From Frogs, Logs, Dogs, Slogs, Bogs, Hogs, and Pollywogs - It's the Methow Conservancy Blog!
Occasional posts - from the quirky to the momentous - on the life and times of the Methow Conservancy.
(What you won't find in E-News)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Methow Mammal Course - Class #6 Insectivores & "One Stick at a Time"

Our 2017 "Conservation Course" started February 6th.  Below are notes taken by Avery Young.  See notes and videos from the previous classes here:
Class #1
Class #2
Class #3
Class #4 
Class #5
Learn more about the Mammal Course and see all the course documents here.

Class #6 - Insectivores with Dr. Peter Wimberger, plus The 10 Decades Project with Kent Woodruff.

(Watch and listen to Peter Wimberger's section here)
If you are a mammal in the Methow, the chances are very likely that you are a rodent. If you are not a rodent, but still call yourself a mammal, then it’s likely you are a shrew, mole or bat. Rodents are the largest order of mammals.  Shrews, moles and bats are in the second and third largest families of mammals.  “Insectivora” is a now-abandoned taxonomic order.  Insectivores are the sister group to all the rest of mammals.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, when we started sequencing DNA, that biologists realized not all those groups fit together. Now, there are new orders, and “super-orders” and new families and “sub-families,” all trying to distinguish how mammals are similar/related or not, and the classifications continuing changing today.  For now, true shrews and moles are in the order Eulipotyphla, and bats are in the order Chiroptera. 

Vagrant Shrew (by William Leonard)

The family Soricidae, the “shrew” family, has 26 genera and 376 species worldwide! The only places shrews are not found are Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.  Shrews are all small mammals found in forests, and most of them primarily make their living off of eating insects.  They are carnivorous, but they also eat subterranean fungi.  Shrews have many sharp teeth, but lack a zygomatic arch, which rodents have. Unlike rodents whose teeth are constantly growing, shrews only have one set of teeth. However, like beavers, some shrews have iron capped teeth which reinforce the tooth and make them stronger. Like bats, shrews can echolocate. They are mostly solitary, but very territorial (for fun, google: “shrew territorial battle!” It will make cage fighting look tame!).  Shrews burrow, but they also spend a lot of time above ground. Shrews have a short lifespan of about one year, and can have up to 10 litters per year. A few other interesting facts about shrews: they have venomous saliva, and also can engage in seismic body shaking in order to figure out where to burrow.  Being small has its disadvantages when it comes to being homoeothermic (warm-blooded) in a cooler climate.  In colder climates, shrews have to eat 1.5-3x their body weight in food/day. They take several very short naps during the day, but they don’t go into torpor or hibernate. 

In the Methow, we have the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus) and vagrant shrew (Sorex vagrans) for sure, and it’s likely we also have Montane (dusky) shrew (Sorex monticolus (obscurus)) and water shrew (Sorex palustris).  The masked shrew has the widest distribution range of any North American shrew and can be found in a variety of habitats. Water shrews live in water and make their living by eating lots of aquatic fish and amphibian larvae. Water shrews have hairs around the edges of their feet which makes them more efficient swimmers. They can control their metabolic rate a little bit more efficiently than other shrews.

Coast Mole (by Peter Paquet)

Moles are in the Talpidae family. There are 17 genera and 50 species of moles world-wide. They spend much of their lives in underground burrows, so they’ve evolved a special ability to survive in low-oxygen environments.  Their blood cells have a special form of hemoglobin that allows them to reuse oxygen.

Moles have a fused radius and humerus, and a huge pectoralis, all allowing them to dig efficiently and for long periods of time. Moles do have a zygomatic arch and like birds, they have a keeled sternum, which makes sense given the sweeping or swimming motion their front arms make.  Mole saliva has a paralyzing toxin that allows them to store their still-living prey (primarily earthworms) for later consumption.

Pacific Moles, also known as Coast Moles (Scapanus orarius), live on the west side of the Cascades throughout the Northwest, but their mounds and sign have been found in the Methow by David Moskowitz, and records show that they’ve been seen to reach some parts of west-central Idaho.  They stick to wetter riparian areas, and their mounds look different from gopher mounds (moles are more like volcanos with hole going straight down the middle; gophers are large nondescript piles and a hole may be found anywhere in it, curving down a side.

Townsend's big-eared bats in Twisp by Mary Kiesau
Bats, in the order Chiroptera (meaning hand-wing) are the only true flying mammal.   Bats are the second largest order of mammals (after the rodents), representing about 20% of all classified mammal species worldwide (there about 1200 species of bats).  Bats showed up soon after the dinosaurs went extinct.  Fossil records go back to the early Eocene period, (52-53mya). 

Bats have the broadest array of feeding niches of any animal. Different bats eat different things; nectar, pollen, fish, frogs, blood, fruits, frogs, birds, and more. Bats have a wide array of teeth based on their diets. 

