Science Spotlight

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  • December 19, 2018

Large pile of old christmas trees on dirt with live tree forest in background.

Two men wearing hats and life vests aboard small boat on body of water piled with old christmas trees. Some trees are submerged in water body. Live tree forest in background.

Boat on water body dragging small boat with two men and pile of dead christmas trees. Live tree forest in background.

Two men wearing life jackets aboard small boat on body of water with pile of dead christmas trees. Forest and mountain in background

Christmas can be the gift that keeps giving -- to anglers and fish alike.

In the north state, CDFW fish habitat technicians oversee the collection of discarded Christmas trees, which will be used to build underwater habitat structures for local waterways. Long after they’ve brightened holiday homes, these trees will provide shelter for juvenile warmwater fish species -- and ultimately will create better fishing opportunities for anglers.

According to Joseph Rightmier, a fish habitat supervisor with CDFW’s Fish Habitat Improvement Shop in Yreka, the trees are weighed down with cables and submerged, creating a refuge for juvenile fish, including Largemouth Bass and crappie.

“The fish get into the voids within the structure, which gives them some protection. And when you attract smaller fish, you also end up attracting larger, catchable fish, which hang out close to the surface and wait for a meal,” Rightmier said.

“Divers have determined that fish start congregating in and around the structures within a day or two of the habitat structures being installed. They’re hot real estate in the water!”

One of the largest efforts to collect and “upcycle” trees is conducted by Rightmier’s team in Siskiyou County. Last summer, staff used trees collected after the 2017 holidays to create and then place 22 habitat structures into Green Springs Reservoir in Modoc County. The habitat structures were comprised of approximately 200 recycled Christmas trees and small junipers. The Christmas trees were collected at drop-off locations in the cities of Alturas and Yreka, and the small junipers were harvested in the Modoc National Forest.

In 2018, Rightmier said, the Yreka fisheries habitat technicians also used trees to build fish habitat structures in three other locations: Juanita Lake, Orr Lake and Trout Lake. Similar projects have also been conducted at Lake Shastina and Dorris reservoir in the past.

Further south, CDFW’s Redding office is also overseeing a Christmas tree collection operation. The tentative collection location will be in the town of Chester, and the trees will be used for a project in Lassen County.

“Generally, we prefer hardwoods when doing habitat projects, but we do use Christmas trees when they’re available,” explained Monty Currier, an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Reservoir Program. “The trees would go a landfill to be chipped otherwise, and we believe that recycling is a better idea. And people are happy to help CDFW with this kind of habitat improvement project – who doesn’t like the idea of making our fisheries better?”

Currier is currently working with a local bass fishing group and county officials to determine a specific tree dropoff point.

Donated trees should not be flocked, and should be stripped of lights, tinsel and ornaments. The trees are usually transformed for their new use within a couple of months, before they dry out completely.

“Our fish habitat shops enjoy doing this type of project, and it makes a real difference in how successful anglers are,” Currier says. “Everybody wins – not just the fish!”

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Interested in recycling your Christmas tree in Siskiyou, Plumas or Modoc counties? Drop-off locations for Christmas trees will be located near the CDFW offices in Alturas (702 East Eighth St.) and Yreka (at the corner of Ranch and Oregon streets, due west of the CDFW yard). In Chester, the location has not yet been determined, but you can call the main office at (530) 225-2300 for information closer to the holiday.

CDFW Photos. All Photos: Fisheries biologists placing recycled Christmas trees into Mountain Meadows Reservoir, Lassen County, to create habitat for juvenile fish.

Categories: General
  • December 14, 2018

Brown haired woman wearing glasses, white laboratory coat and white gloves in front of machine in laboratory
Kelly McCulloh loads evidence samples onto a DNA extraction robot.

Brown haired woman in white laboratory coat and white gloves holding pipette standing at counter in laboratory
Jillian Adkins prepares samples for DNA extraction.

Brown haired woman in white laboratory coat and white gloves sitting at desk with microscope and small tool in hand.
Erin Meredith uses a dissecting microscope to isolate hair roots for nuclear DNA extraction.

Long haired woman in white laboratory coat and blue gloves standing at laboratory machine with glass window partially lowered.
Ashley Spicer prepares a Polymerase chain reaction used in DNA sequencing.

If they weren’t so busy or their work wasn’t so mission-critical, you might find CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory team on loan to the California Department of Education.

The four-person scientific team is all women with undergraduate and advanced degrees in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology and forensic science.

