Featured Scientist

  • November 29, 2023

Ian holds a wild hen pheasant trapped at night at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area as part of his extensive research into California’s wild pheasant populations.
Ian holds a wild hen pheasant trapped at night at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area as part of his extensive research into California’s wild pheasant populations.

Ian with his wife and son.
Ian with his wife and son.

Ian holds a wild duck trapped at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area so the bird can be outfitted with a radio transmitter to better understand migration patterns and habitat usage.
Ian holds a wild duck trapped at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area so the bird can be outfitted with a radio transmitter to better understand migration patterns and habitat usage.

A greater sage grouse captured in Nevada in 2017 carries a radio collar as part of a research project looking at how certain landscape uses such as grazing and energy development impact sage grouse populations.
A greater sage grouse captured in Nevada in 2017 carries a radio collar as part of a research project looking at how certain landscape uses such as grazing and energy development impact sage grouse populations.

California’s wild pheasant season opens the second Saturday in November every year. For many hunters, however, pheasant season is something of a phantom opportunity on the hunting calendar as wild ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), a farmland species once omnipresent throughout the Central Valley’s agricultural regions and rural backroads, have largely disappeared from the California landscape. Remnant, huntable populations of wild birds remain on some state wildlife areas, federal wildlife refuges and on pockets of private property but many pheasant hunters in California today pursue pen-raised birds released on licensed game bird clubs and other private ground or travel out-of-state to destinations in the Midwest where wild pheasants are still abundant.

Ian Dwight, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) Upland Game Unit, has spent the bulk of his professional career researching California’s wild pheasants, beginning with his graduate studies at UC Davis, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife, fisheries and conservation biology and a master’s degree in avian sciences. Prior to joining CDFW in 2022, Ian spent nine years with the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Western Ecological Research Center in Dixon, where he collaborated with CDFW scientists and other researchers in studying the long-term decline in California’s pheasant populations (PDF) and explored greater sage-grouse population dynamics in Nevada.

A native of Elk Grove in Sacramento County, Ian grew up hunting wild pheasants, waterfowl and other game bird species in the Sacramento Valley. Today, he is responsible for supporting upland game bird management in California, including improving habitat for upland game birds and waterfowl, and pursuing efforts to reverse the state’s wild pheasant decline.

Ring-necked pheasants are a nonnative species. Should we really care that much about them?

Although pheasants are nonnative, they share a lot of the same life history needs as other native species. They’re fairly easy to monitor because they vocalize during the breeding season, so we can track their calls and gain information on relative abundance and how that changes year-to-year. So, pheasants really are good candidates in terms of being indicators or surrogates for other upland and grassland birds in California.

Beyond an indicator species, there is just a lot of care, love and passion surrounding the tradition of pheasant hunting. They’re charismatic – beautiful birds, especially in hand. We have small towns in California that sprouted up years ago along the I-5 corridor and elsewhere as a direct result of pheasant hunting. We don’t see that kind of thing happening anymore, but both in terms of their value as an indicator species and as a hunting resource, pheasants are important.

Every California hunter, it seems, has a different theory behind the decline of wild pheasants. Some blame an increase in predators, others mosquito abatement, some West Nile virus and still others say clean farming. As a scientist who has researched this topic perhaps more than anyone else in California, what’s really to blame?

I’d say they’re all right, in a way. It’s the cumulative, long-term effects of many different things that have impacted pheasants as time has gone on.

The main phenomenon I’d point to is the changes in farming practices that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, namely clean farming practices, the elimination of hedgerows, the burning of canals and ditches, the use of herbicides to the point where the amount of cover and visual obstruction pheasants need to escape predation are no longer there. Not only that, but there have also been changes in the types of crops planted in California that are no longer advantageous to pheasants. The decrease in the planting of wheat, barley and cereal grains – sugar beets, too – has coincided with these clean farming practices. At the same time, you have increases in other crops that aren’t as advantageous such as rice and orchards across the Central Valley. As we decrease the amount of available cover and as we decrease the advantageous crops, you really decrease the carrying capacity for pheasants on the landscape.

