Science Spotlight

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  • March 23, 2018

A brownish-green river with a glassy surface flows through semi-arid land as two men fish from the rocky shore
Surveying Ventura River in Ventura County

A person in a black, full-body wetsuit floats, face-down, in a clear, shallow stream lined by forest and riparian vegetation
Snorkel survey in Hollow Tree Creek in Mendocino County

A young steelhead trout is barely visible, camouflaged against greenish-golden rocks in a stream
Hollow Tree Creek steelhead

Taking care of California’s fish and wildlife wouldn’t be possible without managing the resources upon which they depend. To that end, CDFW has an entire branch – and many scientific staff – dedicated to the scientific study, and planning and management of water resources.

Within the Water Branch, CDFW’s Instream Flow Program (IFP) is tasked with collecting and contributing data necessary to make all kinds of important management decisions about ecological function, fish rearing, spawning and migration and habitat suitability.

In the simplest terms, “instream flow” refers to the rate of the water running through a waterway in a natural environment. But when one considers all the interests competing for use of that water – fisherman, boaters, farmers, businesses, water districts, and fish and wildlife themselves – the complexity of the subject is evident.

Measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), instream flow can be measured at different times of the year in a specific location in a waterway. The fluctuations can tell scientists quite a bit about the ecosystem health of a watershed. While some watersheds have flowing water throughout the year and others are intermittent it is often the responsibility of water managers to distribute the water between uses. CDFW, a natural resource management agency, is faced with the complex task of identifying and recommending instream flows necessary for supporting natural resources. Determining instream flows are crucial so that aquatic, riparian, and terrestrial resources dependent on water will be considered and protected during water distribution activities.

Guided by the California Water Action Plan, the Public Resources Code and the Fish and Game Code, IFP staff conduct flow studies, collect field data, develop guidelines for quality assurance, conduct outreach and coordinate with other agencies and interested parties on program-related activities.

In the past year, some of IFP staff’s largest projects have included:

  • A flow study at the South Fork of the Eel Watershed, which supports threatened coho, Chinook and steelhead.
  • A study of 46 coastal steelhead streams (Ventura County to Siskiyou County) to develop flow criteria and evaluate historic flow trends.
  • A flow study to identify flow regimes that will protect endangered Southern California steelhead in the Ventura River.
  • Technical studies and final flow recommendations based upon the needs of South-Central Coast steelhead in Monterey County’s Big Sur River.
  • Ongoing training for IFP staff, to ensure that field studies in swift water are carried out safely.

To learn more about these specific projects, please download the link opens in new windowIFP’s 2017 Year in Review (PDF) document, available on CDFW’s website.

A Featured Scientist Q&A with the IFP manager Robert Holmes is also available on the CDFW Science Institute page.

CDFW photos. Top photo: IFP staff hold a planning meeting prior to a survey on the Ventura River in Ventura County

Categories: General
  • 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
  • October 5, 2017

a ten-inch trout with a red band on its side, held in a man's two palms
a man wearing a California Fish and Wildlife uniform gently eases a 15-inch trout into a clear stream
underwater in a clear lake, a large trout swims from a bucket to freedom
three redband trout swim close to riverbottom rocks
15 redband trout swim together, close to tan and gold-colored riverbed rocks

For more than a century, CDFW’s Trout Hatchery and Stocking Program has been providing recreational fishing opportunities to anglers throughout California. Today, the trout hatchery program is composed of 13 hatcheries, which oversee 20 distinct fish production programs to produce 17 strains, species and subspecies of trout.

McCloud River Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss stonei) is the latest addition to the CDFW’s production and release efforts. McCloud River Redband Trout is a unique sub-species of rainbow trout endemic to the upper McCloud River area of Shasta and Siskiyou counties of northern California. This fish has beautiful coloration and unique adult characteristics – a pronounced crimson lateral stripe, adult parr marks, relatively large black dorsal spotting, yellow-white hues on the underbelly and white-tipped fins.

The new production and stocking program for McCloud River Redband Trout at Mt. Shasta Fish Hatchery will focus on the upper McCloud River, including McCloud Reservoir. Given that stocking will occur solely within the historic watershed of McCloud River Redband Trout, the program is distinguished by CDFW as a Heritage Trout Production Program. A Heritage Trout is defined as a species of trout native to California, in its native habitat and area. This type of fishery represents the most natural form of aquatic habitat, species and angling opportunity available. Many anglers seeking additional challenges and goals will specifically pursue heritage trout fisheries.

While modern genetics management and conservation hatchery methods are utilized in the McCloud River Redband program, the hatchery-produced fish are primarily for recreational angling and not for release to areas containing wild and genetically pure McCloud River Redband Trout in their natural habitat. This ensures that the most wild populations remain in their native habitat and can continue local adaptation without hatchery influence. CDFW expects the McCloud River Redband Trout program to reach full implementation by 2019-20. The McCloud River Redband program demonstrates CDFW’s progress and commitment to conservation efforts and fisheries management.

