Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
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 species account (PDF) for the burrowing owl and information about Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.
The San Diego Zoo has also issued a news release with more details about the burrowing owl translocation project.
All photos © San Diego Zoo Global, all rights reserved
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California’s coastal waters are home to seven species of abalone, and all but one are endangered or listed as species of special concern. The white abalone in particular has been nearly decimated by overfishing and disease, and scientists can find no evidence that the remaining population is reproducing in the wild. In order to avoid loss of the entire species, CDFW and partner agencies have formed the White Abalone Recovery Consortium, which will employ captive rearing and restoration stocking efforts and extensive public outreach in order to save these animals from extinction. It will be an ongoing, long-term project, but all signs point to future success – already there are more white abalone thriving in the captive breeding program than the entire population living in the wild.
Read more about the efforts to restore California’s white abalone – and learn what you can do to help! – on the CDFW Marine Management News Blog.
WARC diver Shelby Kawana assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.
WARC diver Armand Barilotti assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.
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.
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.
The tilapia skin is visible on the bottom of the bear's paw.
Veterinarians perform an ultrasound to check on the progress of the second bear's pregnancy.
Acupuncture needles assist with pain management.
After placing the second bear, the team moved the first bear to another location where another man-made den awaited.
CDFW staff work together to build a makeshift den for a soft release in Los Padres National Forest. A soft release involves putting the bear in a den to simulate hibernation, and leaving it to wake up on its own.
Two talented veterinarians, an environmental scientist and several dedicated staff members at the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab recently put their heads and their resources together to help heal a pair of adult bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire. The bears, which were treated at the same time as a young mountain lion with similar, less severe burn injuries, were released back to the wild last Thursday, after several weeks of intensive – and unusual – care.
CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford was acting manager of the Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova when the first bear – an adult female weighing about 200 pounds – was captured inside of a backyard aviary in the Ojai area on December 9. With CDFW Environmental Scientist Christine Thompson coordinating, CDFW Wildlife Officer Jacob Coombs darted the bear and local veterinarian Dr. Duane Tom evaluated its injured paws and overall condition. Thompson then conferred with Clifford, who determined the bear might have a chance at recovery if treated quickly. The bear was put into a trailer for the seven-hour transport to Rancho Cordova, where Clifford was waiting.
By the time the bear arrived, Clifford had already reached out to Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for help. Weeks earlier, Peyton, who works mostly on domestic animals, had mentioned to Clifford in passing that she had a particular interest in animal burns, and would be interested in helping wildlife if the chance ever arose.
Peyton created a homemade burn salve for the bears’ paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. Fish skin, which contains collagen, is often used by doctors in Brazil to bandage human burns. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, and had not been tried on veterinary patients.
To help keep the tilapia skin in place, Peyton cut pieces to exactly match the size of the bear’s paws and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage. “We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said. She also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management.
The original plan was for Peyton to come to the lab weekly to check on the bear’s progress. But within just a few weeks, two more burn patients arrived from the Thomas Fire. A second adult female bear, found relatively close to where the first one was found, was brought to the lab by Thompson on December 22. And on December 23, the young mountain lion arrived from Santa Paula. The experimental tilapia treatment was extended to the two newcomers as well.
Of the three animals, the mountain lion’s injuries were the least severe. Because of his young age, he was earmarked for placement in a wildlife rescue facility. The two bears were in much worse condition, with oozing wounds and, in some cases, paw pads that were completely burned off. But because the bears were older and stronger, the veterinarians hoped to return them to the wild if their injuries could be healed.
To complicate matters further, on December 28, during a routine burn treatment, Clifford’s team performed an ultrasound on each bear, and found that the second bear was pregnant. The quest to heal the mother-to-be was now a race against time.
“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”
While Clifford and Peyton continued to focus on healing the animals’ injuries, Thompson started scouting out potential release locations. Since both bears needed to be transported back to Southern California, it was decided to try to return them at the same time – albeit not exactly in the same location – in order to make the best use of staff time and resources.
