Monthly Archives: November 2013

SPECIES SPOTLIGHT: Colombian black-tailed deer

By Joshua Bush

Mule deer

Photo credit: Charles Krebs/Corbis

Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) are found throughout California; CDFW  recognizes 6 subspecies that occur in the state.  The different subspecies are mainly distinguished through coat, color marking, body size, and other physical characteristics of the animal.  The Northern California Interior Coast Range Ecoregion (NCICR) is home to one of the subspecies known as the Colombian black-tailed deer. Although not a special status species, this deer can be utilized as a barometer to give insight on ecosystem health. Deer populations can often infer the relative conditions of other largely unstudied species, especially in forested areas like the Blue Oak woodlands found in the NCICR.

Colombian black-tailed deer are found throughout the NCICR where their life expectancy is between 8-11 years. Their body weight is typically between 130-180 lbs., for males and 70-120 lbs., for females.  Deer are crepuscular (mainly active at dusk and dawn), and prefer to lie in brushy cover during the middle of the day. Mature bucks live isolated from doe and fawn groups and will seek out mates during the “rut”. Mating occurs in mid-fall and fawns are born in the spring.  Healthy females will often produce two fawns.  Less than optimal health reduces births to one or possibly no young. Newborn fawns and their mothers will spend the majority of their time in riparian areas where hiding cover, water and food are available.

mule deer

Photo credit: National Park Service, 2009

Deer are browsing animals, as opposed to grazers (like cows), relying on a diet of mainly shrubs – with grasses, forbs or wildflowers, and other plant material mixed in. Deer are specialists in their preferred habitat which consists of young, new or disturbed growth as opposed to old growth. As fawns become older and less susceptible to predators, both mother and fawn will venture from the safety of the riparian areas and utilize the brush and trees of the landscape.

This region has a Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and wet cold winters.  Because of this, food availability is seasonal. Spring is when food is most bountiful as rain brings new growth. Deer utilize new growth of shrub species including poison oak, buck brush, and redberry as well as new forbs.  They continue to utilize these sources throughout summer but due to lack of rain, the plants become less palatable and the nutritional value decreases. Blue-oak acorns can be a significant food source in the winter and fall months.  High in nutritional value, they can often help sustain deer until the rains come and the plants begin to grow once again.

mule deer

Photo credit: Charles Krebs/Corbis

There are many threats to deer in the NCICR.  They face predation from mountain lion, golden eagles, black bear, and wild pigs.  They are also a game animal – and bucks are harvested in the late summer and fall.  However, habitat degradation is the single most severe impact that affects not only the deer species but all other native species found in the NCICR, including the Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). Incompatible grazing,  noxious weeds infestation, trees and brush removal, habitat fragmentation, reduced native biodiversity, degraded fire regime, increased soil compaction, and decreased water retention are all negatively impacting the NCICR and deer in the area.

The State Wildlife Action Plan is developing regional strategies to address those factors negatively affecting SGCN.  These strategies are aimed at helping increase the functionality and health of the ecoregion.  One strategy includes conserving habitats through Conservation Easements (CEs). By purchasing CEs, willing landowners and conservation groups will be able to reduce property parcelization, helping create large contiguous corridors of protected land for wildlife movement. Another strategy promotes outreach and education to the public and interested parties about the benefits of implementing grazing Best Management Practices (BMPs).  This strategy proposes to create a program that will systematically inform the public about the incentive programs regarding the implementation of grazing BMPs, habitat restoration, and invasive species control.  By working on an ecosystem level within the ecoregion, we hope that the NCICR’s SGCN receive the greatest bang for the “buck.”

As mentioned above, deer is considered an indicator of habitat health especially in forested ecosystems because they are sensitivity to changes in habitat conditions. The species is actually an efficient indicator because they are rather common and easy to count as opposed to other species. Population estimates based on long-term studies together with harvest data provide evidence that deer populations have declined, suggesting poor habitat conditions are affecting survivorship. As the strategies are implemented, it will be important to monitor selected indicators such as deer populations. Using deer as proxy, analysis of the gathered data will give insight into the habitat’s overall health – and ensure that the blue-oak forest ecosystem conditions are improving.

