Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
California leaf-nosed bats. CDFW photo by retired biologist Andy Moore.
Hundreds of bats in flight. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.
Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo.
Townsend's big-eared bat in flight. National Park Service photo.
The last seven days of October are celebrated each year as Bat Week – a time to learn about the importance of bats in our environment.
Bats are nature’s best pesticide. According to a study by the University of California, Davis, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, each of these small mammals eats between half and 100 percent of its own weight in insects every night. Some California species consume as many as 600 insects per hour. Imagine living with all the mosquitoes, flies, midges, moths and agricultural pests that are now consumed by bats!
In monetary terms, the natural pest control that bats provide is extremely valuable to the state’s $54 billion per year agriculture and $450 million timber industries. The bats’ appetite reduces the need for chemical pesticides, reduces crop losses and curtails the spread of crop diseases. According to the US Geological Survey, a recent economic analysis indicated that insect suppression services provided by bats to American agriculture is worth something between $4 billion and $50 billion per year.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Osborn notes the estimate’s wide range makes it hard to know exactly how much money bats save farmers. “But even the low estimate, $4 billion, is an impressive amount,” he said. “Bats are an important part of integrated pest management systems.”
As the wildlife trustee agency in California, CDFW is engaged in several activities to help us understand the conservation status of bats in the state, as well as to address threats to bat populations. At statewide, regional and local scales, our scientists have been deploying acoustic bat detectors to determine the distribution of California’s 25 bat species. When CDFW’s bat acoustic data are combined with data collected by partners at other state and federal agencies, academic researchers and non-governmental organizations, we should have more accurate knowledge of where various bat species occur, as well as their seasonal movements.
White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is now a real threat to California’s bats. WNS is a fungal disease that is estimated to have killed more than 6 million bats in eastern North America. With the discovery of WNS for the first time on the west coast (in Washington state) last year, California is bracing for potentially devastating impacts to our bat populations. CDFW is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to conduct surveillance for the fungus that causes the disease, as well as develop plans to manage the disease when it arrives in California. So far, all of the samples collected from bats and their roosts in California have been free of the fungus, but increased vigilance is necessary to help ensure the disease is detected immediately when it arrives. Special measures to reduce the impact of WNS on hibernating bats may include closing caves and other roosts to visitors, because people can unwittingly spread the fungus on their clothing, shoes and gear. Ultimately, it is hoped that ongoing research into the disease will provide tools to either eliminate or control the fungus, both in the environment and in infected bats.
To learn more about the exciting world of bats and how you can “Go to Bat for Bats!” check out the Bat Week 2017 website.
Top photo: A California bat in a crevice. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.
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.
For generations, anglers in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada mountains fished for one of the most cherished fish in the west, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). These native beauties are prized for their size, with some growing as large as 40 pounds in the Tahoe Basin.
Sightings of these brown and red native fish have been documented as far back as 1853. But as the population of the state grew, especially during the Gold Rush, the fish were nearly wiped out by mining, development, dams, water diversion and other human factors.
Today, LCT are listed under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, and CDFW has increased its commitment to angling enthusiasts by providing more opportunity to catch this historic fish. This effort includes greatly expanding the number of waters and fish planted in recent years.
Every spring, staff from the American River Hatchery in Gold River make the 100-mile journey from the hatchery to the tiny spawning buildings on the shore of Heenan Lake. This pristine body of water is surrounded by granite peaks in remote Alpine County. It is usually not accessible in the winter, cut off by the snowpack, and is only open to catch and release fishing for six weeks a year. It is also the state’s only source of LCT broodstock (groups of mature fish used as the source for eggs and reproduction). Ultimately, the 800,000 eggs spawned at Heenan Lake each year support recreational angling opportunities at multiple locations in the eastern Sierras.
The staff will make the journey up and down the mountain several times over several weeks to spawn the eggs on site. The process involves carefully bathing the eggs in iodine and suspending them in cheesecloth in aluminum jars about two feet tall, before making the journey back to Sacramento or to other state hatcheries. Some of the eggs head to destinations as far away as Filmore Hatchery in Ventura County.