The aspect ratio is the length to width ratio of the wing. Bats with shorter/broader wings are very maneuverable with a low aspect ratio wing. Also, like birds, some bats migrate. It was recently discovered that some bats who migrate use the same migratory paths that birds do.  Bats have a higher concentration of red blood cells than other mammals in order to supply them with the energy they need for flying.  Most bats utilize echolocation for navigation and feeding. Some bats estivate and some bats hibernate or go into torpor for a single night. 

Flight lowers the probability of an early extrinsic death and so they generally can live a long time - many up to 30 years.  If a species has a high probability of dying young, they will generally reproduce very quickly (like rodents).  Bats reproduce very slowly, because of the reduced selection pressure on their lifespan (this is also a contributing factor to bats’ population decline).  Mating occurs in late summer/early fall and the female stores the male sperm until April or May the following year.  Once implantation is allowed, gestation is 30-60 days depending on the species.  Generally, bats have 1 young, sometimes 2.

When it comes to echo-location, most bats generate sound with their larynx and their tongue in the 20-70kHz range. Our hearing range is between 20Hz-20KHz, so we usually can’t hear them. Some bats can generate calls up to 210 KHz.  Many of the bat species in the Methow are in the myotis genus, and they have the ability to avoid a wire as thin as .28 mm by using echolocation. Others can avoid a wire .05 mm (the size of an amoeba!).

Pallid bat wingspan (NPS photo)
The most common bat, the “little brown bat” (Myotis lucifugus), is the bat that has been most devastated by the white nose syndrome. The “big brown bat” (Eptesicus fuscus) is widely distributed and uses human structures to build their habitat. Townsend’s big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii) feed primarily on moths and have very low intensity sounds so that the moths can’t hear them coming, giving this bat the common name of “whisper bat.”  Hoary bats (Lasiurus cinereus) have high aspect ratio wings and can endure long migrations. Pallid bats (Antrozous pallidus) are WA’s second largest bat.  They like our arid river canyons and cliffs, and shrub-steppe where they forage on crickets.  Spotted bats (Euderma maculatum) are considered one of America’s rarest animals. There are only 73 museum specimens in the world.  We do have them in the valley - listen for them in Pipestone canyon at night; if you hear “tick, tick, tick, tick, tick” it’s probably a spotted bat. 

Up until white nose syndrome, wind turbines were the biggest threat to bats. Bats often get hit by them, or the negative pressure can make it impossible to escape getting sucked into them. Wind farms kill between 600K-900K bats/year!  Solutions proposed are to have the wind turbines only running during the day, but this solution is voluntary.  Pesticides reduce food sources for bats, and a lot of pesticides are fat soluble and so the fatty tissues in bats gets an accumulation which can be lethal.  If you want to help bats, leave dead trees standing to give them roosting cavities.  White nosed syndrome is a fungal infection that grows on the face and wings. First discovered in 2006 in the Northeast, it is now in 29 states mostly found on the eastern side of the United States, but WA has also had one case. There have been over 11 million bats killed due to this deleterious fungal infection. The spores are highly resistant, and are passed by contact including, it was discovered, by bat researchers and spelunkers (people exploring caves) who get the fungal spores on their clothes and then go to another cave.  (Throw clothes away if you go spelunking; washing doesn’t destroy the spores.)

The 10 Decades Project & “One Stick at a Time”
Kent Woodruff spoke about The 10 Decades Project which was conceived in 2014 as an attempt to engage resource managers and community leaders in actions directly related to reducing the climate change impacts expected for their areas.  The main effort is to communicate that excellent work has been done to identify some of the specific climate change impacts that are here now and are arriving with increasing frequency, and demonstrate a few ways people in the Methow Valley are responding. The film “One Stick at a Time” was created for people that care about land and water and wildlife and fish and forests and people.  The project is focused on showing that we have our work cut out for us and we need to start now to retain, for as long as we can, the things we value ... hopefully for 10 Decades or more.  Kent asked questions and encouraged each of us for doing something to shape the future we want.  What is one thing you have done to lessen climate change impacts? 

The film “One Stick at a Time” (25 min)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Methow Mammal Course - Class #5 Rodentia & Lagomorphs

Our 2017 "Conservation Course" started February 6th.  Below are notes taken by Susan Ernsdorff & Jan Sodt.  Photos by Mary Kiesau (except beaver images).  See notes and videos from the previous classes here:
Class #1
Class #2
Class #3
Class #4
Learn more about the Mammal Course here

Class #5 - Rodents & Lagomorphs with Kris Ernest, March 6 2017
plus a mini presentation by Torre Stockard on the Methow Beaver Projec
(Watch and listen to the entire class on this video)

Red Squirrels are common in the Methow!

Themes of the talk
    1.    Small body size has advantages and disadvantages
    2.    Adaptions to herbivorous diet and “life in the fast lane”
    3.    Amazing diversity – physiology, behaviors, survival strategies.  Why diversity?  Being small bodied allows for different ways to make a living in a given niche; and evolution can take place more quickly because they are shorter-lived and breed more quickly than larger species.

