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Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community


Saving Endangered Coho Salmon in Central California

wide view of a fish hatchery building with a river trees mountain and sky in distance

silver fish with green stripe on back with black dots in a net in a river with rocks
Adult Coho: Adult Coho Salmon released in Salmon Creek, Marin Co. (CDFW photo by Manfred Kittel).

redwood trees with creek and 6 scientist with nets and buckets looking for coho salmon fish with rocks and bushes and sun rays shining through the trees
Redwood Creek: CDFW biologists searching for juvenile Coho Salmon in Redwood Creek in summer 2014.

Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), also known as silver salmon, have lived in California’s coastal watersheds for thousands of years. Today their populations have declined to just a fraction of historical levels, endangered by a wide range of factors. In Central California in particular, the situation is dire, with the species listed as endangered under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. Many populations are in danger of declining to the point of local extinction.

Recognizing the recovery of Coho salmon in central California’s streams and rivers as a high priority, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is collaborating with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and other partner agencies and non-governmental organizations to develop and implement recovery actions. The tricky part is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to saving the species.

Eric Larson, Fisheries Program Manager for CDFW’s Bay Delta Region, has monitored the decline of Coho on the Central Coast over the past three decades. As he sees it, an effective conservation strategy will do two things: prevent local extinction events, and implement specific recovery actions in streams that once functioned as Coho strongholds. “But,” says Larson, “each stream is a unique geographic and ecological system. In each watershed, any recovery actions -- including captive rearing and release efforts -- must be custom-tailored to that system to be successful.”

To date, some of those custom-tailored approaches include the following:

Captive breeding and monitoring (Sonoma County). Since 2001, CDFW has been working with NMFS, USACE and others to restore Coho populations in the Russian River basin in Sonoma County. A captive breeding program was developed at Warm Springs Hatchery, situated at Lake Sonoma Dam, to help re-establish populations in Russian River tributaries and other regional streams where Coho once flourished. The hatchery program relies on a genetically informed breeding matrix to minimize inbreeding and conserve genetic diversity. The program produces up to 200,000 Coho annually, which are released primarily as juveniles into tributaries of the Russian River and other streams, although some smolts and adults are also released in a few regional streams.

Concurrently, scientists from the University of California Sea Grant and Sonoma Water have been link opens in new tab or window actively monitoring juvenile Coho and adults returning to the Russian River system since the hatchery program began. The number of adult Coho returning to the river each year to spawn has gradually increased from just a handful in 2009, to more than 700 in 2017-2018.

Watershed restoration work and hatchery rearing of juveniles (Marin County). CDFW is collaborating with the National Park Service, USACE, State Parks and others to restore Coho salmon in Redwood Creek, which flows through the picturesque Muir Woods National Monument. The prolonged drought from 2013-2016, along with other factors, had brought Coho in Redwood Creek to the brink of local extinction, with fewer than 10 fish returning annually to the creek as adults to spawn.

From 2014 to 2016, approximately 200 juvenile Coho per year were collected in Redwood Creek and taken to Warm Springs Hatchery for rearing. The young salmon were grown to adulthood in the hatchery and, as three-year-old fish, released back into Redwood Creek in the winters of 2016 to 2018 to spawn. Tissue samples taken from juvenile Coho in summer 2017 and genotyped at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz confirmed that several of the fish released as adults in winter 2016 had spawned successfully and contributed to the persistence of this population in Redwood Creek.

Captive rearing (Mendocino County). Farther north, Coho populations are also declining in coastal watersheds such as the Garcia, Gualala and Navarro rivers. In recent years, the numbers of adult Coho returning to the Garcia and Navarro rivers have been below the threshold necessary to maintain viable populations, and no Coho have been detected in the Gualala River at all for several years. This low abundance raised concerns at CDFW and NMFS that without intervention, populations were likely headed towards local extinction.

For this reason, CDFW, NMFS and other partners developed a population recovery plan similar to those used for restoring Coho in the Russian River and Redwood Creek. As a first step, approximately 200 juvenile Coho were collected in October 2018 and again in 2019 in the Garcia and Navarro Rivers and taken to Warm Springs Hatchery. There the juveniles are being reared in captivity under the watchful eye of experienced hatchery staff. Meanwhile, CDFW and NMFS are developing plans for release of these fish, preferably as adults, back into their natal streams to spawn naturally. Although the fish could hypothetically be spawned at the hatchery and their offspring released back into the Garcia River, this option is unlikely due to hatchery space limitations. Releasing the Coho as adults also has the advantage of providing the released mature fish with free mate choice and exposing their offspring to natural selective pressures from the earliest life stage. Importantly, appropriate monitoring activities, including genetic parentage analysis, will be implemented to evaluate the success of the fish releases over the coming years.
The development and implementation of recovery programs, such as those outlined here, are urgently needed to conserve Central California coast coho salmon for future generations to enjoy and to make progress towards population recovery.

You can read more about efforts to conserve California’s Coho in the following documents:

CDFW Photos. Top Photo by Manfred Kittel. Warm Springs Hatchery, adjacent to Dry Creek. Picture taken from the top of Lake Sonoma Dam.

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Media Contact:
Harry Morse, CDFW Communications, (208) 220-1169


Following the Unusual Migration of a Trailblazing Elk

bull elk with large antlers in a field with trees and blue sky

overhead view of 7 elk running in the snow with trees
Rocky Mountain elk in Modoc County taken during a CDFW survey in 2019.