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Northern California Interior Coast Range Ecoregion

By Josh Bush

Nor Cal Eco Region MapThe Northern California Interior Coast Range Ecoregion (NCICR) is bordered on the east by the Sacramento Valley and the Northern California Coast Range to the west.  The ecoregion runs in a north-south direction for about 150 miles and includes portions of Shasta, Tehama, Glenn, Colusa, Yolo, Napa, and Solano counties.  Cache Creek is a prominent feature which runs directly through the heart of the ecoregion. The elevations range from 100 to 3,300 feet and average precipitation ranges from 15 to 40 inches.  Humans have utilized the landscape for the last 8,000-9,000 years and have had a profound effect on the ecology of the landscape.

The NCICR falls within the rain shadow of the Northern California Coast Range and supports a diverse array of habitats including California Forest and Woodland,  Western North American Temperate Grassland and Meadow, Western North American Freshwater Marsh, California Annual and Perennial Grassland, Southwestern North American Riparian Flooded and Swamp Forest, Western North American Warm Temperate Ruderal Flooded and Swamp Forest, Western Cordilleran Montane–Boreal Riparian Scrub and Forest, Western North America Wet Meadow and Low Shrub, Californian–Vancouverian Montane and Foothill Forest, California Coastal Scrub, Western Cordilleran Montane Shrubland and Grassland, and California Chaparral.

Many species most in need of conservation inhabit the NCICR. Avian species include tricolored blackbird, burrowing owl, golden eagle, bald eagle, Swainson’s hawk, black-

Western Pond Turtle

Western Pond Turtle
Copyright © 2003 Pierre Fidenci

crowned night heron, white-tailed kite, California quail, short-eared owl, long-eared owl, peregrine falcon, savannah sparrow, spotted towhee, yellow warbler, great egret, great blue heron, Hutton’s vireo, California towhee, ferruginous hawk, loggerhead shrike, purple martin, common ensatina, and Bewick’s wren.

Reptiles and amphibians include the foothill yellow-legged frog, California red-legged frog, California tiger salamander, western pond turtle, California newt, gopher snake, and ring-necked snake. Mammals include the mountain lion, American badger, pronghorn antelope, ringtail, black-tailed jackrabbit, western spotted skunk, western skink, deer mouse, fringed myotis, and pallid bat.

Blue-oak woodlands

Blue-Oak Woodlands Photo credit: Pardee Bardwell, BLM

In developing the SWAP 2015 Update, three factors were considered to determine the conservation target.  Conservation targets can be species, habitats, or ecosystems that are the focus of conservation strategies. We considered the endemism (uniqueness to a defined geographic location), vulnerability of species found in the habitat area, and total biodiversity of the species inhabiting all habitat types within the NCICR.  The California Forests and Woodlands, more commonly known as Blue-Oak Woodlands, was selected as the conservation target. This habitat is prominent throughout the ecoregion – and conservation efforts targeting blue-oak woodlands will help conserve the other habitat types interspersed within the ecoregion.

California coffee berry

California Coffee Berry (Frangula californica) © 2012 Jean Pawek

The Blue-Oak Woodlands is commonly used as rangeland. It is characterized by rolling hills with a dotted over-story of blue-oaks and an understory of exotic annual grasses introduced over decades with unknowing consequences.  Some, more pristine, north facing slopes include a brush component and full blue-oak canopy, but these are rare. Typical native plant species found in this habitat are blue-oak, foothill pine, valley oak, ceanothus species, manzanita species, poison oak, California coffeeberry, creeping wild rye, blue wild rye, annual grasses and California buckeye.  Meadows denuded of trees and comprised of invasive weeds are also common.  Prevalent invasive plants include yellow-star thistle, medusa head, barbed-goat grass, and perennial pepperweed.

Blue-Oak Woodlands have been grazed by cattle across its entire extent.  Under a proper regime of grazing using Best Management Practices (BMP), cattle can have positive effects both for the landscape and the ranchers. However, incompatible grazing has been identified as the most severe impact to the blue-oak woodland ecosystem.  An improper grazing regime decreases plant diversity, impedes natural processes, and severely reduces plant recruitment throughout the woodland.  Incompatible grazing and overgrazing increases soil compaction, decreases water retention, introduces invasive weeds, and can even cause intermittent stream head cutting.

Blue-Oak Woodlands

Blue-Oak Woodlands.  Photo credit: Pardee Bardwell, BLM

Other identified impacts to the blue-oak woodland include parcelization of large properties for development, oak and brush clearing for agriculture and fuel wood, and an altered fire regime. These impacts, in combination, are long lasting and leave the woodland system as a greatly altered landscape. Further fragmentation and native plant reduction across the ecoregion and the blue-oak woodland has already, and will continue to, negatively impact the SGCN and other native species inhabiting the landscape.

