Featured Scientist

  • November 29, 2023

Ian holds a wild hen pheasant trapped at night at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area as part of his extensive research into California’s wild pheasant populations.
Ian holds a wild hen pheasant trapped at night at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area as part of his extensive research into California’s wild pheasant populations.

Ian with his wife and son.
Ian with his wife and son.

Ian holds a wild duck trapped at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area so the bird can be outfitted with a radio transmitter to better understand migration patterns and habitat usage.
Ian holds a wild duck trapped at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area so the bird can be outfitted with a radio transmitter to better understand migration patterns and habitat usage.

A greater sage grouse captured in Nevada in 2017 carries a radio collar as part of a research project looking at how certain landscape uses such as grazing and energy development impact sage grouse populations.
A greater sage grouse captured in Nevada in 2017 carries a radio collar as part of a research project looking at how certain landscape uses such as grazing and energy development impact sage grouse populations.

California’s wild pheasant season opens the second Saturday in November every year. For many hunters, however, pheasant season is something of a phantom opportunity on the hunting calendar as wild ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), a farmland species once omnipresent throughout the Central Valley’s agricultural regions and rural backroads, have largely disappeared from the California landscape. Remnant, huntable populations of wild birds remain on some state wildlife areas, federal wildlife refuges and on pockets of private property but many pheasant hunters in California today pursue pen-raised birds released on licensed game bird clubs and other private ground or travel out-of-state to destinations in the Midwest where wild pheasants are still abundant.

Ian Dwight, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Upland Game Unit, has spent the bulk of his professional career researching California’s wild pheasants, beginning with his graduate studies at UC Davis, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife, fisheries and conservation biology and a master’s degree in avian sciences. Prior to joining CDFW in 2022, Ian spent nine years with the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Western Ecological Research Center in Dixon, where he collaborated with CDFW scientists and other researchers in studying the long-term decline in California’s pheasant populations (PDF) and explored greater sage-grouse population dynamics in Nevada.

A native of Elk Grove in Sacramento County, Ian grew up hunting wild pheasants, waterfowl and other game bird species in the Sacramento Valley. Today, he is responsible for supporting upland game bird management in California, including improving habitat for upland game birds and waterfowl, and pursuing efforts to reverse the state’s wild pheasant decline.

Ring-necked pheasants are a nonnative species. Should we really care that much about them?

Although pheasants are nonnative, they share a lot of the same life history needs as other native species. They’re fairly easy to monitor because they vocalize during the breeding season, so we can track their calls and gain information on relative abundance and how that changes year-to-year. So, pheasants really are good candidates in terms of being indicators or surrogates for other upland and grassland birds in California.

Beyond an indicator species, there is just a lot of care, love and passion surrounding the tradition of pheasant hunting. They’re charismatic – beautiful birds, especially in hand. We have small towns in California that sprouted up years ago along the I-5 corridor and elsewhere as a direct result of pheasant hunting. We don’t see that kind of thing happening anymore, but both in terms of their value as an indicator species and as a hunting resource, pheasants are important.

Every California hunter, it seems, has a different theory behind the decline of wild pheasants. Some blame an increase in predators, others mosquito abatement, some West Nile virus and still others say clean farming. As a scientist who has researched this topic perhaps more than anyone else in California, what’s really to blame?

I’d say they’re all right, in a way. It’s the cumulative, long-term effects of many different things that have impacted pheasants as time has gone on.

The main phenomenon I’d point to is the changes in farming practices that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, namely clean farming practices, the elimination of hedgerows, the burning of canals and ditches, the use of herbicides to the point where the amount of cover and visual obstruction pheasants need to escape predation are no longer there. Not only that, but there have also been changes in the types of crops planted in California that are no longer advantageous to pheasants. The decrease in the planting of wheat, barley and cereal grains – sugar beets, too – has coincided with these clean farming practices. At the same time, you have increases in other crops that aren’t as advantageous such as rice and orchards across the Central Valley. As we decrease the amount of available cover and as we decrease the advantageous crops, you really decrease the carrying capacity for pheasants on the landscape.

