Science Spotlight

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  • March 19, 2020

Some of the 160 people who assisted Fish and Wildlife with it's March 1 desert bighorn sheep survey. CDFW photo.

man and woman using binoculars and a spotting scope to find sheep
Charles and Nicole Lozano of Chino Hills using binoculars and a spotting scope to locate sheep. CDFW photo.

mountains with shrubs in the fog
The San Gabriel Mountains, north of Ontario, where the sheep survey took place. CDFW photo.

The San Gabriel Mountains, north of Ontario, are a spectacular location for those who enjoy steep hikes and beautiful scenery. But one Sunday each year, those mountains are visited by people with a more specific agenda. They’re there to assist environmental scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in determining the number of desert bighorn sheep living there.

On March 1, 2020, about 160 volunteers gathered near the rugged terrain for the annual sheep count. Their goal was to use spotting scopes and binoculars to locate sheep, and determine and record their gender and approximate age. The volunteers attended a mandatory training session the night before in which CDFW staff briefed them on the purpose, counting techniques and best gear and supplies to bring for what can be a long day in tough elements. And as it turned out, March 1 was the one day in a stretch of about 20 that included a forecast of rain, and the forecasters nailed it. Between the fluctuating poor conditions – including a steady rain, low clouds, strong winds and even hail – nearly every volunteer struck out on being able to locate any sheep.

Fortunately, the annual count also includes an aerial survey the day before the boots-on-the-ground effort, and the weather was cooperative on Feb. 29. Eight CDFW employees took turns that Saturday flying in a Bell 407 helicopter over the locations where they’d likely find the sheep groups. Flights were limited to 2.5 hours before refueling was necessary. The crew of three on each flight was responsible for taking notes and guiding the pilot, using a handheld GPS to drop a waypoint at each observed sheep location, and capturing the animals with camera gear. The doors of the aircraft were removed to improve visibility for the spotters.

CDFW Senior Wildlife Biologist and survey coordinator Jeff Villepique said a key element of the effort is determining the health of the younger animals.

“One of the things we look at is how many lambs from last year have survived to this year,” said Villepique. “We did get some decent numbers that will help us determine the recruitment ratio and give an indication that the population is growing and doing well.”

When CDFW first started conducting these counts in 1979, the desert bighorn sheep in the San Gabriels numbered about 740. That dropped to fewer than 200 in the late ‘90s, and currently the population is back up to about 400.  Villepique said the numbers rise and fall based on food availability, habitat loss, weather patterns and the history of wildfires.

One group that enthusiastically supports the survey is the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. Volunteer Debbie Miller Marschke has joined the effort multiple times, and despite the lousy weather conditions, was happy to be out in the mountains once again.

“When you get out in the environment and you’re with positive people, it’s not a wasted day, it’s a memorable day,” Miller Marschke said, smiling as she braved the downpour. “If I stayed home, I wouldn’t remember what I did a month later. I’m going to remember this day all year long.”

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • March 5, 2020

A wild turkey inside a cardboard box to keep it calm is weighed as CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the data at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the weight of a wild turkey at Little Dry Creek prior to banding.

A banded wild turkey’s two legs show off the two different type of bands CDFW biologists affix to the birds at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. One band is riveted closed; the other clamped close until its two butt-ends are touching.
Wild turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 are given one traditional, butt-end band on one leg and one rivet band on the other.

Silvery metallic butt-end bands in the hand of CDFW environmental scientist Laura Cockrell.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell shows off the supply of butt-end bands prior to banding.

Turkey hunters in parts of Butte and Glenn counties who are skilled and lucky enough to bag a tom this spring may be in for a pleasant surprise: Their bird may be sporting some jewelry – a band on each leg.

Since early February, CDFW biologists at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area – supported by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) – have been busy trapping and double-banding wild turkeys at the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units. So far this year, some 45 turkeys have been banded, which include toms, hens and young males known as “jakes.”

The staff and volunteers have just about a month and a half to trap and band all the wild turkeys they can between the close of the waterfowl hunting season and the start of the spring wild turkey season in mid-March. It’s part of an innovative research effort aimed at better understanding the characteristics, growth rates, habitat use, range and abundance of the growing population of wild turkeys using the wildlife area.

Bird bands long have been an important research tool for biologists and considered a prize among many hunters who are allowed to keep them after reporting the band information. The Upper Butte Basin turkey banding project is the only one of its kind in the state, making those turkey bands a rare commodity and a valuable potential data source.

In addition to the banding, the turkeys are weighed, sexed and measured at various points before being released.

The wild turkey study began at the wildlife area in 2015 along with the launch of limited spring wild turkey hunts there. NWTF helped secure grant funding to start the hunt program and initiate the research effort. The funds came from the sale of upland game bird hunting validations and stamps required of upland game bird hunters.

“We thought it would be great to start getting an abundance estimate for the turkeys that we do have out here to make sure that we weren’t harming the population through the hunt program and also to see how much hunter opportunity we could potentially utilize,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF’s district biologist for California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The spring wild turkey hunt program has been so successful and popular over its short history funding for the program and its research component will continue under CDFW’s general budget moving forward.

“I think Howard Slough especially offers some of the best turkey hunting I’ve seen anywhere,” said Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen. “Certainly, youth hunters have an excellent opportunity out here.”

Spring turkey hunts at both the Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units are limited to lottery drawings through CDFW’s website in order to ensure an uncrowded, high-quality hunting experience. The hunter quota and the turkey harvest both have grown over the years along with the local turkey population. Hunter success ranged from 30 to 60 percent during the 2019 spring season but reached 100 percent for the youth hunt at Howard Slough in 2018.

Back to those double-banded birds.

Although 101 turkeys were banded at the wildlife area between 2015 and 2019, only three banded turkeys have been reported by hunters. That leads biologists to believe most of the turkeys have been prying off the traditional, “butt-end” bird bands, which have two edges that butt evenly together when clamped on.

The NWTF has since supplied Upper Butte Basin with rivet bands that are made of a harder metal and riveted closed when attached. The turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 now receive a butt-end bird band on one leg and a rivet band on the other. Any of those harvested birds wearing a single rivet band will confirm suspicions that the birds have been prying off the butt-end bands.

“That’s the downside of doing any kind of novel research,” explained Laura Cockrell, a CDFW environmental scientist based at the Upper Butte Basin. “You only have your own mistakes to learn from.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen releases a wild turkey after banding as Fish and Wildlife Technician Derek Schiewek and Seasonal Aid John Davis look on.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908

Categories: General