Featured Scientist

  • March 23, 2018

A man wearing waders stands waist-deep in a flowing stream, holding a long, narrow measuring device
Robert conducts a topographical survey of pool habitat on Big Sur River.

Three people wearing black wet-suits and snorkels float, face-down, in a brownish, rushing stream lined by green vegetation on the banks
Robert and crew snorkel-survey Coho salmon and steelhead habitat use on South Fork Eel River tributary.

Robert Holmes is an Environmental Program Manager supervisor over the Statewide Water Planning Program in CDFW’s Water Branch. Robert leads efforts in the statewide implementation of the Instream Flow Program, sustainable groundwater management, and water rights activities.

Robert has been with the Water Branch for 10 years, and has worked on instream flow, water quality, and aquatic species and habitat assessments for over 20 years for the State of California. Robert is a freshwater biologist and received a Bachelor of Science from CSU Sacramento in Conservation Biology, and a Master of Science from Humboldt State in Natural Resources where his thesis work was on steelhead trout early life history development.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I spent my childhood playing outdoors and learned a great appreciation for nature early on – exploring catching and identifying frogs, spiders, turtles, snakes and other critters. Basically, science has always been that pathway of learning about the outdoor world for me. I had lots of questions. What kind of spider is that? What kind of bird? What does it eat? Why is it only here in winter? Fast-forward to today and I’m still asking questions about the natural world, when I’m chasing fish to document habitat use and availability, collecting streamflow to determine gains and losses in a stream reach, or evaluating physical habitat suitability data. There are many rivers and places to explore, many questions to answer about the natural world, and much to learn!

What got you interested in working with water - and fish and wildlife?

Recreation! Growing up near the lower American River, I spent a lot time there with friends, riding bikes, swimming, skim boarding and fishing. In high school we would go snowboarding near Castle Peak, and later, whitewater kayaking and wakeboarding local rivers. On several occasions, when spring conditions were right, we would follow the westward flow of water from the summit to valley by hiking and snowboarding the backcountry of Donner Summit, kayaking a class IV stretch of one of the forks of American River, and then wakeboarding the lower Sacramento River. And that’s all in one weekend! I also like to fly fish. There’s nothing like those cold crisp winter mornings when fishing and it’s so cold your line freezes to the rod and you can barely feel your fingers. It’s worth it when you get the tug on your line, or a steelhead does a tail dance across the top of the water after taking your fly, and you pull them in and see that color! Drifting the Feather River or Yuba River for steelhead is fun, but trout fishing the Eastern Sierra is my favorite.

What brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

I was awarded a grant in graduate school at Humboldt State funded by the CDFW to develop a spawning and stocking program for coastal cutthroat trout in Humboldt County. At the time, I was also the assistant manager of the HSU Fish Hatchery. I formally came to the CDFW Water Branch in 2008 as the Statewide Instream Flow Coordinator. What inspires me and keeps me here is knowing how important the work is we do in developing instream flow criteria and recommendations for the protection and conservation of our fish and wildlife and their habitats. Our work is a critically important piece of information used by decision makers when balancing water needs and demands and determining water allocation schedules. We also have an awesome professional team who shares a solid work ethic, commitment, and passion for their work and meeting the CDFW mission!

What is a typical day like for you at work?

There is no typical day – really! Every instream flow study we work on and every associated river we step our boots in the water is different and presents its own unique challenges. One thing is for sure – there always needs to be a Plan A, and Plan B, and even a Plan C. Doing field studies brings lots of challenges. We have to plan our activities around storm events, rising and receding flow levels, droughts, access agreements, travel times, species periodicities, equipment limitations and so on. At the end of the day, the priority is always crew safety. We have had to call off several scheduled field days due to potentially unsafe conditions for our field crews presented by heavy storms and high streamflows.

What is special about working in instream flow?

Effective riverine resource stewardship and management is generally achieved by integrating science, policy and public involvement. We conduct instream flow studies to determine instream flow needs for fish and wildlife protection. These studies must be technically defensible, consistent with policies and coordinated and vetted in a transparent process. Therefore, success at achieving flow levels for the protection of fish and wildlife and their habitats is heavily reliant on this three-way interaction between the science, policy and public involvement.