Elk scat in weeds and dirt next to a sharpie pen for size reference
Scientists at UC Davis analyzed scat to determine where the elk originated.

A map of the elk’s journey from Tahoe to Sonora Pass
A map of the elk’s journey from Tahoe to Sonora Pass.

About a dozen years ago, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Nathan Graveline heard rumors that a sole elk had been spotted in a highly unusual location – the Stanislaus National Forest, between the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers. At the time, scientists didn't have the technology to confirm the reports.

“Nobody knew where the elk came from. We weren't able to piece any of that together,” said Graveline.

Last September, scientists got word of another unexpected elk sighting, this time just south of Lake Tahoe in the Crystal Basin Recreation Area. “When I heard there was possibly an elk back in the area, I thought, ‘We’ve got to jump on this. If we can get a good DNA sample, we can figure out where the elk came from,’” said Graveline.

They set up trail cameras and were able to get a photograph of the elk. They also collected scat samples, which they sent to Dr. Benjamin Sacks, director of the Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit at the University of California, Davis’ Veterinary Genetics Lab. Through DNA analysis, Dr. Sacks and Ph.D. student Taylor Davis determined that the elk probably originated from a herd in the northeastern part of the state.

“We first estimated likelihoods of the observed genotype originating from each potential population based on the frequency of the alleles in those populations. We then obtained a probability or origin for each population by dividing its likelihood by the sum of all likelihoods for all populations,” said Dr. Sacks.

The report of an elk near Lake Tahoe was unusual in and of itself — but six weeks later the story got even more interesting. Scientists conducting a helicopter survey reported seeing a bull elk near Sonora Pass. 

Scientists went to the location of the reported sighting and were able to collect scat samples, which they sent to Dr. Sacks’ lab for analysis.

“We did the genotyping and it turns out it was the exact same elk that was tracked south of Lake Tahoe,” said Tom Batter, a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Sacks’ lab. 

It appears scientists had on their hands a trailblazing elk — a Rocky Mountain elk that traveled 40 miles in six weeks and ended up farther south in the Sierra than had previously been reported.

“That boy was on quite a quest,” said Shelly Blair, a unit biologist in El Dorado County. “He likely traveled over some pretty rocky terrain, depending on which route he took. He probably had to cross over Interstate 80 or the 395 corridor at some point. Without the DNA, it would have been a total mystery as to where the elk came from.”

Kristin Denryter, coordinator of CDFW’s Elk and Pronghorn Antelope Program, said the bull’s journey is likely evidence of population growth among elk or herd densities that exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat.

“We know there’s great potential for expansion by bulls, and this means there could be recolonizations happening. We want our elk to be expanding and figuring out new habitats and going to new places. A bull elk like this might be figuring out new migratory routes and allowing for migration to persist. If he’s taking this route, then other elk and wildlife could be doing the same in the future,” said Denryter.

As to what motivated the bull elk to travel so far off the beaten path, Graveline says it may have been looking for a mate or new territory.

“He went farther south than he would need to for food, so I don’t think he was driven by that. This is a younger bull, and sometimes they get pushed out of a herd by a more mature bull,” he said.

Denryter added, “Younger males that are not competitive for mates are more likely to go off on their own or get pushed out of the herd. There’s absolutely a chance he could turn around and head back the way he came, but he’ll likely keep moving to find a mate.”

Although the elk is described by scientists as young, its exact age is unknown. Elk typically live 10-13 years in the wild. As far as threats in the wild – mountain lions hunt elk, but deer are their preferred prey. This elk’s biggest threat would likely be poaching, said Denryter.

Scientists are excited about the possibility that elk are expanding their range, but it’s also their job to prepare for corresponding conflicts.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Denryter. “There’s risk of disease if elk come into contact with livestock while creating new migratory routes, and they can compete with livestock for forage. They can also cause vehicle accidents. Understanding the movements of elk and other wildlife is important so we can address these potential conflicts.”

CDFW would like help from the public in tracking the movements of elk populations statewide. Elk sightings can be reported online on the department’s website.

“If you see an elk — especially in places where you don’t normally see one — definitely take a photo with your smartphone and let us know,” said Denryter. “Smartphone photos are geotagged which will help us confirm the location. The online form allows you to upload photos and share any interesting observations. It’s really helpful to have this information so when there are conflicts or regulatory changes proposed we have data to help make informed decisions.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: A bull elk

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Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958


Rare coastal San Mateo County plant is in dire straits

2 cdfw scientist and a cdfw warden standing in san mateo bay near a field of yellow leptosiphon flower patch

close up of iceplant, small green plant with a gardening tool
A coast yellow leptosiphon seedling.

far view of green patch of grass, with a small patch of yello flowers wth houses in the background
Residential development on the San Mateo coast threatens coast yellow leptosiphon’s habitat.

close up of yellow flowers with orange centers with green leaves
Coast yellow leptosiphon is a low growing annual from the Phlox family which typically blooms in April and May.

The world is closing in on coast yellow leptosiphon.

The endangered plant exists in only one known location on earth — an 1,800 square foot plot on Vallemar Bluff in Moss Beach, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. The low-growing annual from the Phlox family features bright yellow flowers with fused petals and typically blooms in April and May.

Erosion caused by rain, waves and other factors is making the bluff that the plant perches on less stable. One study showed that the bluff receded 48 feet between 1908 and 2014. Scientists believe it will continue to recede almost six inches per year moving forward. Climate change could accelerate the erosion process.

