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Deer DNA Study in the Sierra Nevada and Central Coast Ranges

Deer DNA Study in the Sierra Nevada and Central Coast Ranges

A buck with a collar walks through brush on a hillside
A young woman attaches a trail camera to a dead tree trunk.

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.


Pronghorn Study

Pronghorn Study

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were once one of the most numerous large mammals in California, with populations estimated to have been as high as 500,000 prior to the Gold Rush era. In the mid-1800s, pronghorn were nearly extirpated by market-shooting to feed California’s rapidly expanding human population.

The remaining population of pronghorn has long been understudied. Prior data collected on the species have been limited to herd counts and habitat selection. In recent years, there has been growing concern over pronghorn populations, particularly in northeastern California. During the harsh winter of 1992, the number of pronghorn dropped almost 50 percent to an estimated 5,000 individuals. The northeastern portion of the state currently supports a population of approximately 4,500 animals that occur primarily in Modoc, Lassen, Siskiyou and Shasta counties and has been fairly stable, with slow declines, since about 2000. The herd’s inability to rebound has prompted scientists to try to understand the specific conditions leading to the declines.

In 2016 the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) completed a two-year study, with funding from CDFW’s Big Game Management Account, which explored aspects of the pronghorn population on the Modoc Plateau. The study involved 48 does (adult females) and 42 fawns that were radio-collared and followed until their deaths or the study’s end. The researcher’s objectives were to learn more about the pronghorn use of habitat, aspects of their reproduction and factors affecting survival of does and fawns.

The researchers found that for most of the year, pronghorn used open areas with less shrubby and more herbaceous vegetation within their sagebrush-steppe habitats. But during fawning, when does need to hide their young, they shifted to spending more time in areas with greater densities of shrubs and juniper trees. The annual survival rate for does in the study was 69 percent, which is low compared to other pronghorn populations. Mountain lions accounted for 80 percent of predator-related mortalities, most of which occurred during and just after the peak birthing period when does are most vulnerable. Fawn survival averaged 44 percent, a higher-than-typical figure, with unknown causes (37.5 percent) or suspected coyote predation (21 percent) accounting for most fawn mortalities.

The adults’ increased use of shrubby areas and conifer woodlands during fawning suggests an important factor in the population’s continued decline. Juniper woodlands have been encroaching on the sagebrush-steppe habitat in the Modoc Plateau for decades, and these juniper trees provide areas of concealment for ambush predators such as mountain lions. Most ungulate studies demonstrate that adult survival plays a more critical role in population stability than juvenile survival. CDFW may be able to reduce adult pronghorn mortality through habitat restoration – the removal of encroaching junipers could help to reduce predations by lions, and potentially increase the Modoc pronghorn population.

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