March 29, 2018

Forget Punxsutawney Phil: Vegas has own forecaster

It isn’t springtime here till this desert tortoise leaves his burrow

MOJAVE MAX has been announcing the end of winter in Las Vegas since 2000, but his public relations team is still working on raising his profile. This year he emerged on March 23 to declare the arrival of springtime. (Springs Preserve)

David Montero
Los Angeles Times

Mojave Max, the desert tortoise in Las Vegas who marks the arrival of spring each year when he emerges from his burrow, has always existed in the long shadow of Punxsutawney Phil — the ultimate case of a big star in a small market.

It's Phil who nabs the national headlines and knowing nods from high-profile news anchors when he is yanked out on Feb. 2 to let the nation know how much longer winter will last.

The groundhog from Pennsylvania has always hogged the limelight when it comes to weather prognostication — a Goliath among all creatures great and small. Even this story, which is about Mojave Max, starts off about Phil. See how it is?

The rodent's public relations team wasn't overly impressed when it heard Mojave Max had emerged from his burrow last Friday to declare the start of spring in Las Vegas.

"Ever heard of Mojave Max?" I asked Katie Donald, the executive director of the Groundhog Club in Punxsutawney.

"I'm sorry, I haven't," Donald said.

"Are you aware of other animals that do, um, seasonal work?" I asked.

"We're aware of few," Donald said. "There's a lobster in Maine — I can't think of his name. And there's a few imitator groundhogs in the Pennsylvania area that we don't acknowledge."

(The lobster is Passy Pete, by the way, and he predicts if summer will last another six weeks by opening a scroll with a claw. Forecast: It might be boiling hot, Pete. Beware.)

But Pete is in Maine, a far-flung state that is famous mostly for Stephen King, lighthouses and lobster rolls. There's also Mojave Maxine, a desert tortoise at the Living Desert in Palm Desert. She emerged from her burrow Jan. 31.

So, how is it that Mojave Max — a desert tortoise in a city that is internationally iconic and draws the biggest stars to its 24-hour spotlight — isn't much known beyond the Clark County line?

"We're working on that," concedes Dawn Barraclough, a spokeswoman for Springs Preserve, where Mojave Max lives.

Around 1994, as part of the Desert Conservation Program's effort to bring attention to the desert tortoise's threatened species status, one was identified in the area and moved to the Red Rock Canyon visitor center. He was named Mojave Max.

The resident desert tortoise, about the size of a football, has been identifying seasonal changes publicly since 2000. when the first Mojave Max emergence contest was held. When Max emerged from his burrow, the biologists would note that it signaled the start of spring in the area.

It was more low key back then — especially by Vegas standards — as the Las Vegas Strip was on the cusp of going big with resorts like Bellagio that brought in rare white tigers and dancing fountains. If Punxsutawney Phil were ever to move to Vegas, he'd probably have his own residency at a casino.

Max, seemingly, would prefer his residency to remain a dirt hole.

Heather Green, a spokeswoman for the county who works for the Desert Conservation Program, said the earliest that Mojave Max has emerged from his burrow in his years as a seasonal forecaster is Feb. 14. The latest is April 17.

Last year, biologists decided it was better for Max to not be bothered at Red Rock Canyon anymore, and he retired to a quieter life. But the tradition still carried on with a new Mojave Max — a 14-year-old desert tortoise living in captivity at Springs Preserve. In showbiz parlance, a casting change. Roger Moore in for Sean Connery. (In James Bond fashion, Max currently lives with four female tortoises on 15 acres of open space at Springs Preserve.)

Max's profile has also been raised on social media, where the tortoise has a Twitter account.

"Yep! It seemed like a good day to EMERGE!! My official emergence date and time: March 23, 2018 at 11:11 am! SPRING HAS SPRUNG," the tweet from @MojaveMax read.

Green said that, unlike Punxsutawney Phil, Max is allowed to dictate the seasonal change rather than being yanked out of a hut on a predetermined day, the way Phil has been marking Groundhog Day for more than 130 years.

Donald said Phil's track record is unblemished.

"He's been right 100% of the time," she said.

Time magazine did an analysis of Phil's accuracy and it revealed he was actually correct only about 36% of the time. This year, a warrant was issued for Phil's arrest by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Pennsylvania for deception — claiming that winter has continued longer than the six additional weeks predicted by the groundhog. Phil's publicity team argued that the warrant was a misguided attempt to blame the messenger rather than Mother Nature.

It should be noted that Mojave Max has never been subject to an arrest warrant.

Phil's club also steadfastly sticks to the lore centered around the groundhog's age. Donald said that because of a special elixir administered every few years, the same Phil has been doing prognostications for the past 132 years. Donald will not budge on this point, even though a groundhog's lifespan typically doesn't exceed eight years.

Green said desert tortoises live between 50 and 80 years. And Max doesn't have to drink an elixir, either. Just water.

