Science Spotlight

rss
  • February 28, 2018

A trap made of small logs covered with pine and fir fronds is camouflaged in the snow between two tree trunks.
Camouflaged trap used to capture foxes for the study. CDFW photo by Jennifer Carlson.

A bright orange, bushy-tailed fox runs in snow toward dense forest
Sierra Nevada red fox bounds back to its native habitat after capture and study. CDFW photo by Scientific Aide Corrie McFarland.

The Sierra Nevada red fox has been the subject of intensified study by CDFW over the past decade. As they are notoriously tough to track and even tougher to trap, there are many unanswered questions regarding this elusive animal.

In an effort to better understand this state-listed threatened species, an ongoing research project seeks to capture and affix GPS tracking collars to them. The data collected will help biologists better understand the size and characteristics of the fox’s home range, its denning and resting areas, and its foraging habits.

The species has been outfoxing researchers for some time -- to the point where in the 1980s, it was presumed to have vanished forever from its historically occupied habitat in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges. In March 1993, thanks to the then-emerging technology of infrared trail cameras, US Forest Service employees detected a single red fox in the Lassen National Forest.

That discovery prompted a wider study of foxes and other meso-carnivores in and around Lassen Volcanic National Park. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dr. John Perrine of the University of California, Berkeley, captured five individuals, primarily in the park, and placed radio collars on them to study their home range (both summer and winter), food habits and resting sites. Unfortunately, two of the collared individuals died within a year and none of the females reproduced during the course of the study.

Years later, CDFW launched a new study to determine the foxes’ current distribution in northern California and to address potential impacts on the species from activities including recreation and timber harvest. Initial efforts in 2008 used scat-detector dogs to survey portions of Lassen Volcanic National Park and the adjacent Caribou Wilderness. Then, from 2009 to 2011, trail cameras and hair-snaring devices were employed to survey high-elevation habitats in the Cascade Range from Mount Shasta to Lassen Peak. Yet foxes were only detected in the Lassen Peak area.

CDFW biologists have continued to survey for foxes with trail cameras, hair-snaring devices and scat surveys. Scats and photos are often obtained along Lassen Volcanic National Park and Forest Service hiking trails, because, like many other animals, red foxes frequent trails as they move through their territories. Analysis of the DNA contained in the collected scats and hair identified 22 individuals from 2007-2016. Some of these foxes are long-lived – samples collected over time from the same individual indicate that five of those individuals lived at least five and a half years.

CDFW efforts to capture and collar Sierra Nevada red foxes since 2013 were unsuccessful – until early February 2018. The nearly two decade-long dry spell came to an end at last when CDFW captured a Sierra Nevada red fox, a male that weighed about 10 pounds. It was captured in a “log cabin” style trap on National Forest land just outside of Lassen Volcanic National Park, near the town of Mineral. The fox was collared and released at the capture location, and CDFW biologists have been impressed by the distances he has regularly been covering since (five to six miles per day) despite the rough terrain and high elevation.

“Persistence played a large role in our success, because there are many days when we do not have any fox detections,” said CDFW Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Carlson. “We also ramped up our efforts this year by hiring two scientific aids rather than just one, which allowed us to literally double our efforts by putting more traps out across the study area.”

CDFW hopes to capture as many as four more red foxes this year. Scientists are using box traps, cage traps and a “log cabin” style trap that researchers have used in other states to capture both red foxes and wolverines. Capturing foxes is not an easy task given the cold temperatures and snowstorms, but as the Lassen population may only consist of around 20 individuals, it is imperative for the department to learn as much as it can about this stealthy animal.

For more information, please visit the Sierra Nevada red fox page.

Top photo: Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura and Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Deana Clifford release a red fox study subject. CDFW photo by Corrie McFarland

Categories: General
  • February 23, 2018

Grass and shrub-covered dunes next to estuary waters, under a cloudy sky
Restoration project area. CDFW photo by Andrew Hughan.

Map with orange and yellow areas to be restored, between Humboldt Bay and the Eel River
Yellow and orange indicate restoration areas at the Ocean Ranch Unit of CDFW's Eel River Wildlife Area.