Additionally, the fact that burning rice stubble is no longer allowed on the same scale it was in the 1990s is also a factor as is the increase in pesticides that eliminates potential food resources for chicks. The same argument has been made for mosquito abatement applications. So, there’s just a myriad of factors that have all culminated more or less at the same time over the last 30 years or more to impact populations.

How do you explain the pheasant decline on state wildlife areas and federal refuges that don’t see that same kind of intensive agriculture use? The Gray Lodge Wildlife Area today still provides more than 9,000 acres of wildlife habitat just as it did 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago when wild pheasants there were super abundant. As recently as 1998, hunters harvested almost 2,000 pheasants at Gray Lodge (PDF).

Well, I think if you were to look at satellite imagery of Gray Lodge over time, even from 1998 to today, you’d notice a pretty big difference. And that’s primarily the loss of upland habitat, the division of upland units, and the increase in seasonal wetlands and tree canopy.

Pheasants at Gray Lodge have declined for several reasons: They are cut off from other self-sustaining populations and lack contiguous blocks of upland habitat. They are surrounded by orchards and rice on neighboring properties. They get pounded by mosquito abatement during the summer when chicks have hatched and the area floods up certain units for moist-soil management or for grazing during the breeding season, which knocks out active nests on the ground. Not to mention there has been an increase in avian predators such as ravens and raptor species that take advantage of that mature tree canopy Gray Lodge offers.

When I was at USGS, we made a considerable effort trying to trap and radio monitor pheasants at Gray Lodge to try to understand nest and brood survival. The bottom line is that we had so much trouble finding and catching female pheasants at Gray Lodge that it was really hard to get a lot of information from such low sample sizes.

Is there any hope for wild pheasants in California?

Absolutely. If we as an agency are willing to continue our work providing habitat incentives to private landowners that will help reverse the trend. I’m speaking specifically about our incentive programs like the California Waterfowl Habitat Program, also known as the Presley Program, the Nesting Bird Habitat Incentive Program, the Permanent Wetland Easement Program and the California Winter Rice Habitat Incentive Program. Working with private landowners surrounding our wildlife areas and refuges to increase the overall amount of habitat on the landscape is key. If we can get to the point where we are putting habitat on the ground, not only at our public hunting areas but also on private lands, then we can really increase the carrying capacity of the landscape. It’s a matter of providing what pheasants need to carry out their life history.

What about all the recent interest in pollinators and pollinator habitat? Isn’t that another encouraging development for upland game birds? Don’t bees and butterflies share some of the same habitat needs as quail and pheasants?

Great question. One of the important components of pollinator habitat is flowering forbs and the diversity of flowering forbs you have in a given field. Well, that benefits pheasants in two ways. First, there are bugs of all kinds for pheasant chicks, which depend on insects for the first few weeks of their lives. That pollinator habitat also provides cover -- and escape cover from predators as well. When you have a mosaic of grassland habitat for nesting and forbs and pollinator habitat for brood-rearing, I think you have a really good mix. It’s an important composition to have for breeding ducks as well as pheasants.

A great example of this is at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. There’s a pretty big restoration effort happening in the northwest corner of the wildlife area. More than 1,000 acres of upland habitat is being restored or enhanced that at one time was chopped up into little fields. We are in the process of removing levees and irrigation ditches to create contiguous blocks of pollinator habitat and upland habitat for nesting ducks and pheasants. The project will be completed over the next several years.

Is CDFW conducting any current research on pheasants?

We piloted a study this year in which we deployed a number of autonomous recording units – what we call ARUs – at several different state wildlife areas and federal refuges to detect pheasant abundance. We had these ARUs listening for upland birds vocalizing during the breeding season before and after sunrise. What we do is take these recordings and upload them to a detector for bird sounds called BirdNET. It works similar to the Merlin Bird ID app you can download to your phone. Ours was developed by Cornell University, and we can very quickly feed hours and hours of sound files into this detector and it can tell us the species of bird being detected, the time of detection and the confidence that the detection is true. I deployed eight units in total at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area at both Little Dry Creek and at Howard Slough and I’d like to double that number next year. We had four recording units at Gray Lodge, 10 at Lower Klamath and another 10 at the Honey Lake Wildlife Area.

