Science Spotlight

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  • July 13, 2018

A man on a horse with a mule in tow, climbing rugged, mountainous, dry scrub-covered terrain
a man's hand laid flaat on sandy soil, next to a mountain lion track
A golden-coated mountain lion sits high on a large limb of an oak tree
Man wearing a hard hat and climbing gear, working his way up a tall pine tree, under a royal blue sky
A mountain lion crouches, well camouflaged by boulders and sandy soil under dead branches

It’s just before dawn in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in Mono County. It’s a cold clear morning, a good day to be out experiencing a still very much wild area of California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologist Justin Dellinger and a Wildlife Services houndsman are preparing gear to go out looking for fresh mountain lion tracks in this vast landscape. With the help of a team of highly trained dogs, Dellinger and the tracker are focused on the ultimate goal: Capturing a mountain lion and outfitting it with a GPS collar for research purposes.

This tracking effort in Mono County is part of a larger project to estimate mountain lion population size statewide. It began in the southern Cascades and northern Sierra-Nevada Mountains in 2015, and since then CDFW has solely undertaken or collaborated on similar efforts in the north coast, Modoc plateau and here in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s tough work with long hours; trackers can spend days or even weeks in pursuit of lions. Yet tracking remains the gold standard method of gathering data in the mountain lion research world.

Notably, it takes both biologist and houndsman, each with a unique skill set, to make this team effort work. On this particular day, for example, Dellinger starts the ball rolling when he spots a fresh set of mountain lion tracks made the night before. The mark of the hind heelpad, measuring 52mm across, indicates that it’s a tom (male cat) heading southwest. The long stride suggests he’s traveling in a focused and determined manner – perhaps to secure a meal, locate a mate or confront another male trying to move in on his turf.

Dellinger radios the houndsman, who is astride a mule. The houndsman makes his way to the tracks with dogs in tow, where he assesses a wide variety of information – the time of day, wind speed and direction, topography, etc.

“The mental calculations (of the tracker) are rooted in decades of experience and know-how, but they’re still somewhat of an enigma to me,” Dellinger says. “But then again, houndsman feel likewise about the statistical calculations employed by biologists. It takes both of us, working together, to compile all the information and derive a solid population estimate.”

Over the next several days, the houndsman and the biologist follow the tom over miles of country, with the cat none the wiser about his pursuers. The team eventually catches up to the tom. The dogs masterfully trail him over boulders and around escarpments and tree him in a pinyon pine. The houndsman signals to Dellinger that the tom is treed. Dellinger then works his way into position to dart the animal. Success! Within an hour, the cat is asleep and Dellinger is able to affix a collar.

Yet despite the enormity of the overall effort, the day’s accomplishment is only one small step in the overall plan. Simply put, they’ll get a little rest and then wake up and try to do it all over again tomorrow.

As CDFW’s lead mountain lion biologist, Dellinger understands the need to study and understand Puma concolor only too well. “Lions are the apex predators across much of California, and apex predators can tell scientists a lot about the ecological wellbeing of a given landscape or ecosystem,” he explains. “If mountain lions are decreasing in an area, it’s likely that prey species are decreasing too. If mountain lions are exhibiting health issues, it’s likely that other animals in the ecosystem are experiencing similar issues.”

Because of those grants, this first comprehensive effort to collar lions around the state is now underway. It’s a huge and somewhat daunting task. California’s size and ecological diversity requires a divide-and-conquer approach, meaning that studies can only be conducted in one area at a time. Together, those “slices” of data will add up to a statewide picture. 

Getting the collar on the cat might be the most important part, but all of the data Dellinger collects on this trip will be useful. He’ll be able to compare tracks and remote game camera photos with GPS collar data to derive a minimum count of mountain lions in the area. For now, this is the best way of counting mountain lions in the western United States. In the future, CDFW may grow to rely on data gathering techniques that are more cost- and time-effective than tracking, and use more common skill sets. One possible alternative is developing thanks to the rapid advance of using genetics to monitor wildlife species without having to handle the animals. Scat samples can be collected and analyzed to provide a genetic fingerprint of the animal that deposited them. In theory, if enough lion scat is collected over a large enough area, CDFW can estimate the number of lions in the area.

