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.
For residents of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the majestic Roosevelt elk is a common sight. Although Roosevelt numbers were dwindling in California by the 1920s, conservative management strategies and limited hunting opportunities have helped them to rebound. Today, researchers have identified more than 20 distinct groups of elk in these two counties, many of which consist of well over 50 animals.
This conservation success story doesn’t come without a downside, though. Elk require large amounts of food to survive, and they tend to graze where food is most plentiful – often in agricultural areas and residential neighborhoods, where they cause damage to crops, landscaping, fencing and other private property.
Partly in response to rising concerns about property damage caused by the Humboldt and Del Norte herds, CDFW scientists are working on a wide-ranging, long-term study of Roosevelt elk population size and growth, herd movements, habitat use, disease and causes of mortality. The project, which is a collaborative effort with researchers from Humboldt State University, will collect critical baseline information about the animals that will help CDFW develop more robust and efficient methods for monitoring the herds, set future hunt quotas, inform local agencies about elk management and manage depredation issues. CDFW initiated this project in 2016 and expects to continue data collection efforts through 2018.
Tracking and studying one of the largest mammals in California is a much more complex undertaking than one might think. Roosevelt elk herds are wide-ranging and tend to graze in areas that are not easily accessible. Traditionally, CDFW relied on aerial surveys to monitor population trends of big game species such as elk, but such surveys are only feasible in a small portion of northwestern California because visibility is limited by steep terrain and dense vegetation. Ground surveys have similar constraints and are further limited by the small amount of occupied habitat that can be easily accessed from roads.
Given these constraints, CDFW scientists are employing multiple survey methodologies for the current study. Different techniques will be used in different habitat types. For example, in hard-to-reach areas, trail camera footage will be compared to visual surveys and used to collect herd composition data and estimate population size. Estimates will also be derived from analyzing the DNA contained in elk droppings.
CDFW also monitors the movement of the Roosevelt elk via electronic collars. There are currently 20 collared elk in coastal Del Norte and northern Humboldt counties and researchers hope to extend this project into central Humboldt County this winter, with plans to collar as many as 30 additional elk. Captured animals are also marked with ear tags, which allow for individual identification.
These survey efforts, and similar efforts elsewhere in the North Coast Roosevelt Elk Management Unit (EMU), are outlined in California’s Draft Elk Conservation and Management Plan, which is available for public review and comment through Monday, January 29. The plan provides guidance and direction to help set priorities for elk management efforts statewide.
CDFW photo: Environmental Scientist Carrington Hilson monitors a Roosevelt elk during a survey of the population.
CDFW Scientific Aide Aimee Taylor prepares electrofisher to harmlessly catch Paiute cutthroat trout in North Fork Cottonwood Creek.
The extremely rare Paiute cutthroat trout (PCT). Photo by William Somer for CDFW.
Aimee Taylor and Senior Environmental Scientist Jeff Weaver electrofish PCT in North Fork Cottonwood Creek.
Jeff Weaver, USFWS Biologist Chad Mellison and others take genetic samples from the fish.
The project’s lead biologist, Bill Somer, and Chad Mellison transfer the trout from CDFW’s tank truck to cans for the ride to Silver King Creek, by pack mule.
The CDFW-FWS-USFS team packs pure PCT in milk cans through the Silver King drainage.
Bill Somer releases Paiute cutthroat trout into Silver King Creek, above Llewellyn Falls.
Team members measured each Paiute cutthroat trout caught at White Mountain.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) have returned a rare trout species to its home water after a 71-year absence.
In 1946, poachers were decimating the Paiute Cutthroat Trout (PCT), a species whose native range was limited to a nine-mile section of Silver King Creek (Alpine County). To ensure the species’ survival, the USFS and Eastern Packers Association translocated 401 of these fish to North Fork Cottonwood Creek in Inyo County’s White Mountains. This population has persisted in isolation from other forms of trout and has recently provided important restoration options for resource managers. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of concerned biologists seven decades ago.
