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

Drought and the Impact on California’s Wildlife

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

California has been experiencing persistent dry conditions since 2012.  According to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 99% of California is currently abnormally dry, 67% of California is in extreme drought, and almost 10% is experiencing exceptional drought — and it may not let up soon.  The implication of a drought emergency is relatively straightforward: there is a severe lack of water.  This lack of water affects Californians in many ways, be it economically or socially.  But how does it affect the state’s wildlife?

Nearly 99% of California is abnormally dry, while 63% of the state is experiencing extreme drought (as of February 4, 2014).  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Nearly 99% of California is “abnormally dry”, 67% of the state is experiencing “extreme drought”, and 10% is experiencing “exceptional drought” (as of February 4, 2014). Photo courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor.  Click here for the most up to date drought conditions in California.

California’s wildlife depends on water just as it’s citizens do.  With water resources becoming increasingly rare, a “domino effect” takes place in the ecosystem. Drought conditions negatively impact habitat through resource deterioration and wildfire, causing migration and behavior changes of animals.  Wildlife become concentrated in remaining suitable habitat, increasing chances for disease outbreaks due to close contact.

It begins at the producer level.  As drought intensity increases, vegetation growth is stymied.  Plants that lack necessary water resources respond by reducing new stem growth while previously produced stems will shrivel and die.  The obvious effect from lowered plant production is a reduction in food availability for herbivores.  This in turn reduces populations of insects, reptiles, wild rodents, and hares which many small carnivores and raptors rely upon for food.

Dry conditions in cache creek, Yolo County.  Photo credit: Krysta Rogers, WIL.

Dry conditions at Cache Creek, Lake County, in late December 2013. Photo credit: Krysta Rogers, Wildlife Investigations Lab (WIL).

With lower food availability, animals tap into their body’s fat reserves. Utilizing fat reserves will ultimately lead to starvation for wildlife whose nutritional needs are not eventually fulfilled. Beginning in mid-December, WIL began documenting increased mortality of young red-tailed hawks in central and southern California. Investigation revealed poor body condition, emaciation, and secondary bacterial or fungal infections. A similar event occurred the previous winter, also in dry conditions.

Red tailed hawk.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Drought impacts all trophic levels, including birds of prey such as the red-tailed hawk (pictured). Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Reduced plant growth also negatively affects available cover for wildlife.  Cover is an important element for prey species to evade predators.  As plant life diminishes, landscapes become more open.  For some wildlife, such as ground nesting birds, the likelihood of predation increases as these drought ridden landscapes open up.

With the odds already stacked against them, wildlife in drought conditions are also forced to travel greater distances in search of food and water resources.  Some behavior changes may take place as a result; for example, typically nocturnal species such as raccoons and opossums may remain active well into the daylight hours seeking food.  The extra effort for nutrients puts these animals at an increased risk of exhaustion, starvation, predation, and disease.

As drought conditions persist, animals will seek out alternative habitats that have more favorable conditions for survival.  Areas where food and water are still available will attract many species to a relatively small area.  Predation rates are likely to increase as predators can more easily focus on a centralized group of prey.  Furthermore, large concentrations of wild animals increase the odds for disease outbreaks that could decrease populations.

In fact, this winter WIL has already investigated several avian cholera outbreaks throughout California. Large numbers of ducks, geese, and swans spend the winter on the state’s many ponds and lakes. The current lack of precipitation has reduced the amount of habitat available for these birds, forcing them to become concentrated in locations where water remains. Close contact among waterfowl allows a bacterial disease like avian cholera to spread very rapidly, resulting in the death of hundreds to thousands of birds.

Large concentrations of waterfowl seek out remaining suitable habitat. Photo credit: Scott Flaherty, USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.

A variety of waterfowl species congregate at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  Photo credit: Scott Flaherty, USFWS Pacific Southwest Region.

While these impacts of drought do indeed create dire circumstances for wildlife, it is important to remember that droughts are natural phenomena.  Wildlife and drought have coexisted for generations upon generations.  Generally speaking, wildlife populations are resilient and are able to bounce back from drought events once typical weather patterns return.  For example, in the early 1960s severe winter drought contributed to extreme deer die-offs in Texas.  When rainfall levels returned to normal, the deer population was able to rebound in only one year.

Many species of wildlife, such as mule deer, are capable of bouncing back after drought once favorable conditions return. Photo credit: T.A. Blake, USFWS

Many species of wildlife, such as mule deer, are capable of bouncing back after drought once conditions return to normal. Photo credit: T.A. Blake, USFWS

During these hard times, it may be tempting to “rescue” or “save” an animal that is seeking food and water.  It is entirely possible that more wildlife will make their way into urban and residential areas in an attempt to find nutrients.  It would be a disservice to both human and animal to offer handouts, for similar reasons it is inappropriate to keep wildlife as pets. This natural drought event will eventually pass, and when it does, CDFW and WIL staff would rather see California’s fauna remain reliant upon themselves rather than their human counterparts.

