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New Desert Plan Will Help Wildlife Along the Amargosa River

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The critically endangered, and critically cute, Amargosa vole | Photo: Nancy Good

Commentary: Today in Palm Desert, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the finalization of the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP). The result of an unprecedented eight-year collaborative effort, the plan is a sweeping revision of BLM’s management in the California Desert. Attempting to balance renewable energy development with BLM’s conservation mandate, the plan implements the most significant conservation gains for the desert in decades.

Chief among these conservation measures is the establishment of California Desert National Conservation Lands. These lands, some 2.8 million acres across the desert, will offer substantial protections to vast swaths of previously vulnerable public lands. One of the crown jewels of this new system of protected lands is the Amargosa Basin.

The Amargosa Basin is a rugged region of craggy and multihued cliffs, expansive alkali playas, and verdant mashes, all tied together by the green ribbon of abundant life that is the Amargosa River. This unique and varied landscape provides haven for dozens of rare, endemic, and endangered species, and the DRECP provides permanent protection for them all.

Perhaps the most important protections come at a critical time for our favorite endangered rodent, the Amargosa vole. The vole is a charming and charismatic little creature which dwells in the lush wetlands surrounding the town of Tecopa, California. It is considered one of the most endangered mammals in North America, as its total population numbers just a few hundred. Up until now, its habitat has been vulnerable to destruction through industrial development.

The Bureau of Land Management should be applauded for taking the remarkable step of permanently protecting the vole’s habitat. Years of multi-agency effort to save the vole will now be “locked in” by the preserving of the marshes where it resides.

The vole thrives in areas dense in three-square bulrush, a marsh grass. The vole has what’s known as an “obligate” relationship with three-square bulrush: it eats it, nests in it, uses it for cover from predators, and in general lives out its entire life cycle in the thickets of this chest-high plant.

However, recent changes to the hydrology of Tecopa Marsh have meant the die-off of extensive patches of habitat for the vole, causing a precipitous decline in population. An innovative restoration project initiated by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has removed the dead bulrush, raised water levels, and encouraged the regrowth of bulrush in the vole’s former habitat.

Now the DRECP will help make these conservation gains permanent. By forever protecting this habitat, BLM will prioritize conservation as the chief guiding principle for land management in the vole’s habitat. The aforementioned UC Davis scientists have created a captive-bred vole colony in Davis (affectionately known as “Tecopa North”). The new California Desert National Conservation Lands in Tecopa Marsh will provide an ideal destination for this rescue population of voles, helping to ensure the long-term viability of this vulnerable species.

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The startlingly lush Amargosa River | Photo: Nancy Good

Tecopa Marsh is not the only locale in the Amargosa Basin to benefit from the DRECP. Over 600,000 acres of our watershed will enjoy permanent protection as California Desert National Conservation Lands, including some of the most iconic landscapes in the desert.

Silurian Valley was once a flashpoint in the renewable energy debate as it was threatened by an enormous industrial-scale wind and solar project, now mothballed. This undisturbed valley, bordered by the towering Avawatz and Kingston mountain ranges, is the site of numerous prehistoric and historic relics, from paleo-Indians to the Old Spanish Trail to a rich mining history. We can now be assured that it will forever remain as we see it today.

Carson Slough is an enormous alkali flat where the Amargosa River braids into dozens of channels. This utterly unique ecosystem is a living laboratory for plant evolution as several species of plants, endemic to just a few square miles of playa, thrive in the harshest of conditions. The diminutive Amargosa niterwort, for example, will now have the entirety of its habitat permanently protected.

Willow Creek and the Amargosa River are the beating heart of the Amargosa Basin, where perennial flows of water support some of the best migratory bird habitat in the Southwestern United States. Protected by the DRECP, human and avian visitors alike will now be able to enjoy these watercourses with the assurance that they will flow unimpeded forever.

In sum, the DRECP is one of the most significant conservation achievements in the history of the Amargosa Basin. BLM should be applauded for taking this bold step in securing these iconic landscapes and the most precious habitats that lie therein. Decades from now, this will be looked upon as a “watershed” moment in the management of the California desert.

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The Amargosa Basin | Photo: Patrick Donnelly

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