Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
“We’re getting more accurate and precise numbers for harvest than we’ve ever had before, which is critical for calculating the tag quota for the next year and conserving our deer populations for the future,” said Stuart Itoga, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW and the state’s deer program coordinator.
Until recently, accurate deer harvest data had proved elusive. Prior to 2015, only successful California deer hunters had to report their take and only about 30 percent of those actually complied. CDFW supplemented the harvest data with numbers collected from game processing facilities, an inefficient process that still left an incomplete picture.
“It’s Wildlife Management 101,” Itoga said. “You have to know what your population is, what’s coming in and what’s going out. We needed to have better numbers.”
Following the mandatory reporting requirement in 2015, submittal rates for deer tag harvest reports jumped to 50 percent. In 2016, a $21.60 non-reporting penalty took effect, which applies to the purchase of future tags, and boosted reporting to the all-time high.
Mandatory deer tag reporting data is just one of a number of new tools that has CDFW deer biologists excited about their ability to better assess California’s deer herds.
An innovative DNA study of deer feces promises to give biologists new information about the size and characteristics of the state’s deer population.
CDFW has also greatly expanded the use of deer tracking collars, thanks to improved technology. Since 2016, CDFW has affixed the relatively lightweight, remotely programmable, GPS tracking devices on 350 deer to learn more about their preferred habitat, in-state and out-of-state migration routes and sources of mortality other than hunting. Advanced camera technology also promises to improve the data collected from CDFW’s aerial and ground-based population surveys. A new computer model is being developed to incorporate all of these new data sources into more sophisticated, accurate and precise deer population estimates.
“It’s really an exciting time to be doing this type of work,” Itoga said. “We’ve always used the best available science, but with technology moving at the pace it’s moving now, we have tools available to us now that we didn’t have even five years ago.”
Management changes can happen more quickly as a result. For the upcoming 2017 deer hunting seasons, for example, deer tag quotas were cut in half in three highly desirable, Eastern Sierra X Zones – X9a, X9b and X12 – as a result of new data and field work that showed that migratory deer in these areas suffered from the long, intense winter.
“Winter survival was poor,” Itoga said. “Our hope is that if we reduce the harvest this year, the populations will have a chance to rebound and increase next year.”
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 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.
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California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos by Jeb Bjerke
California hosts approximately 6,500 different kinds of plants that occur naturally in the state, and many of these are found nowhere else in the world. Some of these plants are so rare or have been so impacted by human influence that they are at risk of permanent extinction from the wild and have been protected by state and federal laws. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Native Plant Program is developing and implementing standardized and repeatable monitoring plans for ten state and federally listed plant species on nine CDFW Ecological Reserves throughout the state. This work is funded by a federal grant awarded in 2015.
One of the plants being monitored is Butte County meadowfoam (Limnanthes floccosa ssp. californica), which occurs at North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, north of Oroville in Butte County. The reserve is on an elevated basalt mesa that was created by ancient lava flows and supports a rare type of vernal pool called Northern Basalt Flow Vernal Pools. There were only 498 Butte County meadowfoam plants found on the reserve this spring. The reserve also supports a high diversity of other plant species that erupt with bright colors in the spring and attract hordes of visitors.
Another plant being monitored is the endangered Slender-petaled thelypodium (Thelypodium stenopetalum) that occurs at Baldwin Lake Ecological Reserve, in the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear. The reserve is in a unique environment known as the pebble plains, which only occur in Big Bear Valley and nearby Holcomb Valley. The pebble plains were formed when glaciers receded during the Pleistocene age and mainly consist of clay soils overlain by a layer of orange and white quartzite pebbles. Slender-petaled thelypodium only grows in this rare pebble plain habitat, and only 15 plants were found on the reserve last spring. Other rare plant species such as the endangered bird-foot checkerbloom (Sidalcea pedata) are found on the reserve and in the surrounding pebble plain habitat.
The monitoring project also includes plants at Little Red Mountain, Boggs Lake, Loch Lomond, Stone Ridge, Phoenix Field, Pine Hill and Apricum Hill Ecological Reserves. The grant is funded through January 2018 and the Native Plant Program has applied for another grant to continue this project.