Keep Them Wild: Part II

By Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

A few weeks ago we published a blog post about the rescuing of a doe wrapped in a tomato cage and how it was a prime example of human-wildlife conflict.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the DFG North Central Region personnel and WIL were called upon again to help another deer residing close to human residences.

A mule deer buck, complete with hammock.

A concerned citizen located near El Dorado Hills reached out to Fish and Game through email.  He told us of a local buck that had a hammock enveloping his left antler, causing the buck to use up energy in a hopeless attempt at removing it on his own.  A team was sent out to assess the situation and determine the most appropriate action to take.

North Central Region staff Ed Andrews, Shelly Blair, and WIL Scientific Aid David Mollel monitor the deer as they prepare to administer the reversal agent.

Given the circumstances –a suburban environment and an unapproachable deer – WIL veterinarian Dr. Ben Gonzales and North Central Region Senior Environmental Scientist Jason Holley felt it was best to chemically immobilize the buck using a dart projector, much like the last rescue involving the doe and the wire.  The buck was successfully darted, and chemical immobilization protocol was followed.  It was decided that the best solution for this particular buck was to remove the antlers completely, relieving him of the attached hammock in the process.  The benefits of removing the antlers include the quick removal process, limitation of stress on the animal, and prevention of re-entanglement.

The buck walking off post-capture, feeling a little lighter.

Ultimately this may cost the buck a chance at breeding this mating season.  Antlers are used to compete directly with other males through both fighting and display.  Does are more likely to choose mates that are dominant and exhibit quality antlers.  However, antlers are shed once the breeding season is complete – anywhere from mid-January to mid-April.  The playing field will be level again, and this buck will be able to grow a new quality spread, free of the hammock ornament.  Plus, this deer is unlikely to become the target of any hunters looking for a new trophy this season.

Thanks to vigilance from the general public, the Department of Fish and Game is able to respond to wildlife issues that may otherwise go unnoticed.  Wildlife is abundant in California, and human-wildlife conflicts will continue to occur.  At times it can be a bit unclear who you should contact in case you come across nuisance, dangerous, or injured wildlife.  Local cases are typically handled by regional offices. Contact information can be found here.  DFG also provides plenty of information on living with wildlife here.

Special thanks to  North Central Region staff Jason Holley, Shelly Blair, Ed Andrews, and WIL staff Dr. Ben Gonzales and David Mollel for their hard work and dedication!

Keep Them Wild: A Real Life Example

by Tom Batter, WIL Scientific Aid

Earlier this month, the Wildlife Investigations Lab (WIL) received a call from a landowner near Placerville regarding a resident mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that frequented his property.  The landowner said the deer, an adult female, was wrapped in some kind of wire that was restricting her ability to walk.

WIL Veterinarian Dr. Ben Gonzales decided we should take action. Another scientific aid, David Mollel, and I gathered wildlife restraint equipment and the three of us departed headquarters.

We arrived at the property to find a deer that was significantly constrained in both her front and hind leg by a twisted tomato cage.  Her two fawns stayed close

Dr. Ben Gonzales helps keep the deer cool post-capture by applying water from a hose. Chemically immobilized animals can lose thermoregulation ability after being darted – it is therefore important to keep animals cool or warm depending on the surrounding temperature.

by her side while she struggled to walk and browse on vegetation.  Dr. Gonzales determined the best option would be to chemically immobilize the doe via dart projector. This would allow us to safely remove the wire from the deer while also limiting the amount of stress on the animal.

After Dr. Gonzales successfully darted the deer, we followed her movement until the drugs took complete effect.  After a few minutes, we loaded her onto a carrier and brought her into a flat shady area near a pile of firewood.  The tomato cage was quickly and effortlessly removed from her legs.  Our work was not done however.

Sci Aid David Mollel prepares to administer the reversal agent while Dr. Ben Gonzales and I continue to monitor the deer.

Each time an animal is chemically immobilized, it is essential to follow protocol to ensure the safety and well-being of the animal during post-capture.  These steps include opening the airway, monitoring heart and respiratory rate, protecting the eyes and assessing thermoregulatory ability.

The doe was given a reversal agent (which prevents the immobilizing drug from applying its action), was able to recover from the capture and walk off with her two fawns.

This event is a classic case of human-wildlife conflict.  Greater than half of California is considered deer habitat.  People have been moving out and settling in deer habitat for many years.  When human and wildlife populations overlap, it increases the likelihood of interaction between people and wild animals.  While this can be great for wildlife viewing from your back porch, it can negatively affect wildlife by making unnatural food and shelter available to them.  In this case, the deer got into someone’s garden, most likely causing property damage, and became restrained by a mess of tangled wire.

Situations like this are preventable.  The Department of Fish and Game has plenty of tips and information through our Keep Me Wild campaign.  Keep Me Wild is a program dedicated to educating the public on how to prevent wildlife – such as deer, black bears, mountain lions, and coyotes among others – from accessing human food sources.

CDFG also offers tips on how to keep deer out of your garden with The Gardener’s Guide to Preventing Deer Damage, as well as a list of available products that help keep wildlife away from human food sources.

By following these tips, we can hopefully ensure that California’s wildlife remain how nature intended them to be: wild!