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CDFW Gets a Jump on Preserving Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frogs

CDFW Gets a Jump on Preserving Sierra Nevada Yellow-legged Frogs

A black-speckled, brown frog rests on a flat granite rock next to a deep blue lake

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


Enhancement Projects Weed Out Invasives in Marin County

Enhancement Projects Weed Out Invasives in Marin County

an orange butterfly with black spots stands on a yellow flower, amid green and purple succulents
Native to the California coast and the California/Nevada state line, the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly feeds on the nectar of the monardella flowers.

a tiny shorebird with a light brown coat, black beak, and white underside, standing on wet beach sand
One of 33 species of birds listed as threatened or endangered by the State of California or the federal government, the western snowy plover is in jeopardy of disappearing from the dunes.

patches of green vegetation live on a coastal ridge full of dead, beige beach-grass
in 2017, two years after treatment, the southwest side of the herbicide treatment area shows little regrowth of invasive plants.

Sandy dunes along the California coast often feature hardy European beachgrass and a succulent, freeway iceplant, that many assume is part of the native flora. However, these groundcover plants were originally introduced in the 1800s by Gold Rush settlers who were hoping to keep sand from moving to the nearby roads, railroads and land. Today, they are invasive species that out-compete the native plants and the animals that live there.

Over the years, the invasives took over the native Tidestrom lupine and beach layia, causing them to be placed on the federally endangered species list. The endangered Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly and the threatened snowy plover are dependent on native plants like these, and today, they too are in jeopardy of disappearing from the area.

“Snowy plovers naturally select open areas to nest so that they can more easily spot predators,” said CDFW Environmental Scientist Laird Henkel. “The European beachgrass spreads quickly making the dunes less desirable as a place for these birds to nest.”

Scientists determined that removing these invasive plants would be the best way to restore the dunes and the ecosystem that depends on them. To this end, CDFW awarded $54,000 in Environmental Enhancement funds to a project on the Point Reyes North Great Beach, located in Marin County, to restore the native sand dune plants on a 13-acre area in 2015. The fund committee selected the Point Reyes application because of the success of their previous dune restoration projects.

Point Reyes National Seashore staff oversaw the removal of the invasive plants on the dunes. Their contractors spray-treated the dunes with an herbicide and uprooted the invasives by hand; they worked during times of low winds and no rain, to protect other natural plants, wildlife, nearby farms and the public from overspray.

Point Reyes scientists monitored the treated area with an easy-to-use mapping tool called photo point monitoring – an effective method of monitoring vegetation and ecosystem change. Visual surveys and the mapping program showed just a one-to-three percent regrowth of the invasive plants over time, while previous restoration projects showed much more regrowth.

“The project area represents a vital link between earlier restoration efforts near Abbotts Lagoon and new restoration efforts at the AT&T cell tower area, enabling the park to move closer towards its goal of several miles of dune habitat not wiped out by invasive plants such as European beachgrass and iceplant,” said Point Reyes National Seashore Ecologist Lorraine Parsons.

CDFW-OSPR and the Point Reyes staff consider the project’s first objective – eradicating invasive European beachgrass and ice plant – a success. Earlier this year, scientists noticed in treated areas the reappearance of wild cucumber. The reappearance of other native plants such as the mock heather, California blackberry and yarrow, and wildlife is the second objective, the success of which will be determined over time. Other treated areas in the region show beachgrass breakdown and increased native dune scrub and mat species after six years.

Photos courtesy of Point Reyes National Seashore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Top photo: The Point Reyes National Seashore staff oversee contractors spray-treating the dunes with an herbicide.



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