Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
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.
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
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.
These Eastern Sierra bighorn sheep are being prepared for their flight to a new home and new herds.
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.
Camouflaged trap used to capture foxes for the study. CDFW photo by Jennifer Carlson.
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
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
Deer population estimates are an important element of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) management decisions regarding the species – including setting quotas for deer-hunting seasons, acquiring land and identifying habitat improvement projects. Historically, CDFW has relied upon helicopter surveys to obtain these population estimates, but such surveys can be problematic. While they are effective in open and largely flat areas, they are less so in tree-laden areas where deer are hidden from sight. They can also be extremely expensive.
Now, thanks to emerging DNA technology, scientists are exploring a less invasive, cost-effective alternative: Analysis of what the deer leave behind.
The use of DNA is not new, of course – CDFW has used hair or tissue samples to extract DNA and identify individual animals for years. But scientists are finding that the painstaking collection and analysis of deer droppings is particularly useful because it allows them to gather the necessary information without physically touching (or stressing) the animals. And that, one might say, is the “bottom line.”
Fecal DNA analysis is being used by wildlife biologists in the North Central Region as part of a six-year region-wide study of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that will provide population estimates in areas where data has previously been lacking. CDFW scientists, in cooperation with UC Davis, will use the deer pellets to take a genetic “fingerprint” designed to help estimate deer populations.
Starting in 2016, a crew began setting transects for pellet collection in the standardized sampling locations (known to hunters as deer zones X6a/b, X7a/b and X8) which are located in Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer and Alpine counties. After starting points were randomly selected, habitat information and pictures were collected along with fresh pellets. After the pellets were removed from the area in an initial sweep, scientists revisited the transect once a week for three more weeks to collect new samples. Between July and September of 2016, biologists visited 43 different transects in the summer range and collected and analyzed 458 fresh pellet samples. Staff also captured 20 does and seven bucks and fit them with satellite collars that produced data that helped identify summer home ranges.
CDFW will also use DNA to identify individual deer to help gather buck/doe/fawn ratios. Biologists will then combine the DNA data with home range data from collared deer to calculate the estimated number of deer in the population. This year staff have already completed another 36 plots and collared 18 more deer. Another series of pellet collections is scheduled next year, with a goal of continuing until all 17 counties in the region have been sampled.
Although several DNA projects are occurring across the state, this project is the largest landscape-level study for deer in California. The study is funded through CDFW’s Big Game Account, a dedicated account that provides research and management funds for game species. The University of California will conduct the laboratory work and statistical analysis.
CDFW’s Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area serves two critical – but sometimes competing – needs.
The 16,670 acres of riparian and agricultural habitat in Yolo County provide a refuge and an all-you-can-eat buffet for migratory waterfowl and resident wildlife to the west of Sacramento and the increasingly urbanized surrounding communities.
The wildlife area is also a key cog in the Sacramento region’s flood control system. In wet years, the vast flood plain accommodates massive water diversions from the nearby Sacramento, Feather and Yuba river systems to prevent flooding in populated areas and to relieve pressure on strained river levees.
With the drought-busting rains and snow received last winter, the wildlife area resembled an inland ocean for the thousands of daily commuters traveling the Interstate-80 Yolo Causeway, which crosses the northern edge of the wildlife area. The floodwaters stretched as far as the eye could see, reaching depths of 20 feet in some places, and submerging almost every natural feature underneath. The consequences were dire for wildlife unable to escape.
Pheasants, deer, raccoons, and small rodents of all kinds were among the victims. Some were overcome by the rising water, some starved while waiting out the floodwaters in trees or isolated patches of high ground, others were picked off by predators stalking the water line for fleeing prey.
As a result, efforts are now underway to help the area’s wildlife survive future flooding. The Yolo County Resource Conservation District has secured almost $700,000 in Proposition 1 state water project funds to build two wildlife escape habitat corridors and a demonstration garden over the next four years. The project includes partnerships with CDFW, Yolo Basin Foundation, Center for Land-Based Learning, Putah Creek Council, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Point Blue Conservation Science.
The demonstration garden will serve as an educational component for visitors near the wildlife area’s entrance. Two other corridors in the southern end of the wildlife area will stretch more than 5 miles total and include 22 acres of native grass seeding for nesting and cover. The corridors will run parallel to the Putah Creek channel, which is the only existing natural escape route now on the refuge.
“These corridors are basically like wildlife roads,” said Jeffrey Stoddard, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area manager for CDFW.
The floodwaters advance slowly enough that even the smallest animals can escape, Stoddard explained, provided they head in the right direction and don’t get exposed to predators along the way.
“We have blocks of escape habitat now, but we will be creating connectivity, moving animals from the east side that is deeper to the west side that is higher ground,” he said.
The corridors will consist of a mix of flood-tolerant native shrubs, grasses and forbs that will provide escape routes to high ground, protection from predators, food, and good habitat year-round.
The corridor work began in June with Putah Creek Council student interns collecting wild rose, red stem dogwood and coyote brush clippings for propagating and use as plant stock for the wildlife corridors.
Photos courtesy of CDFW, the Putah Creek Council and the Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Students pictured are interns from the Putah Creek Council’s One Creek Restoration Internship program.
