the delta area and researchers have documented at least 45 fish species in the Eel River estuary alone.
The area provides essential spawning, nursery and feeding grounds to several commercially and recreationally important species, including Dungeness crab. Estuaries are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world and are one of the preferred habitats for young Dungeness crabs.
Dungeness crabs use estuaries as critical nursery habitat in their juvenile stages, as not only a refuge from predation – particularly in estuaries with structural habitat such as eelgrass – but also because of the abundance and diversity of prey provided by estuaries. Dungeness crabs are opportunistic feeders – clams, fish, isopods and amphipods are their preferred food sources, as well as other Dungeness crabs. Their predators include those larger crabs, octopuses, and fish, including salmon, lingcod and various rockfishes.
Wildlife, of course, is not the only form of life to reap the benefits of this region, as humans enjoy a range of outdoor activities, including fishing, bird-watching, boating, hiking and hunting.
The project is expected to begin in the summer of 2019.
CDFW photos and map
Top photo: CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Kirsten Ramey and Eric Ojerholm of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Partners, Funding and Staff
Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with CDFW staff, has recently secured project planning funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and initial project implementation funds from the NOAA Restoration Center. To complete the restoration design and environmental compliance process, this second phase of restoration planning will consist of a continued CDFW and Ducks Unlimited partnership, with additional assistance from several local consultants and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The TAC includes representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Coastal Commission, California State Coastal Conservancy, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Sea Grant, California Trout, Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, Humboldt State University, Redwood Region Audubon Society, private landowners, and the Wiyot Tribe. Additional project partners include AmeriCorps, Tom Origer and Associates, Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife and Wetlands Restoration Association, GHD Inc., H.T. Harvey and Associates, Moffatt and Nichol, Northern Hydrology Engineering, Pacific Coast Joint Venture, and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.
CDFW staff who have served on the project management team include Michelle Gilroy, Allan Renger, Scott Monday, Kirsten Ramey, James Ray, Mark Smelser, Gordon Leppig, Michael van Hattem, Jennifer Olson, Linda Miller, Clare Golec, Charles Bartolotta, Robert Sullivan, Tony LaBanca, Mark Wheetley, Scott Downie, Adam Frimodig, Jeff Dayton, Mike Wallace, Vicki Frey, John Mello, and Karen Kovacs.
A dwindling population of a tiny owl in Southern California has a chance at a comeback, thanks to a collaborative effort by scientists from CDFW, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR), Caltrans and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern, and nongame scientists have long been concerned about their viability and survival. Breeding populations have especially declined in the central and southern coastal areas, due in large part to a combination of habitat loss and eradication of the ground squirrels that dig out the burrows where the owls make their nests. In San Diego County specifically, the once-widespread population has been reduced to a single breeding node in the Otay Mesa region, just north of the Mexico border.
Two groups in particular have been monitoring these owls carefully, in an effort to help. Biologists from Zoo’s ICR have spent seven years assessing owl population status and productivity, including assessing the feasibility and effectiveness of artificial burrows, refining techniques to help the ground squirrels thrive and disperse into new areas and developing a system of identifying potential new locations where the owls might thrive. Much of ICR’s owl research has been conducted at Brown Field, a small municipal airport near the border within the City of San Diego, and on an adjacent property owned by Caltrans.
Meanwhile, about 10 miles from the Brown Field study site, CDFW scientists have spent a decade working to create more suitable burrowing owl habitat at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve (RJER). Efforts there included installation of artificial burrows and mowing the tall grass to foster a low-growing grassland suitable for burrowing owls and ground squirrels. Despite their best efforts, CDFW scientists studying the Rancho Jamul site have experienced many years of disappointment -- although wintering owls have shown up every year, none have stayed and attempted to breed on the property. But conditions have been improving over the last four years, thanks to the implementation of a grazing program that reduced dense thatches of old grasses and expanded areas of open ground. As habitat changed at Rancho Jamul, CDFW scientists observed more squirrel burrows, and the conditions seemed just about right for the owls.
This spring, an approved development project at Brown Field began to take shape – and it became evident that the timing for an owl translocation project was ripe at last. Thanks to efforts by Caltrans, which incorporated burrowing owl habitat restoration as part of their mitigation effort for a nearby highway, CDFW staff believed the owl population to be strong enough to support a translocation effort. Also the spring season, just prior to egg-laying, is likely the optimum time to move the animals. After looking at many options, scientists decided to try to move five pairs of breeding owls to RJER in the hopes that they would establish a new population and thrive.
The full conservation team – which included CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of San Diego, Metro Air Park, Schaefer Ecological Solutions and the San Diego Zoo – was on board and ready to move the owls. In March 2018, the team caught five pairs and moved them to hacking cages at RJER. The owls lived in the cages for about one month to give them time to acclimate to their new surroundings. By the time the cages were removed, each female had laid at least one egg in the artificial burrow chamber.
