Renewed Efforts in Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Surveillance

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a fatal neurologic disease of cervids (e.g. deer, elk, moose, reindeer). It is caused by a misfolded form of a normal protein, known as a prion. The misfolded proteins aggregate in nervous tissues causing progressive damage to the brain of infected animals. CWD belongs to a group of human and animal diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE). Examples of TSEs in animals include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, also known as “mad cow disease,” and scrapie in sheep and goats, which has been known to veterinary medicine for over 200 years. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a sporadic prion disease arising in 1:1,000,000 people, and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which has been linked to the consumption of infected cattle during the “mad cow disease” outbreak in Great Britain and Europe in the 1990s, are examples of TSEs in humans.

Since 1999, California has tested 4500 deer and elk for CWD. To date, no CWD has been found. However, the potential for CWD to spread to California’s deer and elk populations still exists and surveillance for the disease remains important.

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In late September 2017, Dr. Brandon Munk (CDFW) provided information on CWD and necropsy training to CDFW biologists, USDA staff and CDFW natural resource volunteers in sampling the lymph nodes of deer.  These tissue samples will be submitted to a laboratory and tested for CWD.

CDFW is asking hunters in Hunt Zone X2-X7b to voluntarily participate in this sampling and disease surveillance by bringing harvested deer to one of the CWD Sampling/Hunter Check Stations. These stations will be open  during opening weekend (October 7-8, 2017).

Sampling is voluntary, easy and free. Department staff or volunteers will record the tag number and take two small lymph nodes from the neck of the deer. There will be no damage to skull or antlers, only an incision across the neck to identify and sample the lymph nodes. Hunt tags can also be validated at the same time. The entire process will only take minutes.

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Necropsy Training: Studying disease in bighorn sheep

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Dr. Janet Moore (California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory – San Bernardino) instructs CDFW field staff in bighorn necropsy techniques.

On Thursday, September 14, 2017, the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory (CAHFS) and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW), Wildlife Investigations Laboratory (WIL) hosted a bighorn sheep necropsy course at the CAHFS Diagnostic Laboratory in San Bernardino, California. Assisting with the course were Dr. Peregrine Wolff and wildlife technician Chris Morris from the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW). In attendance were CDFW regional biologists, scientific aides, and veterinarians. The course served as an opportunity for attendees to learn how to recognize, describe, and collect samples from bighorn sheep during field necropsies. It also provided a reminder of how important it is to keep domestic sheep populations separated from free-ranging bighorn populations in order to maintain healthy herds.

After introductory remarks from Dr. Ben Gonzales (CDFW WIL), Dr. Francsisco Uzal (CAHFS) led a discussion on how to describe macroscopic lesions (i.e. distribution, size, shape, demarcation, color, consistency, contour) along with a review of the pathology of a few select domestic and bighorn sheep diseases. Dr. Francisco Carvallo (CAHFS) then expanded upon the main respiratory pathogens of bighorn sheep, which includes lungworms (Protostrongillus spp.), bacteria (e.g. leukotoxin-positive Pasteurellaceae, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae), and viruses (e.g. respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza-3 virus). Following an important review of appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) to utilize during bighorn sheep necropsies led by Meridith Rhea (CAHFS), Dr. Peregrine Wolff (NDOW) led a discussion on field necropsy techniques and nasal tumors of bighorn sheep to wrap up the morning session.

The afternoon was spent observing a bighorn sheep necropsy demonstration performed by Janet Moore (CAHFS) and Akinyi Nyaoke (CAHFS). Attendees were then given the opportunity to perform their own bighorn sheep necropsies under the guidance of the aforementioned instructors, along with assistance from Karina Fresneda (CAHFS), Patricia Gaffney (CAHFS), Dr. Francsisco Uzal (CAHFS), Dr. Francisco Carvallo (CAHFS), Dr. Peregrine Wolff (NDOW), Chris Morris (NDOW), Dr. Brandon Munk (CDFW WIL), Dr. Ben Gonzales (CDFW WIL) and Dr. Andrew Di Salvo (CDFW WIL).

