Science Spotlight

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  • March 23, 2022
Slink Fire, 2020, Mono County

The 2020 Slink Fire burns part of the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, Mono County. Photo © Jeff Sullivan Photography

Burned trees, Slink Fire, Mono County
Fire damage in the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, Mono County. CDFW Photo

CDA and CDFW prepare to seed. Staff working near truck and grounded helicopter.
CDA and CDFW prepare a helicopter for aerial seeding. California Deer Association Deer photo

California Deer Association delivers seed via tractor
CDA using tractor for mechanical seeding. California Deer Association photo

Helicopter carries seeding equipment
A helicopter shortly after takeoff, on its way to aerial seeding. California Deer Association Photo

The eight largest fires in California history have consumed more than 4 million acres and burned more than 7,000 structures. And because all those fires happened just within the last five years, the state of California recently approved spending hundreds of millions of dollars through its Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan (PDF).

For the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), that means being able to significantly expand the scope of wildfire resiliency projects such as fuel reduction and forest health projects, as well as to restore habitat on CDFW lands that have burned recently. In northern Mono County, where the 2017 Slinkard Fire and 2020 Slink Fire together burned nearly 40 percent of the 11,700-acre Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, CDFW is working hard with project partners to implement restoration and fuel reduction projects. That work includes seeding a mix of shrubs and grasses, planting nursery-grown bitterbrush, reforestation of Jeffrey pine and white fir, mowing fuel breaks and removal of invasive species.

“For the last century, fire suppression and climate change have led to larger fires that burn hotter and can leave the landscape more vulnerable to invasive nonnative plants, making natural recovery more challenging,” said Senior Environmental Scientist Aaron Johnson. He explained that the work being done at the wildlife area has two purposes: to improve habitat for mule deer, and expedite recovery of the desired natural communities, thus mitigating the potential transition to non-native annual grasses that contributes to the severity of fires.

“Cheatgrass does very well in the post-fire burned landscape, and once established, it increases the frequency and severity of wildfires on the landscape,” Johnson said. “Parts of Slinkard have burned enough times that there’s nothing but cheatgrass, and even the smallest lightning strike that might have historically burned a single tree can now lead to thousands of acres burned.”

California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan guides the work done by Johnson and Graham Meese, a new CDFW employee hired specifically for this purpose. Part of Meese’s job involves coordinating with groups and agencies outside CDFW that bring specific expertise such as fuel reduction or seeding.

“By building partnerships, we’re able to effectively increase the scale of work that we’re able to do,” Meese said. “I could spend all year seeding one meadow by myself, but with the state funding CDFW has received, we’re able to contract with nonprofits like the California Deer Association (CDA) to get landscape scale projects done.”

CDA has directed the aerial seeding on more than 2,000 acres within the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife Area, while also conducting site surveys and the removal of hazardous burned trees. “The amount of work that CDA has completed in such a short period of time is impressive,” he said, adding that CDA staff and contractors will significantly increase CDFW’s capacity to tackle such projects over the next several years.

CDA describes itself as a wildlife conservation organization whose goal is improving the state’s deer herds and other wildlife. They have roughly 12,000 members – 10 of whom spent about a week last November repairing damage from the Slink Fire.

“We’re starting to see where repetitive fires burning within the same footprints are causing changes in vegetation and promoting invasives,” said CDA Communications Manager Cherise MacDougall. The CDA also sees changes in climate and the makeup of California as reasons to step in and help nature recover after a fire roars through. “In many of our areas, many wildlife species are in distress. It doesn’t matter if it’s yellow-legged frog, sage-grouse, spotted owl, mule deer or blacktail – it’s important our organization works for all of them,” she said. “We look at ourselves as being a part of the environment.  We have a role in stewardship so we can’t just throw our hands in the air and walk away. We’re in a different position than we were before 40 million people lived in California.”

On the Slinkard/Little Antelope site, mechanical seeding involving tractors was conducted where access was possible. In areas of the property that are too steep for tractors to operate, aerial seeding was employed. Johnson is hoping that weather, a variety of approaches and repeated treatments over the three-year term of the project will contribute to its success.

“We are sort of at the whim of the weather. We waited until we saw precipitation in the forecast (last November) and we lucked out. We managed to get the seed down right before the first winter storm and a lot of it got buried under snow, so I think we’re likely to get good germination,” said Johnson.

The work being done at the Slinkard/Little Antelope Wildlife area is just one of many wildfire resiliency projects CDFW is implementing across the state, aimed at improving the ecological resiliency of its wildlife areas, ecological reserves and the surrounding communities from potential wildfires. Managing wildfire resilience requires a landscape-scale perspective that is made possible by developing partnerships with other organizations, such as CDA, that share a common goal.