What is special about the field of instream flow is that it takes a diverse, technically trained crew to do our job. For example, we have to draw upon all our scientific disciplines to get the job done – biologists, ecologists, hydrologists, water management scientists, engineering geologists, hydraulic engineers and others. I also get the privilege of working on external projects with some of the best and most well respected scientists in the field of instream flows, aquatic ecology and fisheries. Currently we are participating in an effort with hydrologists from UC Davis and other scientists to develop a statewide framework for assessing ecosystem and environmental flow criteria. This effort is really exciting as it has the potential to be very useful for several of our CDFW headquarters and regional program functions that use instream flow criteria for doing their jobs.

What is most challenging aspect of your job?

A commonly heard complaint of instream flow is that it is an issue of “water for fish versus people” and that instream flow practitioners advocate natural conditions in rivers at the expense of other water users. This idea is popular, but misleading, because all water uses – for recreation, for municipal supply, for industry, for fish and wildlife – are ultimately for the benefit and enjoyment of people in one way or another. In the long run, reserving water for instream flow is about the use and enjoyment of the river’s natural resources by future generations. Since these future users of water are not available to express their needs or desires, fish are often used as an indicator of healthy river conditions. So preserving instream flows (and fish) today actually preserves water management options for future generations.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

Every project is rewarding in different ways. Probably most rewarding from a big picture view is knowing how important the work we do is in the decision making and balancing processes by the State Water Board. It was actually very rewarding to publish a recent study of steelhead habitat selection and availability from the Big Sur River, which was initially approved for publication in North American Journal of Fisheries Management, in our very own Fish and Game Journal’s 100th year link opens in new window“Special Fisheries Issue” (PDF). There was only one chance to publish in this special issue – the next one is another century away! Our team has published multiple papers in several of the top scientific international peer review journals – but being a part of the 100th year of publication special fisheries issue was cool!

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

Understanding the relationship between surface water and groundwater on streams and rivers is really important as it has the potential to affect both the quantity and quality fish and wildlife habitats. Generally speaking, surface water and groundwater systems are connected in most landscapes and streams interact with groundwater in three basic ways: streams gain water from inflow of groundwater through the streambed, streams lose water by outflow through the streambed, or they do both depending upon the location along the stream. Groundwater seepage is vitally important to the hydrologic cycles and for fish and wildlife in California because it is responsible for keeping water in rivers during times of no rainfall (i.e., base flow conditions). I would really like to see more research into understanding these surface water and groundwater relationships on a regional and statewide scale and how this interaction can affect the base flows for fish and wildlife.

What is the best thing about being a fish and wildlife scientist?

The best thing about being a scientist is turning field data into information for decision making processes. Putting on a cold (and still wet) wetsuit in the morning and hopping into ice cold frigid water to survey salmonid habitat use would not be considered fun by many. But the best part is actually being in the water with the fish and observing and recording their behavior in their habitat – specifically observing the microhabitats they select to occupy (or not) and feed or hold, and how they interact among themselves and with other species as they grow and compete for resources – and as flow levels change. After collecting data it is the scientists’ responsibility of turning that observation data into information that natural resource managers, the public, and decision makers can use. Honestly, seeing this whole scientific process through – identifying study questions, study design and planning, implementation and then reporting – is the best part of being a fish and wildlife scientist!

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Get your feet wet! Do internships while in college and try different jobs in the field of your interest. First, you will be able to figure out what is right for you, and maybe what is not. Second, these jobs, whether volunteer or paid, and the associated people you meet and interact with early in your education and career will likely be important as you develop professional relationships and move into a career down the road. And most of all – have fun! Science is important, challenging, rewarding and fun.

CDFW photos. Top photo: Robert conducting snorkel survey of steelhead habitat use on Big Sur River.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • January 25, 2018

A man with a dark goatee, wearing black with an orange safety vest, kneels among dead reeds and low vegetation, holding a field notebook

Morgan Knechtle is an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Northern Region in Yreka. He works on the Klamath River Project, which has a primary focus of estimating the return of adult salmon and steelhead to the Klamath and Trinity rivers. He is responsible for multiple field projects that manage salmonids in the Klamath River Basin, such as operating adult salmonid counting stations and coordinating adult spawning ground surveys on the Shasta River, Scott River and Bogus Creek, three highly productive salmonid tributaries to the Klamath River in Siskiyou County. Knechtle also assists with adult recovery efforts, which involve collecting biological information from returning adult salmon at Iron Gate Hatchery, and serves as one of CDFW’s technical representatives for the Klamath Dam Decommissioning Project, which involves the proposed elimination of four hydroelectric dams in northern California and Southern Oregon.