Additionally, the fact that burning rice stubble is no longer allowed on the same scale it was in the 1990s is also a factor as is the increase in pesticides that eliminates potential food resources for chicks. The same argument has been made for mosquito abatement applications. So, there’s just a myriad of factors that have all culminated more or less at the same time over the last 30 years or more to impact populations.

How do you explain the pheasant decline on state wildlife areas and federal refuges that don’t see that same kind of intensive agriculture use? The Gray Lodge Wildlife Area today still provides more than 9,000 acres of wildlife habitat just as it did 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago when wild pheasants there were super abundant. As recently as 1998, hunters harvested almost 2,000 pheasants at Gray Lodge (PDF).

Well, I think if you were to look at satellite imagery of Gray Lodge over time, even from 1998 to today, you’d notice a pretty big difference. And that’s primarily the loss of upland habitat, the division of upland units, and the increase in seasonal wetlands and tree canopy.

Pheasants at Gray Lodge have declined for several reasons: They are cut off from other self-sustaining populations and lack contiguous blocks of upland habitat. They are surrounded by orchards and rice on neighboring properties. They get pounded by mosquito abatement during the summer when chicks have hatched and the area floods up certain units for moist-soil management or for grazing during the breeding season, which knocks out active nests on the ground. Not to mention there has been an increase in avian predators such as ravens and raptor species that take advantage of that mature tree canopy Gray Lodge offers.

When I was at USGS, we made a considerable effort trying to trap and radio monitor pheasants at Gray Lodge to try to understand nest and brood survival. The bottom line is that we had so much trouble finding and catching female pheasants at Gray Lodge that it was really hard to get a lot of information from such low sample sizes.

Is there any hope for wild pheasants in California?

Absolutely. If we as an agency are willing to continue our work providing habitat incentives to private landowners that will help reverse the trend. I’m speaking specifically about our incentive programs like the California Waterfowl Habitat Program, also known as the Presley Program, the Nesting Bird Habitat Incentive Program, the Permanent Wetland Easement Program and the California Winter Rice Habitat Incentive Program. Working with private landowners surrounding our wildlife areas and refuges to increase the overall amount of habitat on the landscape is key. If we can get to the point where we are putting habitat on the ground, not only at our public hunting areas but also on private lands, then we can really increase the carrying capacity of the landscape. It’s a matter of providing what pheasants need to carry out their life history.

What about all the recent interest in pollinators and pollinator habitat? Isn’t that another encouraging development for upland game birds? Don’t bees and butterflies share some of the same habitat needs as quail and pheasants?

Great question. One of the important components of pollinator habitat is flowering forbs and the diversity of flowering forbs you have in a given field. Well, that benefits pheasants in two ways. First, there are bugs of all kinds for pheasant chicks, which depend on insects for the first few weeks of their lives. That pollinator habitat also provides cover -- and escape cover from predators as well. When you have a mosaic of grassland habitat for nesting and forbs and pollinator habitat for brood-rearing, I think you have a really good mix. It’s an important composition to have for breeding ducks as well as pheasants.

A great example of this is at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. There’s a pretty big restoration effort happening in the northwest corner of the wildlife area. More than 1,000 acres of upland habitat is being restored or enhanced that at one time was chopped up into little fields. We are in the process of removing levees and irrigation ditches to create contiguous blocks of pollinator habitat and upland habitat for nesting ducks and pheasants. The project will be completed over the next several years.

Is CDFW conducting any current research on pheasants?

We piloted a study this year in which we deployed a number of autonomous recording units – what we call ARUs – at several different state wildlife areas and federal refuges to detect pheasant abundance. We had these ARUs listening for upland birds vocalizing during the breeding season before and after sunrise. What we do is take these recordings and upload them to a detector for bird sounds called BirdNET. It works similar to the Merlin Bird ID app you can download to your phone. Ours was developed by Cornell University, and we can very quickly feed hours and hours of sound files into this detector and it can tell us the species of bird being detected, the time of detection and the confidence that the detection is true. I deployed eight units in total at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area at both Little Dry Creek and at Howard Slough and I’d like to double that number next year. We had four recording units at Gray Lodge, 10 at Lower Klamath and another 10 at the Honey Lake Wildlife Area.