The conservation history of this rare trout is complex. The initial “conservation” measure was entirely inadvertent. In the early 1900s, Basque sheepherders in the area caught and transported PCT into the previously fishless portion of Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls. This early within-basin transfer was the salvation of the PCT, since non-native species were later introduced below the falls. The falls prevented non-natives from reaching the habitat above and protected PCT from hybridization and competition.
The FWS listed PCT as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 – the precursor to the federal Endangered Species Act (1973). The species was down-listed to threatened status in 1975, in order to facilitate management and restoration and to allow regulated angling. In 1994, CDFW, FWS and USFS began developing a restoration plan to remove non-native fishes from Silver King Creek and return the PCT to its native waters. From 2013 to 2015, the partner agencies treated 11 stream miles of Silver King Creek and three tributaries below Llewellyn Falls with a fish toxicant, rotenone, to remove all non-native fish species.
The PCT population in Upper Fish Valley, an area of Silver King Creek above the falls, has been considered a primary source for restocking the recovery area. Unfortunately, that population was heavily impacted by the extreme 2012-2016 drought. During this extended drought, lack of snow cover resulted in the stream freezing almost solid during cold snaps. In order to offset the resulting population decline, the partner agencies caught 86 pure PCT in North Fork Cottonwood Creek. On August 23, 2017, the fish were planted back into Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls.
Agency staff met in the White Mountain Wilderness (Inyo National Forest) and, along with volunteers and pack mules, hiked from their campsite to North Fork Cottonwood Creek. There, the team used electrofishers to retrieve descendants of the fish moved back in 1946. The fish were hauled out by mule, put in a specialized transport truck, and driven approximately 100 miles to the Carson Iceberg Wilderness. Another mule team then hauled them back to Silver King Creek. Thanks to careful handling by the collection and transport teams, every fish survived the trip home.
Due to its limited habitat, the Paiute Cutthroat Trout has been called the rarest, but most recoverable, form of trout in the United States. With the most recent success of this partnership, and due in large part to the foresight of conservationists in the past, the future looks bright for this beautiful native salmonid.
Learn more on the Paiute cutthroat trout web page.
Photos by Joe Barker, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, except as noted.
Liz Vandentoorn, from the Inyo National Forest Region 5 Center of Excellence, leads a pack mule team and state and federal scientists to North Fork Cottonwood Creek to capture Paiute cutthroat trout and return them to Silver King Creek.
The tilapia skin is visible on the bottom of the bear's paw.
Veterinarians perform an ultrasound to check on the progress of the second bear's pregnancy.
Acupuncture needles assist with pain management.
After placing the second bear, the team moved the first bear to another location where another man-made den awaited.
CDFW staff work together to build a makeshift den for a soft release in Los Padres National Forest. A soft release involves putting the bear in a den to simulate hibernation, and leaving it to wake up on its own.
Two talented veterinarians, an environmental scientist and several dedicated staff members at the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab recently put their heads and their resources together to help heal a pair of adult bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire. The bears, which were treated at the same time as a young mountain lion with similar, less severe burn injuries, were released back to the wild last Thursday, after several weeks of intensive – and unusual – care.
CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford was acting manager of the Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova when the first bear – an adult female weighing about 200 pounds – was captured inside of a backyard aviary in the Ojai area on December 9. With CDFW Environmental Scientist Christine Thompson coordinating, CDFW Wildlife Officer Jacob Coombs darted the bear and local veterinarian Dr. Duane Tom evaluated its injured paws and overall condition. Thompson then conferred with Clifford, who determined the bear might have a chance at recovery if treated quickly. The bear was put into a trailer for the seven-hour transport to Rancho Cordova, where Clifford was waiting.
By the time the bear arrived, Clifford had already reached out to Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for help. Weeks earlier, Peyton, who works mostly on domestic animals, had mentioned to Clifford in passing that she had a particular interest in animal burns, and would be interested in helping wildlife if the chance ever arose.
Peyton created a homemade burn salve for the bears’ paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. Fish skin, which contains collagen, is often used by doctors in Brazil to bandage human burns. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, and had not been tried on veterinary patients.
