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Officials ‘Very Concerned’ About Drought’s Effect on Wildlife

Starvation, disease, even extinction are among the risks as another hot, dry summer begins.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes

A long summer of wildlife problems is ahead in California as animals struggle to find food and habitat during the state’s worst drought in history. Whether they travel by fin, feather or paw, almost no species is immune.

Just look at black bears, a highly mobile species prone to doing great damage to homes and property when it resorts to eating human food. Last year, between July and November, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife received about 1,300 bear complaints in Kern County alone. Biologist Victoria Monroe said this is more complaints than were reported in the previous 20 years combined.

This year, Monroe is already seeing a jump in bear conflicts in new places as summer begins. This includes Frazier Park, a mountain community off Interstate 5 near the Grapevine. Bear activity is normally quiet here because the area borders a vast national forest where food and habitat are adequate.

Wildlife managers in California have never seen times like these.

“I’m very concerned,” said Victoria Monroe, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These bears are very hungry and they’re very stressed, and it’s getting worse.”

During the same July-to-November period last year, Monroe’s agency had to tranquilize and capture nine bears inside the city limits of Bakersfield, a community of 240,000 people. In one case, a bear died after being captured at a Bakersfield apartment complex. A necropsy was unable to determine cause of death.

The agency also captured three bears near Boron, a town in the Mojave Desert that is at least 50 miles from the nearest suitable bear habitat. In one case, a mother bear and her cub had entered a solar-energy generating facility near Boron. The cub weighed only 10 pounds, a clear sign it was malnourished.

Those situations are “absolutely” drought related, Monroe said.

“I know what she was looking for: She was hungry,” she said of the mother bear. “It was terrible. They are desperate and travel great lengths – far outside any area suitable for bears.”

Monroe urges people to secure garbage cans and other outdoor food sources – like pet food – to avoid attracting bears, especially in rural areas. When bears become habituated to human food, conflicts with people are more likely.

Habitat has also shrunk drastically for ducks, geese and other waterfowl. These birds travel the Pacific Flyway to spend winter in California’s Central Valley, arriving in the fall from all over the western hemisphere. They need wetlands – shallow, flooded habitat – for food and shelter. Of course, during a drought, there isn’t much flooding to be found.

“Everyone is fighting for their share of a very limited supply of surface water,” said Jake Messerli, vice president of conservation programs at the California Waterfowl Association.

Rice farmers flood their fields in the fall, after harvest, to decompose leftover rice straw. These flooded fields do double duty as important waterfowl habitats, since California retains only 5 to 10 percent of its natural wetlands.

This year, many rice growers aren’t planting. They either don’t have enough water, or they’ve realized their water is more valuable than rice. Some are selling water instead of planting their usual crop.

The result: waterfowl are forced to crowd together more densely on whatever habitat remains. This boosts stress hormones in the birds, which increases the need for calories and also may lower reproductive potential.

Rice fields normally provide more than half the food waterfowl need, Messerli said. This year, it’s estimated only about one-third of the usual rice acreage will be planted.

“Skinny ducks have a lot harder time completing their migration and reproductive cycle,” Messerli said.

In June, the results of an annual survey of breeding waterfowl — considered “resident” birds — showed a 30 percent population decline compared to 2014. The survey by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife is conducted each spring using fixed-wing aircraft. Officials blamed the decline on habitat loss caused by the drought, and warned that further declines are likely as the drought continues.

A similar survey of migratory waterfowl is expected to be out later this month.

Crowding can also cause disease outbreaks, such as botulism and cholera. These are both naturally occurring pathogens that kill birds every year. But they tend to explode during drought because infections are more easily passed when birds are crowded and stressed.

The loss of rice acreage has made state and federal wildlife refuges even more important for waterfowl. But these areas also have less habitat to offer, because their own water supplies have been reduced.

Some refuges can supplement with well water, which is what California Waterfowl is doing on a 5,000-acre habitat it owns in Kern County, said Messerli. But running pumps to move groundwater is expensive.

“We’re concerned the birds will not have enough flooded habitat and we’ll see an increase in disease outbreaks and die-offs,” he said. “We expect the numbers to be pretty bad.”

The drought poses a greater threat to certain fish species: extinction.

In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation arranged a plan to save cold water in Shasta reservoir to sustain juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon, an endangered species, so the fish could safely migrate downstream to the ocean. The plan was approved by the State Water Resources Control Board.

It wasn’t enough water, and an estimated 95 percent of the young salmon died.

Salmon need water at 56 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, or they begin to suffer stress. At temperatures above 58 degrees, death becomes likely.

Reclamation proposed a similar release plan at Shasta this year, and it was again approved by the state water board. But on June 16, the board ordered flows reduced so Shasta could retain more cold water. This came after Reclamation reported its temperature projections were faulty. The cause? A thermometer measuring lake temperatures was found to be inaccurate. Time will tell if the problem was caught in time.

“The situation is grim for everyone and everything,” Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Associated Press. “The winter-run Chinook salmon may not survive losses in the Sacramento River similar to last year.”

The next day, on June 17, the water board took another drastic action in the Russian River watershed. The board’s emergency order bans watering lawns, washing cars, filling ornamental fountains and other measures on about 13,000 properties served by four tributary streams that flow into the Russian River. The goal is to preserve enough water for steelhead and coastal coho salmon, both endangered species.

In an unusual move, the order also applies to properties served by wells in the region, because that groundwater is connected to surface flow in the streams.

The goal is to ensure there’s enough water to last through the summer, a critical period for juvenile fish.

The situation dramatizes connections between human water use and healthy habitats: saving water at home can help fish and other wildlife survive drought.

Harry Morse, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said it is ominous that such drastic measures are needed even before the peak of summer.

“We’re on the front end of some really bad news, I’m sorry to say,” said Morse.

Officials are also managing an outbreak of whirling disease at three state trout hatcheries that may be caused by drought.

Hot Creek Hatchery near Mammoth Lakes and Darrah Springs Hatchery east of Redding may have been contaminated when other animals carrying the whirling disease parasite entered the hatcheries in a desperate search for food, Morse said. Although hatcheries are contained by fences and overhead netting, it is not uncommon for otters, raccoons, bears and ospreys to find a way in. They may have carried the parasite in their feces after eating fish from infected waters outside the hatchery.

Another possibility is that the parasite arrived in groundwater flows that reached the hatcheries when shrinking springs and aquifers shifted in new directions, Morse said.

Whirling disease destroys cartilage in a fish’s spinal column, causing the spine to become curved. This forces the fish to swim in circles, hence the name. The disease does not affect humans.

Mt. Shasta Hatchery, located north of Redding, was contaminated when infected fish were transported from Darrah Springs Hatchery before the outbreak was discovered there.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has quarantined an estimated 3 million trout at the hatcheries while it investigates the outbreak. It could cost $1 million to contain the problem, Morse said, and the hatcheries could be out of commission for six months to two years. They will be retrofitted with ultraviolet water purification devices, and fish holding ponds must be treated with epoxy linings to exclude outside waters.

The hatcheries primarily raise rainbow trout that are planted in streams and lakes to support recreational fishing. While the quarantine continues, Crystal Lake Hatchery near Burney, will stock trout in areas normally served by the three hatcheries.

The disease outbreak may not be over, Morse said.

“There could be another shoe to drop somewhere one or two months down the line,” he said. “We’re hoping the story doesn’t blow up and get bigger, but we can’t say conclusively that it won’t.”

Matt Weiser is Water Deeply’s managing editor.

Photo Courtesy of Dan Cox, for the US Fish & Wildlife Service

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