Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Sagebrush Sea on PBS, good but not good enough

PBS Nature series recently featured "The Sagebrush Sea". The program did a great job of introducing the variety of life and beauty of this ecosystem but missed the chance to do a more detailed analysis of how and why the ecosystem and key species such as the sage grouse are threatened. Habitat fragmentation, increased fire frequency due to invasive cheatgrass spread were covered in the program but the cause or connection between these major impacts to the sagebrush ecosystem wasn't. Livestock grazing and production are the root cause of the transformation from a perennial bunchgrass system to the annual cheatgrass one now in place. Too controversial to discuss now? I hope not. 

For a detailed discussion, follow this link to The Wildlife News review of the program. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

USFWS "chicken" out on plan to protect CA/NV sage grouse?

As recently as last December U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered the scale of threats facing the Mono Basin greater sage grouse population so high that the birds were given maximum priority for listing. This population is located in eastern California and western Nevada and is also known as the bi-state population. Fragmentation and geographic isolation from other sage grouse populations add to the risks faced by the six populations that haven't exceeded 2,500 birds in the last decade. The agency's decision ignores scientific recommendations for reversing the birds' steep decline and relies on unproven conservation agreements with state and local communities. 

A ten-year study of the bi-state population released last year showed it was holding it was own. Only one subpopulation showed significant decline and appeared “to be the only one with compelling evidence within the bi-state that is currently at risk of extinction.” The study, led by US Geological Survey biologist Peter Coates, concludes that “the preponderance of evidence suggests that sage-grouse populations are stable within bi-state DPS in its entirety over the period of 2003–2012.” 

Stable perhaps but those low population numbers are still reason for concern.
The bi-state distinct population segment (DPS), which was proposed for listing as “threatened” in 2013, is an isolated and important subset of a species that is eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The 2013 listing proposal cited the small population size and “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” coupled with multiple threats from livestock grazing, invasive plants such as cheat grass, fire, energy development, mining, infrastructure and urbanization of habitat.

“The Service’s backpedalling in claiming that unfinished management plans and voluntary, cooperative agreements will protect the species is untrue, and smacks of political expediency” said Michael Connor, California director of Western Watersheds Project.

Given the known threats to bi-state sage grouse, the conservation measures proposed today do not protect adequate protection. Specific shortcomings include: 1) failure to protect sage grouse nests with adequate grass cover to hide eggs from predators; 2) calling for livestock to reduce flammable cheat grass — a practice has not been proven to be effective; 3) no restrictions on geothermal leases that would cover 143,000 acres of habitat; 4) no restrictions on mining; and 5) no requirement to limit overall disturbance density to under 3 percent of habitat.

This important population of sage grouse remains in serious trouble and efforts to restrict hardcore mining, geothermal development and off-road vehicle access within it's habitat have been inadequate.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

There is quite a buzz around a local blooming corpse!

Amorphous titanium, the “corpse flower”, is unusual for a few reasons. It may live up to 40-60 years but will only flower a handful of times. That is about to happen at CSU Sacramento where the plant is on display in the Biology Department. Why a “corpse flower”? Its blooms produce volatile compounds that smell like rotting flesh and help it attract pollinators.

I can’t speak to that but hope to find out for myself soon. I’ve seen a member of the Arum family before at a botanical garden in Java but the “treat” of experiencing it in bloom escaped me. If you can’t wait or don’t want to get too close you can check out this live stream.

For me, it’s fair to say that I’ll hold my breath for a more direct experience!



The corpse plant was still being coy yesterday


Word has gotten out widely


Life cycle for Titan arum, aka the “corpse flower”.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The end of winter

I drove down and over the inner coast range for a visit home yesterday. A lovely day of clear skies with much color all around. This was the last day of winter after four years of drought and perhaps the warmest year on record. The hills looked one more warm day away from burning straight to summer brown. Large nearly empty reservoirs showed vast edges of well established grass cover too. The canals were full and still carried water south.

What will my next trip down reveal?

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.