Science Spotlight

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  • January 5, 2021

The link opens in new windowCalifornia Fish and Wildlife Journal concludes the 2020 Special Issue installments with the winter quarter’s Special Wildland Fire Issue. With this year’s unprecedented fire season, and California’s fire-adapted natural communities taking center stage in land management discussions throughout the State and beyond, this issue is especially poignant as we reflect on this past year and contemplate the incoming new year.

Unlike previous Special Issues, this issue is divided into three sections: Vegetation Treatment and Policy, Fire Impacts on Plants, and Fire Impacts on Wildlife and Water. Each section highlights a piece of the wildfire and landscape management ‘puzzle’ through an examination of fire and its impacts on California’s fire-adapted ecological landscape.

One of these unique communities, the Pine Hill Ecological Reserve in El Dorado County, is home to almost 750 plant species, some of which can only be found at Pine Hill due to its unique soil composition. Researchers from CDFW, the California Native Plant Society and Sacramento City College investigate the impacts of different fuel-reduction methods on Pine Hill Ceanothus in link opens in new window“Effects of a firebreak on plants and wildlife at Pine Hill, a biodiversity hotspot, El Dorado County, California” (PDF). The article examines the effects of hand clearing and pile burning on chaparral species within the Wildland Urban Interface and the secondary impacts on wildlife. The study also includes the exciting discovery of new seedlings of Pine Hill Flannelbush, the rarest and most endangered plant in El Dorado county, and a fire-obligate germinator!

Plants that depend on fire to propagate aren’t the only plant communities impacted by the long-term fire suppression practiced in the western United States. New and updated technology is helping landscape managers and scientists study and assess the pre- and post-fire impacts to landscapes using remote sensing and modeling techniques. This type of data collection and analysis helps inform scientists and policy makers on landscape and watershed-level scales and helps focus efforts to manage habitats and sensitive plant communities before and after wildfires. One such effort is presented by Sonoma County scientists in link opens in new window“Sonoma County Complex Fires of 2017: Remote sensing data and modeling to support ecosystem and community resiliency” (PDF). With the help of NASA and other experts the team evaluates the impacts of the 2017 fires to woody vegetation within areas that burned during wind-driven and non-wind driven events to evaluate canopy condition. Using lidar data, the team identifies important predictors for post-fire woody canopy condition, which highlights the importance of high-resolution airborne mapping technology for informing management decisions.

Management decisions include when and how to monitor pre- and post-fire events, and the CSU Monterey Bay’s study link opens in new window“Analysis of the impacts of the Soberanes Wildlife on stream ecosystems” (PDF) highlights the need for monitoring wildfire’s impacts on coastal streams and benthic macroinvertebrate responses to fire events. This monitoring is especially important because macroinvertebrates are the foundation for in-stream salmon and steelhead foodwebs, and the ability of these microscopic organisms to recover from wildfire also impacts the recovery of these keystone species in California’s rivers and streams.

This quarter’s Special Wildlife Fire Issue also includes examinations of impacts and responses of Roosevelt Elk forage in Humboldt County, an essay on the California Vegetation Treatment Program, amphibian responses to wildfire and other topics that span California’s rich ecological diversity.

The California Fish and Wildlife scientific journal has published high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife for more than 100 years. We look forward to the continued contributions in the next decade to come.

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 804-1714

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, Science Spotlight
  • 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
  • February 12, 2020

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.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • September 4, 2018

Deceased deer on black tarped table surrounded by several people wearing black gloves and scrub shirts.
Veterinary staff assess deceased deer

Man in sunglasses, gray pants and blue scrub shirt squatting next to black tarp covered table with black gloved hands on deceased deer resting on table. Two men stand nearby and pickup truck in background.
Veterinary staff take samples of deceased cervid

Man wearing gray pants, blue scrub shirt and black gloves with hands deceased animal. Two women stand nearby looking on; one in dark blue official CDFW uniform and other in green official CDFW uniform, both wearing hats.
Veterinary staff take samples of deceased cervid

CDFW scientists, wildlife officers and other staff are pulling out all the stops to fight a wildlife disease of major concern from crossing state lines and infecting native deer and elk populations.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a contagious, always-fatal neurological disease that affects cervids (deer, elk and moose). In North America, the disease is currently found in captive and wild cervid populations in 24 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. It has been detected in captive elk and sika deer in South Korea and free-ranging reindeer, moose, and red deer in Norway and Finland.

To date, a combination of legislation and geography have kept this disease at arm’s length from California, but the threat is still very real.