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Dr. Peregrine Wolff (Nevada Division of Wildlife) demonstrating locating sinus tumors in bighorn.

BOLO for BTPI

Be on the look out for band-tailed pigeons! Reports this month indicate band-tailed pigeons, California’s only native pigeon, are utilizing areas where they haven’t been in years. Observers have reported flocks of 50 to 100 birds in locations where pigeons haven’t been seen in at least 15 to 20 years. These seemingly erratic movements are directly tied to available food resources. During the winter, band-tailed pigeons feed primarily on acorns. They are one of the few species that actually swallow acorns whole!

Adult band-tailed pigeon showing the characteristic white crescent and iridescent greenish-bronze patch of feathers on the hindneck. Photo by Gary Kramer, 2008.

Adult band-tailed pigeon showing the characteristic white crescent and iridescent greenish-bronze patch of feathers on the hind-neck. Photo by Gary Kramer, 2008.

Acorns on a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in Monterey County, a favoriate wintertime food of band-tailed pigeons. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2011.

Acorns on a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), a favorite wintertime food of band-tailed pigeons. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2011.

Acorn productivity fluctuates among oak species and between years. In some years, oaks may produce large quantities of acorns, in other years acorn production can be spotty. If acorns are not available, pigeons will rely on other food items such as madrone berries or pine nuts. However, the availability of all these plant foods are dependent upon weather conditions including temperature and the timing of rain, which leads to changeable food resources. Band-tailed pigeons must be adaptable to these variable conditions and seek out food resources across the landscape.

The observations of pigeons using “non-traditional” locations this winter may possibly be influenced by recent drought conditions. In Sacramento County, acorn productivity this season was very high and, in fact, bird watchers reported seeing flocks of band-tailed pigeons along the American River during fall migration. In contrast, a recent trip to the Los Padres National Forest in Monterey County, a location known to be especially reliable for both acorns and band-tailed pigeons, revealed neither acorns nor band-tailed pigeons this winter! Instead, pigeons were observed at lower elevations where abundant food was available.

Flock of band-tailed pigeons in oak tree in Santa Clara County. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2014.

Flock of band-tailed pigeons in oak tree in Santa Clara County. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2014.

Also likely related to drought, was the increased incidence of Trichomonosis in band-tailed pigeons this summer. Trichomonosis is a disease caused by a single-celled microscopic protozoan parasite, Trichomonas gallinae.  The parasite lives in the mouth and throat of infected birds, causing caseous (“cheese-like”) lesions to develop in the birds’ mouth or esophagus. The lesions eventually block the passage of food, causing the bird to become weak and emaciated. Infected birds die from starvation, or suffocation if the lesions block the airway.

An adult band-tailed pigeon showing signs of infection with Trichomonas parasites. Notice the drooped wings, ruffled feathers, and open-mouth breathing. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2012.

An adult band-tailed pigeon showing signs of infection with Trichomonas parasites. Notice the drooped wings, ruffled feathers, and open-mouth breathing. Photo by Krysta Rogers, 2012.

Band-tailed pigeons are highly susceptible to infection with Trichomonas gallinae. Traditionally, large-scale die-offs occur during the winter months, in some years. However, this year the Wildlife Investigations Lab  received reports of increased mortality of band-tailed pigeons in several locations along the central California coast between May and August. Drought conditions likely resulted in increased contact between individual birds at limited food or watering sites, resulting in rapid spread of disease. This increased mortality of band-tailed pigeons is concerning because the band-tailed pigeon population has been declining for the past 40 years. Die-offs due to Trichomonosis can remove hundreds to thousands of pigeons from the population in a relatively short period of time.

This winter, be on the look out for band-tailed pigeons in your area. If you see pigeons, enjoy the spectacle, it may not occur at that location for another 20 years! And if you happen to observe pigeons that appear sick, such as showing signs of weakness, labored breathing, breathing with their bill open, drooling, reluctance to fly when approached, or are dead, you can help by reporting the mortality to the Wildlife Investigations Lab.

