Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Camouflaged trap used to capture foxes for the study. CDFW photo by Jennifer Carlson.
Sierra Nevada red fox bounds back to its native habitat after capture and study. CDFW photo by Scientific Aide Corrie McFarland.
The Sierra Nevada red fox has been the subject of intensified study by CDFW over the past decade. As they are notoriously tough to track and even tougher to trap, there are many unanswered questions regarding this elusive animal.
In an effort to better understand this state-listed threatened species, an ongoing research project seeks to capture and affix GPS tracking collars to them. The data collected will help biologists better understand the size and characteristics of the fox’s home range, its denning and resting areas, and its foraging habits.
The species has been outfoxing researchers for some time -- to the point where in the 1980s, it was presumed to have vanished forever from its historically occupied habitat in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges. In March 1993, thanks to the then-emerging technology of infrared trail cameras, US Forest Service employees detected a single red fox in the Lassen National Forest.
That discovery prompted a wider study of foxes and other meso-carnivores in and around Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. John Perrine of the University of California, Berkeley, captured five individuals, primarily in the park, and placed radio collars on them to study their home range (both summer and winter), food habits and resting sites. Unfortunately, two of the collared individuals died within a year and none of the females reproduced during the course of the study.
Years later, CDFW launched a new study to determine the foxes’ current distribution in northern California and to address potential impacts on the species from activities including recreation and timber harvest. Initial efforts in 2008 used scat-detector dogs to survey portions of Lassen Volcanic National Park and the adjacent Caribou Wilderness. Then, from 2009 to 2011, trail cameras and hair-snaring devices were employed to survey high-elevation habitats in the Cascade Range from Mount Shasta to Lassen Peak. Yet foxes were only detected in the Lassen Peak area.
CDFW biologists have continued to survey for foxes with trail cameras, hair-snaring devices and scat surveys. Scats and photos are often obtained along Lassen Volcanic National Park and Forest Service hiking trails, because, like many other animals, red foxes frequent trails as they move through their territories. Analysis of the DNA contained in the collected scats and hair identified 22 individuals from 2007-2016. Some of these foxes are long-lived – samples collected over time from the same individual indicate that five of those individuals lived at least five and a half years.
CDFW efforts to capture and collar Sierra Nevada red foxes since 2013 were unsuccessful – until early February 2018. The nearly two decade-long dry spell came to an end at last when CDFW captured a Sierra Nevada red fox, a male that weighed about 10 pounds. It was captured in a “log cabin” style trap on National Forest land just outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park, near the town of Mineral. The fox was collared and released at the capture location, and CDFW biologists have been impressed by the distances he has regularly been covering since (five to six miles per day) despite the rough terrain and high elevation.
“Persistence played a large role in our success, because there are many days when we do not have any fox detections,” said CDFW Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Carlson. “We also ramped up our efforts this year by hiring two scientific aids rather than just one, which allowed us to literally double our efforts by putting more traps out across the study area.”
CDFW hopes to capture as many as four more red foxes this year. Scientists are using box traps, cage traps and a “log cabin” style trap that researchers have used in other states to capture both red foxes and wolverines. Capturing foxes is not an easy task given the cold temperatures and snowstorms, but as the Lassen population may only consist of around 20 individuals, it is imperative for the department to learn as much as it can about this stealthy animal.
For more information, please visit the Sierra Nevada red fox page.
Top photo: Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura and Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Deana Clifford release a red fox study subject. CDFW photo by Corrie McFarland
It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.
Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.
Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.
As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.
“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”
CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.
The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.
During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.
“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.
The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.
Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.
Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.
“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”
The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.
Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.
“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”
CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog
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.
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.
Scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Oregon State University recently published the results of a population study on fishers (Pekania pennanti) in northern California and southern Oregon. Led by CDFW Wildlife Statistician Dr. Brett Furnas and three coauthors, CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Richard Callas, CDFW Research Analyst Russ Landers and Dr. Sean Matthews of Oregon State University, the study produced the first-ever robust estimates of density and size of the fisher population in northern California.
“This is the first time we’ve come up with a solid number of fishers, which is a starting point for tracking and monitoring populations,” Furnas said. “One of the most important tools we have used so far to help this species is reintroductions, so now -- with a baseline established and ongoing surveys planned -- we’ll be able to see if the population is really rebounding over time.”
Fishers in northern California and southern Oregon represent the largest remaining population in the Pacific states. The species once ranged from the state of Washington southward through Oregon and California. Currently, fishers occupy only a small portion of their historical range in that region. In California, fishers are found in the northern areas of the state and a small, isolated population occurs in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.
CDFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been petitioned on several occasions to list fishers as threatened or endangered under their respective Endangered Species Acts.
In 2016, while considering fishers in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, the California Fish and Game Commission voted that the petitioned action was warranted in part, choosing to accept the petition in the context of the Southern Sierra Nevada Evolutionarily Significant Unit, and adopted findings to that effect, which were published on May 6, 2016. Although fishers are relatively well-distributed in northern California and in portions of southern Oregon, data from existing surveys and prior studies was used to estimate abundance. This information is critically important to assess the status of fishers and serve as a baseline for conservation efforts.
Furnas and his coauthors used data from camera traps, hierarchical modeling of detections and non-detections of fishers from the cameras, and information about fisher home range size to develop their estimate of population size. They estimated that approximately 3,200 fishers occur within the northern California and southern Oregon study area, with an average density of 5.1 to 8.6 fishers per 100 square kilometers.
Estimating the sizes of wildlife populations is challenging, particularly for species such as the fisher that are difficult to observe and occur over large areas. A final population estimate for the fisher would not have been possible without the cooperation of a variety of federal and tribal agencies, universities and private landowners who shared datasets that were combined to complete the modeling. With these data, Furnas and his coauthors demonstrated that estimating the population size of the fisher at large geographic scales is feasible. They also suggested that the methods used in their research could be used to estimate the abundance of other carnivores, including black bear, gray fox and coyote.
The study was published in the journal Ecosphere. More information / view publication
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.
to receive Science Spotlight and Featured Scientist articles by email