Once at the hatcheries, the eggs are placed in “hatching jars,” where chilled, UV-filtered river water circulates over them continuously. After two to three weeks, the eyes of the baby fish are visible inside the eggs. These “eyed” eggs will be addled—a process in which the eggs are siphoned through a tube in order to shake them up. This causes the infertile, diseased or dead eggs to turn white, allowing hatchery technicians to easily identify, pick out and discard them. After the fry hatch, they are moved to deep tanks in the hatchery building, where they will spend approximately five months growing before being moved outdoors to large round tanks.
The fish will be planted as fingerlings or sub-catchables (fish that weigh 1/16th-1/6th of a pound) into various high-mountain waterways on the east side of the Sierras. At the time of release, they are still too small to be caught, but they will quickly grow to be trophy-sized fish for the state’s anglers who want to make the journey into the high altitudes.
Fate has not been kind to the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica).
Shrinking habitat caused by urbanization and agricultural expansion landed this Central Valley native on the federal Endangered Species List decades ago. California’s total population of San Joaquin kit foxes may now be down to a few thousand animals. To make matters worse, its favorite food, the kangaroo rat, is likewise endangered as the desert habitat it prefers continues to disappear.
Wildlife biologists took heart, however, in a population that seemed to be thriving within the city limits of Bakersfield. Unlike San Joaquin kit fox populations in other parts of the Central Valley range, the Bakersfield foxes adapted quite nicely to urban life. Their number – estimated between 200 and 400 animals – has evidently seemed to be holding steady and possibly increasing.
Their cute and cuddly appearance make them popular with city residents. Earlier research showed the population was healthy and genetically robust. Wildlife biologists were counting on those urban foxes to ensure the species’ survival should kit fox populations completely collapse elsewhere.
Today, those Bakersfield kit foxes are under siege, suffering from an outbreak of highly infectious sarcoptic mange. Mange – a skin condition caused by parasitic mites -- leads to hair loss, open wounds from scratching and, ultimately, death. The first case was detected among the kit fox population in March 2013, and since then, more than 200 cases have been documented. The epidemic has grown worse every year.
Given the importance of the Bakersfield population, CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State University, Stanislaus, the University of California, Davis (UCD), and various nonprofit wildlife groups have all joined forces to combat the mange.
Jaime Rudd, an environmental scientist in CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento, is leading CDFW’s efforts while simultaneously writing her UCD Ph.D. dissertation on the outbreak. Rudd is researching ways to prevent mange from spreading to healthy animals, and assisting Stanislaus State’s Endangered Species Recovery Program with trapping and treating diseased foxes.
Severely diseased kit foxes are trapped and transported to the California Living Museum, a Bakersfield wildlife rehabilitation facility and zoo. There, the kit foxes are hospitalized, given life-saving antibiotics and fluids and treated with a topical pet product that kills the mites. The foxes often need months of treatment before they are healthy enough to release. And although the intervention saves individual lives, the process is costly and time-consuming – and doesn’t prevent the treated fox from getting mange a second or third time.
Rudd is making good use of her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, analyzing the DNA of the mites to see if they might be related to those in dogs and coyotes, which could be spreading the mange to the foxes.
“Essentially, we want to look at their molecular signature to see if these mites are related,” Rudd said.
Rudd is studying a group of wild kit foxes living on the CSU Bakersfield campus, which no doubt are supplementing their diet with burger bits and pizza crusts discarded by college students. Rudd is monitoring the group with trail cameras, outfitting some foxes with radio tracking collars and others with the type of preventative flea and tick collar you might use on a pet dog or cat.
“We want to evaluate the efficacy of these collars,” she said. “If they’re only going to work for two months, the collars won’t help us slow down the spread of mange, so is it really worth the effort of putting them on? But if they’re going to work for five months or more, then it might be worth the effort.”
If there is any hope sustaining Rudd and her colleagues in this important, though often disheartening, work, it’s this: “The fact we are not seeing mange in the outlying populations is cause for optimism,” she said. “If nothing else, we can at least try to keep it from leaving the city.”
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.
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