“The plant could be almost completely gone in the next 50 years due to bluff-top erosion alone,” said Cherilyn Burton, a senior environmental scientist in CDFW’s Native Plant Program.

Slightly inland from where coast yellow leptosiphon grows is a planned four-unit housing development. The project was approved in March 2019. Although the development project mitigates for direct impacts to the plant, it also eliminates an area that could have been used to help restore the species.

Then there are the indirect impacts caused by urban development. Some aspects of urban design, like installation of storm drainage and landscape irrigation systems, could alter water runoff patterns around the plant’s habitat. The new housing development could also mean increased use of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals which through runoff could flow into the plant’s habitat and harm the soil.

“An increase in human activity can cause soil and habitat disturbances, which creates conditions that can be favorable to the spread of non-native plants,” said Burton.

Growing among the coast yellow leptosiphon is freeway iceplant—a fast-growing, invasive species that dominates the landscape and outcompetes other plants for light, nutrients, water, space and other resources. Coast yellow leptosiphon is also threatened by non-native plant species like rough cat’s ear, hare barley and cut leaf plantain. It may also face negative impacts from non-native slugs which can be detrimental to the plant’s seedlings.

“There’s so much going up against this plant. We may have to get creative to save it,” said Burton.

If there’s a bright spot in coast yellow leptosiphon’s story, it may be the lack of opposition in getting it listed as a protected species. In 2016, the California Fish and Game Commission designated coast yellow leptosiphon as a candidate species under the California Endangered Species Act. The plant was officially listed as an endangered species in 2018.

Burton recalls the heavy workload that came with preparing her recommendation to the Commission, and her relief upon hearing the Commission’s vote.

“They voted on it right then – right after I gave my presentation. Sometimes the commissioners have questions. But this time there was silence, and then one of the commissioners said, ‘Well, I think we can all agree that this plant meets the criteria.’”

Options to save coast yellow leptosiphon are limited, but there are a few. Scientists are on the lookout for additional suitable habitat. However, most suitable areas already contain rare and sensitive plants to which scientists must consider potential impacts. If additional suitable habitat is found, there will likely be land use and management issues to be worked out.

“The biggest problem is there’s just not a lot of habitat left in the area, and it’s not clear how far away we could go before the microclimate or other conditions would be too different to be suitable,” said Burton.

Another conservation strategy could include long-term seed storage at a botanical garden or other suitable facility to preserve seeds for the future.

Meanwhile, one landslide at the bluff’s edge could have serious consequences.

“Because of its vulnerability and rarity, losing any portion of the plant’s population could result in extinction,” said Burton.

CDFW Photo. Top Photo:
CDFW scientists Jeb Bjerke, Cherilyn Burton and Bill Condon (retired) at Moss Beach in San Mateo County doing fieldwork to support coast yellow leptosiphon.

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Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 825-7120


Counting Mountain Lions in California’s Back Country

scientist Justin Dellinger driving in mountain lion territory

series of mountains and valleys with shrubs and trees with low dark clouds
Mountain lion territory, San Diego County.

scientist Justin Dellinger in deep brush and trees checking his tracker to find collard mountain lions
Justin Dellinger in the field, for the mountain lion study.

scientist sedated a mountain lion to add a tracking collar
Mountain Lion after capture, before being released.

CDFW wildlife biologist Justin Dellinger has a most unusual job --  since 2015, he’s been capturing and collaring mountain lions in California’s back country. Justin aims to achieve something unique, which is the first-of-its-kind comprehensive population assessment of California’s mountain lions.

It’s a tough job that begins long before daybreak, in some of California’s roughest terrain. Justin works with a houndsman whose dogs track the lions by scent. When they pick up the trail, it’s Justin’s job to tranquilize the lion, take biological samples and fit it with a tracking collar before setting it free. But lions are elusive by nature, and there’s a lot of territory to cover. In between successful captures, Justin spend his time setting traps and cameras, fixing field equipment and hiking the state’s hills and mountains looking for tracks.

California’s mountain lion population is thought to be between 4,000 – 6,000.  Because lion habitat has been reduced by human encroachment in the most populous state in the nation, researchers like Justin are seeking any information they can to better understand where wildlife live, what they eat, how they deal with disease, and how they can thrive in the future.

To date, there’s just one corner of the state Justin hasn’t yet scoured as part of the project – the far northwest. That work is scheduled to start in November 2020, with the goal of incorporating the results of the study into the CDFW’s lion management plan by 2023.

Learn more about Justin’s work in the video below, and read about the early stages of the project in this July 2018 Science Spotlight about the state Mountain Lion Project.

CDFW Photos.

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Media Contact:
Tim Daly, CDFW Communications, (916) 201-2958


CDFW working to improve negative effects of non-consumptive recreation on conservation

sign to ecological reserve in Carlsbad

elkhorn slough water reserve with trees along the banks and sun in horizon
CDFW manages about 940,000 acres in over 200 properties statewide that are designated as wildlife areas or ecological reserves. Pictured is Elkhorn Slough Ecological Reserve in Monterey County.

arial map of carlsbad ecological reserve of mountains, grass houses roads
Properties like the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve are acquired and managed to protect sensitive plant and wildlife species.
yolo bypass sign with tall grasses water blue sky in horizon
At the nearly 17,000-acre Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area near Davis, staff close off some areas to the public during certain times of year. The closed zones offer resident wildlife a reprieve from the many activities offered at the site such as hunting, wildlife viewing, and student education field trips.

