June 27, 2015

Endangered Amargosa voles return to Mojave Desert

University of California, Davis veterinary professor Janet Foley holds an Amargosa vole in Shoshone, Calif. Twelve endangered voles were set free at a spring-fed marsh near Tecopa, Calif. (Jeff Scheid/Las Vegas Review-Journal)


SHOSHONE, Calif. — The Davis Dozen is on the loose.

Shortly after sunrise Friday morning, 12 endangered Amargosa voles raised at the University of California in Davis were set free in the waist-high grass at a spring-fed marsh near the tiny town of Tecopa, about 90 miles west of Las Vegas.

It marked the first release of captive-bred voles into the wild since the rare rodent was added to the endangered species list more than 30 years ago.

A group of bleary-eyed members of the Amargosa Vole Team celebrated with coffee and a hard-earned nap.

Brian Croft is acting division chief for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in California’s Mojave Desert. He came out to observe the release and wound up as one of four people who camped out at the marsh with the voles Thursday night.

Croft said breeding the animals in captivity and releasing them into the wild has been part of the agency’s recovery plan since the 1990s, and now it’s finally happening.

“It’s really a momentous thing for us,” he said.


The operation began Wednesday in Davis, where team members loaded their test subjects into cages for the 500-mile-plus drive to a mobile home in Shoshone they would use as their bunkhouse and staging area.

On Thursday morning, the collection of veterinarians, biologists and graduate students gathered around the dining table to prep the voles — six males and six females, including four mated pairs, all roughly the size of a cardboard toilet paper tube and ranging in age from about 6 months to a year.

Each animal was placed in a zippered plastic bag and weighed before being injected with a small identification chip known as a PIT tag just under the skin behind its head.

“It’s the same thing you give dogs and cats and criminals, only smaller,” said UC Davis veterinary professor Janet Foley, co-leader of the species recovery project.

Eight of the test subjects also were injected with tiny doses of anesthetic to knock them out long enough to be fitted with radio tracking collars weighing less than a nickel.

The collars will allow the research team to track the voles’ movements until the batteries die in about three months — or the animal gets eaten.

Foley said “everything” preys on the dark-brown rodents, including coyotes, bobcats, owls, egrets, falcons, snakes, bullfrogs and even the occasional house cat.

But the biggest threat to the species is habitat loss. The Amargosa vole is only found in a handful of marshes east of Death Valley, where it survives on an exclusive diet of heat-loving bulrush that greens up as the temperature rises to 120 and beyond.

Over the past three years, drought and human disturbance led to the destruction of most of the rodent’s core habitat around Tecopa, prompting emergency collection of 20 juvenile voles in July amid concern the species could disappear in as little as a year.

Those voles have been breeding at UC Davis ever since, building a captive colony that now includes about 60 animals. Foley expects that number to double by year’s end, depending on the success of Friday’s operation and another pilot release planned later this summer.


One of the first voles prepped Thursday was a beefy 6-month-old male that topped the scales at well over 100 grams.

“He’s one of the largest males we’ve made,” said a proud Risa Pesapane, the UC Davis graduate student who runs the captive breeding program.

“He’s just a handsome specimen of voleness ready to go out and find a wife,” Foley added.

As she examined another animal a short time later, a smile spread across Foley’s face. “She’s pregnant,” the veterinarian said.

Doing some quick math in her head, Pesapane guessed this surprise litter would arrive within the next week or two, the first of many wild-born voles the team hopes to produce.

“I want this to be successful because I don’t really want to own a zoo of Amargosa voles,” Foley said later. “I want to see them recovered out here.”

At dusk Thursday the voles were transferred into wire cages placed in the marsh two months ago so they could spend the night getting used to the sights, sounds and smells while safe from predators.

Four members of the team camped out nearby to keep watch on the cages, sleeping in shifts so at least two people were on sentry duty at any one time. Foley said a few coyotes came around during the night but were chased away with a flood light.

At about 6:10 a.m. Friday the cage doors were opened so the voles could begin exploring their new home. Within a few hours, several of the animals had ventured into the surrounding marsh.

For four members of the Davis Dozen, the release was a homecoming. They were among the 20 juveniles hastily captured in July.

Since then, Pesapane said, the four “originals” have paired off and mated, producing three or four litters each. They are now back in the wild in a different, better-quality marsh than the one where they were born.