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.
A tiny transponder is placed inside the body cavity of each female salmon. When the fish lay their eggs, the transponders will be expelled, providing scientists with information on when, where and how successful each spawning female is.
After the salmon are tagged, they are returned to a holding pond while the anesthetic wears off.
CDFW scientists electronically identify and perform an ultrasound on each fish in order to assess their pre-spawning condition.
Each salmon in the project received a tiny identity tag that is entered into a database. The computerized system allows biologists to follow individual fish throughout their life cycle.
A team of scientists read, evaluate and record data for each individual salmon.
On Thursday, May 18, fisheries biologists implanted acoustic transponders into 60 endangered adult spring-run Chinook salmon. The transponders will track their movements and help determine spawning success later this season. The salmon will be released to spawn naturally in the San Joaquin River near Friant over the next three months.
Spring-run Chinook have been absent from the river for many decades. Reintroduction is one of multiple strategies biologists are using to reestablish naturally spawning runs of these fish as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project. The project – which is jointly coordinated by CDFW, the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service – is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River and restore a self-sustaining Chinook fishery while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from restoration flows.
A total of 120 salmon will be implanted and released at two different times. Biologists will track the fish from each release to determine which is most successful. This release strategy provides the hatchery-raised salmon the opportunity to select their own mates, construct redds (a spawning nest in the stream gravel) and spawn naturally.
CDFW photos by Harry Morse
CDFW’s Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area serves two critical – but sometimes competing – needs.
The 16,670 acres of riparian and agricultural habitat in Yolo County provide a refuge and an all-you-can-eat buffet for migratory waterfowl and resident wildlife to the west of Sacramento and the increasingly urbanized surrounding communities.
The wildlife area is also a key cog in the Sacramento region’s flood control system. In wet years, the vast flood plain accommodates massive water diversions from the nearby Sacramento, Feather and Yuba river systems to prevent flooding in populated areas and to relieve pressure on strained river levees.
With the drought-busting rains and snow received last winter, the wildlife area resembled an inland ocean for the thousands of daily commuters traveling the Interstate-80 Yolo Causeway, which crosses the northern edge of the wildlife area. The floodwaters stretched as far as the eye could see, reaching depths of 20 feet in some places, and submerging almost every natural feature underneath. The consequences were dire for wildlife unable to escape.
Pheasants, deer, raccoons, and small rodents of all kinds were among the victims. Some were overcome by the rising water, some starved while waiting out the floodwaters in trees or isolated patches of high ground, others were picked off by predators stalking the water line for fleeing prey.
As a result, efforts are now underway to help the area’s wildlife survive future flooding. The Yolo County Resource Conservation District has secured almost $700,000 in Proposition 1 state water project funds to build two wildlife escape habitat corridors and a demonstration garden over the next four years. The project includes partnerships with CDFW, Yolo Basin Foundation, Center for Land-Based Learning, Putah Creek Council, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Point Blue Conservation Science.
The demonstration garden will serve as an educational component for visitors near the wildlife area’s entrance. Two other corridors in the southern end of the wildlife area will stretch more than 5 miles total and include 22 acres of native grass seeding for nesting and cover. The corridors will run parallel to the Putah Creek channel, which is the only existing natural escape route now on the refuge.
“These corridors are basically like wildlife roads,” said Jeffrey Stoddard, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area manager for CDFW.
The floodwaters advance slowly enough that even the smallest animals can escape, Stoddard explained, provided they head in the right direction and don’t get exposed to predators along the way.
“We have blocks of escape habitat now, but we will be creating connectivity, moving animals from the east side that is deeper to the west side that is higher ground,” he said.
The corridors will consist of a mix of flood-tolerant native shrubs, grasses and forbs that will provide escape routes to high ground, protection from predators, food, and good habitat year-round.
The corridor work began in June with Putah Creek Council student interns collecting wild rose, red stem dogwood and coyote brush clippings for propagating and use as plant stock for the wildlife corridors.
