Science Spotlight

rss
  • October 5, 2018

Panoramic view of dry grassland and blue sky.
Panorama of Summer Lake

Smiling woman wearing green USGS hat and shirt holding collared goose
USGS employee holding goose

Wetland with tule grass in foreground and mountains in background.
Summer Lake

Waterway with mountains in background
Summer Lake

Woman in green shirt and pants wading thigh-deep in water holding net and surrounded by geese
Melanie in the water retrieving geese

partial view of white pickup truck with face in sideview mirror. Grassland and mountain in background
Melanie in sideview mirror

Woman wearing green long sleeved shirt, glasses, and braids holding collar around neck of goose held by person wearing a brown jacket.
Fitting the collar

Person wearing brown sweatshirt holding collared goose. Goose has bill around person's index finger.
A finger nibble

Every September, California Department of Fish and Wildlife waterfowl biologist Melanie Weaver sets off on an unusual business trip. She packs up a trailer with huge nets, wire, rockets, crates and a number of VHF collars. She makes the seven-hour drive to Summer Lake, in southern Oregon’s high desert country, and settles in for a waterfowl capture project of indeterminate length. Her quarry is Anser alibifrons elgasi — the Tule white-fronted goose. Her goal is to capture, collar and release these huge, cackling birds until she runs out of collars.

Tule geese are one of two sub-species of white-fronted goose — also known colloquially as specklebelly geese, or “specs,” by hunters. The other sub-species of white-fronted goose, Pacific white-fronted, are plentiful, numbering about 700,000 in the Pacific flyway. But the Tule goose is far less common. Weaver estimates there are only 15,000 to 16,000 Tules.

Monitoring goose populations — particularly Tules — is a high priority for CDFW, as regulations are tied to the less numerous species. Currently, California regulations dictate that the hunting season for white-fronts on the west side of the Sacramento Valley closes on Dec. 21. This is to minimize harvest on Tule geese.

“They are right in the middle of a popular hunting area for Pacifics, so we have to be proactive,” Weaver explained. “If we saw the population decline significantly, we’d have to consider closing the season for all white-fronted geese. We want to avoid that.”

But why would the California Department of Fish and Wildlife be trapping geese north of the state line? One reason is logistics —Tule geese begin their southward trek from Alaska in mid-August or thereabouts. They’re heading for the Sacramento Valley, and Summer Lake Wildlife Area is a major stop over along the migration route. As they move further south into California, Tule geese mix with their more common cousins, the Pacifics. “We’ve tried to capture them in and around the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex before, and we end up expending a lot of effort just for a handful of Tules caught,” Weaver explained. “So the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggested moving our capture effort to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area. It’s largely only Tule geese coming through this time of year.”

And that’s the other reason — this partnership between the waterfowl programs from neighboring states illustrates the importance and strength of the Pacific Flyway. Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon and California all have a stake in ensuring the conservation of the species that traverse their lands and use their waters. ODFW doesn’t just offer up their land as a banding site. They also provide lodging for Weaver, typically split the cost of the radio collars, and supply labor for the duration of the project, no matter how long it takes.

Weaver’s ODFW counterpart, waterfowl biologist Brandon Reishus, was in it for the long haul right alongside Weaver. On a chilly Monday morning in mid-September, only just a week after they laid out the nets, they hit the jackpot. On that particular day, Reishus was crouched in the blind, using a scope to scan for incoming flocks, while Weaver sat nearby in a pickup truck. They waited and watched for a few hours, keeping in touch by radio, before Reishus spotted his opportunity. After a quick heads up to his Californian counterpart, the Oregon biologist pressed the detonation button, launching the pre-set rockets a quarter mile away. In the blink of an eye, the 60-foot-long net sailed over the unsuspecting birds as they blissfully churned up grit from the water. Both biologists then jumped into the truck and raced to the site, where they untangled the geese and put them into crates for transport to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area shop. The final count on this particular morning was 14 birds; a small number was all that was needed to complete the marking effort for this year as an earlier capture resulted in 44 birds.

The geese were given a little time to settle down before the processing began. Each bird was sexed and the bills measured. Although Weaver and Reishus can typically identify their catch just by the size and color (Tules are larger and darker than Pacifics), scientific measurements are essential for definitive identification.

The birds were also weighed before they were banded and collared. The collars will enable the biologists to obtain a population estimate on the wintering grounds, using a mark resight method. This and other data obtained from the bands will be used to make future management recommendations.

In the early afternoon, Weaver and Reishus drove back to the exact spot where the net was deployed just hours earlier. On the count of three, all the crates were opened at the same time, and the geese noisily rushed out, spreading their wings and re-forming their flock as they raced away.

As Weaver and Reishus affixed the last of the VHF collars on this particular Monday, they marveled at the unusually early conclusion of this years’ trapping effort. Sometimes it takes a full two weeks to use up their supply of collars. Once again, the team effort paid off. And even as they packed up their equipment from the Summer Lake Wildlife Area and prepared to head their separate ways, they were making plans to meet up again in a week, for a Pacific Flyway Study Committee meeting in Arizona.

“It’s such a valuable partnership,” Weaver said. “We look at the big picture, and we all work on solutions together.”
 
###

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: weighing a goose.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • 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.

# # #

Categories: General
  • April 11, 2017

Two men capture an elk on grassy hill
Three men fit a research collar on a tule elk
Eight-man stand in front of a red helicopter

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently launched the first phase of a multi-year study of tule elk in Colusa and Lake counties. In partnership with the University of California, Davis and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and with the assistance of capture specialists from Leading Edge Aviation, researchers used helicopter net guns to capture and place satellite collars on 45 tule elk.

The technique of using DNA extracted from fecal pellets to study wildlife populations is a relatively new, non-invasive approach that minimally disturbs animals and enables surveys in low-visibility habitats where sight-based surveys would be relatively ineffective. It is also less costly than other survey methods, and therefore can be used more frequently.

While fecal DNA analysis has been used to estimate abundance and other population parameters in deer herds in California since 2011, this study will be the first application of the technique to free-ranging tule elk. The study results will guide future elk conservation planning efforts.

Tule elk are a native subspecies of elk unique to California. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, they numbered more than half a million statewide, but the population rapidly declined in the mid-1800s due to unregulated market hunting and habitat loss. In 1875, a ranch owner in Kern County took efforts to protect the last remaining tule elk and allowed them to multiply on his property, likely saving them from extirpation.

Since 1975, CDFW has captured and relocated more than 1,500 elk. As a result, there are an estimated 5,100-plus tule elk distributed in 22 herds throughout California today. See more information about the distribution, range and history of this unique animal in California.

Categories: Wildlife Research