The SWAP planning process has identified two main strategies to address the impacts mentioned above.  The first strategy proposes the acquisition of conservation easements (CE). Conservation easements are voluntary agreements with private landowners to do certain things that will benefit fish and wildlife while allowing ongoing operations on working landscapes. By purchasing CEs on high-value habitats, the land would be protected for conservation and various habitat requirements would be incorporated into the land management practices. Landowners would contribute to, for example, creation of large contiguous corridors for wildlife movement, and allow for development and monitoring of grazing practices.

The second strategy focuses on outreach and education to the public and interested parties about the benefits of implementing grazing BMPs. Grazing BMPs could restore the blue-oak woodlands while minimizing the negative impacts such as the spread of invasive species.  This strategy also encompasses demonstrating the benefits of implementing grazing BMPs both for wildlife and ranchers.  These strategies, if implemented in partnership with ranchers and lessees, will be most effective and capable of providing long term conservation within the Northern California Interior Coast Range Ecoregion.

Job Well Done!

Many long hours have gone into the development of the Conservation Strategies by the SWAP Teams. The teams include ecoregion, watershed and marine CDFW staff as well as staff from state and federal agencies and non-government organizations. To recognize the outstanding job they have done, the CDFW Director sent the following letter of appreciation.

Thank you letter

SWAP Scoping Meetings

SWAP public meeting.

SWAP public meeting.

A key element of the SWAP 2015 Update is broad public participation. Thirteen public scoping meetings have been scheduled throughout the state. Public input is being sought to ensure the Update is adequately and appropriately identifying threats and stresses to habitats – and that the draft conservation strategies address those threats and stresses.

Twelve public meetings have been conducted so far – in Sacramento, Long Beach, San Diego, Palm Desert, Fresno, San Luis Obispo, Bishop, San Leandro, Santa Rosa, Tahoe, Redding, and Eureka. A final meeting is scheduled for December 3rd in Sacramento. All but San Luis Obispo and the second Sacramento meetings are being held in the evening to accommodate those who work during the day. The original schedule included eleven meetings; Tahoe and the second Sacramento meeting were added in response to participants’ requests.

Each meeting starts with an overview of the State Wildlife Action Plan – with sufficient time allocated to answer questions about the Update. Following the overview are presentations by CDFW regional scientists on habitats germane to the location of the meeting. Each meeting will highlight different regional habitats. Individual agendas can be found on the SWAP website Meetings page. The agendas list the habitats that will be discussed at each meeting. Adequate time for Q&A is provided after each presentation. A poster session follows the regional presentations. CDFW staff are available to explain the detailed posters and answer your questions.

Public comments are being solicited on the draft conservation strategies. CDFW wants your input – is anything missing? Are there any gaps? Did they properly identify the key conservation factors of the habitat of interest? What do you like about the approach being taken? Because of the technical nature of the topic, comments are requested in writing, so nothing is mischaracterized. Options include filling out the comment form at the meeting, mailing in the comment form provided at the meeting or submitting comments via email to: SWAP@wildlife.ca.gov.

The scoping meetings to date have been well attended. Great questions have been asked and answered. Some attendees have even signed up to help draft a Companion Plan. Some of the more frequently asked questions include:

Q:  Why spend the money to create a State Wildlife Action Plan?

A:  The SWAP is required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) to qualify for funding. Over the past   10 years, CDFW has received more than $32 million from USFWS to fund research and restoration projects to preserve the diversity of California’s wildlife. These projects benefit our wildlife before they become scarce and more costly to protect.

Q:  The 2005 SWAP was focused on protecting species. Why is Update 2015 focusing on habitats instead of species?

A:   Conservation strategies for the Update 2015 are focused on preserving, protecting and enhancing habitats – on the assumption that dependent species will thrive as their habitat thrives.

Q:   Will the SWAP reduce access to public lands?

A:   No. As conservation strategies are implemented, habitats on public lands will thrive making the public experience on public lands more enjoyable. Fish and wildlife will be happier too.

Q:   Will SWAP force me to alter the way I manage my land?

A:   No.  SWAP has no regulatory authority. It may suggest ways to alter the implementation or timing of management activities that will then benefit wildlife while not affecting current practices, but SWAP seeks voluntary public-private partnerships to achieve its goals.