The detectors worked pretty well in terms of correctly identifying pheasants, turkeys, quail and dove. I think ARUs can be a cost-effective tool for monitoring bird populations without physically having to be present to detect these animals. We can bring that data into a monitoring framework and learn something about relative abundance by looking at the number of individuals vocalizing during a given time interval. It could at some point be a complement or perhaps an alternative to traditional surveys driving around and counting birds or listening for calls. It’s not just valuable for pheasants and game birds but other species as well. The Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area is particularly interested in detecting the occupancy of western yellow-billed cuckoo, which is a state- and federally listed species. So, I think there is a lot of potential for these autonomous recording units and leveraging technology so we can be in more places at the same time.

Would CDFW ever consider reaching out to states such as South Dakota or North Dakota to acquire some of their wild pheasants to bolster California’s populations or improve the genetic diversity of the populations we have here?

I’d like to see a lot more habitat creation and improvement before we take birds from somewhere else and put them on the landscape. I think some of our wildlife areas have a better chance at creating and maintaining healthy pheasant populations than others. The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area is a great example because of the size of the area and their uplands. Currently, hunters at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area harvest 50 percent of all the publicly taken wild pheasants in California. I think Grizzly Island, potentially, will be another great pheasant area with all the restoration efforts and infrastructure improvements under way.

One of the places that we’re eyeing as a source for translocations is the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It’s probably one of the few places in the state that still have wild pheasants consistently every year. But the habitat up there has suffered greatly because of the lack of water, so now there is a really big concern that those pheasants will begin to decline if the complex doesn’t get more water. I’m hopeful that the situation will change for the better. If the Klamath complex can get water again, we potentially could have a great source population of wild pheasants in northeastern California to translocate to public wildlife areas in the Central Valley. Right now, however, we are monitoring those populations and evaluating our next move.

Photos courtesy of Ian Dwight

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • July 19, 2023

Farhat electrofishes Silver Creek in Mono County to remove non-native brook trout and restore the fishery for native Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Farhat Bajjaliya stands with three colleagues, fly rods in hand, as they prepare to survey the North Fork Mokelumne River.
Farhat and colleagues from the Heritage and Wild Trout Program, fly rods at the ready, prepare to survey the North Fork Mokelumne River to assess the quality of trout fishing.

Farhat Bajjaliya, aboard a fishing boat, holds up a vermillion rockfish he caught.
Away from work, Farhat is an eclectic angler shown here holding a vermillion rockfish.

Farhat Bajjaliya holds up a golden trout with snow-covered mountains in the background.
Farhat with the California state freshwater fish -- the golden trout.

Farhat Bajjaliya holding up a largemouth bass while fishing, lake in the background.
As a teenager growing up in the Bay Area, Farhat discovered the joys of bass fishing.

Farhat Bajjaliya is the Statewide Inland Trout Coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Based out of the Fisheries Branch West Sacramento offices, Farhat oversees the high-profile Heritage and Wild Trout Program, the popular Heritage Trout Challenge, and supervises the staff who ensures CDFW’s trout stocking remains in environmental compliance.

A third-generation Palestinian-American, Farhat was born in Daly City and grew up in Concord. He studied both biology and environmental studies while earning bachelor’s degrees at Sonoma State and received his master’s degree in biological conservation from Sacramento State while working for CDFW.

Farhat joined CDFW as a scientific aid in the summer of 2007 operating rotary screw traps on the Sacramento River to survey juvenile Chinook salmon and assisted with CDFW’s second – and successful – effort to eradicate invasive northern pike from Lake Davis in Plumas County. Since then, he has held roles of increasing responsibility and leadership, including serving as the Steelhead Report and Restoration Card Coordinator and the Statewide Hatchery Coordinator before assuming his current position in 2019.

What brought you to CDFW?

