Winter run chinook, kokanee, black bears: Some good news stories from the DFW
By JIM MATTHEWS
It’s easy to quibble with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s management and general disregard for the sportsmen who still fund the bulk of its work, but buried in the quagmire of this bureaucracy are still some gems of good work being done by the agency. Here are three short examples that you probably haven’t heard about:
RESTORING AN EXTINCT RUN OF SALMON: The DFW has launched an extraordinary effort to restore the spring-Chinook salmon run in the San Joaquin River, a run that is currently considered functionally “extinct.” Historically, the spring run Chinook was the most abundant salmon species in the Central Valley, and this year they are returning.
Since spring run salmon spawn in the early fall from mid-August through early October, DFG biologists have found 37 redds, or salmon nests, in the San Joaquin. These are fish that were taken from spring salmon produced in the Feather River hatchery before being released in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
This year, DFW staff collected 290,000 eggs from 100 females for rearing and release in the San Joaquin River as part of an “unprecedented, multiagency effort” to restore the spring-run chinook salmon run. In addition, construction is underway on a spring run chinook salmon hatchery at the base of Friant Dam to support future runs of San Joaquin River salmon. The hatchery is scheduled to be completed in 2019.
KOKANEE SALMON FOR THE HATCHERY: For its kokanee salmon stocking program, the DFW collected a record number of 1.5 million eggs from spawning fish in the Little Truckee River this year just upstream of Stampede Reservoir near Truckee. Last year, only 80,000 kokanee were raised in the DFW hatcheries and planted in waters this season.
Kokanee are a landlocked sockeye salmon that live out their entire lives in fresh water and have become a popular sportfish in waters where the agency releases fish each year. Not native to California, they were first planted in 1941. Most of the waters where they have been planted over the years have at populations that have become self-sustaining, but the DFW plants augment any wild spawned fish in these waters. This helps maintain fishable numbers of these popular sportfish, especially during drought years. In addition to providing sportfishing enjoyment, the fish provide forage for larger fish, most notably brown trout and Kamloops rainbows trout.
Kokanee Power, a non-profit sportfishing and conservation group begun in 1998 to support kokanee salmon in California, lists 26 waters in the state that have been planted since 2006, most in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Lake Isabella is the water furthest south that has been planted, according to Kokanee Power, but this lake has not received kokanee since 2011.
Largely at the prodding of sporting groups like Kokanee Power, the DFW and volunteers gather each October on the Little Truckee River to collect eggs from spawning kokanee coming up out of Stampede. Using seine nets and electrofishing gear, the staff and volunteers collect eggs and milt and add them together in specific ratios to complete the spawning process. The fertilized eggs are carried to an egg care station on the side of river and then taken to the San Joaquin Hatchery.
From there the eggs are reared to fingerling size before being planted out. The record haul of eggs should mean that the state will easily surpass recent record production in (2008 and 2010) of just over 1.2 million fingerlings that will be planted next summer.
HOW MANY BLACK BEARS: The black bear population is booming in California with an estimated 35,000 animals statewide, approximately triple the 1982 estimate. But these are ballpark estimates, and rather than simply base management on estimates and guesstimates on bear numbers based on hunter harvest, increasing reports of problem bears, and anecdotal evidence of increased sightings, the DFW has a study in the Warmer Mountains of northeastern California that will more accurately measure black bear numbers and the size of the ranges they use. The knowledge will increase the accuracy of the DFW’s knowledge about bear population size and the habitats where they live.
In the past a study like this would involve bear capture and recapture and radio collars and ear tags. But this study is using “hair snares.” The hair plucked from bear that go through the snares across trials give up the DNA of the bar, and it allows an exact count on individuals present and their relationship to nearby bears. With hair snares scattered across the landscape, the biologists can determine their range, in addition to sex, abundance, and genetic diversity. In this study, there are 90 hair snares distributed across 10 sampling grids across 600 square miles.
The hair snare itself is pretty low tech. It consists of two parallel strands of barbed wire stretched around a cluster of three or more trees, one about eight inches off the ground and the other about 20 inches off the ground. This forms a barbed-wire “corral” in which researchers place a pile of logs drizzled with fish oil to attractant the bears. At two thirds of the hair-snare stations, researchers also placed a trail-camera to help verify the effectiveness of the snares at capturing hair samples when a bear is present. The trail photos also provide demographic (cub-adult ratio) information on bears within the study area.
Early in the study, this summer’s 50-day hair collection period produced 469 samples of hair in all at 57 of the 90 hair-snare locations. Next summer, project staff will capture and collar 12 adult black bear with research collars, which will record hourly GPS locations of the bears as they move across the landscape, providing information on how they use the landscape, including seasonal habitat preferences and, during the winter hibernation period, where bears den. The project is expected to continue for another two to three years.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.