To help keep the tilapia skin in place, Peyton cut pieces to exactly match the size of the bear’s paws and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage. “We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said. She also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management.
The original plan was for Peyton to come to the lab weekly to check on the bear’s progress. But within just a few weeks, two more burn patients arrived from the Thomas Fire. A second adult female bear, found relatively close to where the first one was found, was brought to the lab by Thompson on December 22. And on December 23, the young mountain lion arrived from Santa Paula. The experimental tilapia treatment was extended to the two newcomers as well.
Of the three animals, the mountain lion’s injuries were the least severe. Because of his young age, he was earmarked for placement in a wildlife rescue facility. The two bears were in much worse condition, with oozing wounds and, in some cases, paw pads that were completely burned off. But because the bears were older and stronger, the veterinarians hoped to return them to the wild if their injuries could be healed.
To complicate matters further, on December 28, during a routine burn treatment, Clifford’s team performed an ultrasound on each bear, and found that the second bear was pregnant. The quest to heal the mother-to-be was now a race against time.
“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”
While Clifford and Peyton continued to focus on healing the animals’ injuries, Thompson started scouting out potential release locations. Since both bears needed to be transported back to Southern California, it was decided to try to return them at the same time – albeit not exactly in the same location – in order to make the best use of staff time and resources.
Both bears’ original habitat had been destroyed by fire, so Thompson scouted for two new locations that fit several parameters. The bears needed to be close to their home range, but not within the burn area, and near ample food and water sources. She also wanted to keep them as far away from each other as possible. “A lot of wildlife habitat was destroyed by the fire, and there are already a lot of displaced animals roaming around,” Thompson said. “So there’s a good chance that whatever location we choose is already occupied by other bears, but only they know exactly where that designated territory is. The best we can do is make an educated guess, and place them as deep into wild lands as possible.”
Taking the rapidly changing winter weather reports into careful consideration, the team chose Wednesday, January 17, as the target date to get on the road. That morning, Peyton came to the Wildlife Investigations Lab one last time and both bears were immobilized for a final treatment for their feet. Then the bears were placed into separate transport trailers for the long journey home. Simultaneously, in the Los Padres National Forest, Thompson and Tom spent the day digging dirt and moving logs to create a winter den for each bear.
“At this time of the year, most bears have established dens for the winter, but since these bears won’t have time to create a den, we hope to improve their chances of survival by creating a den for them so they have a home base and shelter right away,” Clifford explained.
The team arrived late Wednesday night, and both staff and bears were hosted overnight by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Early on the morning of January 18, Clifford, Thompson, Coombs, Tom and their team drove the bears deep into the forest for the final leg of their journey. One at a time, each bear was sedated and carefully placed into her den, while the team finished constructing a shelter around the slumbering animal. The bears are about five miles apart, as the crow flies, and each is wearing a satellite collar so CDFW can monitor her movements and survival post-release. Staff also placed trail cameras near each den.
“We’re really hopeful that these novel treatments accelerated the healing for these bears and provided them the best odds of survival,” Clifford said. “It’s especially good to know that we’ve maximized the odds of survival for the cub on the way. We don’t know exactly when it will be born, but hopefully we’ll be able to monitor the movements of the mother via satellite, and that will give us an indication of how things are going.”
For Clifford, the entire experience wasn’t simply about saving the lives of two bears. The bigger picture involves the body of knowledge the experimental treatment provided – both to the Wildlife Investigations Lab team and to the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild,” Clifford said. “For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it’s been an invaluable experience because California’s changing climate means that we’re likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires. By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals’ time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”
CDFW photos. For more, please see CDFW’s Flickr photo album: Thomas Fire Bears.
Top photo: The first bear rests in her holding enclosure after her treatment is finished. The outer wrapping on her feet (made of corn husks) will delay her efforts to chew off the tilapia skin bandages underneath.
“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.
to receive Science Spotlight and Featured Scientist articles by email