We think of mice when we think of Rodents but this order also includes voles, squirrels, chipmunks, ground squirrels, marmots, porcupine, muskrat and beaver!

If you have a skull in the hand, you can ID rodents and lagomorphs by teeth type and amount (dental formulas)

Rodents have 1/1 Incisors - 1 on the top, one of the 1 bottom, per side.
Muskrats eat lots of vegetation, and build small lodges too.
They have 0 Canines, the gap where the canine teeth would have been is called the diastema.
Premolars + Molars = 5 or less on top, 4 or less on the bottom, per side
Total teeth = 16 to 22
So: I 1/1, C 0/0, P + M  S5/S4 = 16-22 teeth=  most rodents have total of 16 teeth

Lagomorphs have 2/1 Incisors - 2 on top and one on the 1 bottom, per side
They also have no canines. 
Premolars + Molars = 5 or 6 on top, 5 on the bottom, per side
Total teeth = 26 to 28 (significantly more than rodents)
So: I 2/1, C 0/0, P + M 5-6/5 = 26-28 teeth
Lagomorphs also have a funny little second incisor on the top behind the incisor called the peg tooth.
Other characteristics of Rodents & Lagomorphs
Rodents and lagomorphs are each others' closest relatives taxonomically.  Both are found worldwide.
A chipmunk or a golden-mantled ground squirrel??

Rodents are very small, 20-100 grams.
Their feet are bare on the soles.
There are 36 families, totaling 2300 species (more than 40% of total mammal species)
They are mostly herbivorous or omnivorous but they can be carnivorous

Lagomorphs are mostly smallish, less than 5 kilograms
Feel are fully furred.
There are only 2 families totaling 94 species.
Lagos are only herbivorous.

Advantages to being small:
~ Easy to hide and to find shelter
~ Need small amount of food
~ Live in a small territory so there are bigger populations in an area, better genetic diversity
~ Higher reproductive rates

Disadvantages to being small:
~ Easy to be eaten, especially when snowpack is low
~ Can't carry much or move very fast
~ Have more surface area per mass – harder to stay warm, have to eat more per unit weight
~ Limited ability to see far
A Hoary Marmot basking (a warming strategy)

Surface area/volume ratio for smaller mammals is 60 times greater than larger mammals.  And smaller animals have to eat far more:  Elephants are 200,000 times larger than a mouse; but their mass-specific metabolic rate 1/12 as large.
For example: here are some mass-specific metabolic rates (energy needed per unit of mass):
Shrew = 7    Flying squirrel = 1    Elephant = .2

Strategies to stay warm when it's cold
~ Live in warmer micro-habitats (most do this - like burrows under snow or in soil)
~ Insulated nests (most do this)
~ Communal huddling (many do this, like deer mice and marmots, but pika are solitary)
~ Hibernation (some do this, like marmots)

So cute, but fierce protectors of their territories!
Pikas (because they really are the cutest species)
Have a super-high metabolism and thick fur, so they overheat easily.  They live in high alpine talus fields and nest under big rocks where it's cooler and there's good cool air flow.  Across their range, they are threatened by a warming climate - there's been quite a research done on them.  They just can't go higher up, they are already at high elevations.
They eat plants year-round, with no hibernation or torpor phase.  They dry plants in the summer for winter consumption (their stacks of dried plants are called hay piles and can be quite large!  This drying also leaches out the toxicity in certain plants).
Therefore they have to digest cellulose, which is difficult.  Their strategy? Coprophagy.  They re-eat their first round of "poop" pellets for more digestion and absorption of nutrients the second time around.  The pellets we humans see are the second round.

All rodents have teeth that never stop growing (the word rodent comes from Latin rodere, "to gnaw"). Beavers are a great example of that.  They have special skulls and very strong jaws for constantly chewing.  Their teeth are also strong, containing iron, which is why they have an orange tinge to them.  

We've talked about being an herbivore, omnivore or carnivore, but many rodents are also "Granivores" (grain eaters) or "Fungivores" (fungus-eaters aka Mycophagy).  The Great Basin pocket mouse has external fur-lined cheek pouches for hauling grain.  They literally have a flap of skin on the outside of their cheeks (not like a chipmunk with internal pockets.  They don't have to drink water because they can get all they need as a byproduct of metabolizing food.  Northern flying squirrels, red-backed vole and Pacific jumping mouse are fungivores - they eat fungi and spread spores and nutrients around the forest.

Conservation concerns     
Western Gray Squirrel – State Threatened
American Pika – no conservation status, but petitioned for listing, specifically because of global climate change
Northern Bog Lemming - State Monitored species (a few are known to be in the Methow Cascades)
The Snoqualmie Pass East Project is attempting to increase wildlife connectivity and safe passage, and decrease mortality across I-90.  The project includes 30 new crossing structures under and over the freeway, plus habitat enhancements such as logs and plantings, adding microhabitat features, innoculating with local fungal spores, using local soils, etc.  Monitoring of use of crossing structures by small animals is done using live traps and pit fall arrays.  The project is also monitoring pika patch occupancy.  They can live right next to the interstate if there's enough cover, food and other habitat requirements.