If you have any questions, or would like to report sick or dead band-tailed pigeons, contact Krysta Rogers at 916-358-1662.

Multi-agency Effort to Rescue Deer From Canal

A doe and her fawn found themselves in need of some assistance in getting out of a canal near the bridge on Hazel Avenue in Rancho Cordova on Monday, December 15.  Personnel from Sacramento Metropolitan Fire, Bureau of Reclamation, Kindred Spirits Fawn Rescue, California Fish and Wildlife North Central Region and the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory all contributed their expertise to ensure the best outcome for the deer.  The doe and fawn were safely captured and then released at Lake Natoma.  Below are pictures of the rescue.

Doe and fawn trapped in canal.

Doe and fawn trapped in canal.

 

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire rescuing doe from the canal

Sacramento Metropolitan Fire rescuing doe from the canal

California Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel blindfolding the doe to reduce  stress to the animal and hobbling the doe so she won't hurt herself or others

California Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel blindfolding the doe to reduce stress to the animal and hobbling her so she won’t hurt herself or others

 

Dr. Ben Gonzales from California Fish and Wildlife releasing the fawn after rescue.

Dr. Ben Gonzales from California Fish and Wildlife releasing the fawn after rescue.

 

Photo Album of Large Mammal Captures – Spring 2014

This spring the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory assisted with 8 large mammal captures throughout California.  Wildlife capture projects are conducted to help biologists and veterinarians assess the health of these herds through biological sampling,  to place GPS collars on the animals to monitor movement and help study habitat use, and for translocating animals.  A total of 207 animals were captured including 132 deer, 21 pronghorn antelope, 36 elk and 18 bighorn sheep.  Below is a small collection of photos from our month in the field.

Large mammal project locations.  Spring 2014

Large mammal project locations. Spring 2014

Bandaging elk antlers to prevent injury

Bandaging elk antlers to prevent injury

Stabilizing elk for transport to trailer for relocation to another site.

Stabilizing elk for transport to trailer for relocation to another site. San Luis Refuge, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Merced County.

Pronghorn antelope

Pronghorn antelope, Modoc County. Photo by Richard Shinn.

Helicopter bringing deer into basecamp for health monitoring

Helicopter bringing deer into base camp for health monitoring, Inyo County

Translocation and release of Sierra Nevada bighorn to augment herd in Olancha

Translocation and release of Sierra Nevada bighorn to augment herd in Olancha, Inyo County.

Deer release after GPS collaring and health monitoring - Scott Valley, Siskiyou County.

Deer release after GPS collaring and health monitoring – Scott Valley, Siskiyou County. Photo by Eric Haney

The Tule Elk, A California Comeback Story

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

The elk (Cervus canadensis) to this day remains an icon of what once was the unsettled, untamed American frontier.  There are four extant subspecies of elk in North America.  The Manitoban elk (C.c. manitobensis) is exclusive to Canada, but the other three subspecies can be found in California.  They are the Roosevelt elk (C.c. roosevelti) of the north coast rainforests, Rocky Mountain elk (C.c. nelsoni) of the northeastern counties, and the tule elk (C.c. nannodes) native to the Central Valley.

Elk distribution in California.

Elk distribution in California.  Photo courtesy of the DFW Elk Management Program.

Tule elk look similar to other elk in general size, shape, and color (albeit tules wear a slightly lighter brown).  Generally speaking, however, tule elk are overcome in maximum size by both Rocky Mountain elk and the great Roosevelt elk.  A good sized Roosevelt bull, the largest of the subspecies, can reach 1,000 pounds or more.  Tule elk are the smallest subspecies; in fact, at one time they were colloquially referred to as ‘dwarf elk’.  A large bull tule elk will tip the scales at about 700-800 pounds (hardly a ‘dwarf’ by any means), yet under ideal conditions they may grow larger.