CDFW working to improve negative effects of non-consumptive recreation on conservation

Editor’s Note: As we publish this article, California, the nation, and the whole world are gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. To slow its spread and not overwhelm healthcare resources, distancing and stay-at-home orders have led to the delay of trout openers and other fishing events, and closure of parks, reserves and many other publicly accessible facilities. Stories are beginning to emerge of increased wildlife presence in park and reserve areas that are normally filled with people. We look forward to the end of the pandemic and its horrible devastation will be over very soon but we know it will be some time before we realize a return to “normal.” We hope to gain from this emergency more information on wildlife’s response to fewer visitors – data that may be able to help us improve our management of parks and reserves in a way that protects wildlife and their habitat while also providing reasonable recreation experiences. In the meantime, stay well, and stay home to save lives.

Do Not Feed Wildlife. Do Not Cut Switchbacks. Stay On Trail. 

If you’ve spent time in recreational areas, you’ve seen the signs. You’ve most likely complied with them. But you may not have a full understanding of why the rules are important.

A growing body of research is showing that non-consumptive recreation – i.e., activities like hiking, biking and bird watching, that don’t involve harvesting of resources – can have harmful effects on species, their habitat and efforts to protect them.

For example, link opens in new tab or windowone study showed that mule deer may experience increased predation risk when they shifted toward nocturnal activity in response to human recreation. Another study showed that human activity resulted in elk foraging less and showing increased signs of stress. link opens in new tab or windowResearch has shown (PDF) that higher levels of human activity reduced habitat suitability for bobcats, gray fox, mule deer and raccoons. Human activity has also been linked to declines in reptile species.

Recreation link opens in new tab or windowhas been cited as a factor in endangerment of plant and animal species on federal lands, and of all U.S. states, California has thelink opens in new tab or windowgreatest number of listed species that are threatened by recreation. In a link opens in new tab or windowliterature review led by Courtney Larson, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy, 93 percent of included articles found significant effects of recreation on wildlife.

“CDFW is tasked with managing the state’s diverse plant and wildlife species and the public’s use and enjoyment of them – so how do we also manage the effects of recreation? We have to bring environmental stewardship into the fold and find ways for recreation and conservation groups to work together,” said Ron Unger, a program manager in CDFW’s Habitat Conservation Planning Branch. “It’s important to set aside lands for both needs. Lands set aside for conserving declining and vulnerable species generally need to be restricted in terms of public access. Other, less sensitive sites need to be set aside so people can have a positive place to enjoy and appreciate nature and the outdoors.”

At the Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve – a CDFW-owned reserve in San Diego County – land managers have had a tough time with mountain bikers and others building illegal trails. Over the past half-dozen years, bikers have illegally carved out about 17 miles of trails (the property has 2.1 miles of legal trails) and removed nearly 500 trail signs. CDFW had to link opens in new tab or windowstep up enforcement to stop the illegal trail use.

“We don’t enjoy telling people they can’t ride here, but at the same time we have to make sure we don’t love these spaces to death – especially when the main reason the lands are acquired and set aside is to protect wildlife,” said CDFW Regional Manager Ed Pert.

At the nearly 17,000-acre Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area near Davis, staff close off some areas to the public during certain times of year. The closed zones offer resident wildlife a reprieve from human activity.

“It’s definitely a balance. We want the public to enjoy wildlife, but we also want to give wildlife a place to rest,” said Joe Hobbs, who manages the wildlife area.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Shannon Lucas helps coordinate the department’s Natural Community Conservation Planning (NCCP) program, which issues regional permits that allow for development while ensuring habitat protection. She also oversaw grant funding for research on the effects of recreation on NCCP lands.

“These are areas that are intended to be preserved for their ecological value. We have a responsibility to analyze the effects of recreation on the species and habitats that contribute to conservation under an NCCP,” said Lucas.

CDFW is involved with research efforts aimed at gaining insight into how to best balance recreation with conservation. The department’s Human Dimensions of Wildlife Unit is currently researching the views of stakeholders, and future research will assess how to best communicate with stakeholders on the issue.

“We want to serve our constituents as well as manage the state’s natural resources for their ecological value. Once we understand how our stakeholders feel about the issue, we can communicate in a way that connects with their concerns,” said lead researcher Alex Heeren.

CDFW just released a special edition scientific journal featuring literature reviews and original research on the effects of non-consumptive recreation on wildlife. Ange Baker, editor-in-chief of California Fish and Wildlife Journal, chose the topic after soliciting ideas from CDFW employees.

“Research has shown that even mild recreation like hiking can have pretty significant impacts on some species. This is an especially important issue in California where CDFW manages about 940,000 acres of property designated as wildlife areas or ecological reserves. We decided to do a special edition to bring light to the issue,” said Baker.

link opens in new tab or windowRead the special edition journal (PDF).

CDFW Photo. Top Photo: Signage at Carlsbad Highlands Ecological Reserve in San Diego County is intended to help protect threatened and endangered plant and wildlife species by prohibiting incompatible recreation activities such as motorized vehicle, biking, and drones.

Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958


New Threat Facing Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Independence Lake: Hybridization

Independent Lake with white capped waves from the wind. Lake with green mountains and a snow covered mountain in background

Upper Independence creek. Water from the creek flowing through brush and trees with snow capped mountains in the background
Upper Independence Creek provides vital spawning habitat for the Lahontan cutthroat trout in Independence Lake.

