Jackalope spotted in Quincy Drill! Film at 11

When you are an oiled wildlife responder, people often ask what you do between spills – like they assume you are watching old episodes of the Simpsons or reading War and Peace because you have nothing else to do. I expect firemen or EMTs get the same sorts of questions and I am sure they too at least chuckle to themselves and perhaps can’t suppress a minor eye roll. I can only speak for the responders on the OWCN Management Team at the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center within the One Health Institute at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, but we manage to keep pretty busy and it seems like I am way behind on my reading of the great books.

March has been especially busy. Last week we had meetings of the OWCN Scientific Advisory Committee as well as the OWCN Advisory Board. This week started with our annual OWCN Full Deployment Drill and will end with the Annual Meeting of the One Health Institute. We have a lot going on. Too much to cover in one blog so I will just tell you about one of these events the Full Deployment Drill and leave the others for a future blogger to report on.

On the road to Quincy

On the road to Quincy

The OWCN Full Deployment Drill occurs every year. It is a “peacetime” way that evaluates our readiness to respond when animals are impacted by oil spills in California. Each year responders from many (often more than half) of our Member Organizations participate on the ground. Last year it took place in Morro Bay and this year in Quincy – tucked in a beautiful valley up in the Sierras halfway between Reno and Redding. They are opposites in many ways, but both are fairly quiet this time of the year and each offers unique challenges for a drill. We chose Quincy because it is right next to one of the five areas designated by OSPR as high risk for a spill involving oil by rail in California, and it is a perfect place to identify some of the challenges that inland response will hold for California and the OWCN. We have spent considerable time planning for inland response but this was our first live drill since we were given that responsibility. To maximize the value, we decided to hold an Open House on Monday the day before the actual drill. Our aim was to provide Quincy with a sense of both what we do as well as how it might play out in their community. That added a bit of pressure as we had to travel to Quincy and get everything set up by 4 pm, but great team effort from the OWCN Management Team and participants from many of the Member Organizations got everything in place in the nick of time.

set up Quincy

Facility Set Up at the Fairgrounds

The time pressure from the Open House also gave us new insight into just how much “people-power” will be required to get our five Western Shelter tents and all of our equipment up and running when we are deployed for a spill.  If we already have animals that need care when we arrive, that will definitely be challenging.

OWCN Sprinter & Hazing Trailer

OWCN Sprinter & Hazing Trailer

The drill itself took considerable planning, with Mike Ziccardi leading the development of the scenario with lots of help from OSPR personnel familiar with the area to help make it realistic. The Wildlife Recovery and Hazing Groups set up with the Sprinter and the Hazing Trailer at the Spanish Creek Campground – close to to the “scene” of the “release”. Field Stabilization was 10 minutes away at Hough Ranger Station, which was still about 10 minutes from the Primary Care Facility established at the Plumas County Fairgrounds.

While we don’t use live animals in the drill, we did have more than just our imagination. Stuffed animals, each with cards bearing information about their condition, were captured, transported, processed, and examined. Later some of them went through the cleaning and conditioning processes, so participants in each area were challenged to think about how they would handle a variety of inland species including river otters, bald eagles, giant garter snakes, beaver, skunks, and many more. We tested our still developing digital record keeping system using the Wildlife Recovery iPhone app and OWRMD, and found that although while many people talk about internet everywhere, there are still some places that have spotty or NO SERVICE.

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Otter Exam

When the drill wrapped up mid-afternoon, we all gathered to share lessons learned. We talked about the internet problems, the challenges of working in tents compared to the roomy purpose-built centers we have along the coast from San Diego to Arcata. We talked about the challenges of the weather and evaluated some of our new inland species equipment and what we still need to acquire. But the thing that stood out the most was that, despite the rain, wind and pretend animals whose lives were not really in danger, everyone played their role with all their heart, taking it all seriously but with a smile on their faces, working together to make California better prepared in the case of an inland spill.

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Lessons learned

 

Oh, and did I mention there was even a jackalope?  Well, maybe that was not so realistic.
Everyone knows they don’t occur west of the Sierras.

-Curt

leaping-jackalope

Jackalope

Creatures Great and Small

As many of you are probably aware, the OWCN was activated this past weekend to respond to the Grove Incident Oil Spill in Ventura County.  Thanks to the quick work of early responders, the oil was contained before it could reach the ocean.  However, a stretch of dry gorge was contaminated, and cleanup efforts – including wildlife deterrence and searches by OWCN responders – are now underway.  You can get more information on the spill and response efforts from the Cal Spill Watch page, just click here.

I won’t steal Field Operations’s thunder – Hazing and Recovery have been doing an amazing job and I look forward to hearing more about their efforts in the near future! I’m sure we’ll all be discussing and learning from this early inland response over the coming months as well.

That said, I find it interesting to think about the types of animals that have been collected so far: wood rats, a gopher snake, a raccoon, and a rabbit.  (Unfortunately only one of these animals was collected alive; the collection of deceased animals from a spill zone is important for a number of reasons, including to reduce the attractiveness of the area to scavengers and to help with Natural Resource Damage Assessment).  

None of these species are highly visible or “charismatic”.  But they’re the type of animals we’re likely to encounter often in inland spill response – rodents, other small mammals, small reptiles, and in soggier habitats, amphibians too.  They’re easy to overlook and take for granted, and they’re not flashy like whales and mountain lions and albatrosses, but they each fill an important place in the ecosystem.

