Science Spotlight

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  • May 31, 2018

Diver underwater in black diving suit holding underwater writing tablet underwater in kelp forest
WARC diver Shelby Kawana assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.

Diver underwater in black diving suit holding a large grid made from PVC pipes and wire in kelp forest
WARC diver Armand Barilotti assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.

Curled up octopus hiding underwater
Octopus are a top abalone predator and therefor pose a threat to newly stocked juvenile red abalone populations. Researchers catch and relocate octopus when they are found hiding in crevasses near stocking sites.

Abalone attached to a rock
A rediscovered stocked red abalone was found clinging to the underside of a rock during a one year post stocking survey.

Harvesting abalone for dinner used to be as fundamental to a Southern California lifestyle as fish tacos and flip-flops. But by 1998, a combination of overfishing and disease led to the closure of all abalone fishery south of San Francisco. By 2001, the white abalone was listed as an endangered species because populations continued to decline despite protection from fishing pressure. Population numbers are so low today that the only option for recovery is believed to be through a robust captive breeding and stocking program.

Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) White Abalone Recovery Project and their partners in the White Abalone Recovery Consortium (WARC) are working to bring back the iconic white abalone from the brink of extinction. Since 2016, CDFW and partners have been working to actively restore abalone populations through stocking of young captive-reared abalone. Successful stocking is the critical next step to reestablishing self-sustaining wild populations of this culturally and ecologically important mollusk. The early stocking studies have aimed to perfect the methods that will be used to restore wild white abalone populations in the future by using red abalone as a test case. Red abalone, a sister species of the white abalone, lives in the same deep kelp forest habitats, and their populations in Southern California have also been very slow to recover.

Every few months, scientific divers on board the CDFW research vessel Garibaldi wrestle into thick neoprene wetsuits and load heavy steel tanks onto their backs in order to check on the stocked abalone. As the divers descend deeper into the kelp forest, they enter the world of the white abalone. Sunlight streams through the towering giant kelp, briefly illuminating the shiny sides of the small fish taking cover in the kelp blades. Lobsters and octopuses are tucked into the crevices of rocks, and abalone and urchins shelter in the shadows. Many of those abalone are adorned with small brightly-colored numbered tags that identify them as the new additions to the neighborhood. After a few months in the wild, the stocked abalone can show an extensive amount of growth which speaks to the quality and abundance of resources in their new habitat.

Since restoration stocking began in 2016, the partnership has stocked close to 10,000 red abalone off the coast of southern California. These studies are helping scientists understand how stocked abalone interact with their new environment in the wild. Researchers are increasing the effectiveness of future stocking work by teasing out the risk factors that abalone face in their new environment. For multiple years after releasing the abalone, divers track the number and identity of each abalone, and assess the ecosystem health and predator abundances at each site. The divers also collect any abalone shells encountered to determine the effects of different predators at each site through time.

Octopuses, lobsters, sea stars and fish are all major predators of the young abalone, and care is taken to introduce the abalone during times of the year when the predators will be least abundant. All of the data from these early studies are aimed at lessening the risks that stocked abalone face, and to improve long-term growth and survival.

The WARC understands that abalone are at the heart of coastal California’s identity and culture. The return of red and white abalone to the wild marks the beginning of a new chapter in the love story between California and this amazing mollusk. This is true for the ecosystems that rely on them as well as for the humans that cherish them. Please stay tuned for updates on the lessons learned from these studies, and plans for upcoming white abalone stocking work!

For more information, please visit the following pages:

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Newly tagged red abalone that are ready to be released into the ocean during a WARC stocking study in 2016.

Categories: General
  • May 25, 2018

Four men standing next to each other with snow on the ground and trees in the background
Porcupine1: NRVP participants Greg Moore, Mike Maulhardt, Charles Brown and Ben Smith volunteered to service and maintain porcupine stations at Red Lake Wildlife Area.

Trail cam image of a porcupine between two upright posts at night


Trail cam image of a porcupine on ground amongst trees at night


Trail cam image of two porcupines near tree at night


Trail cam image of a porcupine on top of rock behind two upright posts at night

Not to put too fine a point on it, but studying California’s porcupines hasn’t traditionally been a high priority for CDFW.