Photos courtesy of CDFW, the Putah Creek Council and the Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Students pictured are interns from the Putah Creek Council’s One Creek Restoration Internship program.
Kerstin Wasson is leading the Olympia oyster restoration at Elkhorn Slough. Kerstin Wasson photo.
Scientists are working hard so that a new generation of Olympia oysters may one day line the mudflats at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
Volunteers Ken Pollak and Celeste Stanik join Dr. Chela Zabin to improve the native oyster habitat at Elkhorn Slough. Kerstin Wasson photo.
Suspended gaper clam shells hang in aerated laboratory tanks, home to what scientists hope will be a new generation of Olympia oysters at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.
Graduate student Dan Gossard, at CSU’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, shows off one of the clam shell “mobiles” on which the Olympia oyster larvae will attach when suspended in aerated tanks.
Kerstin Wasson points out Olympia oysters along the banks of the Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve in Monterey County.
For the first time in California history, scientists are turning to shellfish farming techniques to restore native oyster populations.
The groundbreaking research is taking place with Olympia oysters at CDFW’s Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Monterey County, in partnership with the California State University’s nearby Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and its new Center for Aquaculture.
Olympia oysters and other shellfish were once so abundant at Elkhorn Slough that Native Americans living there had multiple processing centers along the estuary’s banks to handle their harvest. Olympia oysters have disappeared altogether from many places along the California coast and their numbers at Elkhorn Slough have dwindled so low – estimated today at just a few thousand oysters – that scientists fear they may no longer be able to reproduce in the wild. Not since 2012, they say, have Elkhorn Slough’s wild oysters produced any offspring.
A combination of factors is believed to have caused the population drop over time, including poor water quality because of agricultural runoff from nearby farms and alterations to the landscape and tidal flow from generations of farming and other human activity prior to the area becoming protected in a series of conservation purchases beginning in 1971. An infusion of freshwater from last year’s rainy winter caused a severe oyster die-off and spurred biologists into action.
“This is an iconic species in our estuary in danger of disappearing,” said Kerstin Wasson, Research Coordinator at Elkhorn Slough, where she has worked for 17 years with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal partner in the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. “These oysters fed native people here for 7,000 years.”
In late August, dozens of Olympia oysters were gathered and brought to the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, where 20 spawned successfully. A few hundred thousand of their microscopic offspring are now swimming in large, circular laboratory tanks and attaching themselves to gaper clam shells suspended on fishing line from the top of the tanks. The clam shells bearing young oysters will be bound together into makeshift reefs and returned to Elkhorn Slough early in 2018 to bolster the native population.
The research is being led by a small group of scientists, including Wasson and graduate student Dan Gossard with funding provided by the Palo Alto-based Anthropocene Institute. These are uncharted waters for California scientists, however, and a major assist is coming from the aquaculture industry itself. Peter Hain of the Monterey Abalone Company has worked closely with the two researchers to set up the laboratory facility for the Olympia oysters and help with their care and feeding.
Due partly to their small size – an individual Olympia oyster is about the size of a 50-cent coin – and slow growth, Olympia oysters hold little appeal and little potential profit for most commercial oyster farmers who focus on larger Pacific varieties, many native to Japan. Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington State is the only known commercial producer of Olympia oysters.
Wasson welcomes interest and support from aquaculture and hopes growers might one day add the native oyster to their operations. She believes even a niche commercial market for Olympia oysters could have positive implications for wild populations, enhancing recruitment, broadening scientific knowledge and a general appreciation for the native mollusk by the public.
Other efforts to save wild oyster populations in California and elsewhere have focused on building jetty-like artificial reefs constructed from oyster shell contained in plastic mesh.
Wasson prefers that more natural materials be used as part of the oyster restoration efforts underway at Elkhorn Slough, creating small clusters of oysters rising above the mudflats.
“I want this place to look like it did 200 or even 2,000 years ago,” she said.
Top photo: A huge influx of fresh water during winter 2017 resulted in an Olympia oyster die-off and spurred biologists into action.
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