“All of us – scientists and wildlife managers, landowners and hunters – need to join forces and work together to keep this disease out of California, or the future could be disastrous for our native herds,” said CDFW Wildlife Veterinarian Brandon Munk, who participates in a multi-agency task force to fight CWD.

For California, this means two things: continuing to enforce strict cervid (animals and parts) importation and movement regulations, and ramping up disease surveillance efforts. This deer season, CDFW will be setting up voluntary check stations for deer hunters throughout California. Here trained staff will collect lymph nodes from the neck of harvested deer – a process that takes only minutes and is minimally invasive to the surrounding tissue. While waiting, hunters can get their tags validated and learn more about how to help prevent the introduction of CWD to California.

Once established, CWD is notoriously difficult to fight. The disease is spread by direct contact with infected animals or environments contaminated by the infectious agent called “prions.” Environmental contamination seems to play a very important role in the spread and maintenance of this disease. Once the environment is seeded with these prions, eradication is difficult – if not impossible – as prions are extremely difficult to remove from the environment or to disinfect. Prions can also remain infectious in the environment for years. Even controlled burning and freezing temperatures do not remove the threat. Most attempts to eradicate this disease have failed, and scientists in other states have had limited success in their efforts to control its spread.

CWD is also difficult to detect, in part because the outward signs often do not manifest until several years after initial infection. Currently, there is no effective live-animal test and there is no vaccine. Systematic testing of hunter-harvested deer is one of the most widely used surveillance methods available. Additionally, it is one important method to help ensure the disease has not entered the state and will help ensure CDFW can detect CWD early should it ever reach California. Early detection of CWD is the first and most important step to effective management of this disease.

CDFW has established a Chronic Wasting Disease Task Force to lead efforts preventing the spread of CWD to this state. Members include CDFW staff (biologists, veterinarians, communications officers and wardens), Fish and Game Commission employees and California Animal Health and Food Safety veterinarians. The task force is reaching out to the public and other local, state, and federal agencies to help with surveillance efforts, educating sportsmen about how they can do their part to prevent the spread of CWD and preparing a comprehensive management plan to allow for rapid response if the disease ever does make it to California.

“We are very lucky that to date, no California deer or elk has tested positive for CWD – but we’re not taking it for granted,” Munk said. “We urge hunters to educate themselves about this very real threat, and to do their part to make sure that we keep it out of California.”

CDFW has produced a short video on preventing the spread of CDFW, including a demonstration on antler removal and proper butchering techniques. You can also find background information, additional links and updates on California’s efforts to fight CWD at www.wildlife.ca.gov/CWD.

To find a CDFW check station to get your deer or elk checked, please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/CWD or call (916) 358-2790.

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CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Veterinary staff takes and examines samples from deceased deer.

Categories: General
  • April 12, 2018

CDFW wants to know if, when and where you’ve seen an elk in California – and they’ve just created a new online reporting tool that makes it easy for members of the public to share this information.

CDFW scientists will use the raw data to help guide their efforts to study statewide elk distribution, migration patterns and herd movement, population size estimates, habitat use, health and diseases, and causes of mortality.

“We have limited resources and our scientists cannot scan the entire landscape,” explained CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura. “This tool provides a way for us to leverage the many sightings of the wildlife-watching public. People often get excited when they see elk, and hopefully now they will channel that excitement by reporting the location and time of their sighting to our department.”

There are three subspecies of elk in the state – tule, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt -- and all three have expanded their range in recent years according to Figura.

CDFW has elk studies underway in the northern part of the state: one is focused on Roosevelt elk in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and the other is focused on elk in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Tracking and studying such a large mammal is a complex undertaking as elk herds are wide-ranging, and often graze and browse in areas that are not easily accessible, and there are only so many scientists to monitor their movements.

The launch of the reporting tool is just the latest effort to enhance the management of elk in California. Last year CDFW released a public draft of the Statewide Elk Conservation and Management Plan that addresses historical and current geographic range, habitat conditions and trends, and major factors affecting elk in California.

The plan will provide guidance and direction for setting priorities for elk management efforts statewide. CDFW is reviewing public comments on the plan and will incorporate appropriate changes into the final document prior to its release, which is expected soon.

CDFW Wildlife Branch Chief Kari Lewis has termed the plan an “important milestone” and explained that public feedback is a critical part of shaping the effort, which emphasizes a sharing of resources and collaboration with all parties interested in elk and elk management. This, she said, is essential to effectively managing California’s elk populations.

For more information about elk in California, please visit CDFW’s elk management webpage.

CDFW File Photo. Top photo: Group of Tule Elk.

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Categories: General