CDFW Environmental Scientist Dave Mayer has worked on this project for years and is anxious to see efforts at RJER finally pay off. The presence of the eggs, he said, was thrilling to see. “More owls, and at diverse locations, is what it will take to conserve this species in San Diego County. This first step was a long time coming, but I have all my fingers crossed that it’s going to work.”
This successful multi-agency partnership will continue long past the actual translocation day. Scientists banded the owls and fitted some with radio transmitters. ICR staff will monitor the owls themselves, while CDFW staff will monitor the grassland and the grazing program, and perform inspections and repairs of the artificial burrows twice a year. After five years, CDFW will perform regular monitoring of the owls, the habitat and associated grazing practices, and the general status of the ground squirrel population.
Mayer is proud of the work achieved so far in this unusual project. “We built a better mousetrap, with the Zoo’s help,” he says.
General information about California’s bird species of special concern can be found on the CDFW website, along with the species account (PDF) for the burrowing owl and information about Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.
The San Diego Zoo has also issued a news release with more details about the burrowing owl translocation project.
All photos © San Diego Zoo Global, all rights reserved
Deep in the pickleweed in the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays, the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) tries to avoid predators and compete with other species for prime habitat. Food and cover are abundant, but its overall habitat is shrinking as humans encroach upon its home range. In south San Francisco Bay alone, 95 percent of the historic salt marsh has been lost to industrial parks and subdivisions. Annual flooding in the winter can be perilous, too -- when vegetation is topped by rising tides, the mice must scramble to find taller vegetation or into upland habitat (grasses around the wetlands that don’t get flooded by the tides).
As part of the effort to monitor and conserve this state- and federally-listed endangered species, biologists conduct annual surveys of the salt marsh harvest mouse. The effort involves setting up traps stuffed with cotton batting and baited with birdseed and walnuts, taking measurements and collecting other data on the subjects that are captured. In some studies, the mice are fitted with GPS collars for tracking, or ear tags to help identify them upon recapture. In other studies, the biologists simply clip away fur on the mouse’s flank or neck – another method that helps them determine whether a mouse in a trap has crossed paths with them before.
Once a mouse’s measurements have been recorded, they are set loose to scamper back into the pickleweed. The data that’s been collected will later be entered into a larger database that will be accessible to researchers from multiple state agencies (CDFW, the Department of Water Resources), federal agencies (US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey), educational research institutions (UC Davis, CSU San Marcos, San Francisco State) and private industry.
By comparing population fluctuations and other data throughout the range, scientists hope to identify threats and increase their understanding of this rare rodent’s biology and behavior – ultimately helping to better inform future decisions on habitat management, restoration and enhancement efforts.
Habitat is the key to the long-term survival of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook in California. Since 1999, CDFW has been working with multiple agencies and private parties on planning efforts to restore the population of these endangered salmon. More than $100 million has been allocated to specific habitat restoration work on Battle Creek, which comprises approximately 48 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.
Over the next two months, approximately 200,000 juvenile winter-run Chinook will be released into the North Fork of Battle Creek. The introduction of these fish, which were spawned from adults last summer, is occurring sooner than expected due the availability of fish from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery Winter-run Chinook Captive Broodstock Program. The fish were raised at Coleman National Fish Hatchery and are being released by Coleman Hatchery personnel. These additional fish could help bolster the winter-run Chinook population and be a potential catalyst in their recovery.
CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Doug Killam has worked on the Battle Creek Reintroduction Plan for nearly a decade and has been instrumental in moving in-stream projects forward. Killam sees the release of 200,000 smolts as an important step in the overall effort. The release will reestablish winter-run Chinook in a new drainage and create a separate new population. Currently there is only one viable population existing in the Sacramento River directly below Keswick and Shasta Dams. The recent drought affected the volume of the critical cold-water pool in Shasta Lake and the release of warmer water in the drought years of 2014 and 2015 resulted in major losses to eggs and young salmon below the dam. Biologists have long recognized that having more than one winter-run Chinook population is imperative for the long-term survival of the species.
A volcanic region with rugged canyons and dramatic scenery, the North Fork of Battle Creek is unique since it has both cold snowmelt water and large amounts of spring water flowing into it at critical times for winter-run salmon to hold over in and spawn in. It is also one of a handful of waters that can support all four of the Chinook salmon runs that return to the Sacramento River Basin. Hydroelectric development of the creek in the early 1900s largely eliminated winter-run Chinook and other salmonid runs from swimming far upstream to access the cooler water required for these unique summer spawning salmon. Recent efforts to bring the fish back to the North Fork include dam removals, rock fall removal, new fish ladders and fish screens and – most importantly – an agreement to increase stream flows to provide fish with the water quantity and quality they need to survive and thrive in this important keystone stream.
CDFW photo by Heather McIntire. Map by CDFW Fisheries Branch.
to receive Science Spotlight and Featured Scientist articles by email