Jillian Adkins, Kelly McCulloh, Erin Meredith and Ashley Spicer would be stars of state education initiatives to attract more girls to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. They would be celebrated at school tours, asked to provide their personal stories at education conferences and inspirational messages in science classrooms across the state.

Instead, this team works mostly out of the spotlight, their scientific analysis critical to CDFW’s law enforcement mission to protect California’s natural resources and provide public safety. Increasingly, CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is being counted on to protect some of the most sensitive animal species on the planet.

“We just don’t lose these cases supported by forensic evidence. It’s amazing,” said Tony Warrington, a recently retired assistant chief who has managed CDFW’s crime lab for more than a decade. “Our forensic specialists do a fantastic job utilizing advanced scientific methods to support wildlife officers with poaching investigations and public safety wildlife incidents.”

Meredith, a senior wildlife forensic specialist with nearly 20 years at the lab, said the mere suggestion by a wildlife officer of sending evidence in for DNA analysis will sometimes prompt poachers to confess to their crimes. The lab is one of only about 10 wildlife forensic labs in the nation, giving CDFW wildlife officers a major crime-fighting assist. Every CDFW wildlife officer can access the lab, which processes evidence in about 100 criminal cases every year.

The white lab coats, antiseptic setting, high-tech equipment and talk of DNA sequencing invite comparisons to “CSI” – Crime Scene Investigations – the long-running night-time television drama that firmly implanted forensics in the public consciousness.

“My joke is always that human forensics is boring – you only work on one species,” Meredith said. “With wildlife, the possibilities are essentially endless.”

First established in the 1970s, CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Laboratory has taken on a more prominent role with advances in genetic research and technology and the widespread acceptance of forensic evidence in the court system.

“If there’s blood on a knife, not only can we tell whether it’s from a deer, we can also tell whether it’s from a doe or a buck,” Meredith said. “We can tell if the blood on the knife originated from the same deer or evidence taken from a kill site or meat in a suspect’s freezer.”

Said Adkins, “DNA evidence has been a game-changer in determining guilt or innocence – in both people and wildlife.” Adkins’ work in providing quick turnaround of DNA samples allows wildlife officers to use the results to make critical enforcement decisions.

CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Lab plays a key role in public safety and animal attacks that may involve great white sharks, coyotes, bears or mountain lions. With even minimal DNA evidence, offending species and animals can be identified with certainty in most instances.

“We literally free the innocent – and it’s happened a number of times,” Meredith said. “Our wildlife officers may trap what they think is the guilty bear, draw its blood and bring it to the lab for comparison with saliva from a bite wound or even a scratch mark on the victim. And if that DNA is not a match, that bear gets released.”

Retired assistant chief Warrington said, “This lab completely changed the way we deal with public safety wildlife. DNA matching has allowed CDFW to protect the innocent and positively identify the offending animal in these cases – a big step forward in protecting California’s wildlife.”

The lab marked another milestone in 2015 with the adoption of Assembly Bill 96, which closed a loophole in the state’s ban on ivory and made it illegal to purchase, sell, possess with intent to sell or import with intent to sell ivory or rhinoceros horn – with limited exceptions.

The legislation tasked a state wildlife agency with helping to combat the global ivory trade in order to protect ivory bearing species from poaching, exploitation and extinction worldwide. AB 96 provided funding for CDFW’s Wildlife Forensics Lab to add a fourth scientist in McCulloh.

McCulloh arrived with a master’s degree in forensic science from UC Davis. She has pioneered California’s genetics test for ivory products. It’s so accurate, it can distinguish African elephant ivory from Asian elephant ivory and even ivory from a long-extinct woolly mammoth.

Spicer, a native of British Columbia with degrees in biochemistry and forensic science, specializes in the physical characteristics of ivory that distinguish it among the many different ivory-bearing species – from elephant and hippopotamus to sperm whale and warthog – and also from non-ivory products such as synthetic ivory or plastics made to look like ivory. 
Spicer personally has worked on 17 of the 18 criminal ivory cases that have come through the lab since AB 96 was enacted. Her work has included serving as an expert witness and testifying at trial.

The lab’s contributions were link opens in new tab or windowheralded recently in the conviction of a Los Angeles County business owner on charges of selling two ivory tusks from Arctic narwhal whales. The tusks measured 79 and 89 inches long.

CDFW’s forensic scientists don’t necessarily mind all the newfound recognition – as long as the focus remains on their work.

Said Spicer, “We are really committed to the highest standards and ideals of science.”

YouTube Video Link: link opens in new tab or windowhttps://youtu.be/4KS4e3ILKOw

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: The four-woman forensics team.

Categories: Wildlife Research