Steps towards restoring an endangered species (Part I)

[*Note from the lab’s Dr. Deana Clifford:  Wev’e been a bit quiet for a while, but not because we’ve disappeared.   We are re happy to start back up again with a 3 part special series updating everyone about our exciting multi-agency/academia/NGO effort to save the critically endangered Amargosa vole. Stay tuned-more posts coming from our activities including voles, fishers, and bighorn sheep!]

By Austin Roy (CDFW WIL Scientific Aid) & Anna Rivera (CDFW Volunteer)

Austin Roy (Scientific Aid) at Site 1 in July 2014.  Notice the degraded bulrush habitat on the right and only moderately healthy bulrush on the left.

Austin Roy at Site 1 in July 2014. Notice the degraded brown bulrush habitat on the right and only moderately healthy bulrush on the left. Photo by Risa Pesapane

Captive breeding can sometimes be an effective conservation method in the toolbox available to wildlife managers. It’s often employed as a last resort when other conservation efforts have not succeeded.  Wild-caught animals are brought into a captive environment and mated for the purpose of increasing the species’ numbers and/or to create an insurance population in case the wild population goes extinct.    Captive breeding programs have helped in recovery efforts for  several endangered species including the California condor, black-footed ferret, island fox, and peregrine falcon.

Our research team from CDFW and UC Davis have been monitoring the population of the endangered Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis). In July, we observed that the habitat of the marsh where most remaining voles live was rapidly degrading.  At the same time, vole numbers were rapidly increasing as part of a normal birth pulse cycle.  The shrinking marsh was not going to be able to support the number of voles being born so we consulted with our collaborators in the Amargosa vole working group (the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, and UC Berkeley) and brought 20 young voles (that would have likely died in the wild) into captivity to try to establish an insurance population of voles.

Amanda Poulsen (UC Davis Grad Student) placing voles in indoor quarantine cages upon arrival at UC Davis.

Amanda Poulsen (UC Davis Graduate Student) places voles in indoor quarantine cages upon arrival at UC Davis. Photo by Austin Roy

Ten males and 10 females were brought to UC Davis and placed into indoor quarantine in late July 2014.   Individuals underwent disease and genetic testing to decide which individuals would be paired for mating.  After quarantine, voles were placed into pairs for mating.

In October, we successfully weaned our first litter of Amargosa vole pups!  This is the first step to expanding the captive population to the point when animals can begin to be released into the wild to supplement the wild population.  The voles are currently being housed indoors, but we are in the process of creating outdoor pens for the voles where they will experience conditions more closely resembling their natural marsh environment.

While a small step has been made towards the recovery of this endangered species and the path forward remains long, our team remains committed to saving the Amargosa vole.

Click on the links below to read about the Amargosa vole captive breeding program and see more pictures:

Scientists work to save endangered desert mammal – CDFW & UC Davis Press Release

Bouncing Baby Voles Bring New Hope for One of North America’s Most Endangered Mammals – BLM NewsBytes

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