Knechtle earned a Bachelor of Science degree in freshwater fisheries from Humboldt State University and got his first job with CDFW as a scientific aide in the Russian River watershed. He was hired permanently in 2000 and spent four years working on salmonid life cycle monitoring stations on the Mendocino coast. Since 2004, he has worked with salmonids in the Klamath Basin, both on the Trinity River and in the tributaries to the Klamath River in Siskiyou County.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

My love for rivers inspired me to become a scientist. During college at Humboldt State University, I was spending all of my free time fishing for salmon and steelhead and came to the realization that I could study these animals and make a living working with them.

The ability to be an advocate for fishery resources brought me to CDFW. CDFW is one of the only places a scientist can work with fisheries and truly be an objective voice for the resource. Many other organizations do not have this luxury.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

It depends on the time of year. During the fall and winter when adult salmonids are returning to the Klamath River, my world is extremely busy running and participating in multiple field projects monitoring the return of these amazing species. During the spring and summer, I spend much more time in the office crunching numbers and writing reports.

My Chinook salmon work focuses on providing information that can help accurately forecast abundance. This enables us to provide fishing opportunities while maintaining enough fish in the river for future generations. My coho salmon monitoring work focuses on providing accurate abundance information to track the status and trends of this endangered species over time.

As a technical expert on the Klamath Dam Decommissioning Project, in cooperation with other technical experts from other state and federal agencies, I help minimize effects to aquatic species inhabiting the Klamath River during the decommissioning phase of the project. Additionally, I participate in post-dam removal planning projects, including creating plans on how to implement the Iron Gate Hatchery post dam removal and coordinate with Oregon scientists on the reintroduction of salmon above Iron Gate Dam, with a goal of ensuring the recovery of salmonids and aquatic species above the project area.

What is the most rewarding project that you have worked on for CDFW?

Although the project is not yet complete, the Klamath Dam Decommissioning Project has the potential to be the most rewarding project I have worked on. It stands to be the largest river restoration project to ever be completed in North America, and given that status, as one can imagine, the project has a lot of moving parts. The potential benefits to salmonids in the Klamath and the improvements to the health of the river itself could be enormous. The long-term predicted improvements to water quality, habitat availability, natural flow dynamics and restoration of natural processes to the Klamath River will improve conditions, for not only anadromous salmon and steelhead but also the rest of the plant and animal community that depend on the river for part or all of their life history.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

It is extremely challenging when social and political concerns get mixed in with natural resource management. Working with coho salmon in the Klamath Basin has been very challenging due to its listed status and the fact that their abundance is extremely low.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

With unlimited funding, I would like to track and monitor the recovery of spring Chinook in the upper Klamath River post dam removal. They are nearly extinct and they are thought to once have been the most abundant species in the Klamath River Basin.

What aspect of working on the Klamath River is particularly challenging or rewarding?

Multiple stakeholders -- which include Native American tribes, federal and state trustee agencies, and freshwater and ocean anglers -- in the Klamath Basin make some aspects of salmon management challenging. However, when progress is made to restore the river, it is also extremely rewarding because you know that groups with very different perspectives have come together, negotiated agreement and reached consensus on difficult issues.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

Steelhead trout are my favorite species to work with. Steelhead are the most elusive of the Klamath salmonids and their complex life history make them a very difficult species to study. They are also my favorite fish to catch.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

The most obvious is for folks to stay in school and graduate from college. In addition, volunteering and interning in their field of interest early in their education is a benefit to get a taste of what the career might really be like.

CDFW photos of Morgan Knechtle working along the Shasta River.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • September 20, 2017

A man in the wilderness transfers blood from a syringe to a vial
A man wearing a DFG cap holds in his arms a large bear cub wearing a tracking collar.
On tarps, two men hold a deer wearing a calming mask as another checks the deer's health.

