Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
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.
“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.”
Volunteers from the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep install the second of three 2,300-gallon water tanks to provide water for wildlife in the Southern California desert.
SCBS volunteer Glenn Sudmeier and Steve Marschke install plumbing fixtures for the sheep drinker at the Cady Mountains guzzler project in San Bernardino County.
Pipes bolted into the rocks coming from a catch pond going to the original guzzler installed in the desert.
Plumbing pipes leading from the catch ponds to the storage tanks at the 40-year-old Cady # 1.
The completed project: Drinkers are covered by fiberglass simulated rocks that shade the water to slow evaporation and to stop algae growth in the opening of the drinker.
Entire scope of the project, with the 150-foot-long catch field in the background that feeds water to the underground tanks.
One of the most elusive species in California is the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) that live in the dry, desert mountains of southeastern California. Desert bighorn are far from fragile – males are about five feet long and can weigh up to 200 pounds, while the females weigh up to about 150. Despite their size, their keen eyesight and the agility to escape predators up steep rocky slopes, they still face many threats, including disease, human development, expansion and – more recently—a changing climate. Water is critical to their survival in this extreme environment.
The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS), an all-volunteer organization in Southern California, has been working since 1964 for the conservation and management of the desert bighorn sheep. Over the last 40 years, SCBS and CDFW have been installing drinking systems (also called guzzlers) across the sheep’s habitat to help counteract these challenges. Now the populations rely on these water sources to survive and there is a responsibility to keep them functional and maintained.
In September 2017, SCBS rallied the volunteers to install a new drinking system to provide sheep and other animals life-supporting water in the hot summers. The project took place in the desert east of Barstow, and began with the removal and replacement of the very first guzzler ever installed in California.
The old system had two cement catch ponds, each similar to a small swimming pool lined with plastic. The catch ponds collected rain water and funneled it though pipes and valves to three tanks, where it was stored and fed to a small stainless steel drinker box. Due to its age and condition, after being exposed to the desert air and sun for more than 40 years, the system needed constant maintenance, and – more importantly – SCBS members had to haul hundreds of gallons of water across the desert each summer in order to keep the tanks full during the hottest parts of the year.
To improve efficiency and reduce the impact on the habitat, engineers and scientists devised a new approach to the design and installation of the new system. They created a 150-foot-long catch field, laying down three sections of overlapping matting, like tiles on a roof. The mats were then covered with rocks to help it blend into the surrounding area. The mats are made of non-absorbent material that funnels water down a slope where it’s collected and fed into two 2,300-gallon plastic tanks buried in the ground.
SCBS members did all the work to design and engineer the site, dig out the large holes to bury the tanks and install the plumbing and other equipment, including a solar powered satellite telemetry system that will allow scientists to monitor the water levels, ambient temperatures, water flow and other measurements at the remote site.
After four days of morning-to-night labor, the project was completed and the site returned to its near-natural state. Most of the old system was removed with one tank still operating to give the sheep time to find the new water source about 1,000 feet away. The new system is more efficient, requires very little maintenance, and has a higher storage capacity that should eliminate water hauling efforts. The tanks provide enough water for all wildlife in the area, not just the sheep, and they are less visually intrusive from both land and the air, blending well into the desert surroundings.
All this equipment comes at a cost and this construction was paid for with a grant from the CDFW Big Game Management Account (BGMA) that provides money to fund projects that benefit big-game populations and the habitats upon which they depend.
The careful planning and work done will provide a stable and reliable water source for the sheep and other wildlife in this area for decades to come.
To watch volunteers install the new drinking system, watch a video on the CDFW YouTube channel.
Photos of installation courtesy of SCBS. CDFW photos of finished project by Andrew Hughan.
This summer marked the end of an incredible journey for four dozen of California’s designated state freshwater fish, the golden trout, as they returned home after 10 months away. The fish traveled more than 500 miles in tanks and buckets, by hand and by mule, en route to their native waters 9,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada range.
The journey began last fall after CDFW scientists observed that ongoing drought conditions were severely impacting the rare trout’s mountainous habitat. A decision was made to rescue 52 fish – a representative population that could repopulate the stream and save the species if drought conditions worsened.
Golden trout are one of California’s most iconic trout species. They are native to only two stream systems in the southeast Sierra Nevada – Golden Trout Creek, and the South Fork Kern River in Tulare County. Volcanic Creek, which is home to the rescued fish, connects with Golden Trout Creek during runoff and high-water level years.
The journey began in September 2016, when fisheries biologists made the two-day trek into the mountains to gather the trout. The captured fish were transported to the American River Trout Hatchery near Sacramento, where technicians monitored them, often around the clock. After nine months at the hatchery, the fish were ready to start the long trek back to their home waters. Crew members transferred the fish from the hatchery to a fish tanker truck and hauled them more than seven hours overnight to the trailhead at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the southern Sierra.
The crew met up with a CDFW team that would escort the fish on horseback, 16 miles into the Inyo National Forest. Federal laws forbids motorized vehicles on wilderness land, which left the team no option but to transport the fish by mule train in fish cans.
The operation took tremendous teamwork from multiple divisions in CDFW and the National Forest Service. Ultimately, the CDFW team successfully returned 48 fish to their natural element. Four died in captivity over the winter. CDFW officials consider that a normal mortality rate. Scientists remain optimistic that these iconic fish will continue to thrive and perhaps even be on-track for a brighter future.
See related VIDEO.
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.
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.
For additional information on this subject, please see:
California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos by Jeb Bjerke
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?”
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