The detectors worked pretty well in terms of correctly identifying pheasants, turkeys, quail and dove. I think ARUs can be a cost-effective tool for monitoring bird populations without physically having to be present to detect these animals. We can bring that data into a monitoring framework and learn something about relative abundance by looking at the number of individuals vocalizing during a given time interval. It could at some point be a complement or perhaps an alternative to traditional surveys driving around and counting birds or listening for calls. It’s not just valuable for pheasants and game birds but other species as well. The Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area is particularly interested in detecting the occupancy of western yellow-billed cuckoo, which is a state- and federally listed species. So, I think there is a lot of potential for these autonomous recording units and leveraging technology so we can be in more places at the same time.

Would CDFW ever consider reaching out to states such as South Dakota or North Dakota to acquire some of their wild pheasants to bolster California’s populations or improve the genetic diversity of the populations we have here?

I’d like to see a lot more habitat creation and improvement before we take birds from somewhere else and put them on the landscape. I think some of our wildlife areas have a better chance at creating and maintaining healthy pheasant populations than others. The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area is a great example because of the size of the area and their uplands. Currently, hunters at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area harvest 50 percent of all the publicly taken wild pheasants in California. I think Grizzly Island, potentially, will be another great pheasant area with all the restoration efforts and infrastructure improvements under way.

One of the places that we’re eyeing as a source for translocations is the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It’s probably one of the few places in the state that still have wild pheasants consistently every year. But the habitat up there has suffered greatly because of the lack of water, so now there is a really big concern that those pheasants will begin to decline if the complex doesn’t get more water. I’m hopeful that the situation will change for the better. If the Klamath complex can get water again, we potentially could have a great source population of wild pheasants in northeastern California to translocate to public wildlife areas in the Central Valley. Right now, however, we are monitoring those populations and evaluating our next move.

Photos courtesy of Ian Dwight

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • March 9, 2018

A blonde woman standing on a dry grass plain holds a large bobcat wearing a gray transmitting collar, under a partly cloudy, bright blue sky
Alisa Ellsworth holds a newly-collared bobcat for the Eastern Sierra Bobcat Project.

A tall man with a gray beard stands arm-in-arm with three shorter women, all dressed in jeans and T-shirts, on a dry grass plain
Alisa Ellsworth and crew working on Fish Slough Ecological Reserve restoration project.

CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Alisa Ellsworth supervises the Inland Desert Region’s Northern Lands Program. Based out of the Bishop office, Alisa oversees 10 employees who perform a wide variety of activities including land acquisition planning, coordinating mitigation for incidental take, and managing over 120,000 acres of state ecological reserves and wildlife areas in Inyo, Mono and San Bernardino counties.

A Central Valley native, Alisa grew up in Visalia. She attended both undergraduate and graduate school at Fresno State, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in botany in 1993 and a master’s degree in biology in 1995. Her thesis focused on vernal pool ecology in Madera County.

What inspired you to become a biologist?

My interest in science first started in high school when I had to do an insect and plant collection for my biology class. I really enjoyed learning how to identify things in nature. When I started college, I was naturally drawn to biology courses and my path was set. I met a group of people that liked to go out botanizing and birding on the weekends and a whole new world opened up for me.

My first wildlife job was in 1992 with Pacific Southwest Research Station, estimating the density of spotted owls in Sequoia National Park. This is where I learned how to hike at night using a compass and topographic map, as there weren’t GPS units back in those days. The work also involved gathering vital rate data (reproduction and mortality) as well as characterizing diets from regurgitated pellets. In 1993, I spent an amazing summer working for the US Forest Service. I hiked all over the Sierra National Forest, mapping vegetation types and looking for rare plants.

How did you come to work for CDFW?