Man holding a large cutthroat trout. Very large green fish with a colorful rainbow stripe running along the flank
State and federal agencies, joined by conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited, have worked for decades to safeguard the wild Lahontan cutthroat trout population at Independence Lake, the only self-sustaining lake population of the native species left in California. Trout Unlimited’s Brandon Reeder shows off a hefty Lahontan cutthroat captured at a temporary weir to count spawning fish.

Cutthroat trout fish spawning in a creek. Shallow water creek with rocks on the bottom, perfect location for fish to lay eggs
Lahontan cutthroat trout spawn in upper Independence Creek, where biologists have worked for years to remove non-native brook trout.

Biologist in Independence creek removing non native brook trout. Men wading in the creek hand removing non native fish
Each spring, biologists and volunteers set up a weir at upper Independence Creek to trap spawning Lahontan cutthroat trout and assess the population.

The news out of UC Davis last spring knocked California native fish biologists for a loop.

Genetic testing of native Lahontan cutthroat trout from Independence Lake in the Tahoe National Forest near Truckee found evidence of hybridization with non-native rainbow trout.

To understand the magnitude of that news you have to understand that Independence Lake is the only lake in California – and just one of two lakes in the world – to support a self-sustaining lake population of Lahontan cutthroat trout, a trout native to the eastern Sierra range and the Lahontan basin of Nevada.

And you have to understand that for decades, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologists – joined by colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited – have worked to safeguard these fish, enhance their habitat, and reduce competition from non-native brook trout, brown trout and Kokanee salmon introduced over the years into Independence Lake.

Lahontan cutthroat trout are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Their original listing in 1970 predates the modern act itself, which was passed in 1973.


Each fall, as part of species recovery efforts, biologists from CDFW and partner organizations electrofish upper Independence Creek, which feeds into Independence Lake, to remove brook trout from the creek that the Lahontan cutthroat trout depend on to spawn. Also in the fall, biologists set up a weir on the creek to block any of the lake’s resident brown and brook trout from moving up the creek to spawn. Non-native trout staging for a fall spawning run at the mouth of Independence Creek are stunned to the surface through electrofishing and removed from the lake.

“For the past 20 years at Independence Lake, we’ve been trying to give the cutthroat a helping hand by removing the non-native trout. It’s not a done deal but we’ve been pretty successful at reducing brown and brook trout down to very low numbers,” explained Dave Lentz, CDFW’s native trout conservation coordinator. “Lahontan cutthroat trout did not evolve with brook trout or brown trout on the landscape and they have been out-competed and displaced by these and other non-native species throughout much of the cutthroat’s historic range.”

Each spring, when the Lahontan cutthroat trout move up to spawn in upper Independence Creek, biologists and volunteers return with their weir to capture and count the numbers of spawning fish to assess population trends.

This spring, however, the spawning surveys will take on a new sense of urgency. After last year’s disheartening news from genetics experts, CDFW staff and partners captured some 170 Lahontan cutthroat trout from Independence Lake, took genetic samples and outfitted each trout with an identifying Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag before releasing the fish back to the lake.

The tissue samples were sent to two labs for genetic testing. The results indicate that some 20 percent of the cutthroats captured and tagged last year show evidence of hybridization with rainbow trout. Biologists are now discussing plans and options for the spring spawn. Cutthroat trout returning to upper Independence Creek will be trapped and scanned with a PIT reader. Unmarked fish will be given a PIT tag, genetic samples will be taken for later testing, and the fish will be returned to the lake.

“We want to prevent further spawning by hybridized trout. We’re using some emerging science and the latest genetics information to manage this fishery,” said Lentz. “The situation is dire for Independence Lake cutthroat trout but we hope to improve their status by taking these measures.”

There are no known populations of rainbow trout within Independence Lake that could account for the hybridization but they are present in lower portions of Independence Creek below the lake. The outlet of the lake, however, is controlled by a dam that does not allow for fish passage into the lake. CDFW and partners will continue to investigate how rainbow trout gained access to the lake. It is thought that the rainbow invasion and hybridization are recent events, likely in the last 10 years.

The effort to remove hybridized cutthroat trout from Independence Lake takes place as state and federal officials in California, Nevada and Oregon step up collaborative efforts to increase Lahontan cutthroat trout awareness and recovery across their native range. Among those efforts:

  • A genetic assessment of Lahontan cutthroat trout across their historic range has been underway for the past several years. That process resulted in the UC Davis findings of hybridization within the Independence Lake cutthroat population.
  • In May 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a document that updates recovery goals and objectives from its 1995 Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery plan using current science and a new conservation framework for species recovery.
  • In October 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 5,000 Pilot Peak strain Lahontan cutthroat trout back into Lake Tahoe, returning the native, fast-growing strain to Lake Tahoe for the first time in nearly 90 years.
  • This coming May, state and federal fisheries biologists are scheduled to begin planning Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery and outreach efforts within the Carson River drainage.
  • CDFW’s Hot Creek Trout Hatchery in the eastern Sierra is preparing facilities to establish a new rearing program for the Walker River strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout native to the Walker River drainage and Nevada’s Walker Lake.

CDFW Photo. Top Photo: A windy day at Independence Lake in the Tahoe National Forest.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 215-3858

 


CDFW’s Annual Bighorn Sheep Count

About 30 men and women who volunteered to help department conduct sheep survey

Some of the 160 people who assisted Fish and Wildlife with it's March 1 desert bighorn sheep survey. CDFW photo.

man and woman using binoculars and a spotting scope to find sheep
Charles and Nicole Lozano of Chino Hills using binoculars and a spotting scope to locate sheep. CDFW photo.

mountains with shrubs in the fog
The San Gabriel Mountains, north of Ontario, where the sheep survey took place. CDFW photo.