I spent my childhood fishing with my father and uncles and gained a deep appreciation for the outdoors as a Boy Scout. When it came time to go to college, my father, who was a grocer at the time, encouraged me to choose a career path based on my passions, which led me to studying biology and environmental science. When I graduated, I saw that “Fish and Game” was hiring in Sacramento. The job sounded adventurous and aligned with my values, and I’ve been with the department ever since.

Where did you fish growing up?

The East Bay reservoirs – primarily San Pablo Dam and Lafayette. I spent most of my childhood plunking dough bait for trout and chicken livers for catfish. During my teenage years, I started tournament bass fishing casually with a local bass club. So, I kind of transitioned from trout and catfish to the bass world.

The head of CDFW’s Heritage and Wild Trout Program is a bass angler?

(Laughs) To be honest with you, I dabble in it all. I like to fish for trout, of course, but it really depends on the season. I really look forward to spring and early summer because striped bass are in the system, American shad start running, and black bass start warming up. I like to do it all.

What’s your vision for the Heritage and Wild Trout Program?

I think the Heritage and Wild Trout Program is one of the best programs within the department. Its mission strikes a unique balance between species conservation, resource management, angling, and public outreach. With that said, I do feel like certain aspects of the trout fishing world can be perceived as exclusionary at times. My vision includes maintaining our core mission while bolstering inclusivity. We are exploring options to rebrand and modernize the program a bit, while also providing anglers with more applicable information regarding our designated waters. I believe everyone should know about and have access to high quality heritage and wild trout angling opportunities. There is room for the purist, catch-and-release angler who only fly fishes. And, where it’s appropriate and where regulations allow, I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with being able to throw a lure or in some cases use bait.

What would you like trout anglers – or any angler for that matter – to know about the Heritage and Wild Trout Program today?

Take a look at our list of designated waters. Over the past 50 years, the program has identified some of the best trout spots in the state based on aesthetics, species present, fishing action and accessibility. Also, our Heritage Trout Challenge is an excellent way to explore California’s native trout within their historic ranges. Most of these fish can be caught roadside with a little research, but the more adventurous can plan day hikes or backcountry backpacking trips to find their fish. We also have a challenge guide on our website to get you started. Successful applicants receive a frameable, personalized poster and a hat. We’re nearing our 500th successful applicant and expect to reach that milestone this year.

Anglers might be familiar with some of the first designated waters, famous blue-ribbon trout streams such as Hat Creek and Fall River, even if they haven’t fished them. The California Fish and Game Commission adds new waters to the program every year based largely on your recommendations. Can you tell us about some of the more recent additions to the program we may not know as much about?

Sure. On the eastern side of the Sierra, we’ve recently added Wolf Creek. Up north, we’ve added the Fall River Complex, which includes a number of lakes, creeks and ponds within the Fall River Valley. We’ve added Butte Lake in Lassen County, and last year added the North Fork Mokelumne River. Last season was my first time going to the North Fork Mokelumne River. It has a good mixture of rainbow trout, brook trout and the occasional brown trout. Fishing there was pretty fun, and the action was pretty fast, too.

When a stream or lake is designated as a Heritage or Wild Trout Water, what changes? What does that mean?

It means it’s a unique place to fish and provides anglers with a unique experience. To qualify as a Wild Trout Water, the water has to be aesthetically pleasing, publicly accessible, provide a unique angling opportunity and does not receive a hatchery stocking allotment. Take the North Fork Mokelumne River. It received a Wild Trout Water Designation last year. That means it includes a self-sustaining population of non-native species such as brook trout or brown trout, as well as native species such as rainbow and occasional Lahontan cutthroat trout outside of their historic range. A Heritage Trout Water Designation requires a water to have only native species within their historic range. Rules and fishing regulations don’t necessarily change with either designation, but the department is required to write a management plan for the water and update that plan every five years.

What’s your favorite trout species?

My guilty pleasure are brook trout. They’re beautiful and a lot of fun to catch -- especially if you’d like to learn how to fly fish.

What advice would you give a young person interested in a career in fisheries, science or the outdoors?

