Science Spotlight

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  • February 23, 2018

Grass and shrub-covered dunes next to estuary waters, under a cloudy sky
Restoration project area. CDFW photo by Andrew Hughan.

Map with orange and yellow areas to be restored, between Humboldt Bay and the Eel River
Yellow and orange indicate restoration areas at the Ocean Ranch Unit of CDFW's Eel River Wildlife Area.

How does one best go about making an already bountiful and bucolic part of the Golden State even better? Sometimes, perhaps paradoxically, it pays to look to the past in order to be forward thinking in the present.

CDFW, Ducks Unlimited, and many partners have undertaken the Ocean Ranch Unit of the Eel River Wildlife Area Integrative Ecosystem Restoration Project Planning Process to enhance the estuarine and coastal dune ecosystem of the Ocean Ranch Unit in Humboldt County

The approximately 2,600-acre Eel River Wildlife Area was acquired to protect and enhance coastal wetland habitat, and was designated as a wildlife area by the California Fish and Game Commission in 1968. The initial decision to undertake an estuary restoration-planning project began more than a decade ago. After several years of monitoring to gather necessary data, Ducks Unlimited completed a feasibility study, funded by CDFW’s Fisheries Restoration Grant Program and the California State Coastal Conservancy, in December 2015.

The primary goal is to restore and expand natural estuarine and dune ecosystem functions, including the recovery and enhancement of native species (including fish, invertebrates, wildlife and plants) and their habitats. These changes should also help mitigate current and future impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will likely result in saltwater inundation further upstream, which is expected to modify habitats (for example, the loss of tidal marsh migration inland) and the size and shape of the estuary.

The project has been a revelation for Michelle Gilroy, a CDFW district fisheries biologist who works primarily in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

“For the first time in my 30-year fisheries career, which began in the Eel River watershed, I am achieving a long-time goal of mine: To envision, develop and work through to completion, or near completion, a large restoration project,” said Gilroy. “This exciting project and the extraordinary team I am so very fortunate to work with is making that dream a reality – and in the Eel River estuary, one of California’s largest estuaries. It is definitely one of the highlights of my career.”

Improving the connectivity of tidal and freshwater habitats, and controlling or eradicating invasive plants, are key goals of the restoration project.

A feasibility study guiding the project analyzed the potential for expanding tidal functions within 475 of the 933 acres of the unit to aide in the recovery and enhancement of estuarine habitat and native species. Restoration of these essential habitats is vital to the recovery of anadromous salmonid populations in the Eel River, as estuaries provide critical nursery and rearing conditions for juveniles prior to ocean entry.

The unit is located within the Eel River estuary, a mile and a half north of the mouth of the Eel River and approximately four miles northwest of Loleta. The unit is comprised of a diverse set of habitats, including coastal dunes, riparian woodlands, tidal mudflats, tidal slough channels, salt marshes and managed freshwater marshes.

Prior to second-wave human settlements, this portion of the estuary, then inhabited by Native Americans, consisted primarily of salt-marsh habitat dotted with areas of spruce and hardwood forest, and native grasslands. An abundant fishery, which included the prized salmon, along with native plants, provided sustenance for the Wiyot people who lived around Humboldt Bay and the estuary. As Euro-Americans settled this region, however, they largely drove the Wiyot people off their traditional lands and began to repurpose portions of the environment.

By the end of the 1800s, most of the salt marsh and forestlands were drained and converted to farm and grazing land. This conversion of tidal marshes to pastures was done with purpose – but such perceived progress carried an ecological cost.

The construction of levees and tide gates to drain salt marsh increased sedimentation, flooding, and the amount and diversity of habitat and food supply for fish and wildlife declined throughout the estuary. This degraded the prior functioning, highly productive estuary ecosystem. In addition, invasive species now threaten the diversity or abundance of native species through competition for resources, predation, parasitism, interbreeding with native populations, transmitting diseases, or causing physical or chemical changes to the invaded habitat.