By CDFW Information Officer Tim Daly

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Categories: Science Spotlight
  • January 13, 2022

The California Fish and Wildlife Journal concludes its 2021 Special Issue installments with the winter quarter’s Special Issue: Effects of Human-Wildlife Interactions on California’s Natural Resources: Conflict and Coexistence (PDF). With this year’s unprecedented drought, unpredictable fire season, climate change, pandemic response, and increased human-wildlife conflict reported statewide, issue 107-3 is salient and timely. In this Special Issue, we explore various interconnected themes across four sections: Terrestrial Predator Interactions, Conflicts & Adaptive Management, Coexistence & Conservation, and the Human Dimensions of Wildlife Conservation.

cover of Journal showing fox, with city in background

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) serves as the lead state agency charged with helping to resolve human-wildlife conflict, public safety, and reported depredation (property damage) and committed to advancing discussion and deeper understanding of human-wildlife interactions throughout the state. People live increasingly in close contact with animals, both wild and domestic, as the human population expands along the wildland-urban interface and increases over time. This reality has led to increased human-wildlife interactions and reported  human-wildlife conflict. Negative human-wildlife interactions can directly affect human and wildlife health and may result in loss of livelihood, reduced wellbeing, or in some instances, loss of life – animal or human.

Come read about the various types of human-wildlife interaction, some of the unique challenges – and opportunity – to better address understand and address human-wildlife conflict. Various agency partners, practitioners, researchers, and key stakeholders have contributed their expertise to this Special Issue. We hope you recognize the myriad factors that can shape our perception and approach to wildlife in California. Learn more!

The California Fish and Wildlife Journal has published high-quality, peer-reviewed science for more than 100 years – and the CDFW looks forward to more valuable contributions ahead.

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Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, Science Spotlight
  • December 9, 2021
Bird on a tree branch

California is home to more native animal and plant species than any other state in the nation. It also hosts the most endemic species—species that occur nowhere else in the world. However, our incredibly diverse native wildlife is facing an intensifying array of stressors stemming from human activity: habitat loss, new land uses like cannabis cultivation, invasive species, wildfires, drought and so many others. Wildlife managers can mitigate these threats through actions like conserving and restoring habitat, building relationships with private landowners and managing ecosystems for resilience to wildfire and climate change. But, to effectively target management actions, managers need to have high-quality information on wildlife populations across the state.

In two studies recently published in the California Fish and Wildlife Journal, Vol. 107-2 (PDF), researchers with CDFW’s Cannabis Program and Wildlife Diversity Program focused on this need for effective wildlife data collection.

One study focused on monitoring small terrestrial vertebrates, like small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Traditionally, researchers have monitored these species through live-trapping and visual encounter surveys. But such time-intensive methods are not always feasible. Recently developed methods that use automatic cameras are one alternative. To determine how well cameras perform compared to more traditional methods, CDFW researchers tested two methods alongside each other: 1) visual encounter surveys, where they searched for reptiles and amphibians in a study area, and 2) camera traps, which combined small strips of fencing with close-focus cameras pointed at the ground. They found that the camera system detected far more species of small animals compared to the traditional surveys.

In a second study, researchers compared different methods for monitoring birds. Traditionally, researchers have used point counts, where trained observers identify every bird they hear or see at a location. Researchers are also increasingly using acoustic devices to automatically record bird sounds. Recently, machine learning tools have enabled computers to identify bird sounds from these recordings, allowing people to indirectly identify birds while saving much time and effort. In their study, the CDFW researchers found that low-cost recorders performed comparably to expensive ones, and that a machine learning tool accurately identified high numbers of bird species from the recordings.

The researchers will apply what they have learned and shared to a new statewide monitoring effort, which is being developed by CDFW’s Cannabis Program. These advancements will enable a more efficient wildlife monitoring effort that saves money and time. And most importantly, with the information gained from improved monitoring, CDFW staff and other wildlife managers will be able to make more informed decisions to help our native California wildlife cope with current and future challenges.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, General, Science Spotlight
  • November 12, 2021
journal cover featuring mouse balanced atop grain stock

Since being signed into law in 1970, the California Endangered Species Act, or CESA, has proved to be a landmark law in a history of progressive wildlife conservation in California. It has been key in helping to stem the tide of species extinctions, raise public awareness about the plight of wildlife, and underscore the need to balance species conservation with economic development. CDFW is responsible for safeguarding the hundreds of CESA-listed species, and a key part of this mission is supporting and elevating the important research being conducted on these imperiled plants and animals.