If you’re fresh out of school or early on in your career, I highly recommend checking out the scientific aid positions we offer within the Heritage and Wild Trout Program. We advertise those positions on the CalCareers website around February and have a start date around the last week in May.

It’s a really unique experience to check out some backcountry locations and do some really great trout surveys. I wasn’t really aware of the scientific aid positions when I was in college, but even if you’re still in school and have the necessary units, you should think about applying so you can build that experience and be more prepared when you graduate. You get to do a lot of high-adventure field work while you’re still able to do it.

Tell us something about yourself people might be surprised to learn.

I love to deep-sea fish but get terribly seasick. It’s a struggle not having sea legs, but a patch helps and the payoff is worth it.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 7, 2023
scientist kneeling in a field with flowers

Krista Hoffmann at North Table Mountain.

Scientist wearing an orange life preserver sitting in a kayak in water surrounded by wetlands
Conducting fieldwork for a Suisun Marsh restoration project.

Three scientists standing in forefront of Hallelujah Junction Wildlife Area, two scientists are holding a camera on a stand
Conducting fieldwork for a Suisun Marsh restoration project.

Krista Hoffmann is CDFW’s Integrated Pest Management Coordinator. She works in CDFW’s Lands Program coordinating the management of invasive vegetation and invasive species on state wildlife areas and ecological reserves. Krista attended the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), where she earned an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolutionary biology and a doctoral degree in pharmacology and toxicology. Before joining CDFW in 2020, Krista worked for the California Department of Water Resources and prior to that served in the Peace Corps in Palau, Micronesia.

What is your role as Integrated Pest Management Coordinator?

I coordinate weed management which includes ensuring that staff who use herbicides have the correct certifications and training, and that as a department we are following regulations and internal guidelines. I provide information on best management practices and help land managers with problem solving to find the best solution for invasive species on the properties they manage. I read a lot of scientific literature to keep up with new research. I compile data and review weed management plans, among other things. But one of my favorite parts of the job is when I get to do field work. The hands-on restoration work, getting my hands dirty and getting the field experience, is one of the most important parts of my job that helps me understand what’s really happening on the ground.

Integrated pest management is an ecosystem-based strategy to control or eradicate invasive species and includes prevention, treatment and monitoring of invasive species populations. It’s “integrated” in that multiple tools are typically used to enhance efficacy and reduce non-target impacts. The approach also includes active or passive restoration with native, desirable plants to help outcompete or prevent reinvasion by unwanted species.

What motivated you to follow this career path?

I was always interested in science and nature. I was one of those kids who caught and played with most of the critters I could find around my neighborhood, from pill bugs and spiders to lizards and snakes. I was always really fascinated by animals and plants and loved being outside. I also loved learning about science and nature and how things work. I knew I wanted to go into science when I started college. I was also really interested in cultures and the idea of traveling to learn about cultures around the world.

How did you start working on invasive species and toxicology?

I did an undergraduate research project in Dr. Donald Stong’s Spartina Lab at UC Davis. I worked with one of his researchers, Dr. Debra Ayres, who was looking at the hybridization (crossing) between the native Spartina foliosa cordgrass and the non-native Spartina alterniflora from the East Coast and how the resulting hybrid species was more vigorous and more competitive than either of the parent species. Now, the Invasive Spartina Control Project, primarily led by Dr. Drew Kerr, has eradicated over 90 percent of the invasive or hybrid species in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a major success story in the world of invasive species management.

Studying toxicology was inspired by a job I had prior to graduate school where I collected water samples from agricultural fields to test for pesticide residues. That’s how I became aware of all the chemicals that are in our waterways and interested in how they might affect aquatic species like fish. Now as a scientist at CDFW I’ve been able to put my two interests together. A lot of what I do now is determining both where herbicides are needed to control invasive species and how to protect non-target species at the same time.

Can you describe the approach to managing invasive plants on CDFW-managed lands?