CDFW trout hatcheries will continue to produce and stock several strains and species of trout statewide to promote trout angling opportunities, and contribute to the conservation of California’s native species and sub-species of trout. One of the next priorities for the department’s trout hatchery program will commence in 2018, and focus on advancing the Kern River Rainbow Trout program at CDFWs’ Kern River Planting Base.

CDFW Fish and Wildlife Technician Beau Jones stocking McCloud River Redband Trout in August 2017. CDFW photos by hatchery staff.

Categories: General
  • August 15, 2017

The latest issue of California Fish and Game, CDFW’s scientific journal, is now available online. This century-old quarterly journal contains peer-reviewed scientific literature that explores and advances the conservation and understanding of California’s flora and fauna.

The endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) graces the cover of California Fish and Game, Volume 103, Issue I. Researchers ventured into the pickleweed to study the tiny mouse, which is endemic to the marshes surrounding the San Francisco Estuary Bay and its tributaries. The mice were fitted with tiny radiotelemetry collars and tracked for three years. Researchers documented some curious behavior in the resulting paper, “Potential evidence of communal nesting, mate guarding, or biparental care.” The accompanying photos provide a fascinating glimpse into an active nest.

Another paper, “Documentation of mountain lion occurrence and reproduction in the Sacramento Valley of California,” explores the potential for mountain lions to exist in fragmented habitats if there is adequate connectivity with larger blocks of suitable habitat and sufficient prey. The study used camera traps to document populations of mountain lions in the Sacramento Valley’s Butte Sink, which is made up of relic riparian habitats interspersed with managed wetlands. The photos show healthy mountain lions moving through habitat that has long been considered unsuitable due to extensive agricultural and urban development.

The article, “Mussels of the Upper Klamath River, Oregon and California,” reports on sampling efforts that expand existing baseline population data on freshwater mussels in the Upper Klamath River. The sampling efforts may ultimately assist with protection, mitigation and enhancement efforts for large bi-valve species.

The final paper provides insights into the benefits deer and elk derive from licking mineral rocks. Researchers took samples of “lick sites” that were used by California black-tail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) in the Klamath Mountains, Siskiyou County. After performing a detailed analysis of the elemental content of each lick site, the researchers concluded that each lick site offers a different smorgasbord of minerals, and in varying concentrations. The study’s objective is to begin identifying, classifying, and analyzing important mineral lick sites to benefit future ungulate management efforts.

As it has for the past 103 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.

Download the link opens in new windowentire Winter Issue 103 (PDF) in high resolution, or browse individual articles in low resolution.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal, Wildlife Research
  • March 29, 2017

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) were once one of the most numerous large mammals in California, with populations estimated to have been as high as 500,000 prior to the Gold Rush era. In the mid-1800s, pronghorn were nearly extirpated by market-shooting to feed California’s rapidly expanding human population.

The remaining population of pronghorn has long been understudied. Prior data collected on the species have been limited to herd counts and habitat selection. In recent years, there has been growing concern over pronghorn populations, particularly in northeastern California. During the harsh winter of 1992, the number of pronghorn dropped almost 50 percent to an estimated 5,000 individuals. The northeastern portion of the state currently supports a population of approximately 4,500 animals that occur primarily in Modoc, Lassen, Siskiyou and Shasta counties and has been fairly stable, with slow declines, since about 2000. The herd’s inability to rebound has prompted scientists to try to understand the specific conditions leading to the declines.

In 2016 the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) completed a two-year study, with funding from CDFW’s Big Game Management Account, which explored aspects of the pronghorn population on the Modoc Plateau. The study involved 48 does (adult females) and 42 fawns that were radio-collared and followed until their deaths or the study’s end. The researcher’s objectives were to learn more about the pronghorn use of habitat, aspects of their reproduction and factors affecting survival of does and fawns.

The researchers found that for most of the year, pronghorn used open areas with less shrubby and more herbaceous vegetation within their sagebrush-steppe habitats. But during fawning, when does need to hide their young, they shifted to spending more time in areas with greater densities of shrubs and juniper trees. The annual survival rate for does in the study was 69 percent, which is low compared to other pronghorn populations. Mountain lions accounted for 80 percent of predator-related mortalities, most of which occurred during and just after the peak birthing period when does are most vulnerable. Fawn survival averaged 44 percent, a higher-than-typical figure, with unknown causes (37.5 percent) or suspected coyote predation (21 percent) accounting for most fawn mortalities.

The adults’ increased use of shrubby areas and conifer woodlands during fawning suggests an important factor in the population’s continued decline. Juniper woodlands have been encroaching on the sagebrush-steppe habitat in the Modoc Plateau for decades, and these juniper trees provide areas of concealment for ambush predators such as mountain lions. Most ungulate studies demonstrate that adult survival plays a more critical role in population stability than juvenile survival. CDFW may be able to reduce adult pronghorn mortality through habitat restoration – the removal of encroaching junipers could help to reduce predations by lions, and potentially increase the Modoc pronghorn population.

link opens in new windowRead complete report.

Categories: General