The 2021 Special Issue of the California Fish and Wildlife Journal titled “The California Endangered Species Act: Successes and Challenges” contains a comprehensive collection of articles about the research, management and conservation of threatened and endangered species. At 473 pages, this is the largest Journal issue ever published! It includes 16 full research articles, five research notes, two review papers and four essays, altogether covering 25 species. Authors include CDFW staff, academic researchers, non-profit organizations and other conservation entities. Download the entire issue (PDF) or individual articles.

Topics covered in the issue include range expansions, new methods for species identification in the field and lab, reviews of habitat use and spatial occurrence patterns throughout California, results of management actions, benefits of long-term monitoring programs and planning strategies for conservation and recovery actions. The issue starts with a CESA Policy and Regulations section and follows with eight sections organized by taxa. Photos at the beginning of each section showcase California’s amazing biodiversity. For those new to CESA, an overview of the listing process is provided both in a detailed article and a simplified flowchart.

Article highlights include:

Amargosa Niterwort

Plants make up 158 of the 316 species currently listed under CESA. In this issue, Amargosa niterwort (Nitrophila mohavensis) takes the spotlight when authors share the value of a 10-year monitoring program for this alkali wetland plant, which occupies a total area less than 20 km2 in the northern Mojave Desert. Collaborative monitoring has resulted in a better understanding of the species, including phenology and abundance trends. This information could support conservation actions in response to threats such as groundwater alteration and off-highway vehicle impacts. For more details, see the article titled “Status of the Amargosa niterwort (Amaranthaceae) in California and Nevada.”

Bumble Bee Protection

In the article “A conservation conundrum: protecting bumble bees under the California Endangered Species Act,” authors Richard Hatfield and Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation present their view of the history and recent context of listing invertebrates under CESA. The authors argue that population declines driven by factors including climate change, insecticides and habitat loss have led to thirty percent of California’s bumblebee species facing extinction risk. In light of this, the Xerces Society and others have led a recent push to provide formal protections for several species of bumblebee. The article provides the authors’ overview of their 2018 petition to protect four imperiled bumblebee species under CESA and the subsequent legal complications that have unfolded.

California Tiger Salamander

“Use of atypical aquatic breeding habitat by the California Tiger Salamander” provides insight into this endangered species’ ability to reproduce outside of its historically associated habitat. Typically thought to reproduce only in vernal pools, researchers observed California tiger salamanders breeding in cattle stock ponds, intermittent creeks and rain-filled excavated depressions. Further investigation is needed to determine if these atypical breeding sites result in any reproductive success, as some have limited hydroperiods that may not be conducive to California tiger salamander metamorphosis. However, this study provides insight for the potential role of reproductive plasticity in the face of vernal pool habitat loss. For development projects within the range of the California tiger salamander, this study identifies additional habitat features that should be assessed when identifying and addressing potential impacts to this listed species.

We would like to thank the CDFW editorial staff for their hard work on this special issue. We also want to thank and acknowledge the researchers and authors of the articles, whose hard work to understand these imperiled species is helping bring them closer to recovery. The California Fish and Wildlife scientific journal has published high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife for more than 100 years. We look forward to the continued contributions in the next decade to come.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, Science Spotlight
  • September 17, 2021
burned landscape after low severity fire

As Californians continue to face devastating wildfires, researchers are lending their expertise by producing data to inform fire policy.

CDFW contributed an article to a recent special-edition journal featuring fire studies from around the world. CDFW’s paper shows that a mix of fire intensities, and low severity fires in particular, promote a diversity of forest carnivores like bears, fishers and bobcats. The results of the study support the value of prescribed burning in advancing ecological and societal objectives including wildlife diversity and human health and safety.

“Wildfire is a natural part of the landscape, and we probably can’t stop it,” said the paper’s lead author, CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Dr. Brett Furnas. “But prescribed burning is a tool we have to mimic low severity fires, which are less destructive. It’s a win-win because low severity fires have the added benefit of improving biodiversity.”

Dr. Furnas and his team conducted the research by analyzing data from 1,500 camera traps that have been placed by scientists in Northern California forests since 2009.

“We pulled together a large data set and compared the occurrence of 15 species of forest carnivores — including bears, fishers and bobcats — to the fire history of the landscape during that time period. The study shows our forest carnivores are well-adapted to low severity fires,” said Furnas.

Unlike high intensity fires which tend to eradicate all trees in a given area, low intensity fires tend to thin out forests and burn mostly the understory. Prescribed burning mimics the effects of low intensity fires which are associated with ecological benefits. Other research has shown that mixed intensity fires in California have ecological benefits for birds, bees and plants.

“The goal of the study was to use science to help inform conservation decisions,” said Furnas. “The science can help policy makers decide the best course of action and how to balance the needs of the state.”

Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 825-7120

Categories: Science Spotlight, Wildlife Research
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