In 2013, Stuart Itoga became CDFW’s deer program coordinator, which means he is responsible for understanding, managing and conserving California’s deer populations. An avid outdoorsman, Stuart was born in Chicago and raised in San Jose. He holds a degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University.

Stuart first joined the department in 1995 as a scientific aide at the Butte Valley Wildlife Area in Siskiyou County after holding fisheries and wildlife positions with the U.S. Forest Service. He is now a senior environmental scientist.

California is home to both mule and black-tailed deer, both resident and migratory herds that wander more than 70 percent of the state and number about 500,000 animals. At the dawn of the state’s 2017 deer hunting season (the general season opens Sept. 16 in many parts of the state), Stuart shared some personal background and his professional outlook on the state of deer management and deer hunting in California.

Who or what inspired your love of natural resources?

I always liked being outside, but hunting and fishing with friends really did it for me.

What do you like best about your job?

I get to work with so many great people. I work with scientists from other state agencies, and it’s enlightening to discuss different conservation approaches with other agency staff. But working on deer projects with our scientists is the best part. They really care about conserving deer and our other natural resources. It hasn’t all been good, but working together, we’ve been able to do some really good things over the past few years. I like the direction we’re headed.

Are you a deer hunter yourself?

I am – or I used to be, at least. When I started this job as the deer program coordinator, I thought it might help me figure out where the best spots were, but this job keeps me so busy I just haven’t made the time to get out deer hunting the past few years. It doesn’t look like I’ll get out there this season either.

Hunters often remark that California’s deer seasons start too early, and that overall hunter success would be much better if the seasons started later in the year, closer to the rut as is the case in many other states. What do you think?

We could start seasons later, which likely would result in greater levels of harvest that couldn’t be sustained over the long term. This would mean fewer tags for hunters. Having some early seasons allows us to provide tags to a greater number of hunters. Our hunter survey overwhelmingly indicated that hunters prized just the opportunity to get out and hunt deer. So we try to provide a balance of opportunity and high-quality hunts. You may not get the hunt you really want in a given year, but you will be able to get a tag to hunt somewhere.

There are very limited doe hunting opportunities in California compared to other states. Wouldn’t providing more doe hunts not only improve hunter success but also help improve the overall health of California’s herds by removing some older does no longer able to reproduce?

Doe hunts are typically conducted to reduce deer density and negative impacts to the herd and the habitat that result from too many deer. We are currently updating our baseline population data with new methods that allow us to estimate deer populations with a greater level of precision and accuracy. We are assessing where we might be seeing high-density impact at work. There are some areas where the densities are around 12 deer per square kilometer and others about four. The question we’re looking at now is how many deer are sustainable over the long term and what the appropriate levels of harvest – male and female – need to be.

Going back to our survey, 85 percent of hunters supported a doe hunt if data indicated it was warranted. However, having the supporting data and the support of hunters is only part of the equation. In California and other Western states, doe hunts are not widely supported by the non-hunting public, and 37 of California’s 58 counties can veto the department’s recommendations for antlerless hunts.

Mountain lions are another sore subject for many deer hunters. They often get blamed for suppressing California’s deer numbers. To what degree are mountain lions impacting California’s deer herds?

Mountain lions are deer predators as are bear, coyotes, bobcats and people. We’re updating our baseline deer population numbers, which will help us determine the level of significance associated with lion and other predation. Without a good starting number, it’s impossible to tell what impact lions – or other predators – are having on deer populations. In addition to our population study with deer, the department is assessing the mountain lion population, which will also provide valuable information on deer-lion interactions.

I personally think the number of people in the state may be the biggest stressor on deer populations. A population of almost 40 million people has quite an impact on the state’s natural resources.

What’s one message you’d like to share with deer hunters as they prepare to head out this season?

One thing I hear with some consistency is, “There are no bucks.” Our trail cameras and fecal DNA studies, however, are showing us there are.