Wildlife research funding is limited, especially for non-game species, and species listed as threatened or endangered are typically given top priority. That means that scientists sometimes need to be creative – and frugal – in their efforts to survey and manage non-listed, non-game species.

Stacy Anderson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist specialist based in Rancho Cordova, recently conducted a pilot project that does just that.

Anderson developed an interest in the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in 2017, after acknowledging that anecdotal evidence seems to indicate their numbers are on the decline.

Porcupines have historically inhabited diverse habitats including Humboldt County, along the Sacramento River, in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, the southern Cascades, the Modoc Plateau and the Sierra Nevada. But in her conversations with unit biologists and wildlife officers in some of these areas, Anderson took note that many were reporting a substantial decrease in the number of calls from residents whose property – typically wood structures such as decks and outhouses – had been damaged by porcupines in recent decades. Informal surveys of veterinarians across the state also indicated a decline in the number of pet owners seeking quill removal from their pets.

Perhaps most telling, CDFW’s Sierra Nevada monitoring project, which has studied portions of the Sierra for the past nine years, has documented only seven porcupine sightings out of 750 stations surveyed via trail camera.

“We are worried about them because we don’t have a lot of sightings,” Anderson said. They live in low densities and they have only have one baby per year, so they don’t repopulate quickly.”

Recognizing the need to gather more information, Anderson and Evan King, another CDFW environmental scientist, launched a pilot effort last year to improve surveillance of porcupine, with a long-term goal of determining distribution and population numbers.

Anderson and King were inspired by the work of Uldis Roze, a researcher who has long studied porcupines in the Catskills of New York by using wood soaked in salt brine as a porcupine attractant. His research indicates that porcupines show a strong seasonality of salt use, which peaks in April through May and August through September. Because porcupines’ diet of plant matter is generally low in sodium (salt), they seek out other dietary sources of sodium to maintain normal levels in their bodies.

Anderson and King theorized that brined wood could be effective in attracting California porcupines, too. A plan was made to soak stakes made from 2x2s in a sodium brine to monitor activity. In theory, tooth scrapings on the wood could also be identified to species.

“It’s not a full-blown study – it’s just a way to test a plan of action that can maybe be used in a study later,” Anderson explained. “We don’t want to waste valuable resources on untested methodology, so this is a way to find out first if the methodology is going to work. It’s a low-cost, high yield approach.”

Twenty-three stations were set up for the 2017 pilot project, which was conducted from April to October. Members of CDFW’s Natural Resources Volunteer Program, who support departmental operations, supplied much of the labor, and the study costs were kept low. Expenses added up to less than $100, including salt for brining and wood. Trail cameras borrowed from other researchers were utilized to help monitor the stations.

Researchers were pleased to learn that the porcupines took to their efforts with a grain of salt (so to speak). They determined that brined-wood monitoring is more effective than traditional bait or game-trail monitoring, at least in the study area in northern Sierra and along the Sacramento River. Preliminary results indicate that the brined wood appeared to lure porcupines into the area of a camera station -- although most did not approach the wood and fewer still left a distinctive chew mark on the brined wood. But the trail cameras provided clear, useful photographs.

“We still have unanswered questions about this technique that will need to be addressed before we can consider it a success,” Anderson said. “However, our pilot efforts are promising.”

CDFW is seeking additional funding through state wildlife grants and collaborative efforts with other researchers and agencies to gain a better understanding of the North American porcupine’s status. Anderson plans to continue refining the methodology of her study, along with other survey techniques including habitat surveys, feeding signs, tree girdling, scat searches and the use of detection dogs.

Anderson also encourages members of the public to help CDFW’s efforts by reporting detections of live or “roadkill” porcupines.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Porcupine photo by CDFW Warden Chad Alexander.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • May 17, 2018

Two bighorn sheep laying with blinders on inside enclosed area
These pregnant females will bolster the population of a newly established herd as well as provide an infusion of fresh genetic material to helps ensure their new herd’s health and long-term survival.

