Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were once one of the most numerous large mammals in California, with populations estimated to have been as high as 500,000 prior to the Gold Rush era. In the mid-1800s, pronghorn were nearly extirpated by market-shooting to feed California’s rapidly expanding human population.
The remaining population of pronghorn has long been understudied. Prior data collected on the species have been limited to herd counts and habitat selection. In recent years, there has been growing concern over pronghorn populations, particularly in northeastern California. During the harsh winter of 1992, the number of pronghorn dropped almost 50 percent to an estimated 5,000 individuals. The northeastern portion of the state currently supports a population of approximately 4,500 animals that occur primarily in Modoc, Lassen, Siskiyou and Shasta counties and has been fairly stable, with slow declines, since about 2000. The herd’s inability to rebound has prompted scientists to try to understand the specific conditions leading to the declines.
In 2016 the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) completed a two-year study, with funding from CDFW’s Big Game Management Account, which explored aspects of the pronghorn population on the Modoc Plateau. The study involved 48 does (adult females) and 42 fawns that were radio-collared and followed until their deaths or the study’s end. The researcher’s objectives were to learn more about the pronghorn use of habitat, aspects of their reproduction and factors affecting survival of does and fawns.
The researchers found that for most of the year, pronghorn used open areas with less shrubby and more herbaceous vegetation within their sagebrush-steppe habitats. But during fawning, when does need to hide their young, they shifted to spending more time in areas with greater densities of shrubs and juniper trees. The annual survival rate for does in the study was 69 percent, which is low compared to other pronghorn populations. Mountain lions accounted for 80 percent of predator-related mortalities, most of which occurred during and just after the peak birthing period when does are most vulnerable. Fawn survival averaged 44 percent, a higher-than-typical figure, with unknown causes (37.5 percent) or suspected coyote predation (21 percent) accounting for most fawn mortalities.
The adults’ increased use of shrubby areas and conifer woodlands during fawning suggests an important factor in the population’s continued decline. Juniper woodlands have been encroaching on the sagebrush-steppe habitat in the Modoc Plateau for decades, and these juniper trees provide areas of concealment for ambush predators such as mountain lions. Most ungulate studies demonstrate that adult survival plays a more critical role in population stability than juvenile survival. CDFW may be able to reduce adult pronghorn mortality through habitat restoration – the removal of encroaching junipers could help to reduce predations by lions, and potentially increase the Modoc pronghorn population.
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The automated recorder model the scientists used. (CDFW photo by Brett Furnas)
Two avian researchers recently completed a groundbreaking study on the effects of climate change, based on the calls of California’s songbirds. By recording the sounds made by eight different songbird species, and tracking the dates they are most vocal and how frequently they sing, the scientists were able to develop a method to measure how the birds are adjusting to climate change.
CDFW Wildlife Ecologist Dr. Brett Furnas and William Jessup University’s Professor Michael McGrann analyzed data from two bird surveys, one done by CDFW and another led by William Jessup University, in the Klamath Mountains and Southern Cascades of northern California. Both studies used automated recorders to monitor bird sounds between 2009 and 2011. The results of their analysis, detailed in a research article entitled Using Occupancy Modeling to Monitor Dates of Peak Vocal Activity for Passerines in California, were published this month in a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.
Furnas and McGrann’s study was prompted by the scientists’ concern that climate change could throw bird’s reproduction cycles out of sync with the seasons. Their work, which represents the first comprehensive assessment of songbird occupancy over approximately 15,000 square miles in California, earned high praise from Steve Beissinger, an expert on avian phenology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Furnas and McGrann provide a textbook example of how to detect differences in the timing of nesting among bird species using information on the peak date of singing derived from surveys and automated recorders,” Beissinger said. “Their results support recent findings of a five-to-twelve day shift forward in the timing of peak singing by California birds in the nearby Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges in response to climate change.”
Because birds’ songs are correlated with their breeding behavior and are easily identifiable to species, the scientists found them to be a useful tool to provide new baseline data for the birds of northern California. Working together, they identified the precise dates of peak vocal activity for eight songbird species: Hutton’s vireo, hermit thrush, dark-eyed junco, Nashville warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, yellow warbler, western tanager and black-headed grosbeak. In addition to gathering baseline data, Furnas and McGrann developed a method to track advances in the timing of vocal activity in the coming decades.
Male songbirds sing for several reasons -- including to advertise their territory or to find a mate with which to breed. When birds are at their most vocal, they are usually near the height of their breeding season, Furnas explained.
Much like the call of the imperiled “canary in the coal mine,” changes in the frequency or timing of these native birdsongs can serve as barometers of the cumulative impact of climate change.
“When the canary starts singing you know that there is a danger, such as a buildup of dangerous gasses in a mine,” Furnas explained. “When the birds in our study start singing earlier in the season, they are warning us that climate change is starting to disrupt complex ecological cycles that developed slowly over millions of years of evolution.”
One of the most interesting findings of the study so far is a hint in the baseline data that migratory birds may be at greater risk than non-migratory birds. “We found the highest singing activity for migrant birds spanned a shorter number of days than the highest singing activity for non-migratory birds,” Furnas said. “This could be because migratory birds have less flexibility to shift the timing of their breeding cycle. If they are prompted by increasing temperatures to migrate earlier in the year, they may arrive at their breeding grounds to find they don’t have enough insects to eat.
