Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) of Oregon and Northern California: seasonal haulout abundance patterns, movements of marked juveniles, and effects of hot-iron branding on apparent survival of pups at Rogue Reef

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  • The Steller Sea Lion Research Initiative was passed in 2001 to provide funding to help scientists determine causes and solutions for the population crash of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). In response to need to understand population dynamics of Steller sea lions, NOAA Fisheries has spearheaded a large-scale, range-wide research program. The study involved capturing and hot-iron branding sea lions at rookeries from northern California around the Pacific Rim to Russia to provide individually recognizable animals for studies of behavior and vital rates. I report the results of monitoring pups branded and tagged at Rogue Reef, Oregon and St. George Reef, California to determine movement patterns and the affects of branding on apparent survival of Steller sea lion pups immediately after branding. Counts of Steller sea lion adult female, adult male, juveniles, and pups were collected at haulouts and rookeries of Oregon and northern California from 2002 through 2005. Movement patterns of Steller sea lions were inferred from count data. Adult males were seasonal inhabitants of Oregon and California during the breeding season from May through September before dispersing to northern feeding grounds. Females, juveniles, and pups were dispersed throughout haulouts in Oregon and northern California during all seasons but have seasonally high concentrations at Sea Lion Caves, Oregon in the winter and at the breeding rookeries during the summer breeding season. The high wintertime abundance of females and pups at Sea Lion Caves suggests that it should be considered as critical habitat for Steller sea lions of the eastern stock. Resights of marked sea lions collected between northern California and Alaska between 2001 and 2005 were analyzed to determine juvenile and pup dispersal patterns. Most pups stay close to their natal rookery, although 9 - 22% of individuals each year were observed to disperse further than 500 km. As 1-year olds, the mean maximum dispersal range expanded, which may have been a sign of weaning. Sexually dimorphic patterns in sea lion movements were apparent at 3 years of age as males were observed to disperse farther north than females. The percentage of females observed at their natal rookery increased each year to a maximum of 87% as 4-year-olds. This suggested that sexual maturity occurs at, or close to, 4 years of age for females. Branding provided a useful tool for analyzing movements of Steller sea lions, yet it may have impacts on survival of individuals. Concerns raised by NOAA Fisheries over branding impacts on pup survival were addressed with a study at Rogue Reef in 2005. One-hundred-and-sixty pups captured on 18 July, 2005 were randomly assigned to a treatment of flipper tag only (unbranded pups) or flipper tag and hot-iron branding (branded pups). Aside from the treatment of branding, all pups were handled and treated identically. Over the 73-day course of this study, I found lower apparent survival for branded pups than unbranded pups, with a final apparent survivorships of 0.23 (95% CI 0.01 – 0.48) for branded pups and 0.46 (95% CI 0.15 – 0.77) for unbranded pups. Apparent survivorship includes both mortality and emigration, so differences may be due to differences in emigration rates of the two groups, mortality rates, or both. The scope of inference for this study is only to Rogue Reef in 2005. However, it should provide a good model for future brand evaluation studies at other rookeries and for other pinniped species. Branding is currently the best and only available tool for long-term studies of survival, reproduction rates, and age at sexual maturity which are all critical for demographic models. Nonetheless, researchers should assess the impacts of branding at each rookery, and will need to consider whether knowledge from branding Steller sea lions is worth the potential reduction in pup survival or change in pup emigration behavior observed in this study.
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