We use a variety of methods on our lands. For example, grazing by cows, sheep or goats can remove invasive species while promoting native species if it’s done right. We also are looking into using prescribed (planned) fire to remove some species, or flooding for others, and physical methods like mowing and hand pulling are commonly used. There are cool new tools using drones to monitor species or even to control species in a very targeted way. Herbicides are also an important tool that we use, often in combination with other approaches. Decisions on which tools are most appropriate for a given target and setting are based on a combination of information from the scientific literature and hands-on experience, and we adapt our approaches as needed as new tools or evidence become available.

What are some of the most problematic species you work on?

There are lots of them! However, not all non-native species are invasive. “Invasive” plants are those that cause harm to the environment or the economy. A few that cause a lot of problems on our lands are yellow starthistle, perennial pepperweed, cheatgrass and European beachgrass. Some aquatic invasive plants are Phragmites (common reed), Spartina (smooth cordgrass), giant reed, water hyacinth and water primrose. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work with regional staff on a few hands-on restoration projects addressing some of these especially problematic plants. At the Hallelujah Junction Wildlife Area in Sierra County, we are studying different control methods for cheatgrass, and how to put a stop to the fire cycle that it perpetuates such as using herbicides and planting native species that compete with cheatgrass. I’m also assisting with a large-scale restoration project in our Northern Region, aiming to control European beachgrass in the dune habitat and Spartina in the tidal wetlands. In Suisun Marsh, there’s been a recent surge in the alkali Russian thistle population, which is impacting waterfowl habitat. I’m working with the Suisun Resource Conservation District to develop a Russian Thistle Control Plan for the region.

Do you have any advice for young scientists?

Do lots of different things. Don’t think you need to stick to one direct career path to be successful. It’s a great idea to get a diversity of experience when you’re starting out. It’s the best way to figure out what you enjoy doing and you never know what skills might come in handy down the road.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • August 24, 2022

Banding wild turkeys and collecting samples in Davis .
Banding wild turkeys and collecting samples in Davis .

Field work in Carrizo Plain National Monument.
Field work in Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Selfie with giant kangaroo rat, Elkhorn Plateau in Carrizo Plain.
Selfie with giant kangaroo rat, Elkhorn Plateau in Carrizo Plain.

Biologist Matt Meshriy assists with statewide coordination on issues affecting a broad group of species that includes upland game birds. His job also focuses on small game mammals and predators and competitors of upland game species like badgers, skunks, coyotes, and racoons. Meshriy provides support on a range of issues impacting upland game species including regulations, harvest estimates, disease surveillance, habitat assessment and grant research.

Educated at San Francisco State University, Meshriy has an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolution and a master’s degree in animal behavior and physiology with a focus in mammalogy. In 2004, he landed his first professional biology job banding spotted owls for the U.S. Forest Service in Plumas National Forest. His next professional stop was at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a research associate in a forest pathology and mycology laboratory. There he maintained culture collections and learned to use molecular techniques like DNA extraction and amplification that later helped him in acquiring grants to fund his master’s thesis work.

Meshriy returned to San Francisco State University and taught biology laboratories and conducted field and genetic investigations of the federally endangered giant kangaroo rat in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. His thesis, titled “Kinship associations of a solitary rodent, Dipodomys ingens, at fluctuating population densities,” described behavioral adaptations of this unique species that facilitate population maintenance and dispersal under unpredictable conditions in their desert environment. After earning his graduate degree in 2009, Meshriy worked for the U.S. Geological Survey en route to being hired by CDFW in 2012.

What led you to a career in wildlife science?

First and foremost, I wanted to do something that felt meaningful. As a kid, my dad got me interested in space. He told me about the moon landings and of future missions to Mars. I grew up with Star Wars in the movie theaters. Although I was raised in the urban landscape of San Francisco and the bay Peninsula, I have always enjoyed being outside in the natural world and regularly explored the coastal mountains on my bicycle and the Sierra Nevada once I could drive.

I worked during my senior year of high school and for a year before and while attending college. I was initially interested in astronomy, astrophysics and meteorology but I came to realize that they required more math than I was comfortable with. I started looking into botany as an alternative area of study, and one semester of calculus seemed more do-able than three. As I enrolled in more elective coursework in the biological sciences, I found my way to biogeography and ecology. I’m fascinated by the relationships between organisms and I’m always curious about the ways that larger groups of organisms and systems are constantly struggling to find or maintain states of equilibrium, and how humans and our activities are increasingly affecting these systems.