The team plans to document the voles’ movements for at least the next week and to return in a month. The animals will be tracked and trapped regularly for genetic and disease testing and to “check for babies,” Foley said.

“That’s the million-dollar question with one of these captive-bred voles,” said Deana Clifford, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife veterinarian and Foley’s co-lead on the recovery project. “Will it breed with a wild vole that’s already out there in that marsh?”


This is by no means the only vole work underway.

Foley said scientists at the University of California, Berkeley are performing genetic comparisons of the captive and wild populations, while a researcher at Purdue University assembles a detailed map of the species’ DNA.

“We’re going to have an Amargosa vole genome in a month,” she said.

Meanwhile, efforts are underway to restore and expand existing marshes in the area and to create new habitat on nearby public and private land. That work is being led by another UC Davis graduate student, Stephanie Castle, whose knowledge of bulrush and her success cultivating it has earned her the nickname “vole lunch lady.”

It’s literally a game of inches. On Thursday afternoon, Castle stopped to inspect the plants and water at what was once the area’s largest and lushest marsh. The sudden loss of this habitat is what prompted last year’s emergency capture of juvenile voles.

Castle hopes to restore the marsh to its former glory by slowly raising the water level an inch or two at a time to spur new growth without drowning voles still there.

Though the exact population is unknown, there might only be a few hundred Amargosa voles left in the wild.

They were first collected and described by naturalists in the late 1800s, but habitat destruction by early settlers led scientists to declare the animal extinct in the early 1900s.

The rodent was rediscovered in the late 1970s and listed as endangered by the state of California and the federal government in the early 1980s.

The Amargosa Vole Team originally planned to release 29 voles in April, all of them captive bred, but that operation ended in disaster when all but three died in their cages during the trip from Davis. Researchers later determined the voles probably were killed by a combination of heat, dehydration and stress.

The team took a host of precautions this time around, including transporting the voles in larger cages surrounded by circulating fans and temperature gauges. To avoid the daytime heat, they made the roughly 10-hour drive at night.

They arrived in Shoshone before dawn Thursday morning, exhausted but ready for a happy ending.

June 11, 2015

National monument becoming watershed moment

Local officials face off against environmentalists

Map courtesy of Grand Canyon Wildlands Council

Hubble Ray Smith
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - Anyone who has visited the Grand Canyon easily recognizes that it's one of the world's great natural wonders and must be protected.

But what about the vast stretches of forest and desert surrounding Grand Canyon National Park that contain some of the world's richest uranium deposits and provide grazing for cattle?

Mohave County elected officials and congressional representatives of Arizona are pushing back against the Sierra Club and other environmentalists who want to take down 1.7 million acres of federal land for the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument.

They're opposed to forming the proposed national monument by presidential executive order, rather than by congressional action.

Creating a new and enormous national monument amounts to a "significant federal land grab," Mohave County Sheriff Jim McCabe said. It would add federal regulations to any use of the public land, including ranching, hunting, fishing and recreational activity.

"We're looking at this going from a wilderness area that allows all those things to a sanctuary that stops all those things," McCabe told the Daily Miner. "You're allowed to walk on it and that's it."

McCabe wants to know who's going to be responsible for fire protection, and what happens to Mohave County's water rights currently in place.

"It is just this sort of federal overreach that has led to proposals for states to assume control of huge areas of public land in the American West," McCabe said. "Creation of vast new national monuments not by congressional debate and action, but by presidential executive order, even while lawful, would contribute further to distrust of the federal action."

A national monument is a permanent designation for public land that can be established either by Congress or directly by the president. The Antiquities Act, signed into law in 1906, gives the president the authority to protect valuable public lands for conservation purposes by designating them as national monuments.

The proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument includes the North Kaibab and Tusayan districts of the Kaibab National Forest, as well as public lands in the Arizona Strip, all managed by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM.

"The monument designation will include only public lands, so there is no land grab," said Sandy Bahr, director of Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter. "Private and state trust lands will not be part of the proposed monument."

Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both R-Ariz., have written letters to President Barack Obama opposing the monument designation. They say it would restrict land managers and private property owners from forest thinning, which could increase fire danger. It would also ban hunting, making wildlife management difficult.

Bahr countered that previous monument declarations by the president included language that makes it clear that the state retains its authority to manage wildlife. They do not limit hunting and fishing, she said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, along with McCain and Flake, introduced a bill in May to prevent the president from changing federal water-rights designation of lands declared to be national monuments.

