Science Spotlight

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  • May 8, 2020

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

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • November 2, 2018

California Fish and Game, Volume 104, Issue 2, is now available online! California Fish and Game is CDFW's official, quarterly, scientific journal devoted to the conservation and understanding of the flora and fauna of California and surrounding areas, and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

A mallard in flight appears on the cover of the newest installment of the journal. With its iridescent green head and school bus yellow legs, the male mallard is one of the most recognizable species of duck in California. It is also the most abundant breeding species of waterfowl in the state. However, California’s mallard population estimates have generally declined since the mid-1990s. In California mallards: a review, Feldheim et. al synthesizes volumes of research in an effort to identify long-term research needs and monitoring activities to help improve management of this iconic species.

In another paper, entitled Abundance, habitat and occupancy of Roosevelt Elk in the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park, Tolliver and Weckerly seek to understand the relationship between a species’ occupancy-abundance rate and its habitat use. Using elk sign surveys (i.e, counting tracks and feces at standardized locations) researchers found that, as population density increases, Roosevelt elk will move into other (lower quality) habitats. This was true for two herds of vastly different sizes, although the occupancy rate remained comparable.

Finally, Hiney et. al looks at recruiting experienced anglers and using citizen science to help document and survey the native Coastal Rainbow Trout population of Grass Valley Creek Reservoir. The authors look at methods of overcoming the time and resource limitations of assessing wild trout populations.

Also included in this issue are reviews of two books that make meaningful contributions to the field of wildlife research.

As it has for the past 104 years, California Fish and Game continues to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife. We look forward to witnessing the contributions of the next installment.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal
  • March 20, 2018

A young woman with a rectangular wire cage containing two trapped, brown doves
Two doves in a backyard wire trap

A woman's right hand holds a dove's right wing outstretched
A bander holds out a dove’s wing to see which feather has most recently molted, which will provide information about the age of the bird.

A brown and gray dove with a silver band on its leg is held outdoors in a woman's hand
A volunteer trapper prepares to release a banded female.

If you have an interest in migratory upland birds – as a hunter, a birdwatcher or just a citizen scientist – there’s a unique volunteer opportunity coming up that will allow you to work hands-on with wildlife, while helping the California Department of Fish and Wildlife collect critical research data that will become part of a national database.

Approved volunteers will be specifically trained over the next few months and permitted to capture mourning doves for a seven-week period, from July 1 through August 20, 2018. Banders attach a metal leg band to each bird, determine the bird’s age and sex , and record the data before releasing the bird. Banders can choose their own trapping sites, which in many cases are on their own property.

CDFW is particularly in need of volunteers in North Coast and Bishop areas, but as this is a statewide program, volunteers from other areas may be able to participate as well.

“It’s a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to get hands-on experience and play an important role in the management of California’s number one game bird,” explains Karen Fothergill, an environmental scientist and coordinator of CDFW’s Mourning Dove Banding Program.

Several levels of participation are possible, but successful completion of a four-hour training session is mandatory for all participants. Trained volunteers will band in their local areas, ending 10 days prior to the start of the hunting season for mourning doves.

The imprinted bands that are attached to birds’ legs are an important tool used by wildlife managers to help them evaluate mourning dove populations. Band recovery data is incorporated into the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory database and used by wildlife managers to monitor the status of mourning dove populations.

Together, the volunteer force will band approximately 4,000 mourning doves around the state. This number – which is necessary for accurate population modeling – has only been achieved with the use of volunteers.

Volunteer training opportunities will be held around the state, depending on how many potential volunteers show interest in participating, and where those individuals are located. Fothergill said that she expects to hold at least four training opportunities in the month of May. For scheduling purposes, potential volunteers are asked to contact Fothergill no later than April 13.

Volunteers are not compensated, but all supplies will be loaned at no charge.

Program participants must be over 18 and have good organizational skills and a commitment to wildlife preservation. The trapping and banding work is typically done in the morning and evening, but volunteers who can only work limited hours or on certain days can still be utilized and are welcome. For more detailed information about the program or to reserve a space at a training session, please contact Karen Fothergill at (916) 716-1461 or Karen.Fothergill@wildlife.ca.gov.

CDFW photos.
Top Photo: Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)

Categories: General
  • March 9, 2018

map of Battle Creek watershed area

Habitat is the key to the long-term survival of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook in California. Since 1999, CDFW has been working with multiple agencies and private parties on planning efforts to restore the population of these endangered salmon. More than $100 million has been allocated to specific habitat restoration work on Battle Creek, which comprises approximately 48 miles of prime salmon and steelhead habitat.

Over the next two months, link opens in new windowapproximately 200,000 juvenile winter-run Chinook will be released into the North Fork of Battle Creek. The introduction of these fish, which were spawned from adults last summer, is occurring sooner than expected due the availability of fish from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery Winter-run Chinook Captive Broodstock Program. The fish were raised at Coleman National Fish Hatchery and are being released by Coleman Hatchery personnel. These additional fish could help bolster the winter-run Chinook population and be a potential catalyst in their recovery.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Doug Killam has worked on the Battle Creek Reintroduction Plan for nearly a decade and has been instrumental in moving in-stream projects forward. Killam sees the release of 200,000 smolts as an important step in the overall effort. The release will reestablish winter-run Chinook in a new drainage and create a separate new population. Currently there is only one viable population existing in the Sacramento River directly below Keswick and Shasta Dams. The recent drought affected the volume of the critical cold-water pool in Shasta Lake and the release of warmer water in the drought years of 2014 and 2015 resulted in major losses to eggs and young salmon below the dam. Biologists have long recognized that having more than one winter-run Chinook population is imperative for the long-term survival of the species.

A volcanic region with rugged canyons and dramatic scenery, the North Fork of Battle Creek is unique since it has both cold snowmelt water and large amounts of spring water flowing into it at critical times for winter-run salmon to hold over in and spawn in. It is also one of a handful of waters that can support all four of the Chinook salmon runs that return to the Sacramento River Basin. Hydroelectric development of the creek in the early 1900s largely eliminated winter-run Chinook and other salmonid runs from swimming far upstream to access the cooler water required for these unique summer spawning salmon. Recent efforts to bring the fish back to the North Fork include dam removals, rock fall removal, new fish ladders and fish screens and – most importantly – an agreement to increase stream flows to provide fish with the water quantity and quality they need to survive and thrive in this important keystone stream.

CDFW photo by Heather McIntire. Map by CDFW Fisheries Branch.

Categories: General
  • February 28, 2018

A trap made of small logs covered with pine and fir fronds is camouflaged in the snow between two tree trunks.
Camouflaged trap used to capture foxes for the study. CDFW photo by Jennifer Carlson.

A bright orange, bushy-tailed fox runs in snow toward dense forest
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

Categories: General