Monday, March 02, 2015

Herding Feral Cats in the Wrong Direction?

There are an estimated 80,000 feral cats in Sacramento County at approximately 1000 locations. I counted at least 4 such sites on a recent bike ride along the lower American River Parkway. How did this happen, what problems does it cause and what can be done about it? The root of the problem is irresponsible and illegal behavior by some who own cats but don't provide proper care and management of them. Allowing cats to roam free day or night outside subjects them to fights, attacks, injuries, stress, disease, unwanted pregnancies and becoming roadkills. This also results in potential public health threats, impacts to wildlife populations, water and other natural resource values in our parks and open spaces.

Cruel or indifferent treatment of house cats often results in them being left behind not unlike the garbage that appears all too often from "midnight" dumping. Why? Well, it costs money to house and feed a cat including health care when needed. Add an unwanted pregnancy and there are suddenly more mouths to feed. The existence of feral cats in many neighborhoods is the result of dumping and the well intended care and feeding afterwards by those that don't want the animals to suffer. It is illegal under state law to dump animals. In the past, animal control would periodically round these animals up and house them while waiting for the former owner or someone else to take them home. After a period of time, these animals were humanely killed to make room for more animals being brought in. As budgets shrunk and the numbers of feral animals increased, animal control programs were overwhelmed. They still are.

Private facilities and volunteer organizations help manage feral cat populations in some areas including Sacramento City and County. These vary from well run organizations to individuals who may spend hundreds of dollars and untold hours monthly trying to keep these wild cats alive. Meanwhile, feeding large groups or "colonies" of cats outdoors exposes humans and wildlife to diseases, with increased pressure on wildlife from predation and competition and outdoor feeding attracts urban wildlife populations that have always been present. 

Increasingly, there are calls for "no-kill" feral cat policies and Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs instead of traditional animal control. Does this result in healthier cats, more being adopted, a reduction in such urban/rural populations? There is little information supporting that result. None of the feral cats I saw at Parkway and river open space areas had the "tipped" ear mark used to identify spayed or neutered animals. More likely, these efforts are swamped by continued dumping of additional animals, ongoing health issues, and the difficulty of maintaining trained volunteers to work the long hours needed to care for these populations. 

Often, TNR feral populations are maintained in parks, greenbelts, and other open space that is important for wildlife populations. Conflicts develop from predation and competition and well fed cats continue to be effective predators on wildlife. 

The City and County of Sacramento are in the middle of a complex feral cat problem and have opted to take the path of least resistance and adopt the TNR recommendations of well meaning groups who are putting the welfare of individual feral cats and the growing populations of them in our area before wildlife and other natural resources in the area. Was this the intention and were these decisions carefully reviewed and analyzed first? In many other communities and even large cities such as Los Angeles, this was not the case.

We need to work together with all interested parties to carefully evaluate existing programs and practices and come up with an effective solution that protects sensitive wildlife populations and public health while providing for humane and appropriate treatment for these unwanted animals and better manages the human behaviors that cause this problem.

Feeding site on the American River at Xmas. Food & water (!) brought in regularly.

References for more info.

Wildlife biologists are generally opposed to TNR, see Dept. Fish and Wildlife website Cats and Wildlife for more info.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Rattlesnake research on the American River Parkway

Mike Cardwell, local wildlife biologist and adjunct faculty at Cal State Sacramento, studies rattlesnakes on the American River Parkway. Mike has been interested in and studied rattlesnakes for many years. Small radio transmitters he implants surgically into Northern Pacific rattlesnakes allow him to locate the snakes in the field with a directional-antenna. This allows Mike to track rattlesnake movements and level of activity at Effie Yeaw Nature Center.

An excellent video by George Nyberg documents this research and is available on YouTube. Mike’s long term research and experience also helps dispel myths about rattlesnake threats and documents their behavior during courtship. This is a must see video for everyone spending time on the American River Parkway. With proper caution one can appreciate these amazing hunters and native residents to the Parkway. Mike may be able to join us on a future Friends of the River Banks event to share his knowledge of reptiles on the Parkway.