We conducted a hunter survey a couple of years ago as part of an update of our California Deer Conservation and Management Plan. That survey, combined with the level of effort information we get from the harvest reports submitted by hunters, tell us the average California deer hunter spends about eight days in the field. That’s a good deal of time and effort. So I’m not saying it’s easy to get a buck, but hunters that are consistently successful put some effort into their hunt and also spend time scouting beforehand. If you can get out before your trip and pattern the deer, you’re going to increase your chances of being successful.

Good luck to all of our deer hunters this year! If you’re successful, send me a photo at stuart.itoga@wildlife.ca.gov. (Don’t forget to tag it first!)

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • August 29, 2017

Pretty young woman holds a tiny bat in her gloved hand
an immobiilized buck with an eye cover lies behind a pretty young woman wearing camouflage
a young woman wearing camouflage kneels on a foggy hillside with an immobilized buck.

Sara Holm is an environmental scientist with the Wildlife Management Program in CDFW’s North Central Region. Based in Colfax, she is the unit wildlife biologist for Placer and Nevada counties. Her work includes a multi-agency wildlife-crossing project, collared mule deer studies, coordinating the region’s upland game bird hunts, land acquisition and management and many resource assessment projects and surveys. She works primarily with deer, bear, dove, pheasant and turkey but dabbles with lions, elk and bighorn sheep. Critical aspects of her work include responding to wildlife conflicts and providing technical expertise to hunters and the public.

Sara earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University in 1999 and started her career two days later as a scientific aide with CDFW. She has worked in the North Central Region for 17 years. She also recently became a hunter education instructor.

What led you into a career as a wildlife biologist?

I credit my family for introducing me to wildlife. The first vacations I can remember were camping, fishing and visiting national parks like Yosemite, Glacier and Yellowstone. There is nothing as exciting as a bear jam (a traffic jam caused by tourists stopping their cars on the side of the road to view bears) in Yellowstone, or that quick flash of a trout taking your fly.

When I was young, I knew I wanted to work outside but all I could envision was being a park ranger. I took a forestry class in junior college but realized that was not quite right for me. My biology professor told me about Humboldt State University and CDFW, so I volunteered with CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab. That is when I realized I could be a wildlife biologist and that I wanted to work for CDFW. It was all fascinating work, whether I was pulling a bear tooth at the front counter, feeding a lion in the pens or responding to a deer stuck in a fence.

I am inspired by the resources and by the chance to make a difference with science. It always made me proud to know I worked for the wildlife as well as the hunters (and anglers). When I complete a great project that I know will help wildlife, or validate a deer tag and talk to another happy outdoor enthusiast, I know that I am in the right place.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

One of the things I like best about my job is that it is never typical! On an office day I may start out answering nuisance wildlife calls, doing paperwork, checking on our collared deer locations or catching up on data entry -- but I could get a call that takes me into the field, to help an injured animal or check damage caused by a bear or lion. When I know I will be in the field the day usually starts early and could take me anywhere in my unit, or throughout the region to help on a colleague’s project.

The work can be hard if you are putting in 14-hour days trying to collar deer and you do not see a single animal, or you come out of the field to 20 messages on your phone, but I would do most of it for free because it is so fun. I have collared tons of deer, put bear cubs out in dens, flown many helicopter surveys, captured bighorn sheep and had many great adventures, but all of the work I do is made better by my fellow biologists. They are a second family to me and we have fun together, whether we are at a meeting or around the campfire. I think everyone should love their job but I am lucky to love the people I work with.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

I have a hard time choosing and I am always looking to work with something new. I love seeing fuzzy quail babies in the summer and flushing blue grouse out in the woods but I am more of a mammal person. I mostly work with mule deer and they are more fascinating than they look. Ground darting is anything but routine, as each captured animal is different. It is so exciting to get collar data back and see how and where they moved.

What aspect of working in the Sierra Nevada foothills is unique?