THE METHOW BEAVER PROJECT with Speaker Torre Stockard
Our watershed is 1800 square miles.
Goals of project: Restore beavers where they used to be; improve the watershed health and restore complexity to the stream systems of the watershed.
Measurable outcomes: Improve water quality; delay runoff and increase storage of water; expand riparian habitat; increase stream complexity; reconnect floodplains.

Key innovations in the first 10 years: 
~ GIS analysis of watershed to identify good beaver locations
~ Live capture and handling and processing of beavers - they created a special "beaver bag" so beavers don't have to be anesthetized
~ Determined how to distinguish sexes (via anal glands), which was not known anywhere prior to the Methow Beaver Project.

Beavers being housed at the Fish Hatchery until relocation
About 325 "nuisance" beavers have been captured and relocated since 2008.    These are beavers that landowners have requested be removed and the project deemed necessary as well (clogging culverts; chewing orchards, etc). 

PIT (passive integrative responder) Tagging allows tracking of their movement – they can move far!  One went down the Methow River to the Columbia, up the Columbia and then up the Okanogan river, last monitored at Canadian border.  142 miles.

A temporary lodge made by humans for released beavers.
Captured beavers are temporarily housed at the fish hatchery pens on Twin Lakes Road.  Lots of  volunteers help with feeding.  Monitoring is done to see if a male and female pair seems to get along, before relocating.  Before beavers are released at a chosen site, a temporary lodge is built for the beavers to use while they build their own.  Site monitoring shows remarkably fast work!  One picture showed that in the first week the beavers had already built a dam and created a pond.   Water storage and changes in stream temp are monitored too.

So far, there's about a 50% success rate of the relocated beavers staying put.  Approx 45 pairs have been established in 9 years.  The project is now working on ways to improve success such as more preliminary work to help beavers get established in very compromised landscapes (such as highly-incised stream cuts), as well as more education to local landowners on how to live with beavers instead of relocating them, including the creation of structures to block them from culverts. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Methow Mammal Course - Class #4 Felids & Mustelids

Our 2017 "Conservation Course" started February 6th.  Below are notes taken by Avery Young.  See notes and videos from the previous classes here:
Class #1
Class #2
Class #3
Learn more about the Mammal Course here

Class #4 - Felids & Mustelids with John Rohrer, Feb 27 2017
(our video of the class is giving us difficulties - we'll load it as soon as we can)

The native cats of the Methow are:
Lynx canadensis - Canada Lynx
Lynx rulus - Bobcat
Puma concolor - Cougar

Cats, or Felids are the perfect predator.  Their long, sharp, and circular canines are made for puncturing and grabbing prey. Felids have a short face, which makes for a powerful bite.  All of their canine molars are made for sheering meat. Felids orient their life visually and aurally. They use their eyes and ears to navigate life. They have 270 degrees of peripheral vision. Their external ears are designed for funneling sound down to their ear drums. Cats have 32 muscles on per ear, and they can move each independently.  Their flexible spine allows them to stretch out when they run. Speed and power are distinguishing characteristics of a Felid’s hunting prowess.

Mountain lion common names include: cougar, puma, panther, catamount depending on where you are.  The cougar is considered the most successful mammal (meaning they have the largest range) of the Western hemisphere going from north of Canada clear into Patagonia. Cougars are extremely territorial, and their territories can be 50-150 sq miles (males have much larger territories than females). In 1996, hound hunting became outlawed in WA, which inadvertently led to six cougar projects in the Okanogan. Biologists found that the adult males control the territories of all the cougars in an area, and that removing these adult males upset the social structure. The niche would get filled by 2-3 younger cougars who hadn’t “learned the ropes” yet which led to an increase in human conflict. On average around 50 cougars are killed via hunting in Okanogan county per year, and the remaining population is considered numerous, healthy and stable. Cougars can generally be found up on rock crops or other perches where they can see landscapes and potential prey well.  They are actually *not* typically found in trees.  They can climb trees, and will if they feel threatened by dogs, but generally, cougars are not hanging out high up in trees. 

Some additional resources include:
The Mountain Lion Foundation
WDFW’s Living with Cougars webpage

Bobcat from a remote camera by David Moskowitz
Bobcats are habitat and prey generalists. They exist in every state except Alaska, HI and Delaware, and can thrive in numerous different habitats. These cats lead solitary lives and feed almost exclusively on rodents. They have small feet, proportional to their body, and are not adapted for deep snow. Bobcats exhibit sexual dimorphism; females get up to 15lbs while males can be 20lbs or more.  Bobcats are common in the Methow Valley but they hunt at night so we rarely see them. 

Lynx are habitat and prey specialists. They eat almost exclusively snowshoe hare and prefer higher elevation forests with deep winter snow. They have long legs and huge feet (like snowshoes) which allow them to move efficiently. In the fall, they grow hair on the bottom of their feet. The snowshoe hare and lynx are textbook examples of the predator/prey cycle. It is hare abundance that drives lynx population dynamics from survival rates to den site selection.