I found Mike out at Effie Yeaw on a warm February afternoon yesterday. He’s detected some activity already but the snakes haven’t started moving about yet. This is earlier than usual which typically is in mid March. So far, we don’t have any documented sightings of rattlesnakes at Sutter's Landing Park but it’s likely that they are out there in drier upland habitat. Be on the lookout for them during the warmer months and enjoy and document any observations from a safe distance.

I helped a rattlesnake cross the bike trail last fall near the CalExpo fire across the river from Sutter's Landing Park. Note the missing rattles on the snake which is unusual. Probably the result of an encounter with a coyote or heat from the recent fire. It appeared healthy otherwise.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Monarch Migration, Milkweed and Climate Change

One of the remaining great wildlife spectacles is declining rapidly and may soon be a void in nature. The mass migration of millions and millions of Monarch butterflies has long amazed scientists and the public but it is a much smaller event now.  The Xerces Society, the premier conservation organization for invertebrate species, describes the situation:

"Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) of North America are renowned for their long-distance seasonal migration and spectacular winter gatherings in Mexico and California. The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels. In the 1990s, estimates of up to one billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 33 million monarchs remain, representing more than a 90% drop across North America."

What has changed?

Researchers have identified three major factors that are driving the decline: deforestation in Mexico, agriculture displacing key milkweed habitat in the U.S., and episodes of extreme weather along the migration route. Milkweed loss is primarily due to increased spraying of Roundup because of the shift to genetically-modified crops that are much more tolerant of the herbicide. Illegal logging has threatened overwintering sites in Mexico, and in California, numerous sites have been logged and replaced with housing developments. Extreme weather events may be negatively impacting Monarchs in the eastern U.S. and low populations in California are correlated with years of intense drought. Climate change models predict that future conditions will not be suitable to support overwintering monarchs or the oyamel fir trees they use in Mexico.The longterm drought in the southwest and more recently across the west including California impacts wildflowers Monarchs depend on for energy to make it through the winter. 

Climate change could disrupt the phenonminal migration journey of Monarch butterflies. Monarchs take their cue to start migrating in the fall from decreasing hours of sunlight. New research shows that the chill at the start of spring triggers the return north. "Migratory organisms need to respond to conditions in one place that will predict conditions somewhere else". With temperature as the critical trigger for the monarch's northward journey, climate change could be a big spoiler in its mass migration.

Predicting the response of a mobile species like the Monarch to climate change is especially challenging. The cues for migration are tied to the environment so they could be vulnerable to changes that alter those patterns. Their mobility could act as a buffer so how climate change affects the species is likely tied to responses of milkweed host plants and other energy sources and the availability of overwintering habitat. Both are expected to be altered by climate change. 

The count results for this year are just in and show modest increases over recent years. Good news but this is still one of the lowest counts on record. Relatively mild weather this year in breeding areas had led biologists to predict higher count numbers than seen. Conservationists "remain very concerned about the monarch's still very tenuous future".

To minimize the impacts of climate change, it is important to maintain corridors of milkweed habitat suitable for Monarch migration, and ensure that other pressures on their populations are reduced. Things that individuals and communities can do to help conserve Monarch butterflies include:

Plant native milkweeds and support this plant be included in landscaping projects and restoration work. Xerces has resources to help locate local sources of milkweed seed and plantings. Hedgerow Farms in Winters has an active milkweed seed program. Support agriculture that is organic or free of genetically modified ingredients. Become a citizen scientist and contribute monitoring information on Monarch migration and overwintering. Support important Monarch conservation programs including Xerces work. Get out and visit overwintering sites and learn more about this amazing species.

One of the few public overwintering sites  is operated by docents and citizen scientists.

Migration info and overwintering declining count trends.

