News of the week
Helping desert tortoises and other creatures
Native to the Mojave Desert of the American Southwest, desert tortoises grow to be a little over a foot in length and can weigh about 15 pounds, not very big but kinda big for an animal that lives in the desert. Even though they’re big, and even if you spend a lot of time in the Mojave, you probably won’t see a tortoise. Their dark brown shells blend in well with the sand and rocks of the desert, and they spend a lot of their time digging holes, crawling into them, and staying there for a while. They do that when it gets very hot, which is often in the desert, and during the cool winter months, when the tortoises go into a type of hibernation.
Young desert tortoises are easy prey, but once they get close to adulthood, their shells provide great protection against coyotes, snakes, and mountain lions. Desert tortoises can live to be 50 years old, and in some cases may reach 80. Their conservation status is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The Mojave is generally very hot and dry and occupies the boundaries of California, Arizona, southern Nevada, and a bit of southwestern Utah. The desert can vary a great deal. On a trip my wife and I took to the Mojave a few years back, it was an insanely hot moonscape around Twentynine Palms, but much cooler and somewhat lush at Joshua Tree National Park, five miles away.
Urban sprawl and roads encroach upon the desert tortoises. Their habitat is also being encroached upon by big and mega big electricity generating facilities. This is true for both wind generating and solar generating power plants.
A new hazard for the tortoises, as well as other desert dwelling species, is fire. Fires have always been relatively rare in deserts, but they have increased a lot in recent years, due to invasive species, mostly invasive grasses. Historically, American deserts have sparse vegetation, but now the nonnative grasses, such as cheat grass, will blanket desert scapes, growing and flowering in spring, then drying up to become instant tinder for any stray spark or flame.
Another hazard for the desert tortoise
For several years, the Bureau of Land Management has been planning to build access roads into much of the Mojave. Called the West Mojave Route Network, the project reached one of the final stages of planning in 2019, with the release of the project’s final environmental analysis.
The project creates access to about 3.1 million acres of BLM-managed lands, an area the size of Connecticut. The plan is to create 6,313 miles of interweaving roads that folks could drive their trucks, cars, RVs, and motorcycles on. There are more routes planned for non-motorized access. The routes would be for administrative as well as recreational use.
The plan also allows for increased cattle grazing. Though much better suited to grazing fields and meadows of more temperate and greener eastern states, the BLM allows cattle grazing throughout the Southwest on public lands. It can be an odd experience of wandering the desert among ocotillo and agaves and the next thing you know, you run across a cow pile, but I’ve seen it.
The disruption to the lives of the tortoises is obvious. With more people galavanting through the desert with their motorcycles and RVs, the chances of turning tortoises into roadkill goes up exponentially. Roadways also give invasive species pathways into wilderness.
Besides the desert tortoise, the western Mojave is home to other threatened and endangered species that may suffer due to the roadways. Two critically endangered plants, the Lane Mountain milk vetch and triple ribbed milk vetch, live in the Mojave, as well as three endangered bird species: the least Bell’s vireo, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, and the yellow billed cuckoo. The plan also threatens the arroyo toad and the peninsular bighorn sheep.
Last week, environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Native Plant Society, sued the Bureau of Land Management, Interior Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their failure to adequately consider the environmental damage that probably will occur before their approval of the West Mojave Route Network Project. (Center for Biological Diversity)
Any thoughts on what the California Native Plant Society and the Center for Biological Diversity are doing? What the BLM is trying to do? Leave a comment.
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