Bobcats and lynx look similar and are often confused, though they are often separated by habitat, as mentioned above.  They both have “bobbed” tails but lynx have an entirely black tail tip, while the tip of a bobcat’s tail is black on the outside, and white underneath.  Lynx have much longer ear tufts than bobcat, and they have a larger/fuller face ruff.  Then, of course, there’s the feet: lynx are 4.5 inches across and bobcat are at most 2.5inches.  In a track, lynx have indistinct toe pads because of their furry feet, but cougar or bobcat have very distinct toes in the track.

In Washington, the trapping season for lynx was closed in 1993 when the animal was listed in the state as threatened.  The lynx was listed Federally as threatened in 2000.  After a 2016 status review by WDFW, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission uplisted the animal from threatened to endangered in WA in December 2016 (see the most recent WA State review here). 

Furs were highly sought after in the 20th century. 98% of lynx are distributed in Canada, while the remaining 2% reside in the lower 48 in 6 unique spots. Northern Maine has the most with 500-600. Most of their habitat in Maine is private lumber areas. NE Minnesota has from 15-200. They are also found in Montana and Wyoming. Yellowtone has not had a lynx since 2010.  We have lynx here in North Central Washington with the best estimate currently around 40-55 individuals.

Fires greatly affect lynx population.  Here, the north side of Lake Chelan to upper Twisp River is their territory.  Since so many fires have affected the same habitat zone as the lynx, it’s important to note that since 1994, fires have reduced over 30% of lynx habitat. Lynx cannot live in fire-ravaged areas, so they are sometimes forced to go into other lynx territories.

Why did the fire push them out?  Typically, wildfires destroy about 10-15% of lynx habitat. However, in the last 10 years, fires have gotten much more intense and now 30-40% of lynx habitat is destroyed by our fires. The amount of time it will take for these habitats to recover, and be able to provide a living place for lynx, is 15-20 years.

Why do fires affect lynx habitat so much? The answer lies in the snowshoe hare/lynx relationship.  Snowshoe hares need ground level coverage as well as ground level conifers for nutrition. The fires make it very hard for hares to survive. If there are few hares, the lynx will also be scarce.  As climate change continues to reduce snowpack and/or create earlier spring run-off, we can expect to see a reduction in the hare population. Furthermore, the mid-winter thaw/freeze cycles allow the snow to harden and other predators can go to lynx habitat and compete with them.

Q: Rumors say there has been a lynx in Winthrop recently, is that true?
A: Probably not because of the lower elevation. If you ever think that you might have seen a lynx, go get a track. The so called lynx in Winthrop was likely a bobcat.

The Methow members of the Mustelidae Family are: 
Short tailed weasel
Long tailed weasel
River otter
(skunks were recently moved to a different family)

Mustelids are the largest and most diverse family of carnivores.  They can be arboreal, aquatic, fossorial (under ground), subnivean (below snow), or chionophillic (snow lover). All Mustelids have musk glands in their anal glands.  They are typically small animals with short legs, short, round ears, and thick fur. Most mustelids are solitary, nocturnal animals, and are active year-round.  Most female mustelids have delayed implantation: the embryo does not immediately implant in the uterus, but remains dormant for some time.  The normal gestation period can be extended up to a year. This allows the young to be born under more favorable environmental conditions.

Badgers: 20 years ago, they were uncommon but are beginning to become more common.

River otters (Lontra canadensis)
Methow river otters by Mary Kiesau
are adapted for water and have webbing between their toes. Their nose and ears close completely to keep water out, and they can hold their breath for 3-4 minutes.  They have thick, lush hair that prevents water from reaching their skin.  They are relatively common in certain areas of the Methow, especially large ponds.  Otters are an indicator of healthy streams, rivers, and water bodies.

Why have badgers and river otters increased as of late? River otters were still being trapped up through the 90’s. Badgers are more mysterious, but it could be because of a warming climate and also, better awareness; badgers don’t get shot as varmint as much as they used to.

Fishers (Martes pennanti) were considered extirpated from WA by the mid-1900s due to population and habitat loss from logging, trapping and poisoning.  In 1998, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission listed the fisher as endangered in the state.  The Dept. of Wildlife is now actively reintroducing fishers in the Olympics, Southern Cascades and North Cascades.  Read more about fisher recovery here.

Weasel: There are two species in the Methow- the Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea) and the Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata).  Some call the short-tailed weasel by the name ermine.  Weasels have a long slender body, long neck, long head, and long vertebrae, all of which they compress and then extend in long bounding strides, like a slinky toy, when they move. In winter, they develop a white coat.  They have a huge appetite, and must eat at least 1/3 of their body weight per day. Their resting pulse is 480-500bmp.  The subnivean zone (below the snow but along the ground) is their key to survival in winter. Their size and shape are hugely inefficient for cold weather, so they stay under the snow most the time except to hunt.

