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.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 15, 2022
Scientist setting camera trap in field

Setting up camera trap at Pixley National Wildlife Refuge.

Scientist walking in a nature preserve
O’Leary working at Sandridge Bakersfield Cactus Preserve.

Scientist measuring a blunt-nosed leopard lizard at ecological reserve
O’Leary measuring a blunt-nosed leopard lizard at Semitropic Ecological Reserve.

Environmental Scientist Reagen O'Leary monitors wildlife and plant species on CDFW ecological reserves in the Central Valley. She’s part of a small team that helps protect and recover threatened and endangered species and their habitats on about 50,000 acres of CDFW-owned lands. O’Leary studied biology at Fresno State University and held several part-time jobs, including zookeeper at Fresno Chaffee Zoo, veterinary assistant at an animal hospital and scientific aid for CDFW’s Fishing in the City program. She also conducted owl surveys and worked in CDFW’s Lands Unit. Her first full-time position with the state was as an environmental planner for Caltrans. She was hired by CDFW as an environmental scientist in 2011.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau documentaries. I was very curious about the natural world and wanted to know how it worked. I was the type of kid who could sit in a field by myself and be entertained by my fascination with the plants and wildlife around me. Growing up, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist and work with whales and sharks. In my 20s, I worked at a veterinary clinic and realized I liked animals more than people – but not in a clinical setting. That led to my interest in field biology.

What do you enjoy about your job at CDFW?

I love monitoring and taking inventory of the listed species, whether they be plants or wildlife. The wildlife species we typically work with include the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, kangaroo rat species, San Joaquin kit fox, Swainson's hawk and San Joaquin antelope squirrel. I also really enjoy teaching young scientists about the different species and habitats they depend on. I like seeing lightbulbs go off in people’s minds when they learn something new and correlate that knowledge to what they already knew but maybe couldn’t put to words. Young people can be transformed by what they learn, and I enjoy nurturing an appreciation for nature.

What does your job look like on a day-to-day basis?

It depends on the time of year. The field work is varied. For example, we have a long-term lizard monitoring grid that we’ve kicked off for this year that will run in the spring, summer and fall. On hot days we’ll be out in the field early to beat the heat and get back home at a reasonable time. I oversee our annual winter resident bird surveys. I also monitor the status of multiple rare plants on our ecological reserves during the species blooming period. Other duties include setting up camera traps throughout the lands for species detections. We conduct kangaroo rat trapping in the summer, which consists of night work, and during winter we conduct fairy shrimp surveys. Overall, I’ve logged a lot of walking miles in the San Joaquin desert doing all sorts of activities.

As far as day-to-day office work, I coordinate new land acquisitions, write reports, present on our work at conferences, mentor and guide our scientific aids and conduct work funded by grants. I’m the lead staff for coordinating land acquisitions on a Habitat Conservation Plan. I sometimes joke with my colleagues and say, “Who knew we’d need to understand real estate documents to do this job?”

Do you have any recommendations for aspiring scientists?

I would encourage students to be curious about nature and not be scared to ask professionals questions. What I’m discovering with young people is that they sometimes don’t ask enough questions, or they don’t know what questions to ask. Don’t ever think you’re going to learn it all; as a matter of fact, the more you learn, the more you discover what you don’t know. If you are a person with a curious nature, the scientific field is definitely for you. Find folks that like to explore nature and let your curiosity blossom.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • June 6, 2022
Man holding frog in one hand and taking notes in a notepad with the other, with lake and mountain in the background.

Isaac Chellman recording data on a recaptured Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in Bucks Lake Wilderness, Plumas County.

Man at the edge of a pond, kneeling and holding a frog in one hand, with forest trees in the background.
Isaac Chellman releasing a zoo-reared Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Smiling man with hiking gear, standing in a forested area and holding a garter snake with both hands.
Isaac Chellman holding a mountain gartersnake in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Man with hiking gear walking alongside a small stream, looking into the water, with mountains and trees in the background.
Isaac Chellman looking for Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs in Desolation Wilderness, El Dorado County.

Isaac Chellman is an environmental scientist in CDFW’s North Central Region, which includes much of the northern Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley. Isaac has worked for CDFW since 2017, leading the region’s High Mountain Lakes (HML) project.