The tule elk, the smallest of the elk subspecies, are best adapted to open country and semi-desert conditions among elk races (McCullough 1969).  Image source: CDFW

Tule elk once roamed the San Jaoquin Valley in ample numbers.  Early settlers found tule elk roaming the foothills of the Sierra Nevada west to the central Pacific coast and from the headstream of the Sacramento River south to the Tehachapi Mountains.  Much like the affliction of the American bison on the Great Plains, tule elk became a casualty of human settlement — particularly after the Gold Rush.

Unregulated market hunting, competition with livestock, and the introduction of nonnative plant species all contributed to the decline of tule elk.  What was more devastating, however, was the conversion of elk habitat to agricultural land.  When settlers turned to the plow not only did it remove food and cover resources for elk, it also brought about direct conflict between elk and farmers.  Increasing crop and fence damage fueled campaigns for the removal of the tule elk by those individuals whose livelihoods were affected.  By the time elk hunting was banned by the state legislature in 1873, it was unknown if any tule elk even remained.

Luckily tule elk did remain, thanks in part to the protection provided by California cattle baron Henry Miller.  In 1874 a pair of Tule elk was discovered on the Miller and Lux Ranch by a local game warden at Button Willow.  Miller set aside 600 acres (near present day Tule Elk State Natural Reserve) to give the elk a chance to rebound.  In 1914, the elk had experienced such growth in numbers that Miller requested the California Fish & Game Commission work to relocate the elk from his ranch.

In order to relieve Miller from elk damage to his property and crops (reportedly estimated at $5,000 per year), the U.S. Biological Survey attempted to relocate tule elk by lassoing them from horseback and transporting them to new areas, with little success.  From 1914 to 1934 the California Academy of Science took on tule elk relocation activities 21 times over the next several decades.  These attempts were not very successful either, although they did contribute to establishing the herds at Owens Valley, Cache Creek, and the Tupman Reserve.

From 1971 through 1989 complete species protection was granted to tule elk.  State and Federal laws were passed to prohibit hunting of tule elk until a population of at least 2,000 was reached.  Habitat improvement programs combined with an aggressive reintroduction campaign by the Department of Fish & Game and other state and federal agencies yielded a significant increase in California’s tule elk population.

Tule elk of the San Luis National Wildlife Refugre, circa 1970s.  Image source: BLM 3rd Annual Report to Congress on The Tule Elk.

Tule elk of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, cca the 1970s. Image source: BLM 3rd Annual Report to Congress on The Tule Elk, March 1, 1979.

Today there are twenty-two tule elk herds in the Golden State, totaling around 4,200 individuals with the population trending upward.

Due to competing land use practices, it is not easy for tule elk to freely move between sub-populations; this requires the Department of Fish & Wildlife to take action in order to meet statewide management objectives.To help maintain healthy herds, every so often CDFW is tasked with capturing and relocating healthy elk to different established

Dr. Annette Roug (right, kneeling) leads a team of biologists as they attempt to weigh a cow elk.  Photo credit: Joe and Nancy Rodrguez.

Dr. Annette Roug (front right) leads a team of biologists as they attempt to weigh a cow elk. Photo credit: Joe and Nancy Rodrguez.

herds.  Removing elk from one herd and placing them in another helps to simulate the natural movement of individuals between herds which increases genetic diversity, an important function of a healthy population.

The Wildlife Investigations Lab took part in one such capture and relocation effort at the end of March.  A total of 36 elk were captured via helicopter from the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.  Once elk were netted from the helicopter, they were processed by capture teams.  Capture teams took measurements, collected hair, blood, and other biological data to assess the health of the herd before they moved on to their new locations.

The animals were successfully released to join their new herds.  A portion of the captured animals were also radio-collared to collect post-release movement information.

An elk sets eyes on joining its new herd.  Photo courtesy of Joe and Nancy Rodriguez.

An elk sets sights on joining its new herd. Photo courtesy of Joe and Nancy Rodriguez.

To read the CDFW news release from this successful capture, click here.

For more information on the CDFW Elk Program, click here.

Interested in more tule elk biology?  Click here.