Why did you apply for the upland game position?

Before applying for the position, I had very much been involved with the field aspects of data collection and processing of biological samples and data analysis. However, I didn’t have much experience or exposure to other areas of public science like policy, regulation and public outreach. When the job opening was advertised, I was leading a crew in field surveys of the federally threatened giant garter snake in the Sacramento Valley. While I enjoyed the physical work, the idea of being exposed to different aspects of wildlife management was appealing.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

In my experience, our collective progress toward solving problems and improving our understanding of issues moves forward in an uneven manner, in bits and spurts. My favorite parts of the job are the occasions when I feel connected to one of those instances of a shift to forward momentum, when new information becomes available or something new becomes possible.

This might be because a needed regulation gains enough support that it is prioritized for development, or a research need is filled through a new grant or collaboration. It’s the ability to see different facets of issues as I progress in my career. For example, how agencies work together to deliver the science that drives the policy. I like seeing how science is adapted to meet the needs of the public and how each agency and partner is involved. There’s not always a map for that process. Sometimes it takes creative thinking.

What should people know about upland game?

The term “upland game” relates to a group of species that are generally widespread in the state. Many upland game species are versatile and adaptable to a broad range of habitats whereas others occupy more specialized or geographically limited niches in California, like the rock ptarmigan and greater sage grouse.

As a group, upland game species and habitats are fairly ubiquitous in California. There are lots of opportunities for wildlife watchers and hunters alike to pursue upland game birds and mammals without having to travel too far around the state.

What advice would you have for young people interested in science careers?

Explore every opportunity that interests you. The more opportunities you can become involved with, the more likely you’ll find things that satisfy you personally and that you can make a living doing. I don’t think people should spin their wheels in internships or volunteer opportunities that don’t interest them at the outset, on the hope of landing a lucrative job that they assume will fulfil them. Instead, find the pursuits that you really enjoy and then figure out how to string together that set of knowledge, skills and experiences into something that is profitable and unique to you over time. For me, the value in casting a wide net is the broad exposure to issues and species and being able to recognize emergent properties or similarities in different areas of biology and the environment.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 24, 2022
scientist surveying milkweed in mountain habitat

Sardiñas surveying Asclepias californica, an early season milkweed species, on Mt Diablo (credit: Ling He/NRCS).

scientist surveying for bumble bees in nature reserve
Surveying for bumble bees in Upper Cottonwood Creek Reserve (credit: Lara Sparks/CDFW)

Scientist leading outdoor group training at butterfly symposium in Bay Area
Sardiñas leading a field training at the Bay Area Grassland Butterfly Symposium.

As CDFW’s statewide pollinator coordinator, Dr. Hillary Sardiñas supports conservation related to bees, monarch butterflies and any other animal in California that transfers pollen between plants to help them reproduce. She works with a variety of partners, including nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies to come up with new ideas and collaborations for improving pollinator conservation.

Sardiñas earned her undergraduate degree in environmental studies from University of California, Santa Cruz. She went on to study at the graduate level, earning a Ph.D. in environmental policy and management from University of California, Berkeley. She was hired by CDFW in January 2021.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz I worked in the Chadwick Garden, a small organic garden perched above the hills of Santa Cruz. I was taking a summer course on the natural history of birds and practicing my observation skills when I saw a hummingbird nab and eat a butterfly. Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that hummingbirds also ate insects, I thought they only survived on nectar. Making that connection helped me realize I wanted a career where I got to understand what was happening in nature. I started taking more ecology courses and decided to become an environmental scientist.

What was your path to grad school?