Bighorn sheep with blue ear tag and collar
Outfitted with an ear tag and two tracking collars, this ram awaits delivery to a new herd where it’s hoped he will infuse the population with fresh genetics

Two men in helmets bending over a bighorn sheep with blinders on wrapped in large orange sling with white pickup trucks and two men in background
Among the goals of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan is the establishment of 12 viable herds across their historic range. CDFW’s capture and relocation efforts over the years have helped establish 14 herds today across 150 miles of their historic range.

Three bighorn sheep on desert landscape ground wrapped in large orange slings while to men in helmets look over them and several people stand in the background
These Eastern Sierra bighorn sheep are being prepared for their flight to a new home and new herds.

Seven animals.

Can just seven Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep really make much of an impact on the species’ future?

CDFW scientists believe so, which is why they came away pleased with the results of their annual spring helicopter capture this past March. Limited to three days of work due to strong winds and bad weather, the effort resulted in the capturing, collaring and relocation of seven sheep to new herds high in the Eastern Sierra.

Although the final chapters have yet to be written, the saga surrounding the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, one of the rarest large mammals in North America, is shaping up to be a 21st century wildlife success story.

A unique subspecies found only in the Sierra Nevada, historic populations numbered in the thousands. Their steep population decline began in the 1800s as a result of competition from livestock grazing, unregulated hunting and the transmission of disease from domestic sheep. Drought and predation further hammered their numbers, which dwindled to about 100 animals in just three herds by the mid-1990s. State and federal officials declared them endangered in 1999.

Today, less than 20 years removed from those dramatic listings, there are 14 different Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep herds spread across 150 miles of the iconic mountain range. About 600 bighorn sheep are now eking out a living atop the Sierra’s highest peaks. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are present once again inside Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park after a 100-year absence.

CDFW’s role is itself unique as a state agency tasked with leading the recovery of a federally listed endangered species. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are recolonizing their historic range – with a major assist from CDFW’s twice-yearly captures, collaring and strategic “translocations.”

This spring, three males and four pregnant females were captured from two established herds and translocated to two newly reintroduced herds – one along their western range inside Sequoia National Park and another herd in Inyo County at the southernmost extent of their range.

“Whenever we start these new herds, we like to move a minimum of 20 females as well as additional rams over time,” explained Tom Stephenson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist based in Bishop and the leader of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program. “At that point, we feel the population has enough animals to begin growing at a high enough rate and also has sufficient genetic diversity.”

Before the animals are relocated, a CDFW team records their vital statistics. Ultrasound machines are used to measure body condition and determine pregnancy status. The animals are outfitted with identifying jewelry – color-coded ear tags, VHF and GPS collars that allow biologists to identify them and track their movements for years in some cases.

All the high-tech, intensive monitoring has paid dividends with new appreciation and understanding. Once believed to always migrate to lower elevations in the winter, CDFW scientists have learned that many sheep ride out the Sierra Nevada’s inhospitable winters at 11,000- to 14,000-foot elevations.

“They are really tough,” Stephenson said. “But they’re able to do that because they put on large amounts of body fat in the summer when they’re on quality habitat. They are essentially hibernating standing up in the alpine. They’ve got an environment up there that is wind-scoured so they can find some food. They’re not having to move around much, and they’re relatively free from predators when they’re up in those altitudes in the winter time.”

Not every sheep captured is relocated.

Helicopter crews this spring attempted unsuccessfully to capture rams in the northernmost part of their range, collar them and return them to their same herds. CDFW biologists are keeping close tabs on the Mount Warren Herd near Lee Vining in Mono County in particular and its proximity to domestic sheep grazing on public land. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are disease-free and CDFW biologists want to keep them that way.

While populations have met or exceeded some recovery goals, eliminating disease – or the risk of disease – remains a significant benchmark and key to delisting or down-listing the species from endangered status.<

“There are a lot of bighorn sheep populations throughout the West that continue to struggle with disease,” Stephenson said. “So we’ve worked really hard with public land managers as well as private individuals in the Eastern Sierra to try and ensure our bighorn sheep don’t come into contact with domestic sheep.”