How does one best go about making an already bountiful and bucolic part of the Golden State even better? Sometimes, perhaps paradoxically, it pays to look to the past in order to be forward thinking in the present.

CDFW, Ducks Unlimited, and many partners have undertaken the Ocean Ranch Unit of the Eel River Wildlife Area Integrative Ecosystem Restoration Project Planning Process to enhance the estuarine and coastal dune ecosystem of the Ocean Ranch Unit in Humboldt County

The approximately 2,600-acre Eel River Wildlife Area was acquired to protect and enhance coastal wetland habitat, and was designated as a wildlife area by the California Fish and Game Commission in 1968. The initial decision to undertake an estuary restoration-planning project began more than a decade ago. After several years of monitoring to gather necessary data, Ducks Unlimited completed a feasibility study, funded by CDFW’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program and the California State Coastal Conservancy, in December 2015.

The primary goal is to restore and expand natural estuarine and dune ecosystem functions, including the recovery and enhancement of native species (including fish, invertebrates, wildlife and plants) and their habitats. These changes should also help mitigate current and future impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will likely result in saltwater inundation further upstream, which is expected to modify habitats (for example, the loss of tidal marsh migration inland) and the size and shape of the estuary.

The project has been a revelation for Michelle Gilroy, a CDFW district fisheries biologist who works primarily in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

“For the first time in my 30-year fisheries career, which began in the Eel River watershed, I am achieving a long-time goal of mine: To envision, develop and work through to completion, or near completion, a large restoration project,” said Gilroy. “This exciting project and the extraordinary team I am so very fortunate to work with is making that dream a reality – and in the Eel River estuary, one of California’s largest estuaries. It is definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

Improving the connectivity of tidal and freshwater habitats, and controlling or eradicating invasive plants, are key goals of the restoration project.

A feasibility study guiding the project analyzed the potential for expanding tidal functions within 475 of the 933 acres of the unit to aide in the recovery and enhancement of estuarine habitat and native species. Restoration of these essential habitats is vital to the recovery of anadromous salmonid populations in the Eel River, as estuaries provide critical nursery and rearing conditions for juveniles prior to ocean entry.

The unit is located within the Eel River estuary, a mile and a half north of the mouth of the Eel River and approximately four miles northwest of Loleta. The unit is comprised of a diverse set of habitats, including coastal dunes, riparian woodlands, tidal mudflats, tidal slough channels, salt marshes and managed freshwater marshes.

Prior to second-wave human settlements, this portion of the estuary, then inhabited by Native Americans, consisted primarily of salt-marsh habitat dotted with areas of spruce and hardwood forest, and native grasslands. An abundant fishery, which included the prized salmon, along with native plants, provided sustenance for the Wiyot people who lived around Humboldt Bay and the estuary. As Euro-Americans settled this region, however, they largely drove the Wiyot people off their traditional lands and began to repurpose portions of the environment.

By the end of the 1800s, most of the salt marsh and forestlands were drained and converted to farm and grazing land. This conversion of tidal marshes to pastures was done with purpose – but such perceived progress carried an ecological cost.

The construction of levees and tide gates to drain salt marsh increased sedimentation, flooding, and the amount and diversity of habitat and food supply for fish and wildlife declined throughout the estuary. This degraded the prior functioning, highly productive estuary ecosystem. In addition, invasive species now threaten the diversity or abundance of native species through competition for resources, predation, parasitism, interbreeding with native populations, transmitting diseases, or causing physical or chemical changes to the invaded habitat.

Despite these declines, the Eel River delta, which includes the Eel River Wildlife Area, today continues to provide vital habitat for many aquatic and terrestrial organisms, including state and federally threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species, and many state species of special concern. More than 40 species of mammals and 200 species of birds use the delta area and researchers have documented at least 45 fish species in the Eel River estuary alone.

The area provides essential spawning, nursery and feeding grounds to several commercially and recreationally important species, including Dungeness crab. Estuaries are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world and are one of the preferred habitats for young Dungeness crabs.

