Highways, Genes and So. Cal. Mountain Lions

UC Davis mountain lion geneticsThe mountain lions of southern California are hemmed in on all sides. In one place a 10-lane highway divides mountain lion habitat. All that development is particularly difficult on a species with such a large home range.

All those highways and housing developments are putting a crimp in the mountain lions of the region’s gene pool, says a recent paper in PLoS ONE by University of California, Davis scientists. The mountain lions of the Santa Ana Mountains are no longer on speaking terms with the mountain lions of the Santa Monica Mountains. Within those population segments, genetic diversity is low.

I just covered this issue back in January (where the solution was a wildlife crossing) and wasn’t sure it was worth writing about again, but a the UC Davis press release and a Los Angeles Times article pointed out that we’ve seen this phenomenon of mountain lions hemmed in by a growing human population before — in the Florida panther. Other Puma populations may not be as distinctive as the Florida panther, but we are almost certainly sure to see this again. If there is a solution, it is a story worth following.

Read the PLoS ONE paper here.
Read the UC Davis press release here.
Read the Los Angeles Times story here.

Photo/map: This map identifies puma captures in the Santa Ana Mountains and eastern Peninsular ranges of southern California. The inset photo is of a mountain lion keeping watch while her juvenile cubs feed. Courtesy: UC Davis/The Nature Conservancy

Bats Think Wind Turbines Are Trees

wind Turbines credit Joshua WinchellWhy migrating, tree-roosting bats are more susceptible to being killed by wind turbines has been a mystery. In a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS), US Geological Survey scientist Paul Cryan offers an explanation: under certain wind conditions, the air currents around turbines is similar enough to the air currents around trees to confuse the bats into thinking the turbines are big trees.

The paper says that the bats congregate on the downwind side of trees to feast on the flying insects that congregate there. The paper doesn’t make this comparison, but it’s a lot like trout hanging out in an eddy, waiting for insects and other edibles to join them.

The problem, of course, is that spinning blades and barotrauma are not kind to bats that hang around wind turbines.

Two of the take-aways from the paper are that turbine operators can put bat deterrents on the downwind side of the turbines, and that changing the operating parameters of the turbines could help save bats, such as preventing the blades from turning in a sudden gust on an otherwise calm night.

Read the PNAS paper, here.
Read a Washington Post paper on the study and the white nose syndrome threat, here. (But note that it never mentions that one group of bat speices is more vulnerable to white nose syndrome, while a different group of bats is more vulnerable to wind turbines.)
A summary of the paper in the Discover Magazine blog is here.
A different summary of the paper in the Popular Science blog is here.
And just for good luck, here is the write-up from Conservation Magazine.

Photo: Instead of going with a generic bat photo, since I don’t seem to have any of common migrating bats, I went with a generic wind farm photo. This is not the wind farm that was studied in the Cryan paper. Lovely photo by by Joshua Winchell.

Oregon Introduces Online Elk Hoof Disease Reporting

Hunters have been turning up elk with deformed hooves in southwest Washington for nearly 10 years. In the past six years or so, the numbers of those reports have increased. The first reports of elk hoof deformities in Oregon were reported this summer,The Oregonian reported.

This week the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced an online reporting system to make it easier for hunters to report elk with deformed hooves, so that the department can track the deformities in northwestern Oregon. The online form also requests that the hunter take pictures of the hooves, wrap them in plastic bags and store them in a cool place for further examination later.

For many years, the cause of the elk hoof deformities was a mystery. Today the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife believes that treponemes, spiral-shaped bacteria, likely cause the disease, according to the article in The Oregonian. Livestock have a similar disease, the article says.

Read the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife press release, here.
Read the August article from The Oregonian, here.

Half as Many Animals Today as 1974

living planet reportA new report from WWF says, “Population sizes of vertebrate species measured by the Living Planet Index have halved over the last 40 years.” Worldwide, it’s freshwater species that are feeling the the most pain, with populations declining 76 percent. Latin America is the world region with the steepest decline, with populations falling 83 percent.

High Country News summarizes what the report says about the United States, specifically the western US succinctly. We’re good at preserving charismatic megafauna — bison are up, even wolves are. But we’re not so good at the little things, like amphibians. Our wealth as a nation means we can pay to protect the wildlife we love, but it also means we can outsource our exploitation — such as when we save the fish on our own coasts, but import most of the fish we eat from elsewhere.

Download the Living Planet Index, here. (Part of a larger Living Planet Report.)
Read the High Country News coverage, here.

Dollars and Sense at NETWC

deb markowitz VTANR“What we did to protect animals actually protected roads,” said Vermont Agency of Natural Resources secretary Deb Markowitz at a general session at the Northeastern Transportation and Wildlife Conference this week (Sept. 21 – 24) in Burlington, Vermont. In places where culverts had been resized to allow wildlife to walk along the banks during low flow periods, the culverts have held during floods like the one caused by Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont.