I worked as a scientific aide for the Habitat Conservation group in the Central Region for a year and a half when I was in college. After I graduated, I began working as a private consultant until 1996 conducting rare plant surveys, wetland delineations and revegetation projects. Around that time, I caught the travel bug and applied for a research assistant position focused on field studies of the guanaco, a South American wild camelid related to the llama. This took me to Torres Del Paine National Park in the Patagonia region of southern Chile, where I worked on guanaco reproductive strategies, spacing strategies and movement. We radio collared young guanacos (called chulengos) and monitored for survival and cause-specific mortality. This involved watching a mother give birth to her baby and then soon after running in and grabbing the baby and quickly putting a radio collar on it. Most of the mothers were pretty mild mannered, but one tried stomping on us and spit all over us, which was quite smelly!

Afterward, I joined the Peace Corps and stayed in Ecuador until 1999, working on environmental education projects in schools. When I returned to the United States, I worked briefly as a consultant again, and then took an associate biologist position with Caltrans in Fresno. When a position opened up in CDFW’s Bishop office, in the streambed alteration agreement program, I jumped at it. I was hired in 2001 and have never wanted to leave Bishop since.

Over my career with CDFW, I have managed the X9B and X9C deer zones, the Owens Valley tule elk zones and the White Mountain bighorn sheep hunt zone. I have collected and analyzed wildlife population data for upland game birds, mule deer, tule elk and Nelson bighorn sheep. I’ve provided harvest recommendations and direction for population management of those game animals. Since 2008, I’ve been with the Lands program, working on acquisition projects, writing grants and working with the Wildlife Conservation Board and other non-governmental organizations on projects of shared interest.

We sometimes say that the Eastern Sierra is “the most beautiful part of California you’ve never seen.” What is unique about this ecosphere?

The Eastern Sierra is comprised of mostly public land with very little development compared to many other areas around California. This allows for intact wildlife populations to exist in vast expanses of native habitat. For example, the federally endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep can be found in the high alpine environment in the summer months. They then move downslope in the winter to take advantage of available food not buried under snow. More than 600 bighorn in 13 occupied herd units can now be found in the Sierras, compared to 1995 when there were only 105 left after being devastated from diseases transmitted from competing domestic livestock in the high alpine meadows.

The sheer beauty of the tall mountains and the abundance of wildlife make it a truly special place. I enjoy hearing the tule elk bugling in the fall evenings near the Owens River. If you really want a treat, you can wake up before the sun rises to go observe the greater sage grouse congregate on their leks (meadows or barren areas with little cover) during the spring breeding season. The males put on quite a display in hopes of attracting a female by puffing out their chest, inflating air sacs and making unique sounds that I equate to drops of water.

What kinds of projects are conducted on the reserves and wildlife areas you manage?

Our activities are quite diverse, including managing water rights and grazing, controlling invasive species and performing various wildlife surveys. I serve as the lead for the Eastern Sierra bobcat study, which was initiated in 2014-2015 as part of a three-year project to assess current populations in Inyo and Mono counties. Specific data collected during the study include bobcat population size, density and age structure, as well as home range size, habitat selection, prey base and reproduction.

I also am also the lead for the low-elevation mesocarnivore survey project. This involves the use of remote cameras to capture detailed images of wildlife species such as bobcat, coyote and gray fox. The surveys help us estimate the percent of the study area that a species of interest occurs by placing one camera within a 10.4 Km cell and surveying 100 cells over multiple weeks. The data collected provides occupancy of the species surveyed. Capture-mark-recapture surveys can be done using this method with species such as bobcats that can be identified because of their unique coat patterns.

Inyo and Mono counties have been divided into eight study areas using geographical boundaries that the mesocarnivore surveys will be rotated through. Initially, these surveys will provide occupancy and abundance of individual species within each study area. Over time, data collected from the surveys can be useful to identify population trends.

What has been the most satisfying part of your CDFW career?

I really enjoy working with outstanding people who are focused on managing and conserving the state’s most important places and wildlife. I’m particularly proud of the conservation work that’s been conducted for the benefit of the Round Valley deer herd. We purchased several important properties within its winter range in Rovana and Swall Meadows, with the goal of protecting an intact migration corridor for them to move up and down in elevation to and from their winter and summer ranges.

What projects would you undertake if you had unlimited money and resources?