The foothills are interesting, especially considering my unit covers the foothills all the way over the crest of the Sierra to the Tahoe Basin (the elephant in this room is actually a bear!). The most complex part of this area is that there are many people living in urban environments that are actually in rural settings. Communities and pets, including livestock, actually create habitat in areas that are not ideal for wildlife. A pond in the middle of a small town attracts too many geese or maybe invites beavers that then flood roads. Rose bushes attract deer, which draw in lions. People want to raise chickens and then bears walk past homes and across busy roads to eat them. Sometimes I evaluate human-wildlife conflict in a busy city like Auburn, and other times I have to drive an hour out a dirt road for a similar issue.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I am the most proud of my work with the Highway 89 Stewardship Team. Our inter-agency team has built three wildlife crossings with fencing and wildlife jump-outs (which allow animals an exit point if they are within a fence) that are allowing animals to get across the road safely, connecting their habitat and making it safer for drivers. We have mentored other teams and run a successful program for students to teach others about the problems roads cause and the available solutions. These crossings will be in place long after I am gone, so it is a legacy that I can leave on the landscape.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

I believe we are currently doing projects that are good science and important for our agency but we could always do them better. I completed a project to evaluate the feasibility of reintroducing desert bighorn sheep to the North Central Region. With enough time, money, and legwork we may be able to clear out the livestock and make it happen. I would love to release some collared animals back in the Truckee River Canyon, spend my days monitoring them and witness their successful return to the area.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

I guess I would dispel any lasting notions that science is only for men. I work with several other “lady bios” and I am proud of how we operate and the skills that we have. Sometimes when you are talking to the public, they will misconceive what you know or can do just because you are a female. After providing technical assistance I’ve been asked how long I’ve done this job as if to validate my credibility, or I’ve had questions automatically directed at male counterparts even though it’s my area and I’m the one who can answer the question.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Be persistent and open to opportunity where it is available. We tend not to leave our jobs, so you may have to put in time and wait for something permanent to open up, but you can find a natural resource job in unexpected places like airports or land trusts. Volunteering and meeting people are how I got in. I would advise people to work hard for what they want because this is the best job!

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • August 15, 2017

male hunter in camouflage, holding large, dead, wild turkey
head shot of a middle-aged white man with brown hair and a goatee
male hunter with two dogs and three dead Canada geese

Dr. Andrew Gordus has a unique position, as he is the only staff toxicologist employed by CDFW outside of the department’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Based in Fresno, Andy focuses on the detection and effects of poisons as they relate to fish, wildlife and environmental health issues.

Andy was born and raised in rural Wisconsin where he developed a passion for the outdoors, fish and wildlife. He relocated to Southern California with his family at age 14. His passions led him to Humboldt State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and a master’s degree in Natural Resources Management. He earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Pathology from the UC Davis School of Medicine.

A 17-year CDFW employee, Andy has conducted pioneering research in the area of food safety and whether wildlife could possibly spread dangerous bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella to farmed crops. He was among the first scientists in California to raise warning flags about dangerous toxicants and serious environmental damage resulting from illegal marijuana grows.

Let’s say you’re at a social event without any work colleagues around. How do you explain what you do for a living?

I tell them I am a toxicologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. My specialty is wildlife diseases and toxicology, and I primarily cover water quality and food safety, but I also have a background in waterfowl and wetland habitat management.

Who or what brought you to CDFW and what inspires you to stay?

Ever since I was a kid, I always had an interest in fish and wildlife so I always wanted to work in some sort of wildlife or natural resources agency. I started with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and lived at Fish and Game housing at the Wister Unit. Back in those days, most of the biologists and managers were Humboldters so I had a lot in common with them. After I graduated from UC Davis, I worked for a private ecological consulting firm in Fresno and got to know the Fresno Fish and Gamers and they got to know me.

In the late 1990s, the department started to hire people above entry level, so I applied and Dale Mitchell hired me as an environmental scientist. And as they say, the rest is history. I get to do a lot of interesting and diverse projects, plus I’ve gotten to meet interesting people and developed both professional relationships and friendships over the years.

There’s been a lot of media and political attention lately on illegal marijuana grows and the damage they cause to wildlife and the environment. You sounded the alarm more than a decade ago. How did you become involved?

In 2004, some of our Central Valley wildlife areas and managed wetlands were required to join the state program that monitors pollutants in irrigated runoff. After the first annual report was released, I noticed dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) readings at certain locations in the watershed and began to wonder where in the heck that was coming from.

