MISSOULA – The Center for Integrated Research on the Environment (CIRE) at the University of Montana will survey and assess the habitat of four potentially federally listed species on the Travis and Beale Air Force bases in California.

CIRE researchers are studying the western spadefoot toad, foothill yellow-legged frog, western pond turtle and tricolored blackbird on the Travis and Beale Air Forces bases. Through the project, the CIRE team will work to determine the geographic locations of the species and survey habitat characteristics to help the military better understand what’s present on its installations regarding the species and their habitats.

“The intent of this project is to survey the bases for species that are of conservation concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and to determine if there are adequate habitats at Travis Air Force Base and other Air Force installations to support these species,” said Penn Craig, a Travis AFB natural and cultural resources manager. “This information will assist the base in the management and conservation of listed threatened and endangered species.”

Western Spadefoot Toad Habitat Survey
CIRE project coordinator and ecologist Alisa Wade takes the first water sample of the morning for environmental DNA – or eDNA – from a vernal pool to detect the western spadefoot toad. (UM Photo by Heide Couch)

Travis AFB, located in Fairfield, California, halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco, is a little less than 5,200 acres, with approximately 90 acres of wetlands and more than 600 isolated vernal pools. These wetland habitats are home to several threatened and endangered wildlife species, including the California tiger salamander, vernal pool fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp. Activated in 1943, the base is the largest employer in Solano County, with an economic impact of $1.6 billion.

Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, California, was activated in 1948 and covers even more territory at nearly 23,000 acres, with more than 10,000 known vernal pools. Beale is home to 31 threatened and endangered wildlife species, such as the vernal pool tadpole and fairy shrimp and numerous bats, birds and snakes.

The CIRE team is conducting visual surveys for the species, installing song meters at several locations to detect toad and bird vocalizations, and collecting water samples for environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling – a tool used to monitor for the genetic presence of an aquatic species – for the spadefoot toad and western pond turtle.

CIRE project coordinator and ecologist Alisa Wade holds a pond turtle caught on the Beale Air Force Base (UM Photo)
CIRE project coordinator and ecologist Alisa Wade holds a pond turtle caught on the Beale Air Force Base (UM Photo)

Once the data is collected, the team will return to Missoula to conduct the eDNA analysis in a UM genetics lab. They also plan to pioneer the development of a DNA primer to detect spadefoot toad DNA in water samples.

“Within the last 10 years, eDNA as a tool has just skyrocketed,” said Winsor Lowe, CIRE project principal investigator and UM professor of aquatic ecology. “There is a lot of demand for eDNA sampling in the management agencies, and part of the reason that we are using it in this project is because of the interest and enthusiasm of our point of contacts on bases.”

Lowe said the CIRE team also will produce maps of the bases showing areas where the four species are likely to be present based on their surveys and habitat models.

“The most valuable output for the bases will be knowing the geographic distributions of these different species, which can be used for future management and decision-making,” he said.

Western Spadefoot Toad Habitat Survey
UM doctoral candidate Brett Addis installs a song meter that searches for the low frequency pattern indicating the breeding call of the western spadefoot toad at Travis Air Force Base in California. (UM Photo by Heide Couch)

All four of the study species could become federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. California already lists the western spadefoot toad, western pond turtle and tricolored blackbird as species of concern. The tricolored blackbird is under further review for listing as threatened or endangered at the state level, and the frog is a “candidate” species, meaning it could be added to the state’s threatened or endangered species list in the future. If the species are listed, the base will have data from the output of the CIRE project to suggest conservation and management efforts.

“Another possible outcome is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could determine there is adequate habitat or viable populations in existence for the species to survive without additional protections,” Craig said.

The Endangered Species Conservation Act was enacted in 1973. Section Seven of the ESA requires all federal agencies to ensure that “any action authorized, funded or carried out by an agency is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or modify their critical habitat.”

“I’ve been really impressed by how much the military wants to be proactive and think about how to best manage these species, regardless of whether they become listed,” said Alisa Wade, project manager and conservation scientist with CIRE.

The bases on which the CIRE team is working are large expanses of land set aside for the military, but not all of that land is used for military action. Wade described them as beautiful, comprised of rolling grasslands full of wildflowers.

“They are definitely refugia for some of the species that have been extirpated and refugia for habitat that has been lost,” she said.

CIRE is a center at UM specialized in investigation, research and support areas designed to address the particular needs of its clients. “My experience working with CIRE has been very positive, and I (Travis AFB) look forward to continuing a healthy working relationship,” said Craig.

“The Air Force and the Army Corps of Engineers environmental managers are advancing science through this process.” Wade said. “So, they are helping to develop the DNA marker, which will not only help the bases, but also will be accessible to others doing eDNA testing for the rare spadefoot toad. So it is a neat partnership from that perspective for sure.”

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