Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
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
California leaf-nosed bats. CDFW photo by retired biologist Andy Moore.
Hundreds of bats in flight. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.
Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo.
Townsend's big-eared bat in flight. National Park Service photo.
The last seven days of October are celebrated each year as Bat Week – a time to learn about the importance of bats in our environment.
Bats are nature’s best pesticide. According to a study by the University of California, Davis, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, each of these small mammals eats between half and 100 percent of its own weight in insects every night. Some California species consume as many as 600 insects per hour. Imagine living with all the mosquitoes, flies, midges, moths and agricultural pests that are now consumed by bats!
In monetary terms, the natural pest control that bats provide is extremely valuable to the state’s $54 billion per year agriculture and $450 million timber industries. The bats’ appetite reduces the need for chemical pesticides, reduces crop losses and curtails the spread of crop diseases. According to the US Geological Survey, a recent economic analysis indicated that insect suppression services provided by bats to American agriculture is worth something between $4 billion and $50 billion per year.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Osborn notes the estimate’s wide range makes it hard to know exactly how much money bats save farmers. “But even the low estimate, $4 billion, is an impressive amount,” he said. “Bats are an important part of integrated pest management systems.”
As the wildlife trustee agency in California, CDFW is engaged in several activities to help us understand the conservation status of bats in the state, as well as to address threats to bat populations. At statewide, regional and local scales, our scientists have been deploying acoustic bat detectors to determine the distribution of California’s 25 bat species. When CDFW’s bat acoustic data are combined with data collected by partners at other state and federal agencies, academic researchers and non-governmental organizations, we should have more accurate knowledge of where various bat species occur, as well as their seasonal movements.
White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is now a real threat to California’s bats. WNS is a fungal disease that is estimated to have killed more than 6 million bats in eastern North America. With the discovery of WNS for the first time on the west coast (in Washington state) last year, California is bracing for potentially devastating impacts to our bat populations. CDFW is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to conduct surveillance for the fungus that causes the disease, as well as develop plans to manage the disease when it arrives in California. So far, all of the samples collected from bats and their roosts in California have been free of the fungus, but increased vigilance is necessary to help ensure the disease is detected immediately when it arrives. Special measures to reduce the impact of WNS on hibernating bats may include closing caves and other roosts to visitors, because people can unwittingly spread the fungus on their clothing, shoes and gear. Ultimately, it is hoped that ongoing research into the disease will provide tools to either eliminate or control the fungus, both in the environment and in infected bats.
To learn more about the exciting world of bats and how you can “Go to Bat for Bats!” check out the Bat Week 2017 website.
Top photo: A California bat in a crevice. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.
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