Sunning butterflies on a 75 degree January day at the Pismo Beach Monarch Garden.

Monarch clusters in Cypress and Eucalyptus trees.

Closeup of overwintering Monarchs in sheltered Eucalyptus grove.

California Monarchs are beginning to mate and migrate now. Pair climbing to mate successfully. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Birding Without Borders

A new blog started with the New Year documenting the adventures of an avid young birder from Oregon who is traveling the world and reporting what species he sees with a little help from friends he makes along the way. He’s off the grid in South America for a few days now but you can catch up with his exploits of the first few weeks starting in Antarctica. I’m finding it almost as much fun as being on the trip so far with a lot less wear and tear. Enjoy!

Birding Without Borders

Monday, January 12, 2015

20 Years since Wolves Return to Yellowstone

Today is the 20th anniversary of the first Gray wolf release back into Yellowstone in 1995. We’ve learned a lot since those first eight wolves returned to the Northern Rockies. It had been 69 years since the last wolf was extirpated in 1926. The effort to bring wolves back can be traced back to Aldo Leopold who suggested just that in 1944. It took over 50 years and a lot of hard work to make that happen.

Much has happened since then too. Over 1600 wolves now roam the Northern Rockies with Gray wolf populations now in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. A few wolves have made it as far as Utah, California and Colorado. Much has been learned about the key role this top predator plays in the ecosystem but there is a lot more needed to understand how we can coexist in the future. How long will it take before we can look back and say the wolf has returned to it’s historic range and necessary role in the ecosystem?

Kathie Lynch: Yellowstone wolf report on 20th anniversary

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Serious Avian Flu Issue

A highly pathogenic version of the avian flu has shown up in Canada recently with other exposures in Washington and Oregon. This appears to pose a serious threat to the poultry industry and given that wild birds are a vector to spread the disease it is a wildlife risk as well. The USGS National Wildlife Health Center is a very good source of information on this and other wildlife disease issues. The highly pathogenic version is a big risk to the poultry industry with wildlife being a carrier spreading the disease. This virus likely originated in poultry and spread to wildlife and then back to domestic birds. The low pathogenic version has more common outbreaks and is less dangerous. A scientific task force recently convened on this subject and produced an informational statement

We here in California are in the middle of the Pacific Flyway during fall migration and should continue to track this situation. Dead waterfowl can be turned over to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The State Veterinarian's office will handle similar cases from domestic or zoo sources. As always, anyone handling dead animals should wear disposable rubber or latex gloves, bag them in plastic and then wash thoroughly with hot water and soap. 

Pay attention to the open skies and, at least in this case, the ground around you. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sea Turtles in Nova Scotia & increasing strandings

During a trip across Canada and down the east coast earlier this fall, we discovered a sea turtle organization in Nova Scotia near Halifax and had an informative conversation with a young marine biologist there. It was a surprise to me and apparently until recently, for marine biologists working with the species that large numbers exist this far north. Huge leatherback turtles roam the area and were unknown to scientists until they listened to local fishermen. Jellyfish fuel these giants traveling great distances in the ocean. Most of the work done up north now focuses on education and monitoring leatherback movement.

Strandings of these long distance travelers is known throughout their range but is especially a problem in the Cape Code area they pass through. It seems there is another increasing problem causing strandings beyond the fisherman nets and plastic pollution known now.

Cape Cod appears to act as a trap for sea turtles due to geography and water temperature patterns. Increasing numbers of migrating sea turtles are being found stranded in this area due to "Cold-stunning effects". The long term effects of these large events or flying survivors down to Florida or holding many young turtles in tanks until sea temperatures rise later in the year are hard to predict. Most sea turtle research effort goes into monitoring nesting now. Clearly much more is needed as well as how all of this is being affected by climate change.


Cape Cod Mystery: A Surge of Stranded Turtles -

The New York Times

Volunteers are waging a rescue effort after finding almost 1,200 turtles washed ashore since mid-November, far more than in the previous record year.