Methow photos from Gary Ott of a short-tailed (?) weasel getting a mouse.

The American marten or pine marten (Martes americana) are found in dense coniferous forest at higher elevations in areas with cold, snowy winters, similar to lynx. Like other mustelids they were highly valued as furbearers, and Okanogan County was an area of extensive trapping, even up until the year 2000.  They feed on rodents, insects, birds, eggs, fruits and nuts. Though marten are well-adapted for snow, their activity is greater in summer than in winter, and they use the insulating characteristics of snow to keep warm and dry in the winter.  They will often be in the subnivean layer and use areas of shallow snowpack.  Marten are smaller in size and lighter in color than fisher, and we may begin to see these two species in the same areas after fishers are reintroduced in the North Cascades later this year!

Wolverines are the ultimate alpine survivor, but they could be the next victim of climate change. Their Latin name Gulo gulo has to do with how much they eat and how much they destroy.  Considered ferocious and with strength out of proportion to its size, a wolverine is a powerful and versatile predator.  Though they typically feed on ungulate carrion (they are primarily scavengers), marmots and other small mammals, they can kill prey much larger than themselves.  Males are typically around 30lbs though they can be much larger, and females around 20lbs. They have large feet and claws, frost resistant fur, and are thermo-neutral down to -40F.

Wolverine skulls don’t have a detachable lower mandible, it is locked in with bone so that when it goes to crush a big bone it doesn’t dislocate it’s jaw.  They have very large home ranges and are capable of traveling long distances. They are habitat generalists avoiding humans.

Like other mustelids, wolverines mate in the summer but have delayed implantation.  They give birth in late February in a den deep under the snow in the peak of the winter during the harshest conditions. Their successful reproduction appears to be tied to deep snow layer that persists through spring. Natal dens in the North Cascades have been found at 6000 feet.  Two to three kits are born.  Sometimes, males will go to the den sites to visit the kits and to scent mark the dens where they have made offspring. It’s believed that wolverines might cache food in summer snowbanks to survive food scarce winters, which may be especially important for pregnant and nursing females who can’t go on long hunting forays.

The North Cascades Wolverine Project
spanned from 2006-2015. There are other research efforts still ongoing in Glacier, Yellowstone, and central Idaho.  The first year of the study determined that wolverines can effectively be live trapped and radio collared!

What do you do with them?  Tranquilize them, then take size measurements, DNA and other health assessment, and diagnostic photographs to capture the unique pattern on their chest/throat. Each get a unique combination of colored ear tags and a radio collars.  Their body temperature and other vitals are taken during the 45 minutes or so that they are under.  Then they are placed back in the trap before they wake up.

Do they ever attack you? No, they run away the moment they are released.

What did we learn? Ultimate alpine survivor is a good name. They inhabit high elevations year round and travel great distances.  DNA evidence suggests that they were totally extirpated from the western US and that they trickled down from upper Alberta. The research provided that spring snow cover until May 15th is the best predictor of where they can thrive. Currently they are only found in North Cascades and Northern Rockies in the United States.

See a wolverine release video here!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Methow Mammal Course - Class #3 Ungulates

Our 2017 "Conservation Course" started February 6th.  Below are notes taken by Avery Young.  See notes and videos from the previous classes here:
Class #1
Class #2
Learn more about the Mammal Course here

Class #3 - Ungulates with Sara Hansen & Jeff Heinlen, Feb 20 2017
plus a mini presentation by Mary Kiesau on Feb 27 (scroll down for that video and notes)

Watch and listen to the entire class on this video

This class focused on the Artiodactyla order (even-toed ungulates), and covered the two families Cervidae and Bovidae.  The wild animals in this order that are in Washington include:
Mule deer
Black-tailed deer
White-tailed deer
Columbian white-tailed deer
Bighorn sheep
Mountain goat

The Cervid Family
Mule Deer Herd by Mary Kiesau
Cervids are herbivores that lack incisors and walk on ungulated toes - meaning the weight is borne equally by the third and fourth toes, hence the name even-toes ungulates.  Okanogan County has an abundance of cervids - otherwise knowns as deer (and elk and moose)!  There are “odd-toed ungulates,” such as horses, who bear their weight primarily on their third toe. 
Cervids have an extraordinary sense of smell. Deer have 1000 scent receptors (and we have maybe 50) and their skulls have a huge nasal cavity to accommodate all those scent receptors. 

The main distinguishing factors for identifying cervids are their tail, metatarsal gland location, behavior, and sometimes antlers (although antlers are not as reliable).

Sexual dimorphism in deer is quite pronounced – males tend to be larger than females, and, except for the reindeer, only males possess antlers.  Our male deer species (including elk and moose) have antlers, which are temporary and regularly regrown unlike the permanent horns of bovids, from Spring through Fall.  Antlers are dropped shortly after the breeding season (the rut) is over, usually December into January.  In the spring when antlers regrow they have a velvet sheath and are some of the fastest growing tissue of any organism; they can grow an inch a day.