Both bears’ original habitat had been destroyed by fire, so Thompson scouted for two new locations that fit several parameters. The bears needed to be close to their home range, but not within the burn area, and near ample food and water sources. She also wanted to keep them as far away from each other as possible. “A lot of wildlife habitat was destroyed by the fire, and there are already a lot of displaced animals roaming around,” Thompson said. “So there’s a good chance that whatever location we choose is already occupied by other bears, but only they know exactly where that designated territory is. The best we can do is make an educated guess, and place them as deep into wild lands as possible.”
Taking the rapidly changing winter weather reports into careful consideration, the team chose Wednesday, January 17, as the target date to get on the road. That morning, Peyton came to the Wildlife Investigations Lab one last time and both bears were immobilized for a final treatment for their feet. Then the bears were placed into separate transport trailers for the long journey home. Simultaneously, in the Los Padres National Forest, Thompson and Tom spent the day digging dirt and moving logs to create a winter den for each bear.
“At this time of the year, most bears have established dens for the winter, but since these bears won’t have time to create a den, we hope to improve their chances of survival by creating a den for them so they have a home base and shelter right away,” Clifford explained.
The team arrived late Wednesday night, and both staff and bears were hosted overnight by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Early on the morning of January 18, Clifford, Thompson, Coombs, Tom and their team drove the bears deep into the forest for the final leg of their journey. One at a time, each bear was sedated and carefully placed into her den, while the team finished constructing a shelter around the slumbering animal. The bears are about five miles apart, as the crow flies, and each is wearing a satellite collar so CDFW can monitor her movements and survival post-release. Staff also placed trail cameras near each den.
“We’re really hopeful that these novel treatments accelerated the healing for these bears and provided them the best odds of survival,” Clifford said. “It’s especially good to know that we’ve maximized the odds of survival for the cub on the way. We don’t know exactly when it will be born, but hopefully we’ll be able to monitor the movements of the mother via satellite, and that will give us an indication of how things are going.”
For Clifford, the entire experience wasn’t simply about saving the lives of two bears. The bigger picture involves the body of knowledge the experimental treatment provided – both to the Wildlife Investigations Lab team and to the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild,” Clifford said. “For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it’s been an invaluable experience because California’s changing climate means that we’re likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires. By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals’ time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”
CDFW photos. For more, please see CDFW’s Flickr photo album: Thomas Fire Bears.
Top photo: The first bear rests in her holding enclosure after her treatment is finished. The outer wrapping on her feet (made of corn husks) will delay her efforts to chew off the tilapia skin bandages underneath.
Fate has not been kind to the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica).
Shrinking habitat caused by urbanization and agricultural expansion landed this Central Valley native on the federal Endangered Species List decades ago. California’s total population of San Joaquin kit foxes may now be down to a few thousand animals. To make matters worse, its favorite food, the kangaroo rat, is likewise endangered as the desert habitat it prefers continues to disappear.
Wildlife biologists took heart, however, in a population that seemed to be thriving within the city limits of Bakersfield. Unlike San Joaquin kit fox populations in other parts of the Central Valley range, the Bakersfield foxes adapted quite nicely to urban life. Their number – estimated between 200 and 400 animals – has evidently seemed to be holding steady and possibly increasing.
Their cute and cuddly appearance make them popular with city residents. Earlier research showed the population was healthy and genetically robust. Wildlife biologists were counting on those urban foxes to ensure the species’ survival should kit fox populations completely collapse elsewhere.
Today, those Bakersfield kit foxes are under siege, suffering from an outbreak of highly infectious sarcoptic mange. Mange – a skin condition caused by parasitic mites -- leads to hair loss, open wounds from scratching and, ultimately, death. The first case was detected among the kit fox population in March 2013, and since then, more than 200 cases have been documented. The epidemic has grown worse every year.
Given the importance of the Bakersfield population, CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State University, Stanislaus, the University of California, Davis (UCD), and various nonprofit wildlife groups have all joined forces to combat the mange.
Jaime Rudd, an environmental scientist in CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento, is leading CDFW’s efforts while simultaneously writing her UCD Ph.D. dissertation on the outbreak. Rudd is researching ways to prevent mange from spreading to healthy animals, and assisting Stanislaus State’s Endangered Species Recovery Program with trapping and treating diseased foxes.
