Science Spotlight

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  • March 30, 2022
Close up of a young, healthy looking gray fox after rehab efforts

Fox finishing out rehabilitation and being prepped for release at Sierra Wildlife Rescue. Photo © Jackie Young

Anesthetized fox with burned paws lying on an exam table, with burned paws showing
Injured fox at Sierra Wildlife Rescue being prepped for initial debriding and cleaning of injured paws. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue
 
Close up of a young gray fox with singed fur and whiskers, being held by a person
Injured fox shortly after being removed from under a porch in Pollock Pines. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue

Each year, Californians filing their individual state income taxes can choose to donate money from their refunds or payments to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, line 403 on state tax form 540. Money from this Fund is then distributed through a CDFW competitive grants program that helps California rehab facilities support activities such as veterinarian treatment, animal care, facility maintenance and conservation education.

Sierra Wildlife Rescue (SWR) rehab facility in El Dorado County is a recipient of this funding, and recently helped a young, badly burned and injured California gray fox (kit) recover and be released back into the wild.

The kit was discovered hiding under the porch of a home in Pollack Pines on Sept. 6, 2021, after its residents returned from being evacuated from the Caldor Fire. The kit was estimated to be three to four months old, emaciated, burned and had extreme damage to its paws. 

“It took three days for our team to get the fox out from under the porch,” said Debbie Buckles, board president of SWR. “Once we got it out, we could see that not only was she singed, but she lost ear tips, and her feet were basically burned to the bone.”

SWR is usually called in on El Dorado County cases where injured, orphaned or sick wildlife are concerned. Their mission is to rehabilitate wildlife with minimal human/wildlife interaction in hopes to better the chances of a successful release back into the wild.

“We anesthetized her and debrided and cleaned the wounds,” said Dr. Marsha Birdsall, volunteer veterinarian with SWR. “Once she was bandaged up, we transferred her to one of our home rehab facilities. These are homes of our volunteer rehabbers that have larger properties with larger outdoor enclosures.”

At the home rehab facility, the fox was able to heal in an outdoor environment and be monitored by wildlife cameras set up around the property. This helps ensure that the animal will not imprint on people or begin to rely on human interaction while being monitored.

After nearly eight weeks, the fox’s injuries were getting better, but with some setbacks. Her burned and damaged skin and paws were healing, but she lost every paw pad, claw and several toes. SWR was concerned the lack of claws, paw pads and toes would make it difficult to return the kit to the wild.

“Our action plan in general is to return these animals to the wild,” said Buckles. “But we were concerned she wouldn’t be able to catch live prey or protect herself from larger animals.”

Thinking the fox would not be able to hunt or climb trees to avoid predators without her claws and toes, SWR reached out to their grant partner CDFW to see if the department knew of another facility that would take the kit in as an educational animal.

CDFW contacted Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue in Petaluma, and on Dec. 14, 2021, the kit was transferred to their facility where the team planned for it to live out its days at their outdoor facility. What the Sonoma County rehab team saw the kit doing while monitoring their property’s wildlife cameras, no one saw coming.

“The fox started showing signs that she could catch prey,” said Buckles. “She also found a way to climb. She would wrap her limbs around the tree, like a hug, and shimmy her way up.”

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue began continuously conducting live prey testing with the fox, and it continuously would hunt and eat the prey. By mid-February, despite not having front or back claws, the fox was digging, climbing, hunting and grooming itself effectively.

“Now knowing the fox can hunt, climb, defend and groom itself we made the decision to bring her back from Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and release her back into the wild in El Dorado County,” Buckles said.

The fox was released back into the wild in El Dorado County on March 2, 2022, after nearly six months of being rehabbed.

“We don’t usually name the animals in our care because they are not our pets, they’re wild animals,” said Buckles. “… but this fox overcame so much, and we were all so invested in her making it back to the wild that we now call her Phoenix, because there’s a story that says the Phoenix bird rises out of the ashes. That’s what this fox did, it rouse out of the Caldor Fire ashes.”

CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program currently works with more than 80 permitted rehab facilities (PDF) like SWR and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue across the state. For the 2022 grant cycle alone, CDFW has distributed $547,000 to these facilities for them to continue their work in their communities.

“These facilities along with their satellites and army of volunteers are the ones who put in the long, hard hours year after year to successfully rehab injured, orphaned or sick animals and birds of California,” said Heather Perry, CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program Coordinator. “When tax-filers make the choice to contribute to the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Tax Fund, their support allows for grant funding that SWR, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and many of our other permitted rehab facilities utilize to fund their work. The story of the Caldor Fire fox is just one example of what we can do when we all work together.”  

For more information on the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, please visit wildlife.ca.gov/tax-donation.

*According to CalFire records, the Caldor Fire started on Aug. 14, 2021and was active for 67 days. The fire burned through nearly 222,000 acres in El Dorado, Amador and Alpine Counties and destroyed 1,003 structures.

Media contact:
Leticia Palamidessi, CDFW Education and Outreach, (916) 708-8517

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • 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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