Tim Hermansen of CDFW carries a turkey holding box to CDFW’s Levi Sousa while John Davis clears the net.
Derek Schiewek of CDFW holds a turkey while CDFW’s Laura Cockrell measures the tarsus.
Recent efforts to determine the number of turkeys on the Upper Butte Wildlife Area have been a net success.
CDFW staff and volunteers from the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) began annual turkey banding efforts in 2015 to gather information about turkey demographics and movements to facilitate better management of the population and assess future hunting opportunities. Approximately a dozen volunteers and staff have since worked on this effort two months each year, in the late winter through early spring.
Captured birds are fitted with a numbered band, and their age, gender and weight are determined before they are released. The number of times a turkey is recaptured through ongoing trapping activities, or when a hunter returns a band to CDFW, provides data about the density and the movements of the birds. Approximately 20 wild turkeys have been captured each of the past four years, using air cannons that propel nets. Last year was the sole exception, as torrential storms resulted in zero captures because portions of the property were flooded and could not be traversed with trapping equipment.
“That year was very frustrating, but part of being a wildlife biologist is going with the flow,” recalled CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell, who is involved in coordinating and facilitating wildlife surveys on the wildlife area.
This year, walk-in traps were used for the first time to supplement the traditional use of air cannons, and the final tally was 38 turkeys banded, increasing the total number banded over the course of the project to 88. This baseline data will inform decisions on how many turkey hunters will be allowed access to the wildlife area each spring.
“Our volunteers and all our staff are what makes this project successful,” Cockrell said. “Everyone completes a safety training so we can make sure the birds are handled quickly and carefully, and then it is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ during the trapping operations. If we did not have a dedicated crew on this project, it would not be successful. The walk-in traps allow staff to set up trapping operations in the morning, check the site throughout the day, and process birds as they are captured.”
Also appreciative of the banding efforts were turkey hunters, who had an extra “spring” in their step this year at the Upper Butte Wildlife Area.
The 2018 spring turkey hunts recently ended after 64 hunters who hunted on Upper Butte Basin harvested 35 turkeys. During the previous three spring seasons combined since spring turkey hunts began on the wildlife area in 2015, 133 hunters participated and 47 turkeys were harvested.
All the result of field conversations between CDFW staff and fall turkey hunters.
“During the fall turkey seasons some years back, hunters at the check stations would frequently ask us when we were going to offer a spring season, which we had not done before,” Cockrell said.
At the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units, the problem was not a lack of turkeys but rather a lack of funding to hire staff to advertise, prepare, regulate and operate the extra hunts – and a lack of scientific data to support an extra hunting season.
A collaborative effort between CDFW and the NWTF solved that problem.
In 2014, NWTF applied for and received a state grant from the Upland Game Bird Stamp Fund. The grant proposal, which was spearheaded by NWTF District Biologist Kevin Vella, obtained five years of funding to support a seasonal coordinator position.
“This spring we had almost 1,800 applications for 144 open spots,” said Cockrell. “Our hunters really appreciate the opportunities that the spring turkey hunts provide. We frequently hear after a hunt what an amazing time they had out in the field and how much they enjoyed their time on the wildlife area. One of our hunters this season was so excited because he was able to harvest a nice turkey at his very first hunt!”
All photos © National Wild Turkey Federation, all rights reserved. Top Photo: Tim Hermansen of CDFW holds a turkey while Laura Cockrell of CDFW measures its beard with calipers.
About 10 environmental scientists from CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) participated in a large-scale oil spill drill along the Feather River on March 21. The drill was intended to help wildlife response teams prepare for a potential train derailment. OSPR has a long history of oil spill response in marine environments but recently expanded its scope statewide to include inland waters. This Feather River exercise was the first time a substantial wildlife response drill has been held inland, testing responders’ abilities to resolve many operational and technical issues presented by a river spill.
Whereas marine spills typically require rescue of seabirds and occasionally marine mammals, the kinds of animals potentially affected by inland spills are quite different and varied, potentially including raptors, songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, foxes, and other mammals. The need to capture and care for these species during an oil spill presents unique challenges for scientist responders. The goal is to have the necessary protocols in place and practiced.
The drill was put on by the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), an organization funded by OSPR and managed by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to provide best achievable care of oiled wildlife. The OWCN currently maintains a network of 40 wildlife rehabilitation organizations, trained and ready to respond to oil spills anywhere in the state. Sixteen of these organizations participated in Tuesday’s drill, including two local organizations, Shasta Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation and North Valley Animal Disaster Group.
In addition to practicing wildlife response activities, the drill provided the opportunity to test a new Geographic Response Plan (GRP) for the Feather River. GRPs identify the location and nature of resources at risk in the event of a spill, and outline appropriate tactical response strategies to minimize oiling and other injury. During a real spill, OSPR environmental scientists serve as subject-matter experts who help ensure that the GRP is implemented appropriately. A simulated situation like this one gives them a valuable opportunity to conduct a realistic ‘dry run,’ as well as to analyze elements of the GRP and make adjustments as necessary.
To learn more about OSPR, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR.
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