CDFW photos courtesy of Andrew Di Salvo. Top Photo: A helicopter crew delivers four bighorn sheep to CDFW's base camp where vital statistics were recorded, blood was taken, and the sheep were outfitted with identifying ear tags and tracking collars.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • May 10, 2018

Burrowing Owl being held while one hand slightly extends owl's wing

Burrowing Owl in hand

A dwindling population of a tiny owl in Southern California has a chance at a comeback, thanks to a collaborative effort by scientists from CDFW, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR), Caltrans and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern, and nongame scientists have long been concerned about their viability and survival. Breeding populations have especially declined in the central and southern coastal areas, due in large part to a combination of habitat loss and eradication of the ground squirrels that dig out the burrows where the owls make their nests. In San Diego County specifically, the once-widespread population has been reduced to a single breeding node in the Otay Mesa region, just north of the Mexico border.

Two groups in particular have been monitoring these owls carefully, in an effort to help. Biologists from Zoo’s ICR have spent seven years assessing owl population status and productivity, including assessing the feasibility and effectiveness of artificial burrows, refining techniques to help the ground squirrels thrive and disperse into new areas and developing a system of identifying potential new locations where the owls might thrive. Much of ICR’s owl research has been conducted at Brown Field, a small municipal airport near the border within the City of San Diego, and on an adjacent property owned by Caltrans.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles from the Brown Field study site, CDFW scientists have spent a decade working to create more suitable burrowing owl habitat at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve (RJER). Efforts there included installation of artificial burrows and mowing the tall grass to foster a low-growing grassland suitable for burrowing owls and ground squirrels. Despite their best efforts, CDFW scientists studying the Rancho Jamul site have experienced many years of disappointment -- although wintering owls have shown up every year, none have stayed and attempted to breed on the property. But conditions have been improving over the last four years, thanks to the implementation of a grazing program that reduced dense thatches of old grasses and expanded areas of open ground. As habitat changed at Rancho Jamul, CDFW scientists observed more squirrel burrows, and the conditions seemed just about right for the owls.

This spring, an approved development project at Brown Field began to take shape – and it became evident that the timing for an owl translocation project was ripe at last. Thanks to efforts by Caltrans, which incorporated burrowing owl habitat restoration as part of their mitigation effort for a nearby highway, CDFW staff believed the owl population to be strong enough to support a translocation effort. Also the spring season, just prior to egg-laying, is likely the optimum time to move the animals. After looking at many options, scientists decided to try to move five pairs of breeding owls to RJER in the hopes that they would establish a new population and thrive.

The full conservation team – which included CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of San Diego, Metro Air Park, Schaefer Ecological Solutions and the San Diego Zoo – was on board and ready to move the owls. In March 2018, the team caught five pairs and moved them to hacking cages at RJER. The owls lived in the cages for about one month to give them time to acclimate to their new surroundings. By the time the cages were removed, each female had laid at least one egg in the artificial burrow chamber.

CDFW Environmental Scientist Dave Mayer has worked on this project for years and is anxious to see efforts at RJER finally pay off. The presence of the eggs, he said, was thrilling to see. “More owls, and at diverse locations, is what it will take to conserve this species in San Diego County. This first step was a long time coming, but I have all my fingers crossed that it’s going to work.”

This successful multi-agency partnership will continue long past the actual translocation day. Scientists banded the owls and fitted some with radio transmitters. ICR staff will monitor the owls themselves, while CDFW staff will monitor the grassland and the grazing program, and perform inspections and repairs of the artificial burrows twice a year. After five years, CDFW will perform regular monitoring of the owls, the habitat and associated grazing practices, and the general status of the ground squirrel population.

Mayer is proud of the work achieved so far in this unusual project. “We built a better mousetrap, with the Zoo’s help,” he says. 

General information about California’s bird species of special concern can be found on the CDFW website, along with the link opens in new windowspecies account (PDF) for the burrowing owl and information about Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.

The San Diego Zoo has also issued a link opens in new windownews release with more details about the burrowing owl translocation project.

All photos © San Diego Zoo Global, all rights reserved

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Categories: Wildlife Research