Dungeness crabs use estuaries as critical nursery habitat in their juvenile stages, as not only a refuge from predation – particularly in estuaries with structural habitat such as eelgrass – but also because of the abundance and diversity of prey provided by estuaries. Dungeness crabs are opportunistic feeders – clams, fish, isopods and amphipods are their preferred food sources, as well as other Dungeness crabs. Their predators include those larger crabs, octopuses, and fish, including salmon, lingcod and various rockfishes.

Wildlife, of course, is not the only form of life to reap the benefits of this region, as humans enjoy a range of outdoor activities, including fishing, bird-watching, boating, hiking and hunting.

The project is expected to begin in the summer of 2019.

CDFW photos and map

Top photo: CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Kirsten Ramey and Eric Ojerholm of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.



Partners, Funding and Staff

Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with CDFW staff, has recently secured project planning funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and initial project implementation funds from the NOAA Restoration Center. To complete the restoration design and environmental compliance process, this second phase of restoration planning will consist of a continued CDFW and Ducks Unlimited partnership, with additional assistance from several local consultants and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The TAC includes representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Coastal Commission, California State Coastal Conservancy, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Sea Grant, California Trout, Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, Humboldt State University, Redwood Region Audubon Society, private landowners, and the Wiyot Tribe. Additional project partners include AmeriCorps, Tom Origer and Associates, Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife and Wetlands Restoration Association, GHD Inc., H.T. Harvey and Associates, Moffatt and Nichol, Northern Hydrology Engineering, Pacific Coast Joint Venture, and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

CDFW staff who have served on the project management team include Michelle Gilroy, Allan Renger, Scott Monday, Kirsten Ramey, James Ray, Mark Smelser, Gordon Leppig, Michael van Hattem, Jennifer Olson, Linda Miller, Clare Golec, Charles Bartolotta, Robert Sullivan, Tony LaBanca, Mark Wheetley, Scott Downie, Adam Frimodig, Jeff Dayton, Mike Wallace, Vicki Frey, John Mello, and Karen Kovacs.


Categories: General
  • February 16, 2018

A black brant, similar to a dark-colored goose, feeds on eelgrass in a sandy bay shoreline.
Banded black brant feeding on eelgrass

A man with a gray beard and glasses, wearing a baseball cap and dark gray jacket, stands next to a spotting scope on a tripod, near Morro Bay, with Morro Rock in the background.
Volunteer John Roser in the field at Morro Bay

Hundreds of dark-colored birds fly together in a bright blue sky
Flock of black brant in flight above Morro Bay

A goose-like seabird with a black beak, dark hood, neck and coat, and white underside floats on bay water
Black brant in Morro Bay

John Roser began hearing the stories shortly after he moved to Los Osos, San Luis Obispo County, on the shores of Morro Bay in the mid-1990s.

Longtime birders, waterfowl hunters, biologists and other coastal residents were all saying the same thing: It seemed fewer black brant were showing up on the bay each winter.

The coastal sea goose is a cultural icon of the area, the signature species of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival and a temporary visitor welcomed by locals as the geese arrive each fall from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. When the geese are present in big numbers, you can hear their cacophony almost anywhere on the bay from November through April or until the warm environs of Baja California lure the birds farther south on their migration.

Roser, who holds a degree in biology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and spent 25 years as an environmental educator, set out to see if the old-timers’ stories were true. For the past 21 years, he has provided CDFW and brant biologists throughout the Pacific Flyway with their most credible and reliable source of data on wintering brant in Morro Bay.<

“I’m retired, and I wanted to take on a volunteer project that would make a difference in this community,” Roser said of his motivation. “I wanted to create a Morro Bay specific data set significant enough that it would be valuable in brant studies and research across the Pacific Flyway.”

Roser’s initial efforts in 1997 focused on reading and reporting bands on individual birds with the help of a high-powered telescope. He has recorded more than 4,000 bands, including one affixed by a Russian ornithologist to a bird in Siberia some 5,000 miles away from Morro Bay where Roser spotted it. In addition to counting individual birds, Roser developed a formula – in consultation with brant biologists – to calculate the number of “brant use days” in Morro Bay each winter.