Despite these declines, the Eel River delta, which includes the Eel River Wildlife Area, today continues to provide vital habitat for many aquatic and terrestrial organisms, including state and federally threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species, and many state species of special concern. More than 40 species of mammals and 200 species of birds use the delta area and researchers have documented at least 45 fish species in the Eel River estuary alone.

The area provides essential spawning, nursery and feeding grounds to several commercially and recreationally important species, including Dungeness crab. Estuaries are among the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world and are one of the preferred habitats for young Dungeness crabs.

Dungeness crabs use estuaries as critical nursery habitat in their juvenile stages, as not only a refuge from predation – particularly in estuaries with structural habitat such as eelgrass – but also because of the abundance and diversity of prey provided by estuaries. Dungeness crabs are opportunistic feeders – clams, fish, isopods and amphipods are their preferred food sources, as well as other Dungeness crabs. Their predators include those larger crabs, octopuses, and fish, including salmon, lingcod and various rockfishes.

Wildlife, of course, is not the only form of life to reap the benefits of this region, as humans enjoy a range of outdoor activities, including fishing, bird-watching, boating, hiking and hunting.

The project is expected to begin in the summer of 2019.

CDFW photos and map

Top photo: CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Kirsten Ramey and Eric Ojerholm of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.



Partners, Funding and Staff

Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with CDFW staff, has recently secured project planning funds from the California Wildlife Conservation Board, and initial project implementation funds from the NOAA Restoration Center. To complete the restoration design and environmental compliance process, this second phase of restoration planning will consist of a continued CDFW and Ducks Unlimited partnership, with additional assistance from several local consultants and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The TAC includes representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Coastal Commission, California State Coastal Conservancy, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Sea Grant, California Trout, Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, Humboldt State University, Redwood Region Audubon Society, private landowners, and the Wiyot Tribe. Additional project partners include AmeriCorps, Tom Origer and Associates, Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife and Wetlands Restoration Association, GHD Inc., H.T. Harvey and Associates, Moffatt and Nichol, Northern Hydrology Engineering, Pacific Coast Joint Venture, and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

CDFW staff who have served on the project management team include Michelle Gilroy, Allan Renger, Scott Monday, Kirsten Ramey, James Ray, Mark Smelser, Gordon Leppig, Michael van Hattem, Jennifer Olson, Linda Miller, Clare Golec, Charles Bartolotta, Robert Sullivan, Tony LaBanca, Mark Wheetley, Scott Downie, Adam Frimodig, Jeff Dayton, Mike Wallace, Vicki Frey, John Mello, and Karen Kovacs.


Categories: General
  • February 8, 2018

A black-speckled, brown frog rests on a flat granite rock next to a deep blue lake

It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.

Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.

Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.

As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.

“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”

CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.

The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.

During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.

“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.

The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.

Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.

Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.

“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”

The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.

Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.

“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”

CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog

Categories: General
  • January 9, 2018

Seven adults carry pet carrier boxes across a coastal meadow
Staff of several wildlife agencies carry light-footed Ridgway’s rails (previously known as light-footed clapper rails) to Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

A man holds a bird with a long beak, while another attaches a band to its leg
A light-footed Ridgway’s rail is banded before release into Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve.

The Ridgway’s rail is a grayish-brown, chicken-sized bird with a long, downward curving bill and a conspicuous whitish rump. Previously known as the clapper rail, the species name was changed in 2014 to honor ornithologist Robert Ridgway. Three subspecies of Ridgway’s rail are resident in California, all of which depend on mudflats or very shallow water (wetland habitat) where there is both forage and taller plant material to provide cover at high tide. They rely on marsh plants such as cordgrass and pickleweed for breeding and feeding.

One subspecies, the light-footed Ridgway’s rail, was once abundant in the Southern California wetlands, but fell to near extinction in the 1980s as their historical habitats were displaced by housing developments. Today, they have a chance to repopulate, buoyed by recent wetland restoration projects by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and “Team Rail,” a group that has been dedicated to the recovery of this federal- and state-listed marsh bird for more than a decade.