Phenotypically speaking, mule deer have a black tip at the end of their tail, and a white patch under their tails but their tails are usually not raised. Black-tailed deer have a thick, waterproof undercoat made with heavy oils which helps them deal with their habitat on the wet, Western slope of the Cascades (they are not found east of the cascades).  The bulk of the outward-facing part of their tail is black.  White-tailed deer, pervasive on the east coast of the US but also found here in Washington, have a broad, fluffy tail that is brown on the outer side and white on the underside.  When alarmed or running, their tail is often raised like a white flag. White-tailed deer have a much more aggressive temperament than other deer. Columbian white tailed deer, although rare, can be found in Southwestern WA; they are a protected species and not legal to hunt.
Mule Deer Fawn by Mary Kiesau

Deer breed late in the fall and have a 7-month gestation.  Females birth one or two fawns in late May to early June. The fawns stay with the does for about one year.  Females generally breed at 1.5 years, but can breed as fawns occasionally. Life span of deer is 8-15 years.

The WDFW Living with Deer website has a wealth of information!

One of the coolest things about Elk or wapiti (Cervus canadensis), aside from their size, is that they have “fangs.” Unlike deer and moose, elk still have a tooth on each side of their front upper jaw - what we call “canines.”  The teeth are ivory and are called “ivories.”  All the rest of their teeth are enamel.  There are only two animals indigenous to the Pacific Northwest with ivory teeth - elk and walrus.  An elk uses their ivory teeth to threaten and intimidate, snarling his upper lip to show his “fangs.”  A bull’s ivory tooth is much larger than a cow’s ivory tooth. 
Cow elks by Mary Kiesau

“Wapiti” is the name for Rocky Mountain elk in the Shawnee language and means “white rump.”  These cervids can live well into their 20’s (and there’s at least one in the Methow who probably has!).  Elk inhabit areas where there are a lot of open fields for grazing, and there are elk in certain parts of Okanogan county, though very few in the Methow.

Moose (Alces alces) are found in WA especially in the northeast part of the state. Moose means “twig eater” in Algonquin and they are the largest cervid in North America. They have an extensive range northward throughout Canada and Alaska. Moose endure an 8-month gestation, bearing 1-3 calves in June. Unlike most other deer and elk species, moose are solitary animals and do not form herds.  Recently 12 moose had to be moved out of downtown Spokane (this process involved a lot of drugs, sleds, and some strong people). 
Cow Moose by Mary Kiesau
Moose are starting to increase in numbers in the Methow too; Northcentral WA is kind of like the final frontier for moose in the United States.  Since 2010, there have been more and more incidences of road kill of moose. In talking to Native Americans, there are no stories about Moose in Washington. Why are they increasing here?  They need cold and they need mixed broadleaf and boreal forests with abundant shrubs for browsing.  Perhaps the increased amount of large wildfires over the last 20 years in WA has improved the  habitat for them.

Q: I have been feeding the deer at my house, what do you think of that?
A: It’s usually a bad idea. Deer have a 4-chambered stomach that has specific gut bacteria based on the vegetation and time of year. If you change that diet, their gut bacteria needs about 2 weeks to transition over to be able to digest the new food. This process takes a lot of energy. Sometimes deer stomach’s will bloat to the extent that the deer will actually die of starvation with a full stomach.

The Bovid Family
Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) are in the Bovidae family, along with mountain goats and other cloven-hoofed ruminants, including domestic cattle.  They are adapted for steep, rugged terrain. Males weigh up to 200 lbs and 8-10% of that weight is in the horns. It takes 7-8 years to get a full curl in the horns.  Ewes, the females, are smaller than the rams (can weigh up to 150 lb.) and have shorter, smaller horns that never exceed half a curl.  These cliff dwelling sheep live up to 10-12 years. The two digits of each hoof move independently. The posterior half of each hoof bears a rubbery pad for gripping. They use cliffs to escape predators such as coyotes, wolves, and cougars who have a very hard time scaling the cliffs.
Bighorn Sheep by David Moskowitz
Male bighorn sheep can be identified by the presence of large curled horns.  Horns are permanent and made of live bone - they don’t fall off like antlers but they will stop growing in winter and restart in spring which adds a ring in the horn. Counting rings in a horn makes it fairly easy to age a ram.  In the late fall rams start head butting to establish dominance over one another. You can sometimes see this spectacle exhibited South of Orville on Highway 9. Breeding occurs in late November through early December. Lambing occurs from late-April to mid-June on steep, rugged, natural habitats.