During undergrad I got to take an amazing class called Natural History Field Quarter where I traveled statewide surveying plants and animals. It got me interested in the incredible diversity in California. After I graduated, I worked for some native plant nurseries, and I did a lot of seed collection. In learning more about plants and propagation, I discovered some plants weren't producing seeds. I got curious and researched potential causes, which is how I first heard about pollinator decline and the important role pollinators play in natural and agricultural systems. I realized I wanted to work to protect pollinators. I decided to go to grad school to study how to restore pollinator habitat.

What did you do professionally before joining CDFW?

I spent some time working for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I had the opportunity to collaborate with farmers from all over the west, helping them design and install habitat for pollinators. From there, I joined the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (RCD) where I worked with species such as the California tiger salamander, California red-legged frog and Alameda whipsnake. I also helped create a monarch conservation program that became the model for other RCD monarch programs. I ended up working with the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, the nonprofit partner to California’s RCDs, as their statewide monarch coordinator. In that role I was able to support dozens of RCDs in their monarch and pollinator-related outreach and restoration work.

What drew you to CDFW’s statewide pollinator coordinator position?

My dream since I was a grad student was to work at a statewide level to conserve pollinators. When I heard about this position, I knew I had to apply. The timing for this position couldn’t have been better. It has enabled CDFW to respond to the emerging monarch crisis while also protecting other important pollinators like bumble bees. Pollinators are responsible for 80 percent of all flowering plant reproduction, and 35 percent of all crops depend on pollinators. Conserving pollinators is an incredibly important issue that helps maintain ecosystem function and sustain biodiversity. In the past year and a half, I’ve been able to work at the state level to bring partners together to develop collaborative management actions that benefit pollinators.

What is your job like on a day-to-day basis?

Every day is different, which is part of the fun. But I do have a few focal areas. One of the species I work with the most is the western monarch. CDFW owns properties along the California coast that support monarch overwintering clusters, so part of my job is working to enhance these sites. I’m also helping to increase native milkweed supply from commercial nurseries so we can enhance breeding habitat.

I also support the California Bumblebee Atlas, a community science project that we’re partnering on with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. The goal of the Atlas is to better understand the distribution and health of the state’s bumble bee species. We’re recruiting members of the public to help us survey, since the state is so large we can’t cover it by ourselves.

One of my favorite parts of this job is collaborating with other CDFW staff. For example, I assist our land managers with restoration plans and seed mixes. I also support our habitat conservation division by reviewing proposed projects that might impact pollinators and determining how we can avoid or minimize those impacts. I learn so much from all my colleagues.

How important is public outreach in your job?

Outreach is critical, in large part because the public can play a big role in supporting monarchs and other pollinators. People usually understand the importance of pollinators, but not everyone knows all the different species that contribute to pollination such as wasps and bats. I also try to emphasize the importance of other insects, as they contribute to many critical ecosystem processes. Helping people shift to overcome their fear of insects and understand the incredible role they play is important to ensuring their protection. Biologist E.O. Wilson talked about the “little things that run the world,” and I think pollinators are underrecognized for the value they provide. One way we’re working to get the word out is by installing new signs in our wildlife areas describing the role pollinators play in ecosystem function.

What can the public do to help?

Luckily the adage, “If you build it, they will come,” is true for pollinators. Planting native flowering plants creates pollinator habitat no matter where you live, whether in a city or a rural area. It's important to make sure that all plants you purchase are pesticide free so you don’t inadvertently poison the pollinators you’re trying to attract.

I also encourage people to get involved in a community science project. Community scientists help us cover this vast state. Data collected by community scientists helps us assess the status of insect populations and allows us to develop appropriate management actions. There are a ton of different community science projects with varying levels of commitment, so it’s easy to find one that’s right for you.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Stay curious. I started out with plants, then got really interested in pollinators, and even took a detour where I learned a lot about amphibians. All of these experiences and interests contributed to a more holistic understanding of the natural world. I also think having a vision is important. As I mentioned, I maintained the goal of working on pollinator conservation at the statewide level. With this objective in mind, I made sure to connect with a variety of different stakeholders and maintain those connections. I think this is what has helped me be successful in this position, because collaboration is a really effective and efficient way to accomplish a lot in a short period of time. And pollinators need as much support as possible.

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