Not too long after that our wildlife area supervisor made a comment to me that our wardens had recently raided an illegal grow in the grasslands region and found DDT containers with labels in Spanish. That’s when it hit me – so that’s where it’s coming from. I went over and talked to then-Captain Nathaniel Arnold and Lt. Specialist Tony Spada and asked if they were finding illegal pesticides in the grows they were raiding. They couldn’t wait to fire up their computers and show me photographs of all the illegal chemicals with labels in Spanish. That was the beginning of my interest about this issue.

In 2012, Dr. Mourad Gabriel published his findings about Pacific fishers being poisoned by rodenticides from illegal grows. This verified what I felt all along – that these grows were causing significant impacts to our watersheds and wildlife. I now give presentations about the impacts to fish, wildlife and water quality and provide a short discussion about the potential harm to human health. I gave this presentation at the 2016 Annual Wildlife Disease Association Conference at Cornell University. During the banquet, a person from Australia approached me and told me that after listening to my talk, he realized he has an illegal grow on his property. This has become an international issue.

What’s the main message in your presentations?

If you are going to smoke pot, make sure it is organic.

Tell us about your food safety and wildlife research.

This all got started in the aftermath of the nationwide E.coli outbreak and scare in 2006 linked to contaminated lettuce and spinach. This was becoming a very serious issue with California produce growers pressured by the public to make sure their produce was safe to eat. The industry was blaming wildlife for contaminating its crops and calling on California growers to eliminate all wildlife and habitat from their farms. Farmers were taking the scorched-earth approach, eliminating riparian habitats and turning their land into moonscapes. This approach was being pushed nationwide, and we feared the country would no longer have any wildlife left if farmers were eliminating wildlife and habitat across the nation.

Working with farmers in the Central Valley and on the Central Coast for many years, I have learned that many of them do enjoy seeing wildlife and having wildlife on their farms. So these produce growers were more than happy to have me answer the question, once and for all, if wildlife was a contamination risk to their crops. Fortunately, we found wildlife is a very low contamination health risk. Our results helped get the Food and Drug Administration to include land stewardship and wildlife and habitat protections in its national food safety rules for growing leafy green vegetables.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

There are a number of projects I would like to do. I’ve been wanting to collect water samples from the illegal cannabis grows throughout California, as well as from the plants themselves. The general public wants to know if there are any pesticides in their vegetables and fruit, but no one is asking about what poisons they are inhaling into their lungs.

Tell us something about yourself that many people would be surprised to learn.

There are three of us with the title Dr. Andrew Gordus. My oldest son, Andrew, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University. A distant cousin Dr. Andrew M. Gordus is a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and, then, of course, there’s myself. My daughter, Margarita, is also a scientist. She works for CDFW here in Fresno as a senior environmental scientist in the Timberland Conservation Program.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • July 6, 2017

A man in T-shirt and cut-offs holding a large gopher snake
A man wearing camouflage waders hold a silvery fish on a riverbank
A small, thin snake held in the hand of a middle-aged man

Joe Croteau is an environmental program manager with the Timberland Conservation Program in CDFW’s Northern Region. He oversees a team of scientists and administrators responsible for conservation and regulatory compliance on approximately 5 million acres of non-federal timber production lands in the Northern Region. The team includes dedicated people working in Fort Bragg, Eureka, Yreka and Redding. Joe’s office is in Redding, but his job takes him to all corners of the region, occasionally headquarters in Sacramento, and to the hidden forests in between.

An avid outdoorsman, Joe has been a member of The Wildlife Society, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, The Wild Turkey Federation and the California Licensed Foresters Association. He served as President of a local unit of the Backcountry Horseman’s Association and is a Hunter Education Instructor.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

The “who” is my mother. She made sure I could go fishing, play in the poison oak and bring home lizards and snakes … and she took me to the doctor’s office when I was reckless. She turned me on to Wild Kingdom where I latched on to Marlin Perkins’ conservation movement. I immediately connected with Marlin and his friend Jim Fowler as they explored all critters, both safe and dangerous.

The “what” is just an innate curiosity and admiration of fish and wildlife … and my mom informing me I could actually earn a degree and have a career doing this kind of stuff.

How did you come to work for CDFW?