But scat analysis is still a fairly new way of doing things, and until techniques can be tested, compared and perfected, CDFW will continue to employ the tracking “gold-standard.” The newer methods can be compared to the old, and it’s possible that the newer methods will outperform (i.e., be cheaper and just as reliable) the older methods in some areas but not other areas.

CDFW sees this statewide effort as a first step in monitoring and conserving the elusive, ecologically important mountain lion long-term in California. The project is still in its early stages and will likely continue for another six years or so. Dellinger is enthusiastically looking forward to the work. “It’s really cool because no other state has attempted such a comprehensive population assessment of lions … and  no other western state is as ecologically diverse as California,” he says. “Doing something this comprehensive requires working in a lot of very unique areas. It’s never going to be boring.”

Photos courtesy of Justin Dellinger

Categories: General
  • May 17, 2018

Two bighorn sheep laying with blinders on inside enclosed area
These pregnant females will bolster the population of a newly established herd as well as provide an infusion of fresh genetic material to helps ensure their new herd’s health and long-term survival.

Bighorn sheep with blue ear tag and collar
Outfitted with an ear tag and two tracking collars, this ram awaits delivery to a new herd where it’s hoped he will infuse the population with fresh genetics

Two men in helmets bending over a bighorn sheep with blinders on wrapped in large orange sling with white pickup trucks and two men in background
Among the goals of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan is the establishment of 12 viable herds across their historic range. CDFW’s capture and relocation efforts over the years have helped establish 14 herds today across 150 miles of their historic range.

Three bighorn sheep on desert landscape ground wrapped in large orange slings while to men in helmets look over them and several people stand in the background
These Eastern Sierra bighorn sheep are being prepared for their flight to a new home and new herds.

Seven animals.

Can just seven Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep really make much of an impact on the species’ future?

CDFW scientists believe so, which is why they came away pleased with the results of their annual spring helicopter capture this past March. Limited to three days of work due to strong winds and bad weather, the effort resulted in the capturing, collaring and relocation of seven sheep to new herds high in the Eastern Sierra.

Although the final chapters have yet to be written, the saga surrounding the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, one of the rarest large mammals in North America, is shaping up to be a 21st century wildlife success story.

A unique subspecies found only in the Sierra Nevada, historic populations numbered in the thousands. Their steep population decline began in the 1800s as a result of competition from livestock grazing, unregulated hunting and the transmission of disease from domestic sheep. Drought and predation further hammered their numbers, which dwindled to about 100 animals in just three herds by the mid-1990s. State and federal officials declared them endangered in 1999.

Today, less than 20 years removed from those dramatic listings, there are 14 different Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep herds spread across 150 miles of the iconic mountain range. About 600 bighorn sheep are now eking out a living atop the Sierra’s highest peaks. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are present once again inside Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park after a 100-year absence.

CDFW’s role is itself unique as a state agency tasked with leading the recovery of a federally listed endangered species. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are recolonizing their historic range – with a major assist from CDFW’s twice-yearly captures, collaring and strategic “translocations.”

This spring, three males and four pregnant females were captured from two established herds and translocated to two newly reintroduced herds – one along their western range inside Sequoia National Park and another herd in Inyo County at the southernmost extent of their range.

“Whenever we start these new herds, we like to move a minimum of 20 females as well as additional rams over time,” explained Tom Stephenson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist based in Bishop and the leader of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program. “At that point, we feel the population has enough animals to begin growing at a high enough rate and also has sufficient genetic diversity.”

Before the animals are relocated, a CDFW team records their vital statistics. Ultrasound machines are used to measure body condition and determine pregnancy status. The animals are outfitted with identifying jewelry – color-coded ear tags, VHF and GPS collars that allow biologists to identify them and track their movements for years in some cases.

All the high-tech, intensive monitoring has paid dividends with new appreciation and understanding. Once believed to always migrate to lower elevations in the winter, CDFW scientists have learned that many sheep ride out the Sierra Nevada’s inhospitable winters at 11,000- to 14,000-foot elevations.

“They are really tough,” Stephenson said. “But they’re able to do that because they put on large amounts of body fat in the summer when they’re on quality habitat. They are essentially hibernating standing up in the alpine. They’ve got an environment up there that is wind-scoured so they can find some food. They’re not having to move around much, and they’re relatively free from predators when they’re up in those altitudes in the winter time.”