Severely diseased kit foxes are trapped and transported to the California Living Museum, a Bakersfield wildlife rehabilitation facility and zoo. There, the kit foxes are hospitalized, given life-saving antibiotics and fluids and treated with a topical pet product that kills the mites. The foxes often need months of treatment before they are healthy enough to release. And although the intervention saves individual lives, the process is costly and time-consuming – and doesn’t prevent the treated fox from getting mange a second or third time.
Rudd is making good use of her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, analyzing the DNA of the mites to see if they might be related to those in dogs and coyotes, which could be spreading the mange to the foxes.
“Essentially, we want to look at their molecular signature to see if these mites are related,” Rudd said.
Rudd is studying a group of wild kit foxes living on the CSU Bakersfield campus, which no doubt are supplementing their diet with burger bits and pizza crusts discarded by college students. Rudd is monitoring the group with trail cameras, outfitting some foxes with radio tracking collars and others with the type of preventative flea and tick collar you might use on a pet dog or cat.
“We want to evaluate the efficacy of these collars,” she said. “If they’re only going to work for two months, the collars won’t help us slow down the spread of mange, so is it really worth the effort of putting them on? But if they’re going to work for five months or more, then it might be worth the effort.”
If there is any hope sustaining Rudd and her colleagues in this important, though often disheartening, work, it’s this: “The fact we are not seeing mange in the outlying populations is cause for optimism,” she said. “If nothing else, we can at least try to keep it from leaving the city.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently launched the first phase of a multi-year study of tule elk in Colusa and Lake counties. In partnership with the University of California, Davis and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and with the assistance of capture specialists from Leading Edge Aviation, researchers used helicopter net guns to capture and place satellite collars on 45 tule elk.
The technique of using DNA extracted from fecal pellets to study wildlife populations is a relatively new, non-invasive approach that minimally disturbs animals and enables surveys in low-visibility habitats where sight-based surveys would be relatively ineffective. It is also less costly than other survey methods, and therefore can be used more frequently.
While fecal DNA analysis has been used to estimate abundance and other population parameters in deer herds in California since 2011, this study will be the first application of the technique to free-ranging tule elk. The study results will guide future elk conservation planning efforts.
Tule elk are a native subspecies of elk unique to California. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, they numbered more than half a million statewide, but the population rapidly declined in the mid-1800s due to unregulated market hunting and habitat loss. In 1875, a ranch owner in Kern County took efforts to protect the last remaining tule elk and allowed them to multiply on his property, likely saving them from extirpation.
Since 1975, CDFW has captured and relocated more than 1,500 elk. As a result, there are an estimated 5,100-plus tule elk distributed in 22 herds throughout California today. See more information about the distribution, range and history of this unique animal in California.
For some public properties, livestock grazing can be an important land management tool to help maintain specific habitat conditions, control invasive weeds and reduce fire hazards. In areas invaded by non-native vegetative species, it is necessary to control vegetation height and density in order to keep habitats functioning for certain sensitive species. For instance, the burrowing owl requires low vegetation cover in order to forage for prey effectively and prevent predators from approaching unseen. Other species that have been known to benefit from managed livestock grazing include California tiger salamander, Yosemite toad and certain sensitive butterfly species.
Controlling the height and density of non-native annual grasslands through grazing has also been shown to help increase forage efficiency for many species of raptors, and it’s used as a tool in some areas of California to maintain sensitive vernal pool habitats.
For years, local, state and federal agencies, as well as non-government organizations, have utilized livestock grazing on public lands. It is important to have many tools available for habitat management because it can sometimes be complicated. Factors such as the presence of listed or protected species, compatible public land uses and erosion -- as well as other land management practices such as herbicide application, mowing and prescribed fires -- must all be considered.
CDFW’s Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in San Diego County recently hosted a livestock grazing workshop presented by Rancher to Rancher (R2R) program spokesperson Kent Reeves, and UC Davis researcher Dr. Christina Wolf. The goal of the R2R program is to provide information and educational resources to private ranchers about evolving livestock management practices intended to promote native ecosystem health, and therefore, more sustainable grazing programs. More than 40 participants, including local private ranchers and representatives from about a dozen government and non-government organizations attended the workshop. Participants learned about developing progressive management practices, such as the use of increased stocking densities for shorter, more frequent durations, in order to increase carbon sequestration in the soils. This method is currently being studied as a way of encouraging native grass species as well as combating changing climate conditions.
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