I am passionate about conserving natural areas for the perpetuation of healthy ecosystems and the wildlife populations they support. California is an incredibly biologically diverse state and these places are truly unique. By protecting them, we will allow them to be enjoyed generations to come. My most recent focus has been working to conserve the greater sage grouse through land acquisition and conservation easements. Funding all of the proposed actions in the Bi-State Action Plan for Greater sage grouse would be a dream come true.

CDFW photos.
Top photo:
Alisa Ellsworth works a Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep capture.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • November 1, 2017

In the shallow water at river's edge, a woman returns a five-foot-long green sturgeon to the water
Laura Cockrell with an endangered Green sturgeon she tagged in the Sacramento River for a sturgeon movement study

A woman wearing a green California Departmetn of Fish and Wildlife shirt holds a pond turtle
Laura holds a Western pond turtle at Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area.

At an outdoor work-table with test tubes on it, a woman wearing blue latex gloves pokes a dead bird with a cotton swab
Laura swabs a hunter-harvested Northern pintail for Avian Influenza sampling in 2007 at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.

Laura Cockrell is an environmental scientist at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, which is made up of three units covering nearly 9,700 acres in Butte and Glenn counties. Her duties include coordinating and conducting biological surveys on the wildlife area, managing wood duck nesting boxes, coordinating with volunteers and interacting with partners, including governmental agencies and non-government organizations. While most of her work involves surveying for game species, she has also captured giant garter snakes and western pond turtles for studies, and conducted surveys for yellow-billed cuckoos and Swainson’s hawks. Laura can also regularly be found planning habitat improvement and maintenance projects, writing reports, creating maps designed for public use on the wildlife area and generally assisting the public.

Laura graduated from California State University, Chico in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Science with an emphasis in Wildlife Biology. She earned a Master of Science in Biology with a concentration on Applied Ecology from Eastern Kentucky University. Her thesis used Landsat imagery to evaluate trumpeter swan nesting sites in Yellowstone National Park.

Prior to working at the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, she worked for the International Halibut Commission in Dutch Harbor, and for California Waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley, where she worked on summer mallard banding, pintail rocket netting, nest searches and wetland monitoring.

What led you into a career as a wildlife biologist?

I always enjoyed being outside and exploring as a kid. It took me a little while to find my path in college, but I chose to major in biology because studying ecology and nature sounded like a good chance to be outside every day. I signed up for a waterfowl course, and my passion for wildlife really took off after that.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

When I first started as a scientific aid with the department almost 11 years ago, I was working on the Avian Influenza Project. I swabbed hunter-harvested birds at the check station to be tested for avian influenza in the lab, and surveyed for bird die-offs throughout the region. I had never worked alone before, and it taught me a lot about how important it is to stay focused and on task when you are by yourself!

What inspires me to stay with the department is the potential I see for us to fulfill the goals of our management plan, and to improve habitat on the lands we have been entrusted to manage.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

It depends on the season. Waterfowl season is our busiest season as far as public use. It runs from late October through the beginning of February, but the preparation begins much earlier. During waterfowl season, I am usually in the office or at the check station. After waterfowl season ends, I finalize our hunt records for the end of season report and everyone is out monitoring the area flooding or inspecting damage from flooding. In the spring when we are in full survey mode, I will probably be out in the field before sunrise counting pheasant or quail. During the summer, I am usually in the field banding or in the office working on grant reports. Fall brings us back into preparation for the hunting seasons, where we have to prepare for September dove hunts, the J-9 zone deer hunt and waterfowl season.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

I have really enjoyed getting to work with western pond turtles and giant garter snakes. I took herpetology in college and it was great but “herps” were not really my thing until I got to work with them more. Any time we get to work with protected species and species of special concern is rewarding, and it is not something we get to do very often. Seeing protected species thrive on our wildlife areas means the hard work that goes into developing protections is helping local populations persist, and if the local population becomes healthy enough to expand maybe they can rebound throughout their range.

What is the most rewarding project that you have worked on for CDFW?

Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area is one of the few wildlife areas with an agriculture lease, so we work with our farmers to support wildlife-friendly agriculture practices. Because of the winter flooding this year, some of the rice fields were too wet during planting season, and farmers will be enrolling those fields in the BirdReturns program, which is offered by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with the California Rice Commission. The Nature Conservancy and the California Rice Commission began this program in 2014 to compensate farmers who provide pop-up habitat for migratory shorebirds in the fall and spring by flooding fallow rice fields. We are planning shorebird surveys during fall migration and I am so excited to see how shorebirds will react, hopefully by returning to the area. During the shorebird survey, we will drive down the roads through the flooded rice fields and count the number and types of shorebirds that are using the fields. Normally, if the fields have been planted in rice, they would not be usable by the birds because they are looking for mudflats, not rice fields. We would hope to see a high diversity of species and large amounts of birds using the flooded rice fields.

What is it about the work you do that you would most like us to know?

There are many constraints on the work we do that are created by factors outside our control. A large part of the work on our wildlife area is managing wetlands, but the drought brought a lot of challenges with water management. We work with what we have, but sometimes it is not a lot and that can be frustrating.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

Wildlife overpasses/underpasses! Our wildlife area has a highway that bisects one of the units, and the amount of wildlife killed by vehicles is such a shame. A few years ago, we had four deer killed in a quarter-mile stretch in less than a week, and this winter someone ended up driving into a waterway at one of our units to avoid a collision with a deer! There are the standard “deer crossing” signs, but people often drive well over the speed limit and put themselves and wildlife at risk for a collision. There has been a great deal of success in reducing wildlife collisions where wildlife overpasses and underpasses were created. I would love build underpasses with elevated roadways for all the major roadways around our units.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

More than once, I have had to remind myself, “You signed up for this, so put a smile on your face and get it done!” Walking in waders to check traps when it is 110 degrees out is not fun. Examining a carcass that has been rotting for a week is not fun. Cleaning up garbage is not fun. However, all of those things are critical for what we do! So put a smile on your face, get it done and get on with it.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

One of my classmates in college told me that I should switch to microbiology because “there is no future in studying plants or animals.” We need to understand our environment, how we interact with it and the impacts we make. Scientists are not always in a lab – they are out in the field, too. Obviously, I did not agree with his assessment or I would be a microbiologist! The guy that I was talking to felt like, career-wise, the money was in lab work and microbiology rather than fieldwork. Part of me can understand that line of reasoning, as there are more jobs with the medical profession if you target microbiology, but if that is not where your passion is then why would you take that path?

All photos courtesy of Laura Cockrell.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • October 4, 2017

two women wearing red vests, with other people in an incident command post
a blonde woman stands, holding awards, in front of a large poster
a female backpacker wearing a baseball cap sits on a barren slope of Mt. St. Helens
two adults in blue jumpsuits and hard hats stand on a dock, near the aft end of a cargo ship

Anna Burkholder is a senior environmental scientist with the Preparedness Branch of CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) in Sacramento. She is the statewide Inland Geographic Response Plan Coordinator, working with fellow OSPR staff throughout the state to develop inland response plans for waterways at high risk for an oil spill. She has worked for CDFW for 20 years, most recently joining OSPR in 2016. In addition to her role as response plan coordinator, she is training for two oil spill emergency response positions: wildlife branch director (the position that oversees wildlife response efforts during a spill) and liaison officer (which works to address stakeholders’ concerns during a spill).

Anna earned her Bachelor of Science degree in biology, with an emphasis in zoology, from San Francisco State University. She prefers being outdoors, hiking with her dogs, snowshoeing, paddle boarding and horseback riding. She volunteers with the DOVES Guidance Program, a therapeutic horseback riding program for at-risk kids, as well as for NorCal German Shorthaired Pointer Rescue. She is improving her skills at upland bird hunting, including pheasant and turkey, and is still waiting to take a shot at her first tom.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

When the movie Jaws came out, I was both terrified and fascinated. To this day, it is my favorite movie and I am more thrilled than ever with sharks. I briefly met Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, several years back at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and that was exciting. He was promoting a new book trying to dispel the terrifying image of Great Whites, which he felt partially responsible for creating. I was also inspired by Dr. John McCosker, a Great White Shark expert that works for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. McCosker had begun investigating why shark attacks occur, assessing their danger to humans in the grand scheme of things. He has worked to help understand the importance of sharks in the ecosystem and how they relate to the health of our oceans.