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management from Humboldt State University in 1990, and came to CDFW’s toxicology laboratory in Elk Grove in 1991 as a scientific aid. The Cantara spill happened in July 1991 and so I participated in the evaluation of that ecological disaster. A train car fell into the Upper Sacramento River spilling about 19,000 gallons of the herbicide metam sodium. I was part of a team that was responsible for evaluating the damages and measuring lethal doses to aquatic species. After bouncing around a bit, I finally landed in in the Timberland Conservation Program.

You’ve been with the Timberland Conservation Program since 2001. What is the purpose of the program, and why is it important?

The California Forest Practice rules require an entity that wants to harvest timber on non-federal lands to first file a timber harvesting document. CDFW is the trustee agency that reviews and provides recommendations for the proposed harvesting plan. Our top priority is to ensure the conservation of fish, wildlife, and plants on land where timber harvesting is going to occur. We think of ourselves as a Swiss army knife and can tackle just about any conservation challenge.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

Personally, my typical day includes correspondence or a meeting to make sure our team has the funding, tools and inspiration to do their jobs. The better story is a typical day in the Timberland Conservation Program. Today, one of our staff members is probably walking in the woods with a forester to look at a timber harvesting plan, a proposed bridge and a meadow restoration project. A couple others are administering grants for Yreka Phlox and Townsend’s big-eared bats. Two or three others are working through the challenges of developing safe harbor agreements for Humboldt Martens, Great Gray Owls, Gray Wolves and Coho Salmon. Somebody is probably at their computer looking at multiple monitors to model wildlife habitat or a decision support tool. Somebody is thinking about how to incorporate drones and bio-dogs into our workplace. Somebody is working on regulatory rules to conserve sensitive plants. Several are involved with various working groups like the one dealing with barred owl impacts to northern spotted owls, or doing strategic planning. Certainly, somebody is preparing for, attending, or summarizing a meeting. The supervisors are looking forward, motivating and enabling their staff to challenge the system.

Every one of them is thinking about how best to monitor the effectiveness of everything we do. Oh, and there is the whole email thing … we call it “whack a mole.”

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I would go back to the Great Gray Owl project that I was encouraged to tackle by my manager in 2008. The Great Gray Owl is a state endangered species we knew very little about. At the time, we were aware of breeding pairs in Yosemite and in Southern Oregon, but we weren’t sure if there were any in our region. I pursued a state wildlife grant that enabled us to look for breeding pairs, and nine different private and federal landowners allowed us to conduct surveys on their properties. We found two reproducing pairs during the study and have identified a couple more since. I remember getting a text message around midnight from a scientific aid in the first month of the study. It said, “If or when you wake up, call me. Male GGO!” That was an awesome moment.

Websites, conservation strategies and textbooks were later modified based on that work. Scientific aids from that project went on to become environmental scientists. Safe harbor agreements are being crafted because of our study. That’s the personal project that makes me proudest.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do today?

Wow, fun. I would like to create a fire-resilient landscape that enhances deer, elk, pronghorn and sage grouse carrying capacity. I would probably eliminate all but the few oldest junipers from the landscape, and I would work with our internal and external experts to return our cheatgrass-infested basins to support low sage and bitter brush habitat. I would try to bring our mountain meadows back to life by removing suppressed conifers and restoring hydrologic connectivity. I would then hire enough people to investigate and brag about all the good we are doing.

What is it about the work you do that you find most interesting or rewarding?

I often miss getting on the ATV, chasing down an owl or a fish, and just getting dirt on my clothes. But – and this is somewhat surprising to me – the best part of my job is probably not handling a fish, bird or plant. What I really enjoy is recruiting people to our team, helping somebody else prepare for an interview, and seeing people promote and move on to bigger challenges. Allowing people to seek training, explore new information technology and feeling safe to challenge the system is enormously rewarding.

I am most grateful to be associated with a team and a department loaded with hardworking, intelligent and dedicated people. This is what I brag about to family and friends.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Remembering to strive to be an inspirational leader so that staff can embrace our most difficult challenges. Reminding myself what I represent, who I represent, and thinking forward with a vision … the ability to do that is not something anybody is born with. Those are learned behaviors, and it’s always a work in progress for me.

Do you have any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Be persistent, and know that it is not for material gain that any of us do this. You need to be willing to move around a bit, embrace uncomfortable challenges, and strive to become really good at what you do.

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