Isaac is originally from the east coast, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology (’02) and later a master’s in Aquatic Ecology and Watershed Science (’11) from the University of Vermont. Following undergrad, Isaac worked for the U.S. Geological Service Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, and later for the USGS Brown Treesnake Project on Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. In 2007, he was hired by the USGS for backcountry amphibian monitoring in Yosemite National Park. After that, Isaac worked for the Western Riverside County Biological Monitoring Program. After taking a few years off for grad school, Isaac returned to Guam as a crew leader for the Ecology of Bird Loss Project, a multi-island ecological study focused on the secondary ecological effects of native forest bird loss caused by invasive brown treesnakes. He also spent five years as the crew supervisor for the Aquatic Ecosystems Program at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, before coming to work for CDFW.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career as an Environmental Scientist?

I’ve been captivated with the outdoors for as long as I can remember. Growing up in rural New Hampshire, I was usually outside, often in wetlands. I became really interested in amphibians (frogs, in particular), and that love of ectothermic critters stuck. My dad and aunt are probably my two biggest influences in helping foster an appreciation for the natural world. Dad would often take my brother and me out on hunting and fishing trips, both locally and further afield. My aunt was the head of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s moose project for many years, until retiring a couple years ago. She was a big inspiration for me, and she definitely supported my pursuit of a wildlife career as I was planning to enter college.

What type of work do you do as a CDFW environmental scientist?

As part of the HML project, the seasonal field crew and I visit aquatic habitats all over the northern Sierra Nevada, monitoring the status and trends of frog populations, assessing fisheries and working to help conserve threatened and endangered species, in particular. Most of the specific projects I work on — which tend to be federally funded through section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, State Wildlife Grants or similar sources — focus on monitoring the various Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog (Rana sierrae) populations in the region, and carrying out actions to help recover the species.

Part of that work involves targeted removal of introduced trout, which prey on R. sierrae in locations where the species overlap. Trout are a major contributor to declines of R. sierrae and Southern Mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana muscosa). Introduced trout, including brook trout (native to the eastern U.S. and Canada) and rainbow trout (native to the west coast, but not originally found in many areas of the Sierra Nevada), were originally stocked into high mountain lakes beginning in the latter half of the 19th century. Other species of trout are native to parts of the Sierra Nevada (including Lahontan cutthroat trout, Paiute cutthroat trout, Little Kern golden trout, Kern River rainbow trout and golden trout). However, prior to the mid-1800s, most of the remote, high elevation lakes and streams did not contain any fish, which had been precluded by glaciation and natural barriers to upstream fish movement. During my time with CDFW, we have removed introduced trout from a few specific locations that contain small populations of R. sierrae nearby. In those places, R. sierrae have often been relegated to smaller, fishless waterbodies, since the frogs can’t effectively reproduce in areas occupied by trout. We use mechanical methods (gill nets in lakes and backpack electrofishing units in streams) to catch the fish, the carcasses of which are then sunk to the deeper portions of lake bottoms, where they break down and return nutrients into the ecosystem. Once the fish are removed, the habitat is again available for the frogs to reproduce without the threat of being suppressed by predators with which they did not evolve.

Other projects I work on include translocations and reintroductions of R. sierrae into remote, fishless lakes on public lands within the known range of the frogs. For example, in Desolation Wilderness, my colleagues and I have undertaken several frog translocations, using one of the more robust R. sierrae populations in the northern Sierra Nevada as the source, and moving some of the adult frogs to a fishless lake basin about two miles away. The recipient lake basin likely had R. sierrae in the relatively recent past, but the area had been stocked with brook trout for many years, and the frogs were no longer present. However, the fish died out in the absence of stocking, so we began a project in 2018 to reintroduce the frogs. So far, that effort has been really successful.

All the adult frogs we release are individually marked with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, which are tiny (8 mm long) inert microchips encased in glass, which we insert under the frog’s skin to give each individual a permanent, unique identifying code that we can detect using a handheld scanner. We closely monitor the newly translocated population: surveys involve catching every adult frog we find, scanning and recording their PIT tag, and collecting morphological measurements. Those measurements have revealed that the recaptured frogs have been growing quickly and appear to be very healthy.

All of this work, and more, is part of an Interagency Conservation Strategy for mountain yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevada. The strategy was developed over several years by a dedicated team of biologists, managers and administrators with CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, university-affiliated researchers and several California zoos.

What types of invasive species do you encounter?

The main invasive species connection to the HML work is a fungal pathogen, often associated with aquatic environments, known as amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), or just “Bd” for short. Bd causes an amphibian-specific disease known as chytridiomycosis, which has been a major contributor to amphibian declines (particularly in frogs). The disease has been linked to many frog extinctions all over the world. The exact origin of Bd, and all the ways in which it spreads, is not fully understood, but the current prevailing theory is that Bd was likely introduced to North America at least a century ago, and Bd later spread up into the Sierra Nevada, possibly around the 1960s or 1970s.

