Captive-breeding colony of Amargosa voles continues its success

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Captively bred Amargosa voles. Photo credit: Nora Allen

Since 2014, CDFW-WIL has partnered with UC Davis in order to create and maintain a breeding colony of Amargosa voles essential to the recovery of the species.  If interested in learning more about the history and progress of the colony, please read more here.  Below is a video showing a few of the vole pups bred in captivity (Credit: Janet Foley).

Restoring habitat for the endangered Amargosa vole

In the Spring of 2016, CDFW (WIL and Region 6), UC Davis, BLM, USFWS, and many volunteers partnered to restore a key habitat patch utilized by the Amargosa vole. This habitat patch used to sustain the highest density of Amargosa voles in the world, but in 2010 it began to deteriorate due to changes in hydrology. The Amargosa vole team worked diligently to restore the water supply and reinvigorate vegetation growth at the marsh. Learn more about the Amargosa vole project.

Steps towards restoring an endangered species (Part II)

By Austin Roy (Scientific Aid)

Reintroductions, translocations, and augmentations are methods of restoring or increasing wildlife populations.  These actions require a lot of planning and are often expensive.  These methods involve removing animals from a source population and placing them in another location.  The goal of these efforts are usually to establish a sustainable population where one did not previously exist, provide new individuals to a site with a low population in hopes of increasing the population, and providing new or rare genes to a population that may need genetic rescue, among other reasons.

Healthy habitat at the recipient site that voles were translocated into.

Healthy habitat at the recipient site that voles were translocated into. Photo courtesy of Risa Pesapane

This summer our University of California, Davis and California Department of Fish & Wildlife (WIL) research team conducted a population augmentation for the endangered Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis).  Our goal  was to supplement a very small population of voles in one marsh with new individuals and genes from a larger population in another marsh.

A "hard" release of a collared vole at the donor site.

A “hard” release of a collared vole at the source site.

We placed radio collars on 3 voles at the source site, 4 voles that we removed from the source site and relocated to the recipient site, and 3 individuals at the recipient site.  By collaring both relocated voles and resident voles at source site and the recipient site we could monitor how relocated animals utilized the new site and whether or not resident individuals were impacted by the presence of new individuals in their habitat.

Janet Foley (UC Davis Principal Investigator) conducting radio telemetry for collared Amargosa voles.

Janet Foley (UC Davis Co-Principal Investigator) uses and antenna and receiver to listen for the signals of radio- collared Amargosa voles. Photo courtesy of Risa Pesapane.

The data we collected will greatly benefit vole recovery and inform how we conduct future releases.

In addition to the augmentation efforts this summer we also continued to study the population cycles of voles and predators in the area.  These studies allow us to better understand how voles and predators use the area how the predators may be affecting vole populations.  We have also been studying the vegetation and water levels to better understand the needs of the Amargosa vole.  These efforts will help us better understand how to restore and improve vole habitat.

Stephanie Castle, Risa Pesapane, and Amanda Poulsen (UC Davis Graduate Students) conducting a point count for Amargosa vole predators.

Stephanie Castle, Risa Pesapane, and Amanda Poulsen (UC Davis Graduate Students) conduct a point count for Amargosa vole predators.

The research this summer would not have been possible without the support from our partners at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, CA Department of Fish & Wildlife (Region 6), Integral Ecology Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Shoshone Village, Inyo County Roads Department, and the Amargosa Conservancy.

 

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

Throwback Thursday: Controlled Burns for Improving Wildlife Habitat

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

Today we feature an article that looks at how the Department of Fish & Game utilized controlled burns as a management tool.  As the article states, fire has influenced plant and animal species for centuries.  It is a common misconception that many animals are killed by fire.  In fact the primary effect fire has on wildlife is habitat alteration.  Some plant species have actually adapted to cope with fire. This article mentions pyriscence as an example. Pyriscence is when the maturation and release of seeds is fully or partially triggered by smoke and/or fire resulting in new plant crops.

Managing habitat with fire also reduces fire risk by lowering the fuel load.  Large fuel loads -dead plant material and brush build up- that are allowed to accumulate over time cause fires to burn hotter and spread more rapidly.  These are the types of wildfires that are more likely to become dangerous and destructive to people and property.

Using fire as a tool is still an important technique in managing habitat for various species of plants and animals today.  This article originally appeared in the November-December issue of Outdoor California in 1973.

NovDec73

 

 

Throwback Thursday: On Wildlife Management

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

They say you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.  Our latest installment of Throwback Thursday takes a look at an article from the November 1956 issue of Outdoor California discussing what wildlife management is, and why it is needed (and a bonus for any poetry fans out there).

By today’s standards, we would substitute ‘game’ for ‘wildlife’ in the article title as the author, Jack R. Beer, takes a very game-centric approach in his discussion.  Which makes sense considering his job title was ‘Game Manager.’  Regardless, the main points in this article still apply to wildlife management today with the understanding that the principles expand to encompass all wildlife, not just those species which are harvested.

Nov56

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.