What got you interested in working with wildlife?

Clearly I would have loved to study sharks but didn’t follow that path. Along the way though, some of my classes at San Francisco State got me interested in some aspects of wildlife. Studying the behavior of snow leopards at the San Francisco Zoo (they sleep a lot!) for my Animal Behavior class, and doing some mark and recapture studies of mice and voles in Pacifica for an Ecology class, were fun experiences.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

Pure luck brought me to CDFW. After I graduated from college, I was working for a biotech company in Hercules and wasn’t terribly happy with the work. I used to go for walks during my break time and look out over San Pablo Bay and think to myself, “I need a job out there.” While taking an oceanography class at night at a junior college, I was looking at the job board one evening and saw a posting for a temporary scientific aid position with CDFW, working on the Bay Study Project. I got the job and lo and behold, there I was out on a boat every month, sampling fish throughout the Delta and San Francisco Bay (including San Pablo Bay!). I have never looked back.

Twenty years later, I guess it was a good move for me. I stay because I love this department, mostly the people I work with, and the dedication and passion we all have for the environment and the strong desire to protect the species and habitats in the state.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

When I am not traveling to participate in oil spill drills, oil spill workshops or Incident Command System training, I spend time working on the Geographic Response Plan template document that will be used to produce regional plans throughout the state for oil spill response. I coordinate with my OSPR colleagues, as well as other state and federal agencies, oil spill response organizations and industry folks on the development of these documents so they can provide a useful tool in responding to an incident. It’s been great to meet and work with an entirely new set of folks that I haven’t come across in my career until now, and to have a common goal of preparing for oil spills and working to protect the public, the environment and economic resources in our state.

What is the most memorable or rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the field working on boats. I worked on the 2007 Pike Eradication project at Lake Davis, and even got to spend a day escorting Delta and Dawn, the wayward humpback whale cow and calf that swam up the deep water channel to the Port of Sacramento in 2007. We escorted them on the last day they were observed inside the Golden Gate as they made their way through San Pablo Bay and finally back out to the Pacific Ocean.

I would have to say the most rewarding project is shaping up to be my new job with OSPR. The office was established 25 years ago and has a very comprehensive marine program in terms of preparedness and response to oil spills, but since OSPR’s jurisdiction expanded to include inland in 2015, I get to be on the forefront of establishing preparedness plans to protect all waters of the state.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I work with an amazing group of folks in every part of our department, and we have a common goal of preserving and enhancing the natural environment. Being able to feel proud of the department you work for and cheering on the achievements of others in your field is a great feeling. Not to mention some of the great days in the field, which include flying along the California coast to record data on nesting seabirds, looking for nesting grebes in high mountain lakes and touring the state’s bird and marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facilities.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

The term “environmental scientist” encompasses a wide range of job duties within the State of California, including field biologists and environmental planning and permitting staff. We certainly have state scientists who conduct important laboratory research, including folks who work for OSPR and conduct water analysis and DNA fingerprinting on oil products. And what’s wrong with a periodic table? I loved general chemistry class!

Do you have advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

If it is what you love to do, then don’t shy away from following that path. You can try different aspects of working in the natural resources field and then focus on what you enjoy the most. I would volunteer or take shorter-term assignments to work with multiple organizations and get experience in different areas. Meet experts in their field and get a foot in the door through internships or part-time jobs. There are so many exciting directions you can go in this field.

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • July 18, 2017

In a meadow, a small deer with a mask covering its eyes lies next to a man on his knees
A man holds a gray dove on his open palm, in scrub-brush habitat

Dave Lancaster is an environmental scientist covering Humboldt and Del Norte counties for the Northern Region’s Wildlife Management Program. He has been a unit wildlife biologist for the past 13 years, covering a variety of issues involving birds and mammals including hunting program management, human-wildlife conflict, wildlife disease and welfare, habitat restoration, special-status species protection, population monitoring, research and providing technical assistance to other CDFW programs, agencies and the public.

