Aim Mammalian carnivores are considered particularly sensitive indicators of environmental change. Information on the distribution of carnivores from the early 1900s provides a unique opportunity to evaluate changes in their distributions over a 75-year period during which the influence of human uses of forest resources in California greatly increased. We present information on the distributions of forest carnivores in the context of two of the most significant changes in the Sierra Nevada during this period: the expansion of human settlement and the reduction in mature forests by timber harvest.
Methods We compare the historical and contemporary distributions of 10 taxa of mesocarnivores in the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Range by contrasting the distribution of museum and fur harvest records from the early 1900s with the distribution of detections from baited track-plate and camera surveys conducted from 1996 to 2002. A total of 344 sample units (6 track plates and 1 camera each) were distributed systematically across c. 3,000,000 ha area over a 7-year period.
Results Two species, the wolverine (Gulo gulo) and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), present in the historical record for our survey area, were not detected during the contemporary surveys. The distributions of 3 species (fisher [Martespennanti], American marten [M. americana], and Virginia opossum [Didelphisvirginiana]) have substantially changed since the early 1900s. The distributions of fishers and martens, mature-forest specialists, appeared to have decreased in the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade region. A reputed gap in the current distribution of fishers was confirmed. We report for the first time evidence that the distribution of martens has become fragmented in the southern Cascades and northern Sierra Nevada. The opossum, an introduced marsupial, expanded its distribution in the Sierra Nevada significantly since it was introduced to the south-central coast region of California in the 1930s. There did not appear to be any changes in the distributions of the species that were considered habitat generalists: gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), western spotted skunk (Spilogale gracilis), or black bear (Ursus americanus). Detections of raccoons (Procyon lotor) and badgers (Taxidea taxus) were too rare to evaluate. Contemporary surveys indicated that weasels (M. frenata and M. erminea) were distributed throughout the study area, but historical data were not available for comparison.
Main conclusions Two species, the wolverine and Sierra Nevada red fox, were not detected in contemporary surveys and may be extirpated or in extremely low densities in the regions sampled. The distributions of the mature forest specialists (marten and fisher) appear to have changed more than the distributions of the forest generalists. This is most likely due to a combination of loss of mature forest habitat, residential development and the latent effects of commercial trapping. Biological characteristics of individual species, in combination with the effect of human activities, appear to have combined to affect the current distributions of carnivores in the Sierra Nevada. Periodic resampling of the distributions of carnivores in California, via remote detection methods, is an efficient means for monitoring the status of their populations.