A documentary on the Highway Wilding project that built wildlife passages along the TransCanada Highway in Banff National Park said that the cost of hitting a moose with a vehicle averages $30,000. Hitting a deer averages over $1,000. It doesn’t take many wildlife collisions to cost-justify a wildlife crossing, the documentary said, and some highway locations are the scene of hundreds of collisions.

Photo: Camera fail. None of my photos of Markowitz speaking even made it onto my camera’s memory card. Here’s her official portrait off the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources website.

Snakes in a Drain at NETWC

turtle crossingBlack racer snakes are rare in Vermont, so when highway construction was going to introduce drains with holes big enough for the snakes to fall into, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife asked for a fix. Drain covers with smaller holes were not possible. So the Vermont Agency of Transportation fashioned snake-sized ladders and attached them to the drains. It turns out that black racers are excellent climbers, so it is expected that the snakes will rescue themselves if they fall into the drain.  A poster on the unusual solution was presented at the Northeastern Transportation and Wildlife Conference, being held this week (Sept. 21 – 24) in Burlington, Vermont.

In other news from the conference: Now that fish and wildlife departments and transportation agencies are getting along so well together, what is the next step? Bringing urban and land-use planning into the fold. This will be trickier, because while transportation and wildlife function on the state level, planning happens at the local level. In Vermont, several speakers noted, just two percent of all development was subject to state review. (And Vermont has a strong state-level development law.)

Seeing Is Believing At NETWC

Richard TT FormanThe Northeastern Transportation and Wildlife Conference is taking place in Burlington, Vermont this week (Sept. 21 – 24). The technology of the hour is the game camera. It’s cheap, it’s non-invasive, and it’s cheap. One presenter confessed that there were probably better tools for his project — radio collaring, for example — but that it was better to have some data for his project now than waiting around for funding for better technology.

The next step is to become more adept at using game cameras. In that same presentation, there was a problem with smaller animals not being picked up by the cameras. At least one of the conversations after the session was about how to better place and aim the cameras to pick up all the species included in the study (which can be difficult if it includes both weasels and moose).

Another aspect touched on by a poster from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, is processing all those photos. This poster suggested using software that lets analysts pick descriptions from a pull-down menus to standardize the interpretations for better data crunching.

Photo: You never know who you will meet at a conference. Harvard researcher Richard T.T. Forman, known as the “father of road ecology,” was one of the NETWC attendees. Here, he adds his thoughts on a documentary that he appeared in as an expert.

EHD in Deer in Oregon

090914_EHD_confirmed_black-tailed_deer_300Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) has been confirmed as the cause of death in over 100 deer in southwestern Oregon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife announced last week. EHD had not been observed in this region of the state before. The finding was confirmed by Oregon State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.

EHD is transmitted by gnats and causes disease in both deer and livestock. In this case, the diseased deer were black-tailed deer.

There have also been reports of more than 200 dead deer in two counties that are south of the EHD site, the press release says, but those deer where shown to have Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease (AHD), which is common in the area and spread through nose to nose contact.

Read the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) release here.

Photo: This black-tailed deer, which appears fatigued, died just a few days after this photo was taken. It was one of the deer that later tested positive for EHD. -Photo by ODFW-

Citizen Science and Birds

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople love birds, and that makes it relatively easy to mobilize citizen scientists for bird research. Recently, the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group did just that to learn more about the spring migration of a bird that is in a mysterious decline. The insights are still to come, but the data collection has been deemed a success.

Read more in the US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast’s blog, here.

In a PLoS ONE paper, researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the University of Wisconsin, Madison analyzed a review article of the impacts of climate change on bird migration and found that citizen scientists played an important role in gathering the data that the findings were based on.

“Our paper is a chance to say thank you to the many people who are citizen scientists,” said lead author Caren Cooper, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said in a lab press release announcing the paper. “These people are part of the process of creating new knowledge—and whether it’s counting birds or butterflies, gazelles or galaxies, they should know that their observations really make a difference in professional science.”

Read the PLoS ONE paper here. (It is open access.)
Read the Cornell Lab of O press release here.

Photo: Through projects like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch, citizen scientists have provided the data to document regional differences in the breeding cycle of the Eastern Bluebird. Photo © Gary Mueller/Cornell Lab.

The Secret Life of Birds

Birds are full of surprises. While transmission line corridors can be a blight in many landscapes, in the Northeastern United States they are providing valuable grassland and shrubland habitat for vulnerable bird species.

Read the US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast’s blog for more information how utility company rights of way are benefiting birds in Vermont, here.

And how do birds find their way along their migration routes? A study by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and University of Nebraska researchers focused on birds that do a “loop migration,” that is, taking a slightly different route south than north. They found that on the way north, the birds were following the greening of vegetation.

Read the Cornell Lab of O press release announcing the paper here.
Read the abstract in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B here. (Subscription or fee required to read the whole thing.)