Team Rail is comprised of scientific staff from CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the U.S. Navy, three zoological breeding centers (SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and the Living Coast Discovery Center) and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy. Thanks to their efforts, the 2017 rail population reached 514 pairs in the wild. Each rail release is a step closer to achieving the 1985 Light-Footed Clapper Rail Recovery Plan objective of having 800 breeding pairs in California.

Most recently, five light-footed Ridgway’s rails were released into the Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve in San Diego County. This release consisted of two mated pairs and three offspring produced by one of the pairs. Three of the adults are retired breeders from the zoological breeding program and are part of a rotation plan to reintroduce retired breeders back into the wild. The release of these individuals will contribute genetic diversity to this highly endangered marsh bird population. Rails bred in zoological facilities were released into Batiquitos Lagoon in 2004 and 2005 (eight rails each year), in 2013 (six rails), 2014 (12 rails), and 2015 (seven rails).

“Given that State Ecological Reserves are set aside for the conservation of threatened, rare and endangered species, and rail releases are targeted for wetlands with small subpopulations (fewer than 50 breeding pairs), Batiquitos Lagoon is an ideal location for the release of Ridgway’s rails,” explained CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist (Specialist) Nancy Frost. “For over a decade, CDFW has supported numerous research and monitoring projects for this species, and we are proud to be a partner in their recovery.”

The state-owned Batiquitos Lagoon is managed by CDFW and is one of the few remaining tidal wetlands on the Southern California coast. Located in the city of Carlsbad, it consists of 543 acres with a drainage basin of about 55,000 acres. It is home to several threatened and endangered birds, insects, plants, fish and mammals and is also designated as a State Marine Conservation Area under the Marine Life Protection Act.

Top photo: A light-footed Ridgway’s rail flies away after being released at Batiquitos Lagoon Ecological Reserve in San Diego County.

Categories: General
  • December 12, 2017

a brown frog looks up from green water and grass at the endge of a pond
A California red-legged frog sits motionless at the edge of McClure pond at the Sparling Ranch Conservation Bank. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS

a small stand of oak trees is reflected in the green water of a pond, surrounded by dead, yellow grassy hillsides
McClure pond is one of the most productive California red-legged frog ponds at the Sparling Ranch Conservation Bank. Like many of those on Sparling Ranch, it was named after the family who homesteaded in site in the late 1800s. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS

Since the mid-1980s, California has been using a system of conservation and mitigation banking to protect valuable natural resources and critical habitat for fish, wildlife and plants. These banks are generally large, connected, ecologically meaningful areas of preserved, restored, enhanced or constructed habitat (for example, wetlands) that are set aside for the express purpose of providing mitigation for project impacts. Conservation banks provide mitigation for impacts to listed species and habitats, while wetland mitigation banks primarily provide mitigation for wetland impacts. Together, they serve to prevent inadequate, fragmented reserves that can result when mitigation projects are carried out individually.

Banks work by establishing credits for sensitive species or habitats found on a given site. These credits can then be sold to developers or other project proponents who need to meet permitting requirements or are otherwise required to compensate for environmental impacts. For those parties needing to mitigate for project impacts, banks serve to streamline the regulatory process by providing a pre-established mitigation site that the regulating state and federal agencies have already confirmed will provide adequate and appropriate mitigation for certain habitats or species. By mitigating at a bank, project proponents can avoid the time and cost of searching for a suitable mitigation site and protecting it in perpetuity themselves.

In order for the banking system to be effective, state and federal agencies must work closely together to align processes and practices. Since 1993, CDFW has been participating in the planning, review, approval, establishment, monitoring and oversight of 81 banks statewide. Other agencies that typically participate in the regulation and approval of conservation banks include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA NMFS).

To read more about one of these successful partnerships, link opens in new windowplease visit USFWS’ newsroom.

Learn more about CDFW’s Conservation and Mitigation Banking program, on our website.

All photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Top photo: A herd of cattle graze atop a hillside at Sparling Ranch near Hollister, Calif. Photo by Ashley Spratt/USFWS.

Categories: General
  • November 1, 2017

a pink, anenome-like flower grows next to a granite rock, under a barely visible, protective wire cage
Lassics lupine grows under protective cages.

a man sits beneath a pine tree on a bed of dry needles, building a small wire cage
Richard Macedo, Habitat Conservation Planning Branch Chief constructs a cage to protect rare, endangered Lassics lupine.

a pink flower with daisy-shaped leaves grows next to a rock, under a wire cage
Lassics lupine grows under protective cages.

Biologists from three government natural resource agencies banded together this summer in an unusual effort to help preserve a species under threat of extinction. They lugged materials to build wire cages into the rough terrain of the remote Lassics mountains near the border of Humboldt and Trinity counties in an effort to protect their target. However, these cages were not built to trap animals; they were constructed to keep animals out.

The barren, green serpentine slopes of Mount Lassic, located in a seldom-visited part of Six Rivers National Forest, are home to one of California’s rarest plants: the Lassics lupine (Lupinus constancei). Lassics lupine is a short plant in the pea family that has bright rose-pink flowers. Only approximately 450 adult Lassics lupine plants were observed during 2017 monitoring of the species conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with assistance from CDFW.

Rodents such as deer mice, squirrels and chipmunks have been eating so many Lassics lupine seeds from the plants that, absent intervention, the species appears to be on the path to extinction within the next 50 years (Kurkjian et al. 2016).

Biologists believe that historical suppression of fires in Six Rivers National Forest beginning in the early 1900s may be indirectly responsible for the encroachment of forest and chaparral into Lassics lupine habitat. Fires that were put out quickly did not grow large enough to reduce encroaching forest, and therefore the forest expanded. With the encroaching vegetation came more seed-eating rodents that depend on vegetation cover for protection from predators.

In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other researchers began an emergency attempt to halt Lassics lupine’s trend towards extinction. Each summer, biologists set off on the laborious hike up Mount Lassic to place cylindrical wire cages over as many flowering Lassics lupine plants as possible. Each cage is anchored to the ground to prevent rodents from squeezing underneath.

The cages are remarkably effective at stopping rodents when properly installed, and they remain on the plants for the duration of the growing season. After Lassics lupine fruits have matured, they often split open suddenly and send seeds flying through the air up to 13 feet away. The cages are then removed each year before the onset of winter snow.

“Protecting endangered species is California’s policy and plants like the Lassics lupine could disappear within our lifetimes,” explained Jeb Bjerke, a biologist with CDFW’s Native Plant Program. “We should do what we can to save these unique plants for the future.”

In 2015, in the midst of an historic drought, an 18,200-acre fire spread through the Lassics, killing many Lassics lupine plants and charring the chaparral vegetation nearby. The fire had little effect on the forest that encroaches into Lassics lupine habitat, but preliminary studies suggest that the fire may have reduced rodent density in the burned chaparral. Despite the apparent reduction in rodent density following the fire, the impact from rodents eating Lassics lupine seeds remains high. Continued caging of Lassics lupine plants therefore remains critical for preventing extinction of the species until a more permanent solution can be implemented, such as significant reduction of encroaching forest. However, such efforts are expensive to plan and implement. As the primary land manager, the U.S. Forest Service would likely be the lead agency in future protective actions.

In 2016, the California Fish and Game Commission received a petition to list Lassics lupine as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act and the species was designated a candidate species earlier this year. CDFW is in the process of producing a status review for Lassics lupine that will include a recommendation to the California Fish and Game Commission on whether listing the species is warranted. The legislature directs all state agencies, including CDFW, to seek the conservation of endangered and threatened species.

“I hope that CDFW can continue to partner with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Lassics lupine from extinction,” Bjerke said.

For additional information on this subject, please see:

California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos by Jeb Bjerke

Categories: General