The easiest way to see wildlife in the California desert is also one of the saddest. At certain times of year along the network of roads that transect our wide-open arid spaces, a veritable museum display of local desert wildlife can lie along the roadside, done in by collisions with speeding vehicles. Especially at night.
I was reminded of this this past weekend as I drove from the Hole In The Wall area in the Mojave National Preserve to my home in Palm Springs. I left the Preserve after dark; ahead of me lay about 150 miles of desert road, much of it two-lane through more or less wild desert. I was tired and wanted to get home, and yet every time my impatient foot pressed down a little harder on the gas pedal someone would run out into the road in front of me, forcing me to slow. They included dozens of rodents -- mostly desert woodrats but also a couple of kangaroo rats and some mice I couldn't identify -- as well as a nice-looking young coyote and two separate desert kit foxes.
Two of the woodrats didn't give me enough room to hit the brakes, jumping into the glare of my low-beams only a few feet in front of me. Even at 45 mph I couldn't react quickly enough, and there are now two fewer woodrats in the Sheephole Mountains than there were on Saturday morning.
Most people don't drive that stretch of road at 45 miles per hour. Some drivers more than double that speed. It's the shortest route between the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base and the bright lights of Las Vegas. Many of the drivers on this road are recruits in their early twenties on weekend passes, amped up on adrenaline and anxious to drink heavily and lose their money to the casinos. Others may not be active duty military wanting to maximize their time away from base, but they're generally in just as much of a hurry to get through the Mojave. The safety of a few desert critters doesn't count for much against the blandishments of The Strip.
Sadly, weekend traffic between 29 and Vegas takes a significant toll on the wildlife of a national park treasure, the Mojave National Preserve. About 75 miles of the 29-Vegas route uses the Preserve's two-lanes, from the junction of I40 and Kelbaker Road to Nipton Road in the Ivanpah Valley. Roadkill rates along this path are significantly higher than on similar roads elsewhere in the Preserve. In a survey of the Preserve's reptiles, USGS scientists found that reptile roadkill along Kelbaker Road was more than four times higher, as a percentage of total reptiles seen, just south of the intersection with Kelso-Cima Road than north of it. Vegas-bound drivers leave Kelbaker road at that intersection, to the stretch to the north carries only those drivers heading toward Baker.
But few parts of Southern California offer speeding drivers as robust an opportunity to take out beleaguered local wildlife as they risk their own necks. The section of the Ivanpah Valley contained in the Preserve is widely referred to as a "sink" for the local desert tortoise population, meaning that something in that part of the valley depletes tortoises. It isn't hard to imagine what that might be: Morning Star Mine Road runs through that part of the Valley, and it's about the last two-lane leg of the route between 29 and Vegas.
It's hard enough to avoid hitting desert wildlife even if you're driving at or below the speed limit. In that same section of the Ivanpah Valley a few years ago, along Ivanpah Road, I dispatched a beautiful rosy boa, one of the largest and healthiest I'd ever seen. Healthy until I ran it over, anyway. The roads there are reddish when the sunlight hits them at a certain angle, and the pink snake was neatly camouflaged against the pinkish tarmac. I didn't see it until too late even at 35 miles per hour, and I was driving that slowly because I was actively looking for wildlife. A tortoise on that same road a few months later fared better, but only because I was in a high-clearance vehicle and managed to swerve at the last second.
We were both lucky. About 15 years ago on Cima Road in the Preserve I killed a badger and remembering it can still ruin my day. Not that I was really the victim in that encounter.
Like many people would be, I was less emotionally affected by my killing a couple of desert rats last weekend than I am by the deaths of larger fauna like tortoises and badgers. Even those smaller losses merit concern, however. Not only do they have every bit as much of a right to survive as a coyote or a bighorn sheep would be, they're also really interesting.
Besides, even the smallest rodent dead on the road will attract scavengers. The kitfoxes and coyote I saw Saturday night were almost certainly scavenging along the road for roadkilled morsels just like the ones I'd provided. I don't have any problem with feeding the carnivores, but having paved roads provide a source of easy food isn't a good idea. One incautious moment while investigating a freshly killed rabbit on the yellow line and you yourself can become roadkill. Animals that take advantage of roadkill in the California desert range from mice -- cannibalistic when the opportunity presents itself -- to golden eagles. Given a chain of bad luck, a squooshed woodrat can lead to a two-dimensional representation of the local food chain along the side of the road.
We all want to see wildlife, but not like that. Slow down.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.