“Migratory birds have to compress a lot of activities into a shorter time period with less margin for error,” Furnas explained. “Think of it like scheduling a short holiday somewhere nice, but when you show up, bad weather cancels out a lot of your itinerary.”
This, in turn, negatively affects the very biodiversity that CDFW is responsible for monitoring.
“If all the species adjusted their ecologies similarly, perhaps that would be OK, but unfortunately, we expect that different insects and birds will react in different ways leading to a mismatch of conditions,” Furnas said.
Both CDFW and William Jessup University plan to continue bird surveys over the long term so that California has the information to support effective management of climate change and other conservation challenges.
Top photo: Singing hermit warbler, one of the species addressed in the study. (CDFW photo by Michael McGrann)
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.
Does the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), a freshwater species native to the Pacific Coast, hold secrets to survive climate change and adapt to rising sea levels? CDFW biologists want to know and have partnered with UC Davis and the Department of Water Resources to conduct a long-term study in Solano County’s Suisun Marsh to better understand the aquatic reptiles.
Officially, the Western pond turtle is a Species of Special Concern in California because of declining populations brought about by habitat loss, degradation and competition from that pet store favorite – the non-native, red-eared slider. The pet slider turtles are often released into the environment by their owners after outgrowing or outliving their welcome. They also outgrow and out-compete the medium-sized western pond turtles for food and critical basking spots. Western pond turtle populations are faring even worse in Oregon and Washington.
And yet in the Suisun Marsh, with its brackish water and high salinity, the Western pond turtle appears to be thriving. The Suisun Marsh, ironically, may now be home to one of the strongest populations of Western pond turtles on the West Coast.
“It’s just a really unique population in a place where we didn’t expect to see a freshwater species,” said Mickey Agha, the UC Davis Ph.D. student leading the university’s turtle research with Dr. Brian Todd, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.
As if to underscore the point, researchers this summer collected a turtle with a barnacle attached to its shell – a testament to the marine-like environment to which the Suisun Marsh turtles have adapted.
Researchers also have been impressed with the age, health and size of the individual turtles. At 1 ½ to 2 pounds and with an upper shell that stretches up to 8 inches in length, researchers are discovering some of the largest Western pond turtles ever recorded in California.
“Looking at the ones we’ve collected, we’re seeing a lot of healthy turtles in good body condition,” said Environmental Scientist Melissa Riley, who is leading CDFW’s efforts.
The research began in the summer of 2016 with scientists trying to get a basic sense of turtle population numbers. The turtles are trapped in baited, floating hoop nets, their size, weight and age recorded. Before being released, each turtle is marked by filing a unique pattern of small notches along the edges of the upper shell. More than 125 turtles have been recorded in the project’s database.
Turtle trapping is taking place on three sites at the Suisun Marsh in and around the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Biologists are particularly interested in turtles at the Hill Slough Wildlife Area along Grizzly Island Road as 500 acres there will soon be restored to tidal marshland. Biologists plan to affix tiny, solar-powered, GPS tracking devices to some of the turtles to study their movements and see how they respond to the increasingly saltwater environment at Hill Slough and other parts of the marsh.
“That’s one of the many questions we have,” Agha said. “If sea level rise occurs, what happens to these turtles?”
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.
A tiny, endangered mammal is the subject of an extraordinary conservation effort near the communities of Shoshone and Tecopa in Inyo County.
The Amargosa vole is unique to the Mojave Desert, and today, scientists estimate there are only about 500 remaining in the wild. Though the Amargosa vole is rarely seen by humans, biologists recognize that it is a key link in the native food chain. Predators, including raptors and water birds, share the desert marshes where they live, and the extinction of the Amargosa vole would have a ripple effect on these and many other species as well.
For a year, a scientific team consisting of CDFW, UC Davis and US Geological Survey biologists have conducted intensive research into the life cycle of this little vole. The team visited every marsh that potentially could be inhabited by voles – they mapped the marshes, assessed habitat quality, and determined whether or not voles were present. In a subset of larger marshes the team conducted more detailed assessments of water inflow-outflow, soil moisture and vegetation, and captured voles to estimate local population numbers, assess the health of the voles and take samples for disease and genetics studies. In addition to the hands-on study in the desert, they also studied satellite data to track the amount of vegetation and water in the area over a period of time. A grim picture emerged of a habitat range in decline, due in large part to climate change and human modification.
Some of the findings included:
Scientists believe that the network of springs and marshes in the vole’s natural range has been so extensively modified by humans that the vole’s future existence will depend almost entirely on whether humans continue to supply water where and when needed. They found evidence to support this, as an intensive restoration effort at one of the largest marshes showed signs of successfully supporting and sustaining voles.
The report authors identified several specific measures that could be taken to increase vole habitat and improve their chances of survival – including reconfiguring water inflow and outflow, changing elevations and planting vegetation that would enhance existing marshes and/or better connect adjacent marshes.
This study is part of a larger long-term effort to secure a future for the Amargosa vole and the unique marsh ecosystems it depends upon in the Mojave Desert. In late 2014 vole numbers became so low that scientists initiated a captive breeding program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to reduce the risk of extinction. Today more than 100 voles are in the captive colony at UC Davis – providing a potential source of animals for release into restored habitats, and an important insurance population to prevent extinction.
Photos by Don Preisler/UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
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