The San Gabriel Mountains, north of Ontario, are a spectacular location for those who enjoy steep hikes and beautiful scenery. But one Sunday each year, those mountains are visited by people with a more specific agenda. They’re there to assist environmental scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in determining the number of desert bighorn sheep living there.

On March 1, 2020, about 160 volunteers gathered near the rugged terrain for the annual sheep count. Their goal was to use spotting scopes and binoculars to locate sheep, and determine and record their gender and approximate age. The volunteers attended a mandatory training session the night before in which CDFW staff briefed them on the purpose, counting techniques and best gear and supplies to bring for what can be a long day in tough elements. And as it turned out, March 1 was the one day in a stretch of about 20 that included a forecast of rain, and the forecasters nailed it. Between the fluctuating poor conditions – including a steady rain, low clouds, strong winds and even hail – nearly every volunteer struck out on being able to locate any sheep.

Fortunately, the annual count also includes an aerial survey the day before the boots-on-the-ground effort, and the weather was cooperative on Feb. 29. Eight CDFW employees took turns that Saturday flying in a Bell 407 helicopter over the locations where they’d likely find the sheep groups. Flights were limited to 2.5 hours before refueling was necessary. The crew of three on each flight was responsible for taking notes and guiding the pilot, using a handheld GPS to drop a waypoint at each observed sheep location, and capturing the animals with camera gear. The doors of the aircraft were removed to improve visibility for the spotters.

CDFW Senior Wildlife Biologist and survey coordinator Jeff Villepique said a key element of the effort is determining the health of the younger animals.

“One of the things we look at is how many lambs from last year have survived to this year,” said Villepique. “We did get some decent numbers that will help us determine the recruitment ratio and give an indication that the population is growing and doing well.”

When CDFW first started conducting these counts in 1979, the desert bighorn sheep in the San Gabriels numbered about 740. That dropped to fewer than 200 in the late ‘90s, and currently the population is back up to about 400.  Villepique said the numbers rise and fall based on food availability, habitat loss, weather patterns and the history of wildfires.

One group that enthusiastically supports the survey is the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. Volunteer Debbie Miller Marschke has joined the effort multiple times, and despite the lousy weather conditions, was happy to be out in the mountains once again.

“When you get out in the environment and you’re with positive people, it’s not a wasted day, it’s a memorable day,” Miller Marschke said, smiling as she braved the downpour. “If I stayed home, I wouldn’t remember what I did a month later. I’m going to remember this day all year long.”


Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Pioneering Wild Turkey Banding, Research Effort

A male wild turkey is released from a cardboard box after being banded, weighted and measured recently at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.

A wild turkey inside a cardboard box to keep it calm is weighed as CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the data at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell records the weight of a wild turkey at Little Dry Creek prior to banding.

A banded wild turkey’s two legs show off the two different type of bands CDFW biologists affix to the birds at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area. One band is riveted closed; the other clamped close until its two butt-ends are touching.
Wild turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 are given one traditional, butt-end band on one leg and one rivet band on the other.

Silvery metallic butt-end bands in the hand of CDFW environmental scientist Laura Cockrell.
Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell shows off the supply of butt-end bands prior to banding.

Turkey hunters in parts of Butte and Glenn counties who are skilled and lucky enough to bag a tom this spring may be in for a pleasant surprise: Their bird may be sporting some jewelry – a band on each leg.

Since early February, CDFW biologists at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area – supported by the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) – have been busy trapping and double-banding wild turkeys at the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units. So far this year, some 45 turkeys have been banded, which include toms, hens and young males known as “jakes.”

The staff and volunteers have just about a month and a half to trap and band all the wild turkeys they can between the close of the waterfowl hunting season and the start of the spring wild turkey season in mid-March. It’s part of an innovative research effort aimed at better understanding the characteristics, growth rates, habitat use, range and abundance of the growing population of wild turkeys using the wildlife area.

Bird bands long have been an important research tool for biologists and considered a prize among many hunters who are allowed to keep them after reporting the band information. The Upper Butte Basin turkey banding project is the only one of its kind in the state, making those turkey bands a rare commodity and a valuable potential data source.

In addition to the banding, the turkeys are weighed, sexed and measured at various points before being released.

The wild turkey study began at the wildlife area in 2015 along with the launch of limited spring wild turkey hunts there. NWTF helped secure grant funding to start the hunt program and initiate the research effort. The funds came from the sale of upland game bird hunting validations and stamps required of upland game bird hunters.

“We thought it would be great to start getting an abundance estimate for the turkeys that we do have out here to make sure that we weren’t harming the population through the hunt program and also to see how much hunter opportunity we could potentially utilize,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF’s district biologist for California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

The spring wild turkey hunt program has been so successful and popular over its short history funding for the program and its research component will continue under CDFW’s general budget moving forward.

“I think Howard Slough especially offers some of the best turkey hunting I’ve seen anywhere,” said Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen. “Certainly, youth hunters have an excellent opportunity out here.”

