Science Spotlight

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  • March 30, 2022
Close up of a young, healthy looking gray fox after rehab efforts

Fox finishing out rehabilitation and being prepped for release at Sierra Wildlife Rescue. Photo © Jackie Young

Anesthetized fox with burned paws lying on an exam table, with burned paws showing
Injured fox at Sierra Wildlife Rescue being prepped for initial debriding and cleaning of injured paws. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue
 
Close up of a young gray fox with singed fur and whiskers, being held by a person
Injured fox shortly after being removed from under a porch in Pollock Pines. Photo © Sierra Wildlife Rescue

Each year, Californians filing their individual state income taxes can choose to donate money from their refunds or payments to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, line 403 on state tax form 540. Money from this Fund is then distributed through a CDFW competitive grants program that helps California rehab facilities support activities such as veterinarian treatment, animal care, facility maintenance and conservation education.

Sierra Wildlife Rescue (SWR) rehab facility in El Dorado County is a recipient of this funding, and recently helped a young, badly burned and injured California gray fox (kit) recover and be released back into the wild.

The kit was discovered hiding under the porch of a home in Pollack Pines on Sept. 6, 2021, after its residents returned from being evacuated from the Caldor Fire. The kit was estimated to be three to four months old, emaciated, burned and had extreme damage to its paws. 

“It took three days for our team to get the fox out from under the porch,” said Debbie Buckles, board president of SWR. “Once we got it out, we could see that not only was she singed, but she lost ear tips, and her feet were basically burned to the bone.”

SWR is usually called in on El Dorado County cases where injured, orphaned or sick wildlife are concerned. Their mission is to rehabilitate wildlife with minimal human/wildlife interaction in hopes to better the chances of a successful release back into the wild.

“We anesthetized her and debrided and cleaned the wounds,” said Dr. Marsha Birdsall, volunteer veterinarian with SWR. “Once she was bandaged up, we transferred her to one of our home rehab facilities. These are homes of our volunteer rehabbers that have larger properties with larger outdoor enclosures.”

At the home rehab facility, the fox was able to heal in an outdoor environment and be monitored by wildlife cameras set up around the property. This helps ensure that the animal will not imprint on people or begin to rely on human interaction while being monitored.

After nearly eight weeks, the fox’s injuries were getting better, but with some setbacks. Her burned and damaged skin and paws were healing, but she lost every paw pad, claw and several toes. SWR was concerned the lack of claws, paw pads and toes would make it difficult to return the kit to the wild.

“Our action plan in general is to return these animals to the wild,” said Buckles. “But we were concerned she wouldn’t be able to catch live prey or protect herself from larger animals.”

Thinking the fox would not be able to hunt or climb trees to avoid predators without her claws and toes, SWR reached out to their grant partner CDFW to see if the department knew of another facility that would take the kit in as an educational animal.

CDFW contacted Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue in Petaluma, and on Dec. 14, 2021, the kit was transferred to their facility where the team planned for it to live out its days at their outdoor facility. What the Sonoma County rehab team saw the kit doing while monitoring their property’s wildlife cameras, no one saw coming.

“The fox started showing signs that she could catch prey,” said Buckles. “She also found a way to climb. She would wrap her limbs around the tree, like a hug, and shimmy her way up.”

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue began continuously conducting live prey testing with the fox, and it continuously would hunt and eat the prey. By mid-February, despite not having front or back claws, the fox was digging, climbing, hunting and grooming itself effectively.

“Now knowing the fox can hunt, climb, defend and groom itself we made the decision to bring her back from Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and release her back into the wild in El Dorado County,” Buckles said.

The fox was released back into the wild in El Dorado County on March 2, 2022, after nearly six months of being rehabbed.

“We don’t usually name the animals in our care because they are not our pets, they’re wild animals,” said Buckles. “… but this fox overcame so much, and we were all so invested in her making it back to the wild that we now call her Phoenix, because there’s a story that says the Phoenix bird rises out of the ashes. That’s what this fox did, it rouse out of the Caldor Fire ashes.”

CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program currently works with more than 80 permitted rehab facilities (PDF) like SWR and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue across the state. For the 2022 grant cycle alone, CDFW has distributed $547,000 to these facilities for them to continue their work in their communities.

“These facilities along with their satellites and army of volunteers are the ones who put in the long, hard hours year after year to successfully rehab injured, orphaned or sick animals and birds of California,” said Heather Perry, CDFW’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program Coordinator. “When tax-filers make the choice to contribute to the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Tax Fund, their support allows for grant funding that SWR, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and many of our other permitted rehab facilities utilize to fund their work. The story of the Caldor Fire fox is just one example of what we can do when we all work together.”  

For more information on the Native Wildlife Rehabilitation Fund, please visit wildlife.ca.gov/tax-donation.

*According to CalFire records, the Caldor Fire started on Aug. 14, 2021and was active for 67 days. The fire burned through nearly 222,000 acres in El Dorado, Amador and Alpine Counties and destroyed 1,003 structures.

Media contact:
Leticia Palamidessi, CDFW Education and Outreach, (916) 708-8517

Categories: 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
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