Monumental support

Proponents of the watershed say it remains at risk from threats such as toxic uranium mining and the logging of old-growth forest.

Bahr of the Sierra Club said the watershed covers some "spectacular" public lands, including portions of the Kaibab National Forest, House Rock Valley and the Kaibab-Paunsagunt Wildlife Corridor, a key wildlife habitat the Kaibab squirrel, the northern goshawk, the Kaibab-Paunsagunt mule deer herd, mountain lion, and the endangered California condor.

The lands are distinguished by rugged cliffs, pine forests, deep canyons and grasslands, and they provide clean drinking water for millions of people downstream who depend on the Colorado River.

Geologists warn that uranium mining could deplete and contaminate aquifers that discharge into the Grand Canyon, and that cleaning them up would be next to impossible.

"Uranium is radioactive and toxic," Bahr said. "Uranium mining has a big impact, contaminating land and waters, including on the Navajo Nation and in Grand Canyon National Park itself."

The Orphan Mine, on the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park, has contaminated Horn Creek and still leaches radioactive waste into the creek, she said. The National Park Service has spent more than $15 million of American taxpayers' dollars to pay for the cleanup, she noted. There are hundreds of abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands that still need to be cleaned up.

Protecting the land from mining is a "non-issue" as the BLM has placed a 20-year moratorium on new claims, and there's very little logging taking place in the area, said Tom Britt, retired from Arizona Game and Fish in Flagstaff.

"It's about control over restoration and protection of the forest," Britt said. "What we need to do is look to see if it's a problem. No. The area is already adequately administered by the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. So all we're doing is ratcheting up administrative overhead in that area, which is not needed. What is the intent? To restrict activities?"

People can say hunting is not going to be restricted, but once the land is designated a national monument, there will be a management plan and "the devil will be in the details," Britt said.

A contingent of 36 Democratic state senators and representatives sent a letter to President Obama in March urging him to designate the Grand Canyon watershed as a national monument.

"Arizona has a rich history of presidents taking action to protect its natural wonders, including early on the protection of Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt," the letter stated. "We ask that you now look to Grand Canyon's watershed on the lands north and south of Grand Canyon National Park for a new national monument."

National monument designation does not affect private or state lands or private property rights. It provides for continued existing activities, including public access, rights-of-way, sightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, wildlife viewing, birding, hunting, fishing, and many other activities, including traditional tribal access.

As legislators pointed out in their letter, all of these cultural, economic and natural assets are at risk from "harmful" uranium mining.

Among other groups supporting the Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument are the Arizona Wilderness Coalition; Grand Canyon Wildlands Council; Grand Canyon River Guides; Environment Arizona; and Northern Arizona Audubon Society.

"Public lands belong to all of us, and as a consequence of that shared ownership and shared responsibility, we can't allow a handful of special interest groups with an agenda cloaked in economic recovery and jobs to dominate the conversation as to what happens to these special places," said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Economic impact

The Grand Canyon attracts about 4.5 million visitors a year, and generates nearly $800 million for the state and local economies.

The U.S. Department of Interior's 2012 decision to ban more than 1 million acres of public lands from future uranium mining is detrimental to the growth of the local economy, Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson said. The decision was overturned in April in U.S. District Court.

Uranium mining would bring $29.4 billion to the local economy over more than 40 years, employing 1,078 workers with a $40 million annual payroll, according to a 2009 report from Tetra Tech of Golden, Colo. Local governments would receive $9.5 million in claims payments and fees.

"It's shutting down the use of our natural resources," Johnson said. "Uranium mining could kick off the economy for years to come, plus we need it for the security of the nation. They always bring up how it's ruining the Grand Canyon. Nothing is close to the Grand Canyon."

The uranium veins are not that large, more like "crop circles" in a small, localized area of the desert, Johnson noted. The footprint of disturbed land is small, and after reclamation efforts, you can't tell where it's been, he said.

Anti-mining forces have pushed the Department of Interior to change the rules on mining claims so that exploration would not be allowed unless a company could prove before the fact that economically-viable mineral resources exist.

"It depends on the price of uranium and the price to bring it out," Johnson said.

Existing mining claims would not be affected by the monument designation. However, lands currently under the BLM's 20-year moratorium would be permanently protected from mining.

"Our economy is not going to recover with traditional manufacturing jobs," Johnson said. "What we need to do is go back to our roots that led to Arizona being developed, and that is mining."