Spring turkey hunts at both the Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units are limited to lottery drawings through CDFW’s website in order to ensure an uncrowded, high-quality hunting experience. The hunter quota and the turkey harvest both have grown over the years along with the local turkey population. Hunter success ranged from 30 to 60 percent during the 2019 spring season but reached 100 percent for the youth hunt at Howard Slough in 2018.

Back to those double-banded birds.

Although 101 turkeys were banded at the wildlife area between 2015 and 2019, only three banded turkeys have been reported by hunters. That leads biologists to believe most of the turkeys have been prying off the traditional, “butt-end” bird bands, which have two edges that butt evenly together when clamped on.

The NWTF has since supplied Upper Butte Basin with rivet bands that are made of a harder metal and riveted closed when attached. The turkeys banded in 2019 and 2020 now receive a butt-end bird band on one leg and a rivet band on the other. Any of those harvested birds wearing a single rivet band will confirm suspicions that the birds have been prying off the butt-end bands.

“That’s the downside of doing any kind of novel research,” explained Laura Cockrell, a CDFW environmental scientist based at the Upper Butte Basin. “You only have your own mistakes to learn from.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area Manager Tim Hermansen releases a wild turkey after banding as Fish and Wildlife Technician Derek Schiewek and Seasonal Aid John Davis look on.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8908


Roosevelt Elk Collaring Effort Seeks to Reduce Conflicts Along North Coast

A tranquilized Roosevelt elk is tagged and collared by two CDFW staffers

Logan Weyand, left, a veterinary student form Washington State University, and Drew Trausch, a scientific aid with CDFW’s Big Game Program, help capture and collar a cow Roosevelt elk in Humboldt County this past fall. CDFW photo by Shwn Fresz.

Two CDFW staffers begin preparing a sedated cow elk for collaring and tagging in a forest
CDFW crews work quickly to tag and collar a tranquilized cow elk in Humboldt County. CDFW photo by George Harse.

A tagged and collared cow elk in the timber stares back at a photographer
Sporting ear tags and a GPS tracking collar, a cow Roosevelt elk returns to heavy timber after being sedated. CDFW photo by Andrew Trausch.

A tagged and collared cow elk stands at the edge of a meadow
Ear tags provide biologists with visual identification of Roosevelt elk study animals while GPS tracking collars can provide years worth of detailed date on movement and habitat preferences. CDFW photo by George Harse.

State biologists are now learning a great deal about California’s largest land mammal.

Roosevelt elk are one of three subspecies of elk native to California, joining the tule elk (the smallest of the three) and the Rocky Mountain elk. While a bull Rocky Mountain elk will have larger and more impressive antlers, the Roosevelt elk bests it in body mass. A bull Rocky Mountain elk can reach 700 pounds while a bull Roosevelt can exceed 1,000 pounds.

Despite their massive size and majestic appearance, Roosevelt elk have proved an elusive research subject because of the dense forests they inhabit. Aerial surveying and trapping – standard tools for counting and collaring deer, elk and bighorn sheep in more open parts of the state – can be challenging for Roosevelt elk moving in and out of heavy coastal timber.

While deer often can be darted and tranquilized using a biologist’s truck as cover, Roosevelt elk are more wary and vehicle-shy, often requiring a lengthy stalk and serious hunting skills to get within the 50-yard effective range of a dart gun. In some cases, it can take more than 100 hours to capture and collar an individual Roosevelt elk.

In an attempt to close the knowledge gap, CDFW recently initiated one of the largest Roosevelt elk capture and collaring efforts in state history, targeting a population of Roosevelt elk living along the U.S. 101 corridor in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The effort is part of an ongoing study that began in 2016, explained Carrington Hilson, CDFW’s lead elk research biologist on the north coast. The study will continue through 2025.

Since November, Hilson and her colleagues have affixed GPS tracking collars on 24 cow Roosevelt elk in Humboldt and Del Norte counties to monitor their movements and migrations. CDFW biologists plan to collar another 14 cows this winter.

Several ancillary projects – estimating populations using fecal DNA, looking at calf survival and understanding habitat use – are also underway at Humboldt State University in Arcata in coordination with CDFW that will add to the state’s body of knowledge.

A few factors are driving the research interest, explained Kristin Denryter, the Sacramento-based senior environmental scientist who oversees CDFW’s Elk and Pronghorn Antelope Program. The first is an increasing number of human-elk conflicts along the U.S. 101 corridor that include vehicle collisions, property damage and agricultural losses suffered by north coast farmers and ranchers.

The second driver is technology. Advances in GPS tracking collars make them an increasingly valuable research tool. The new elk collars will record data every six hours over the life of the study and deliver that information daily to CDFW biologists.

Lastly, there is the California Essential Habitat Connectivity Project and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretarial Order 3362 (SO 3362).

Signed in 2018, SO 3362 directs federal agencies to work with California and other western state wildlife agencies to improve the quality of big-game winter range habitat and migration corridors on federal land. The order provided funding for CDFW to acquire the 38 GPS tracking collars and accelerate its research efforts. The collar data will improve understanding of movement and habitat use to inform habitat enhancement on public lands as well as help guide development of potential crossing structures to not only improve habitat connectivity but to also improve public safety by reducing vehicle collisions. CDFW has partnered with CalTrans on improving connectivity as part of the California Essential Habitat Connectivity Project.

A Roosevelt elk stakeholder group made up of CDFW representatives, tribal interests, farmers, ranchers and local officials is also being developed.