Not every sheep captured is relocated.

Helicopter crews this spring attempted unsuccessfully to capture rams in the northernmost part of their range, collar them and return them to their same herds. CDFW biologists are keeping close tabs on the Mount Warren Herd near Lee Vining in Mono County in particular and its proximity to domestic sheep grazing on public land. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are disease-free and CDFW biologists want to keep them that way.

While populations have met or exceeded some recovery goals, eliminating disease – or the risk of disease – remains a significant benchmark and key to delisting or down-listing the species from endangered status.<

“There are a lot of bighorn sheep populations throughout the West that continue to struggle with disease,” Stephenson said. “So we’ve worked really hard with public land managers as well as private individuals in the Eastern Sierra to try and ensure our bighorn sheep don’t come into contact with domestic sheep.”

CDFW photos courtesy of Andrew Di Salvo. Top Photo: A helicopter crew delivers four bighorn sheep to CDFW's base camp where vital statistics were recorded, blood was taken, and the sheep were outfitted with identifying ear tags and tracking collars.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • November 8, 2017

a white-spotted fawn lies in straw as its leg is measured
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.

four deer are suspended in the air, in safety harnesses, from a red helicopter
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.

Driving up Interstate 5 through Siskiyou County in northern California, one cannot help but take notice of the looming, majestic land mass of Mount Shasta, the largest volcano in the Cascade system.

In this rugged region of the Golden State, mule deer are an iconic species, valued by recreationists and required by wild carnivores who prey upon them for nourishment. Mule deer are considered a “foundation species” because the large landscapes that are necessary for their survival can also be home to a vast array of other wildlife and plant species. But mule deer populations have dramatically declined in recent decades across many western ranges, and in Siskiyou County, this decrease has prompted researchers from CDFW and the University of California, Santa Cruz to partner on a multi-year effort to investigate the population dynamics of this high-profile species.

Since 2015, 51 adult female mule deer and 37 fawns have been captured in the Mount Shasta region. Biological samples, including blood and parasites, have been collected, physical measurements of body condition and age recorded and telemetry collars attached to each subject. Collars on adult deer provide a GPS location every hour and alert researchers when a mortality occurs. The collars also document movement details, including migration routes and the location of critical winter and reproductive ranges. The fawn collars feature location beacons that allow researchers to monitor both general movements and when a mortality has occurred. Once a mortality alert is sent from a collar, a search of the site and an examination of the carcass ensues to determine if the deer died from predation or other causes, such as disease or malnutrition. The collars have timed releases and are set to drop off the animal after 18 months. Researchers can then reuse the collars after retrieving them by following a GPS signal. This high-tech, high-resolution documentation of deer behavior is vital for prioritizing the conservation value of landscapes so they may be better protected in the future.

With the recent arrival of gray wolves to northeastern California, predators are a key focus of the mule deer project. Understanding the influence this large canid will have on natural prey species begins with establishing baselines of how current predators -- including mountain lions, bears, bobcats and coyotes -- are affecting prey in this region. Mountain lions, which rely on deer as the primary component of their diet, are a major focus of this study. Researchers have captured and affixed five adult mountain lions with GPS telemetry collars, allowing them to track and study rates of predation, feeding patterns and diet composition.

The analysis of fecal DNA combined with new statistical techniques is another way to study population density and composition across broad landscapes. DNA analysis allows researchers to determine the sex and identity of an individual deer, which is used to estimate densities and gender ratios. Researchers are collecting fecal samples throughout the mule deer’s summer range, in the hopes of reliably extrapolating estimates of density and sex ratios across the entire region.

This project, which began in 2015, is scheduled to continue into 2019, as researchers strive to gain further insight into the lives of mule deer and predators across this ecologically complex and breathtakingly beautiful region of the state.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos.
Top photo: Mount Shasta in winter.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • July 25, 2017

Five deer wade knee-deep in blue lake water
cute face of a mule deer

Three people check and attach a collar to a doe
doe on a hillside wears a research collar
Mule deer buck in a dry meadow
Two people collect deer pellets from a trail
Doe and fawn look out from a dry-grassy ridge

As California deer hunters head to the fields, forests and mountains this summer and fall, their experiences will provide wildlife biologists with key data on the health of the state’s deer herds. Wildlife biologists are already seeing the benefits of a 2015 regulation change requiring all deer tag holders to report how they did – successful or not – along with how many days they actually spent hunting, even if they never made it out at all. A record 84 percent of deer tag holders submitted harvest reports for 2016.

