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Commentary by Linda Castro
| Thursday, Feb 19, 2015

LindaCastroThe Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis) is a desert subspecies of the California vole (Microtus californicus). A vole is a small rodent that resembles a mouse, with a rounded muzzle.

The Amargosa vole was previously thought to be extinct. However, in the late 1970s, Vernon Bleich, a biologist, rediscovered it. In 1980 it was listed as a California endangered species, and in 1984, it was listed as a federal endangered species, with a designated critical habitat.

The habitat of the Amargosa vole consists of marshlands in and around Tecopa, Calif., which is located in southeastern Inyo County in the central Mojave Desert. Scientists estimate its habitat consists of only about 247 acres, making this species extremely vulnerable to extinction.

These wetlands usually exist as small, isolated patches, rarely exceeding five acres each. The small, rare habitats – and thus the range of the Amargosa vole – historically occurred along the Amargosa River corridor from Shoshone, Calif., to the northern portion of the Amargosa Canyon south of Tecopa.

These habitats have been steadily decreasing due to water diversion, groundwater withdrawals and invasive species such as salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima). The only suitable habitat that remains is primarily located in and around Tecopa Hot Springs.

Photos: Ad Hoc Amargosa Vole Recovery Team

Photos: Ad Hoc Amargosa Vole Recovery Team

As a result of the loss of habitat, the Amargosa vole is critically endangered. It could easily qualify as the most endangered mammal in North America with perhaps as few as 50 individuals left in the wild. This imperiled species will only survive if the flow of groundwater that feeds the springs it relies upon are assured.

The Amargosa watershed is a series of interconnected basins, all of which drain into the Amargosa River. The Amargosa River is one of only two perennial rivers in the Mojave Desert and one of the only free-flowing desert rivers in the United States.

The 150-mile, bi-state river and its spring and stream tributaries support a truly unique and rich riparian and aquatic natural community. Perennial surface water is located in isolated small oases, streams, springs and in very limited stretches of the Amargosa River.

Except during occasional intense rainstorms, the perennial flow in much of the Amargosa River is completely supplied by groundwater. Several significant springs emerge along the river corridor between Shoshone and the Amargosa River Canyon south of Tecopa that contribute to the flow of the Amargosa River.

Many of these spring flows arise from a regional carbonate aquifer that conveys water from sources far beyond the Amargosa Basin. The flows from these springs and others are supplemented by groundwater moving below ground through the sediments of the southern Amargosa Desert and Pahrump valleys at the California-Nevada border. Conserving the valleys that make up the Amargosa watershed (Chicago Valley and California Valley-Charleston View) is a key action that could help save the vole.

vole1Unfortunately, developers are eyeing the Amargosa valleys as potential areas to build large-scale, renewable energy projects, particularly solar projects. Large-scale solar projects have many negative side effects, the most impactful to the Amargosa vole being the extraordinary amount of water that these plants use, both in the creation of power and in the maintenance of the panels. If a large-scale solar project is approved and built in any of part of the Amargosa watershed, it would likely result in the extinction of the Amargosa vole.

Thankfully, there are comprehensive efforts underway to save the vole. The Ad Hoc Amargosa Vole Recovery Team, composed of federal, state, university and nonprofit members, is working toward re-establishing viable populations of Amargosa voles in a series of interconnected habitats. Scientists are studying the vole’s habitat and population dynamics, patterns of disease and genetic makeup. The Amargosa Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Shoshone, is conducting user impacts monitoring, providing support to vole researchers, and advocating for groundwater resources.

Perhaps most exciting, U.C. Davis and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have begun a captive breeding program with the intent of releasing voles into re-created habitats at sites formerly inhabited by the vole.

While this little furry creature’s existence may be precarious, there are many people fighting to save it.

Patrick Donnelly, Executive Director of the Amargosa Conservancy, explains why the Amargosa vole is so important to the Amargosa River region: “The Amargosa vole is the most pressing conservation issue in the Amargosa watershed. The vole is an indicator of the health of our spring-fed marshes and the amount of groundwater flowing through them. Thus, the well-being of our community and its access to drinking water is tied to the conservation of the Amargosa vole.”

To find out more about conservation efforts in the Amargosa watershed related to the vole and other topics, visit www.amargosaconservancy.org.

While there isn’t much that the average Santa Clarita Valley resident can do to help protect the Amargosa vole from extinction, there is one small action that can be taken. The Bureau of Land Management has released a draft plan for California’s deserts called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The purpose of the plan is to identify areas where renewable energy development will be allowed and where it will not be allowed.

Thankfully, much of the valleys that make up the Amargosa River watershed are protected from development under the plan. However, the California Valley-Charleston View area has a bull’s-eye on it. The BLM is proposing to allow large-scale renewable energy projects in the area. This could prove catastrophic to the continued viability and existence of the Amargosa vole.

If you would like to help keep the Amargosa vole from becoming extinct, and if you would like to support asking the BLM to keep other desert lands off-limits to large-scale renewable energy development, please use this link to access more information and a proposed comment letter to the BLM: www.calwild.org/desert_energy_plan_is_a_threat_an_opportunity. The deadline to send a letter to the BLM is only a few days away – Monday, Feb. 23, 2015.

Linda Castro is a nature enthusiast and animal lover. She is the Desert Field Organizer for the California Wilderness Coalition and serves on the board of the SCV-based Community Hiking Club. Her articles highlight local and community stories that are heartwarming, uplifting or inspiring.

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