Roser’s retirement project has led him on a brant-like odyssey.

He banded brant one summer in Alaska, worked in Humboldt Bay with leading brant researcher Jeff Black and his Humboldt State University graduate students, and traveled to Baja California to help biologists read bands on birds at the extreme end of their southern range. Much of Roser’s winter observations take place at CDFW’s Morro Bay Wildlife Area.

“John is our go-to guy on the ground in Morro Bay for sure,” said Melanie Weaver, the head of CDFW’s Waterfowl Program. “We only have two employees in our program, myself included, so we depend on regional staff and volunteers like John to help compile survey data. John is part of the local community, he cares, and he is close to the resource.”

The data Roser supplies are incorporated into CDFW’s Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey, which is used to set hunting regulations for the following waterfowl season.

What attracts brant to Morro Bay is the same thing that prompts the birds to stop at other coastal bays along their southward migration: eelgrass. The underwater seagrass grows in shallow marine environments and is the birds’ primary food source.

Roser’s initial research in 1997 confirmed the reports he was hearing: The wintering brant population in Morro Bay had declined significantly and corresponded with a crash in eelgrass acreage in the bay.

While CDFW surveys from the 1930s through 1960s documented Morro Bay’s wintering brant population as high as 11,800 birds, Roser’s first survey in 1997 recorded a population high of fewer than 700 birds.

The eelgrass crash in the mid-1990s was temporary and well-understood, caused by an influx of sediment from a fire-ravaged landscape, a deluge of freshwater from a rainy year and warming El Nino ocean conditions. As environmental conditions normalized in subsequent years, the eelgrass rebounded, and the brant returned. Roser counted a population high of 4,600 birds in Morro Bay in 2001.

The story since then, as told in Roser’s annual reports to CDFW, is of another dramatic crash in eelgrass acreage in Morro Bay and a corresponding drop in the numbers of brant wintering there. Unlike the eelgrass crash of the mid-1990s, the latest decline has been more persistent and perplexing.

Biologists measure Morro Bay’s eelgrass acreage each year. Eelgrass spanned 344 acres as recently as 2007 but had dwindled to just 14 acres by 2017. Not surprisingly, Roser’s 2016-17 brant survey recorded a population high of just 319 birds and a low of 43. Roser’s brant-use-day metric has fallen by 90 percent since the nearly 500,000 brant use days he recorded in 2001. In the past five years, brant use days have measured around 50,000 a year. Money from the purchase of the California duck stamp-validation, required to hunt waterfowl in California, is funding research into the eelgrass decline along with restoration efforts.

In addition to fewer numbers of brant frequenting Morro Bay, Roser has noticed behavioral changes in the birds that still show up. Increasingly, the brant are foraging on secondary food sources that include salt marsh vegetation and green algae species such as sea lettuce with eelgrass in short supply.

Roser takes some solace that the overall Pacific Flyway brant population is holding steady if not increasing, estimated between 130,000 to 165,000 birds. Roser says waterfowl biologists are seeing flyway-wide changes in brant behavior that they suspect may be linked to climate change.

Fewer brant are migrating to Mexico for the winter. More are remaining in Alaska and their northern range throughout the year as warming Arctic conditions require fewer calorie demands and less ice exposes more eelgrass. Ten years ago, less than 10 percent of the population wintered in Alaska. By 2017, almost 40 percent of the Pacific Flyway population spent the winter there.

“This bird is tied to Morro Bay, our culture and our identity,” Roser said. “A robust wintering brant population needs abundant eelgrass beds. Eelgrass needs a healthy bay and watershed. Our actions as stewards of Morro Bay really do reverberate across the globe.”

CDFW photos: courtesy of John Roser
Top photo: Pair of black brant on Morro Bay

Categories: General
  • February 8, 2018

A black-speckled, brown frog rests on a flat granite rock next to a deep blue lake

It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.

Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.

Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.

As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.

“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”

CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.

The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.

During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.

“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.

The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.

Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.

Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.

“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”

The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.

Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.

“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”

CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog

Categories: General