“We’re getting more accurate and precise numbers for harvest than we’ve ever had before, which is critical for calculating the tag quota for the next year and conserving our deer populations for the future,” said Stuart Itoga, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW and the state’s deer program coordinator.

Until recently, accurate deer harvest data had proved elusive. Prior to 2015, only successful California deer hunters had to report their take and only about 30 percent of those actually complied. CDFW supplemented the harvest data with numbers collected from game processing facilities, an inefficient process that still left an incomplete picture.

“It’s Wildlife Management 101,” Itoga said. “You have to know what your population is, what’s coming in and what’s going out. We needed to have better numbers.”

Following the mandatory reporting requirement in 2015, submittal rates for deer tag harvest reports jumped to 50 percent. In 2016, a $21.60 non-reporting penalty took effect, which applies to the purchase of future tags, and boosted reporting to the all-time high.

Mandatory deer tag reporting data is just one of a number of new tools that has CDFW deer biologists excited about their ability to better assess California’s deer herds. An innovative DNA study of deer feces promises to give biologists new information about the size and characteristics of the state’s deer population.

CDFW has also greatly expanded the use of deer tracking collars, thanks to improved technology. Since 2016, CDFW has affixed the relatively lightweight, remotely programmable, GPS tracking devices on 350 deer to learn more about their preferred habitat, in-state and out-of-state migration routes and sources of mortality other than hunting. Advanced camera technology also promises to improve the data collected from CDFW’s aerial and ground-based population surveys. A new computer model is being developed to incorporate all of these new data sources into more sophisticated, accurate and precise deer population estimates.

“It’s really an exciting time to be doing this type of work,” Itoga said. “We’ve always used the best available science, but with technology moving at the pace it’s moving now, we have tools available to us now that we didn’t have even five years ago.”

Management changes can happen more quickly as a result. For the upcoming 2017 deer hunting seasons, for example, deer tag quotas were cut in half in three highly desirable, Eastern Sierra X Zones – X9a, X9b and X12 – as a result of new data and field work that showed that migratory deer in these areas suffered from the long, intense winter.

“Winter survival was poor,” Itoga said. “Our hope is that if we reduce the harvest this year, the populations will have a chance to rebound and increase next year.”

Categories: General
  • June 23, 2017

sunrise over a California salt marsh
two young women in a marsh, one holds a tiny mouse

Deep in the pickleweed in the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays, the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) tries to avoid predators and compete with other species for prime habitat. Food and cover are abundant, but its overall habitat is shrinking as humans encroach upon its home range. In south San Francisco Bay alone, 95 percent of the historic salt marsh has been lost to industrial parks and subdivisions. Annual flooding in the winter can be perilous, too -- when vegetation is topped by rising tides, the mice must scramble to find taller vegetation or into upland habitat (grasses around the wetlands that don’t get flooded by the tides).

As part of the effort to monitor and conserve this state- and federally-listed endangered species, biologists conduct annual surveys of the salt marsh harvest mouse. The effort involves setting up traps stuffed with cotton batting and baited with birdseed and walnuts, taking measurements and collecting other data on the subjects that are captured. In some studies, the mice are fitted with GPS collars for tracking, or ear tags to help identify them upon recapture. In other studies, the biologists simply clip away fur on the mouse’s flank or neck – another method that helps them determine whether a mouse in a trap has crossed paths with them before.

Once a mouse’s measurements have been recorded, they are set loose to scamper back into the pickleweed. The data that’s been collected will later be entered into a larger database that will be accessible to researchers from multiple state agencies (CDFW, the Department of Water Resources), federal agencies (US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey), educational research institutions (UC Davis, CSU San Marcos, San Francisco State) and private industry.

By comparing population fluctuations and other data throughout the range, scientists hope to identify threats and increase their understanding of this rare rodent’s biology and behavior – ultimately helping to better inform future decisions on habitat management, restoration and enhancement efforts.

Categories: Wildlife Research