Bd is currently present throughout most of the Sierra Nevada. Scientists have detected the pathogen in many different species, but some frog species are more susceptible than others to developing chytridiomycosis. For example, American bullfrogs (Lithobates [Rana] catesbeianus), which are native to the eastern and central U.S. but invasive in California, are a known host for Bd. However, the pathogen doesn’t seem to affect bullfrogs very much, particularly when compared with many other frog species. There is a lot of concern that bullfrogs may act as a vector for spreading the disease to more susceptible native species in California, like Foothill yellow-legged frogs (Rana boylii), and lower elevation populations of montane ranid frogs, including Cascades frogs (Rana cascadae), R. sierrae and R. muscosa). There are also native species that appear to be less susceptible to Bd-induced mortality (and could, therefore, also be potential reservoir hosts for Bd), particularly chorus frogs (Hyliola [Pseudacris] spp.), which are often known simply as “treefrogs” in our area. Although many native species are highly susceptible to Bd, not all populations have the same outcome when the pathogen arrives. Some populations are able to persist, and even thrive, despite the presence of Bd, whereas others become extirpated (that is, the population in that particular area dies out). Investigating why there can be such differences in outcomes from Bd infection in various populations, even within the same species, is one of the biggest areas of scientific research surrounding the pathogen.

Although Bd is now fairly ubiquitous in California, there is still concern about moving the pathogen around, in part because there are many different genetic strains of Bd that have been recently identified in the Sierra Nevada. Since we roam all over the Sierra Nevada to study native California amphibians, my crew and I decontaminate all gear that came into contact with the aquatic environment, including shoes and socks, nets and sampling equipment. These efforts also help greatly reduce the chance we’ll move any other high elevation aquatic invasive species (AIS) or pathogens around, including things like Ranaviruses (another group of microorganisms that can affect frogs). Additionally, if we’re ever working in lower elevations areas that may have other AIS present, such as New Zealand mudsnails and quagga/zebra mussels, we also freeze our gear overnight after use, in addition to the other decontamination procedures.

What do you love about your job?

It probably won’t be a shock to know that I love the field work. Being able to study native amphibian populations throughout the mountains and foothills of the Sierra Nevada is incredible, and I don’t take that opportunity for granted. Knowing that I’m doing work that directly benefits native species, while doing so in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, is hard to beat. I also work with great people, and being able to collaborate with others toward common conservation goals is something I love about the job.

The translocation project I mentioned is one of the more recent work projects that I’ve found gratifying. That project has been a group effort, involving other biologists who have laid the groundwork, including conceptualizing the project and securing the initial funding, and other staff who have helped in the field, including many seasonal scientific aids and partner biologists with Eldorado National Forest. It has been rewarding to recapture many of the frogs we have released and see that they appear to be doing very well, and it has been particularly exciting to see new frogs entering the population. Seeing some initial successes like this is motivating and gives me hope that our projects, along with other great work by colleagues working throughout the Sierra Nevada, can help recover the species.

One other thing I really like about the projects we undertake is that they are relatively low cost, particularly given the benefits we can see. Monitoring, translocations and mechanical fish removal projects are pretty cheap when it comes to conservation work. We can do these projects using small crews, composed mostly of seasonal staff, with limited resources in relatively short periods of time.

What advice would you have for a young scientist wanting to do what you do?

If you’re thinking about pursuing this kind of work, it’s important that you feel fairly confident you’ll truly enjoy it, whatever your specific interest may be. If you are pursuing what you love to do, any potential challenges will be more endurable. In terms of practical needs, it’s important to obtain a baseline education in this type of work, particularly to meet the minimum qualifications many jobs require. It doesn’t need to be wildlife or fisheries biology, specifically, but the degree should have a related focus (for example, degrees in general biology, conservation biology, environmental science/studies, molecular ecology, genetics, zoology, etc.), and that degree could be from a local community college or elsewhere, depending on your desires and resources. With that as a baseline, if you have the ability, I highly recommend applying to all sorts of seasonal field jobs, and try working for different agencies/organizations, on different projects, and with different species, to see what you enjoy the most. It can be a long road of working for low pay and living in austere conditions, but it can also be a lot of fun, and rewarding life experience.

Another big piece of advice I have is to be persistent: do not give up, particularly when it comes to applying for those seasonal jobs. When you’re just starting out and trying to gain experience, it can take many applications before you get interviewed, let alone be offered a job. However, perseverance is huge, and you will eventually be able to land a job in your field, if you keep at it.