Dave grew up in eastern Oregon and graduated from Oregon State University, earning Bachelor of Science degrees in both Wildlife Science and Fisheries Science. He has worked as a biologist for more than 20 years, the last 17 of which have been with CDFW.

What led you into a career as a wildlife biologist?

Hunting is a part of life out in rural eastern Oregon, and you start young. This early introduction to game quickly grew into a much wider appreciation for the land and wildlife in general. While there are a number of different jobs that allow a person to satisfy their desire to work out on the land, being a wildlife biologist provides an opportunity to work for the benefit of wildlife and the people who appreciate it.

It is interesting that you have degrees in both Wildlife Science and Fisheries Science. How did that come about?

I wanted to have a career in wildlife management, but most of the work was in fisheries, so I was hedging my bets.

What brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

Early in one’s career as a biologist, it is often necessary to be flexible and willing to go where job opportunities take you. Like many people in other states, my image of California was crowded freeways and urban sprawl. I never imagined I would make a career here, but when a job came up, I took it, figuring I would not be here long. It was a nice discovery for me that California still has a wealth of wildlife and wildlands, and diverse opportunity to work toward making a material contribution to conservation.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

Unit wildlife biologists have such a wide variety of duties that we typically work on several distinctly different issues in a day, and frequently have our plans changed by new developments occurring in any one of the many tasks we cover. I may on a given morning start to design a study, do a survey or prepare a management plan. Then the phone rings and I am being told a bear broke into a chicken coop, a deer is tangled up in barbed wire or a group of birds has been found dead on the beach – and the day just changed.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

There are so many rewarding moments in a biologist’s career, it is difficult to pick out one particular thing. There are those projects that are not enjoyable to work on in the moment, but are very rewarding in the end because of the benefit to wildlife they produce. For example, developing habitat improvement projects and mitigation for impacts from development projects involve a lot of time at the desk, in meetings and conferring with folks with differing opinions and goals. Then there are the days when you are out in woods, grasslands or marshes doing surveys or tagging wildlife. You also get personal satisfaction and thanks from the public for helping a particular animal in some form of distress, such as when a deer or an elk is tangled up in barbed wire and you are able to free it up and send it on its way. On other days, you get the opportunity to help a person who is having some type of problem with wildlife. Of course, for wildlife biologists, any day improving the outlook for wildlife constitutes a good day, but if doing so happens to involve watching, handling or tracking animals, then all the better.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

The groups of species that I interact with most frequently are game birds and mammals, typically through managing hunting programs, helping landowners who are having conflicts with wildlife and responding to disease outbreaks. I do not have one particular favorite species. It is a diverse and fascinating world out there, with each one having its own appeal.

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

Figuring out how to restore and maintain native grassland habitats while accommodating commercial livestock ranching in the shrub steppe of the Great Basin and in coastal montane prairies would be high on the list in terms of landscape-scale conservation priorities. These areas provide important wildlife habitat but the livestock industry is important as well to these rural communities. Providing for both is the key to success in the big picture.

What is it about the work you do that you would most like us to know?

Unit wildlife biologists, as with staff from most of CDFW’s programs, work every day to find practical, effective solutions to complex problems, and try when doing so to satisfy a diverse range of constituents. We have to be practical because the decisions we make and the work we do often directly affects both our constituency and conservation actions carried out on the ground. We have to come up with solutions that actually work, not just in theory; they must work for wildlife, be compatible with landowners’ desired use of their property and be implemented in a cost effective manner. Take hunting as an example: you need to provide for the ecological integrity of the wildlife population being hunted and the habitats and other species that interact with it, and provide for use by the public both in the form of hunting and viewing opportunity, and use hunting as a tool to minimize property damage the hunted species may be causing on private property.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Get out in the field and read all the quality scientific literature you have time for. The university and on-the-job training are key components to building knowledge and competency, but a lifelong habit of self-education is indispensable. A broad familiarity with the collective knowledge compiled by those that came before us, tempered with extensive and considered first-hand observations from the field, are what make a good biologist.

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