Bighorn sheep distribution in WA is in central and eastern Washington east of the Cascades. Local historic accounts go back to the late 1800’s, including in the Cascades just west of the Methow Valley.  By 1950, there were no more bighorn sheep left in Washington due to over-hunting and disease from domestic sheep, which had herds numbering in the thousands throughout Washington’s mountains.  The Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife began reintroducing bighorn sheep from Canada about 60 years ago initially starting the Sinlahekin herd in northern Okanogan County.  Now, there are eight herds in Washington, including some that established themselves, with some population and genetic mixing between the herds and into Canada.
Bighorn Sheep Herd by David Moskowitz
What are the bighorn sheeps’ problems?  Cars are the cause of death for some sheep. Domestic sheep and goats can also pose problems because they can transmit a lethal strain of pneumonia to the sheep. Pneumonia can kill about 80-85% of a bighorn sheep herd. Dogs can sometimes be a threat to sheep. High barbed wire fences can also be a problem for these roaming ungulates when they get stuck in the fence. Psoroptic mange is a disease caused by mites which destroys the sheep’s hair, and is now rampant in the herds throughout Washington (in fact, Canada has even constructed fences to keep sheep with parasites from reaching non-infected sheep).

Bighorn sheep have not yet naturally recolonized in the Methow even though they used to be here.  They could probably survive here now, but they’d likely need to be reintroduced to get established. 

On Feb 27 Mary Kiesau gave a mini-presentation on Mountain Goats
 Watch and listen to that portion on this video

The mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), which occurs only in northwestern North America, is the only genus and species of its kind in the world. The domestic goat is not closely related to the mountain goat.  They are native to the Cascade Range, and can be found from the Canadian border to the Oregon border. A few mountain goats inhabit the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington where they have probably colonized from reintroductions in Oregon. Mountain goats are not native to the Olympic Peninsula; these goats descended from introductions from BC and Alaska in the 1920s.

Mountain goats are supremely adapted to the harsh conditions of the North Cascades.
Mtn Goat by David Moskowitz
They navigate high elevation cliffs and broken terrain very well with their split, flexible hooves.  Their compact bodies have strong muscular forequarters for scrambling, and thick hollow hair and wool "subfur" hold heat and repel wind and water (a wool coat that Native Americans harvested in the springtime to make yarn and blankets).  They are generalist herbivores who are said to eat “everything but rocks” - plants, including grasses and sedges, lichens, mosses, and conifers.

Both sexes look the same in general with all white coats and shiny black horns.  The male's horns have a wider base and curve back in a greater, more uniform arc. The female's horns tend to curve more toward the tip.  Probably the best way to distinguish male and female mountain goats is their urination posture. The male stretches forward with the front legs while keeping the hind legs stationary. The female stands in place and squats on her hind legs (kinda like a female dog).

The breeding season occurs from mid-November through early December. Females (or nannies) do not breed until at least 2.5 years of age. After a gestation period of 6 months, kids are born in late May or early June and closely follow their mothers for the first year.
Mtn Goats by David Moskowitz
Adult females (and their young kids) rank highest in the social order.  Yearlings drop to the bottom of the social order and are forced to forage last.  Kid and yearling survival may be less than 50 percent depending upon the severity of the winter. Causes of high mortality include avalanches, falls, predation (cougar, golden eagles), parasites, and poor winter conditions causing stress.  If a goat survives all this during its juvenile years, longevity is normally 10 to 13 years.

Mountain goats are considered mature at 2 1/2 years, but continue to grow through their fourth year achieving average weights of 125 to 155 pounds for females and 135 to 180 pounds for males.

Female and juvenile (nursery) groups range in size from two to many dozen, especially early in the summer when there's a lot to eat.  By the age of two, males or billies begin to disassociate themselves from nursery groups. Outside of the mating season, males tend to associate primarily with other males.

Mountain goat populations have declined overall in Washington from their historical levels that exceeded 10,000 animals as recently as 1961. As of 2008, the best estimate of the population is the 2,400 to 3,200 range.  Of these, about 450 live primarily within national parks. 

The dramatic drop in their numbers is being attributed to over-hunting from the 1950s to the late 1980s, when WDFW issued 300 to 400 permits a year to hunt goats on the assumption that they could be managed like deer.  But mountain goats reproduce at lower rates and their survival rates are lower than those of deer.

In the early 1990s, wildlife officials cut the number of hunting permits issued statewide to 15 to 20 annually (and raises $42,000 in fees to aid goat recovery).

Since 2002, researchers have tried to determine why the goat #s continue to decline in certain areas.  They learned that the main culprit is Interstate 90, which cuts across the Cascades.  And the issue is not being hit on the road!  The issue is that it’s a big road that mountain goats are reluctant to cross and therefore different goat herds are not mixing geographically and genetically.  After comparing DNA sequences on more than 200 Cascade goats, scientists found that genetic diversity of Cascade mountain goats is much lower than it is among significantly larger populations in British Columbia.  Inbreeding means a loss of genetic diversity that could affect the long-term survival of mountain goats in the Cascades.

The impact of such barriers are being studied nationwide. In Washington, concern about the effect of man-made barriers on mountain goats and other wildlife prompted the formation of the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group.

Now, Washington is installing 14 wildlife crossings over and under Interstate 90 as it widens lanes east of Snoqualmie Pass. These crossings are designed to promote movement by many species, including goats.  (Hwy 2 is also a barrier but there are no plans there yet)

I think we’ll hear more about these wildlife crossings from Kris Ernest next week!