Official estimates put the Roosevelt elk population along the U.S. 101 corridor in Humboldt and Del Norte counties at 1,600 animals. Biologists, however, suspect those estimates to be low. In an attempt to reduce growing human-elk conflicts, CDFW issued 20 additional Roosevelt elk tags during the 2019 hunting season through its SHARE program, which provides public hunting opportunities on private land through cooperating landowners. CDFW is currently petitioning the California Fish and Game Commission to increase the allotment of Roosevelt elk tags available along the north coast in the 2020 fall hunting season.

Translocations, limited hunting, high calf survival, and conservation management have all helped boost Roosevelt elk populations from lows in the early 1900s to a robust statewide estimate today of 5,700 animals. Roosevelt elk also occupy parts of Mendocino, Trinity, Shasta, Tehama and Siskiyou counites.

The U.S. 101 corridor population in Humboldt and Del Norte counties has proved particularly adaptable – as comfortable roaming the beaches of state parks as they are grazing in open alfalfa fields or wandering underneath the forest canopy. That’s made them especially popular with tourists and some locals but not so much with farmers and ranchers suffering property damage and crop losses from the expanding herds.


New research shows climate change may harm migratory songbirds

Hermit Thrush perched on a tree branch. Long-distance Neotropical migrants like the Hermit Thrush may be more vulnerable to climate change than other types of songbirds.

map featuring locations of bird surveys throughout Northern California in a region representing more than 40 percent of all California’s coniferous forests.
Locations of bird surveys throughout Northern California in a region representing more than 40 percent of all California’s coniferous forests. CDFW has been monitoring wildlife at these locations since 2002 to help inform conservation efforts. Photo courtesy of Dr. Brett Furnas.


automated sound recorder used to survey songbirds. An automated sound recorder used to survey songbirds. These devices were programmed to make three 5-minute recordings before, at, and after sunrise –repeated over three consecutive mornings. The timing of the recordings is significant because different species tend to sing at different times in the morning. Photo courtesy of Dr. Brett Furnas.

New research shows climate change may harm migratory songbirds. Saving their forest habitat may help.

Songbirds that travel to northern California each summer from winter ranges in Central and South America appear to be more sensitive to climate change than other types of songbirds, according to new research by CDFW Wildlife Ecologist Dr. Brett Furnas.

In a new paper published in the journal Biological Conservation, Dr. Furnas analyzes 14 years of data taken from the surveys of songbirds living in northern California conifer forests. The bird surveys were done in the Klamath Mountains, Southern Cascades and North Coast Ranges, a region representing 42 percent of all conifer forests in the state.

“The data is especially significant because it is representative of such a large region,” said Dr. Furnas.

Research was completed using automated sound recorders which captured the calls of songbirds at over 1,000 sites between 2002 and 2016. Birds were surveyed at their annual summer breeding grounds about a month after arriving from their winter homes.

Dr. Furnas studied three types of songbirds: year-round residents; short-distance, altitudinal migrants which winter at lower elevations and breed at higher-elevations; and long-distance, Neotropical migrants that winter in Mexico, Central America and South America and breed in California.

“The research alone is an amazing part of this story. Each of the 1,000-plus survey sites required someone to drive to the middle of the forest, hike for an hour or more and install survey equipment,” said Dr. Furnas.

The data shows that Neotropical migrant songbirds are shifting their summer ranges to higher elevations where the climate is cooler. But there’s a downside to the new migration pattern: The long journey reduces the Neotropicals’ flexibility when it comes to breeding behavior. Adjusting to changes in temperature and available food resources in California ultimately hurts their reproductive success.

“Neotropicals’ sensitivity to climate change makes them a conservation risk. It’s unclear if they can adapt as climate continues to warm,” said Dr. Furnas.

There was less evidence of elevational shifting for resident and altitudinal songbirds, indicating they might not be as vulnerable to increases in temperature. This is likely because species that migrate shorter distances – or don’t migrate at all – have more time to prepare for the breeding season. They also have more time to establish a territory, sing to attract a mate and gather food to help raise a brood.

The Neotropicals’ vulnerability is exacerbated by other factors as well. One consequence of the compressed breeding cycle is that the birds can’t afford to tone down singing on hot days when it becomes metabolically taxing. In contrast, resident birds tend to sing less on hot days.

Dr. Furnas sees conservation of mid-elevation conifer forests as part of the solution. Neotropicals are expanding their range to about 5,000 feet and above.

“Middle-elevation conifer forests appear to have features of natural climate refugia. Conserving these forests is crucial,” he said.

However, the natural climate refugia identified by Dr. Furnas have their own vulnerabilities. “If you think of mountains like a triangle, there’s less land area in the middle-elevation forests that Neotropicals are shifting to than in the lower elevation forests they’re abandoning. The availability of forest habitats at higher elevations could be limited in the future due to faster rates of warming at those elevations,” Dr. Furnas said.

For these reasons, the middle zone is a sweet spot for birds. “An increasing number of birds will be crowding into this sanctuary,” he said.

Dr. Furnas’ ultimate message is that research with an emphasis on biodiversity monitoring will be essential to future conservation efforts. Research based on biodiversity monitoring can help identify species and habitats that are most in need of conservation. It can also help conservationists and policy makers assess the effectiveness of conservation actions.

Read Dr. Furnas’ paper: link opens in new windowRapid and Varied Responses of Songbirds of Climate Change in California Coniferous Forests

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Long-distance Neotropical migrants like the Hermit Thrush may be more vulnerable to climate change than other types of songbirds.

Media Contact:
Ken Paglia, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958