And that’s our mission – to provide the best achievable capture and care to oil-affected wildlife, great or small.  To meet that goal, we’ve got to get to know them all.  I know I’ve certainly got a lot to learn – probably enough to fill a lifetime.

But that’s OK with me.  One of my favorite things is how easy it is to be surprised when it comes to animals.  Just by taking a closer look at a species’ natural history, even a species you thought was boring or mundane, you can find fascinating things.

For example, let’s take the lowly woodrat.  Did you know that woodrats are also commonly known as packrats, and are usually not particularly pesky to people – unlike their invasive cousins, the Norway and black rats – except when they set up their nests in inconvenient locations or steal shiny things to line those nests with?  They drum their hind feet when alarmed, Desert Woodrats are scary good at navigating cacti without injuring themselves, and Stephens’s Woodrats eat a great deal of juniper but don’t seem to be affected by the chemical compounds that make the plant indigestible to most other mammals.

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It doesn’t end there!  Nests (aka middens) can be used by successive generations of woodrats, each building onto what the last generation left behind.  Fossilized middens provide an invaluable source of information to scientists looking to understand historical biomes and ecosystems.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spots for rodents (that’s what you get when you’re raised by a squirrel rehabilitator) but still!  I find it impossible to investigate a species without finding something interesting along the way.  So I invite you to join me in my quest to get to know all of California’s wildlife.  If you find anything particularly cool, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see if can dig up some interesting facts to share in some future post.

Take care until next time!

Steph

A Timely Reminder of the Road Ahead

As part of the University of California at Davis, May means EPARs to everyone on the OWCN Management Team. What is an EPAR you ask? No it is not EYORE’s cousin in one of those Winnie the Pooh stories your parents used to read you. Nor am I refering to the Escuela de Postgrado de la Armada in Venezuela. I am talking about the Employee Performance Appraisal Report (EPAR). “Why should I care about that” you ask? Good question! Unless you are an employee here you probably shouldn’t. Except going through that process both as an employee and as a supervisor made me think quite a bit about my goals for last year and for the coming year.

When I started at OWCN last June 1, we were all in full spill mode. Once the Refugio spill ended and we got back to “real” life, one of the two biggest priorities the OWCN Management Team was charged with (including me) became developing a detailed plan for inland oiled wildlife response. With the increased transport of oil by rail came the increased risk of an oil spill when a train derails, as illustrated in such a timely manner along the Columbia River outside Portland last Friday (links to news reports can be found here and here).

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Train derailment, Moser Oregon- WA Department of Ecology

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Train derailment, Moser, Oregon – Washington Dept of Ecology

It seems likely that the question is when, not if, something like this will occur in California. Oh, don’t worry – I am already doing enough of that for both of us. If an inland spill occurred tomorrow in California, I am confident all of OWCN would drop whatever you are doing and become the super responders you all are. We would catch beavers, turtles, snakes, frogs, river otters, and bears if need be, and transport them and clean them and release them to the best of our ability. We always do. Our mission however is to “provide best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife” and to do that requires planning. Inland wildlife response is a big job with many little pieces that have to fit together nearly perfectly. We have made some real progress in the last year, identifying new areas of risk based on the increasing transportation of oil by rail from the north and east, learning to use some of the environmental mapping resources available through our partners OSPR and California Department of Fish and Wildlife and acquiring or refurbishing more mobile equipment that can be on scene anywhere in California in hours not days, but we still have lots to do.

You might think that since we’ve already had a plan for coastal response for more than than twenty years now, how hard can it be? Someone might say “you’ve got more than 35 Member Organizations, facilities, and equipment up and down the coast. Put on your big boy (or girl) tyvek pants, quit whining and just do it!” Well, they would be right and they would be wrong. It is not quite that easy, though all we (the royal we, the Network Members) have learned together over the years is tremendously valuable in approaching this challenge. All of our knowledge and resources can be leveraged to ensure that California is ready to respond to wildlife impacted during an inland spill, but we can also use this as an opportunity to be even better prepared for spills wherever they occur.

It has been clear from the beginning to anyone who has looked at the OWCN map of Member Organizations that we lack quick response capability inland. Most of our members can smell the salt air from their offices.

NEW California Map shutterstock_135005765 [Converted]

 

So a key to success will be to strategically identify and recruit new Member Organizations with experience and knowledge of priority species in these new areas of risk.  They will add geographic range to our coverage and potential sites for deployment of our growing collection of mobile equipment. One of the primary strengths of OWCN has always been the breadth of the Member Organizations both on the map of California and the knowledge and expertise they share and it only makes sense to build on that strength as we extend our reach inland.

While we add depth to our personnel resources in terms of numbers, location, and knowledge, we are also adding equipment to enhance our ability to safely capture and care for a number of new species,  like bears, mountain lions, coyotes, mink and badgers.

wild animal box-9264.jpgWe can be thankful that it is highly unlikely we will ever have to face 100 oiled badgers, but we do need to be prepared for one or two of them as well as most of the other species found in areas of California at risk for an oil spill. There are many examples of spills where species like beaver, muskrat, and mink have been collected alive and oiled in significant numbers across North America. There is no reason to expect it won’t happen here someday. Oiled wildlife preparedness is a journey and we are well down the path, but as Robert Frost almost said “there are miles to go before we sleep”. By this time next year I plan to have many of those miles behind us.

-Curt