Photos courtesy of Isaac Chellman.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • March 16, 2022
Roberts doing camera checks at the Chorro study area in the Central Region

Roberts doing camera checks at the Chorro study area in the Central Region

A female bobcat trapped as part of a statewide population study
A female bobcat trapped as part of a statewide population study

Roberts checking bobcat traps on an ATV in the Inland Deserts Region
Roberts checking bobcat traps on an ATV in the Inland Deserts Region

Roberts setting up a bobcat trap at the Fort Irwin study area in the Inland Deserts Region
Roberts setting up a bobcat trap at the Fort Irwin study area in the Inland Deserts Region

Senior Environmental Scientist Rachel Roberts oversees CDFW’s statewide project to study the population of bobcats in California. The study will inform management practices and help scientists better understand conflict management issues between bobcats and humans. The research will ultimately culminate in the creation of a statewide bobcat management plan. Roberts was educated at San Jose State University where she earned both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in ecology and conservation biology with an emphasis in zoology. In 2011, she volunteered to do habitat restoration work at Pinnacles National Park in Central California. Her volunteer work led to a job as a scientific aide working with condors at the national park. Since that first volunteer position Rachel has worked for the U.S. Forest Service on both the Modoc and the Sierra National Forest, as well as for the California Department of Transportation as an environmental planner. She also worked in the private sector as an independent contractor and at an environmental firm before being hired by CDFW in 2020 as the department’s statewide bobcat research coordinator.

When did you know you wanted a career involving wildlife?

My dad used to take my siblings and me camping all the time, and we spent a lot of time in nature. But the “aha” moment didn’t come to me until later in life. I was a veterinary technician for a long time. I originally thought I wanted to go to veterinary school, but then I realized I wanted to work outside with animals. This was around 2005 and I was still early in my college career. I was trying to figure out what to do next and my now-husband suggested ecology as a major. Once I got into field classes and was learning more about wildlife biology, that was it. I figured out where I wanted to be.

What inspired you to study bobcats?

As a student at San Jose State, we did fieldwork at Cañada de los Osos Ecological Reserve near Gilroy. We’d go out to the reserve on a regular basis, and we’d see bobcats all the time. Bobcats are said to be elusive and shy around humans. They did generally try to avoid us, but I also noticed that they would sit there and watch us while we did fieldwork. They were often as curious about us as we were about them. Seeing so many bobcats on a regular basis is ultimately what led to my master’s thesis. I studied what bobcats were eating at Cañada de los Osos Ecological Reserve and how those prey items were changing seasonally. My love for bobcats has grown as I’ve studied them.

What were bobcats eating at the reserve?

Mostly dusky footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes), Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae) and California meadow voles (Microtus californicus). Interestingly, they were eating more woodrats in the summer, pocket gophers in the winter and voles in the spring. They were also eating small mammals like field mice and deer mice, and birds like quail, northern flicker, turkeys and jays. At times their diet also included Jerusalem crickets, skunks, hares, snakes and lizards.

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

The research project is fairly complex. We have a team of bobcat scientists in each of the six CDFW terrestrial regions across the state collecting data. We have a large grid of camera traps that we are rotating through each of our 48 study areas, and we’re walking 40 kilometers of transects in each study area to collect scat for fecal DNA analysis. We are also deploying GPS collars on bobcats throughout the state. In addition to regional staff, there are multiple leadership groups that help the team make decisions. So my day-to-day involves coordinating the entire effort.

For the first part of the project, I spent a lot of time in the field making sure staff were trained to collect data. I'm currently overseeing the bobcat collaring efforts, but as data collection starts to wind down by the end of June 2022 I’ll be spending more time doing data analysis and writing.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

I could give the obvious answers like working with bobcats and seeing all the great bobcat photos. But beyond that, the team of folks that have been hired to do this research are incredible. My favorite part is working with the young scientists. I’ve been really impressed with their data collection and organizational skills. They’ve been a pleasure to work with and we’re working together to achieve a common goal.

What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

Collecting and organizing data on a statewide scale is very challenging. We have various methods of data collection and management which makes the process easier but ensuring that the data is collected the same way across the state has been a challenge.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in wildlife careers?

What helped me was all the volunteer work I did. I really wanted as much experience as I could get. I was willing to volunteer, work for little pay, or travel to get that experience. Putting myself in a place to be the person who takes on responsibility was key. I always put my hand up when something needed to be done, and I think that gave me the experience I needed to get here.

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