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Science Spotlight: Studying a “Foundation Species” in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

Science Spotlight: Studying a “Foundation Species” in the Shadow of Mount Shasta

a white-spotted fawn lies in straw as its leg is measured
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.

four deer are suspended in the air, in safety harnesses, from a red helicopter
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.


How Harvest Numbers Help Biologists Plan for the Future

How Harvest Numbers Help Biologists Plan for the Future

Five deer wade knee-deep in blue lake water
cute face of a mule deer

Three people check and attach a collar to a doe
doe on a hillside wears a research collar
Mule deer buck in a dry meadow
Two people collect deer pellets from a trail
Doe and fawn look out from a dry-grassy ridge

As California deer hunters head to the fields, forests and mountains this summer and fall, their experiences will provide wildlife biologists with key data on the health of the state’s deer herds. Wildlife biologists are already seeing the benefits of a 2015 regulation change requiring all deer tag holders to report how they did – successful or not – along with how many days they actually spent hunting, even if they never made it out at all. A record 84 percent of deer tag holders submitted harvest reports for 2016.

“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.”



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