But with a long lifespan, Mojave Max could have this gig for quite a while. A Vegas residency with the staying power of a Wayne Newton, Liberace or Celine Dion.

March 25, 2018

Mojave National Preserve releases plan to remove most man-made wildlife water

Most small game guzzlers like this one would be removed or neglected into a non-functioning condition under the new NPS policy.


This has happened before.

The Mojave National Preserve released its Management Plan for Developed Water Sources on Tuesday this past week along with the environmental assessment of the plan’s impacts, effectively laying the groundwork for the abandonment or removal of well over 100 historic man-made water sources and developed springs used by wildlife.

Wildlife enthusiasts have been down this road before on the Preserve, when its second superintendent, Mary Martin, directed the removal and destruction of historic cattle water sources that had served wildlife for over 75 years. This was a direct violation of the Preserve’s own management plan that called for the evaluation of the impacts that water removal would have before they were removed. That evaluation never happened, but over 100 water sources that benefitted wildlife were removed that time around.

Now, this week’s document lists four alternatives for action within the plan, but all four would lead to the loss of all but two or three of the developed water sources within designated wilderness areas. It would also lead to the loss of dozens of water sources outside of wilderness.

The impacts on wildlife this would cause within the Preserve are dismissed and not addressed in any detail in the plan, calling the impacts “localized and small,” without any supporting documentation.

The public has a 30-day window (until April 19) to comment on the plan. More information and copies of the plan are available on the Preserve website at this direct address:

Behind the scenes, the Department of Fish and Wildlife field staff is seething over the NPS’ plan. These are the scientists who are watching decades of their water development work and resulting successes wildlife protection and mitigation for natural water source losses across the desert.

The official DFW statement from Jordan Traverso, Sacramento-based information chief, hinted at the outrage, but was restrained.

“Natural and reliable surface water sources are not always available in the current desert environment,” she said Saturday. “The Department has worked with many partners over the years, including the NPS, to establish and document the importance of reliable water sources for wildlife. Across the California desert and since the early 1950s, wildlife water developments have provided this basic necessity to support and stabilize desert wildlife populations.

“While wilderness protection would guide land managers toward keeping a natural and undeveloped landscape, the wildlife that live in these landscapes deal with the reality of the anthropogenic changes imposed upon them. Though they offer protection, large and wild spaces alone do not necessarily ensure that a viable wildlife population can be maintained in perpetuity given some of those changes on the landscape.

“As wildlife managers, we look forward to collaborating with land managing agencies to ensure that wildlife and the habitat needs they require are secured when making changes to available resources within the landscape.”

Hunting conservation groups feel betrayed. Their decades-long conservation efforts to restore and update these man-made guzzlers, spring developments, and the conversion of cattle water to wildlife water on the Preserve are set to be abandoned or destroyed.

In a nutshell, the plan is an assault on all wildlife within the preserve and spells out the agency’s vision of “wilderness.” That vision comes at the expense of all desert wildlife and virtually all the other mandates called for in the Preserve’s management plan. Those who have battled through the 233 pages of “bias and hypocrisy” have pointed out major flaws common to all alternatives.

Cliff McDonald, the president of Water for Wildlife, a conservation group that has repaired over 160 guzzlers in the past several years, including many on the Preserve before the work was halted there, was outraged by the lack of common sense in the NPS proposal.

McDonald pointed out that the 68 big and small game guzzlers within wilderness occupy less than 3/4s of an acre total ground space of the 804,000 acres of wilderness within the Preserve, but the Preserve staff believes that 3/4 acre impacts “wilderness character” to the detriment of the designation.

“The impact is on one one-millionth of the Preserve’s wilderness. One millionth! How is that impact of the wildness an issue?” asked McDonald. “Don’t the benefits of this water for desert wildlife outweigh the impacts?”

Ironically, even the current Preserve superintendent Todd Suess has admitted to DFW staff that the Wilderness Act doesn’t mandate the removal or abandonment of these historic structures to comply with the wilderness designation. In fact, on nearby Bureau of Land Management Lands, also designated wilderness, maintenance and even construction of new guzzlers has been allowed because of the value to wildlife.

According to opponents of the water plan, the hypocrisy comes in when you realize the plan’s alternatives continue to allow at least two big game drinkers within the preserve’s wilderness because of their documented importance to bighorn sheep, but somehow decided the other wildlife drinkers have no importance.

Yet, the National Park Service has done no assessment to evaluate the impact the removal of the other 66 man-made drinkers will have on all wildlife that currently use those water sources. It has been determined -- apparently by “fiat and lots of hypocrisy” -- that quasi-pristine wilderness is more important than wildlife. Ironically, most of the guzzlers would not be removed or their footprint restored, they would simply remain and allowed to decay until non-functional. So, theoretically, the negative impacts will still exist -- they just won’t serve an important wildlife function any longer. This is simply insane.

The NPS staff is also mandated to protect and maintain historic sites throughout the Preserve, and most of these guzzlers were made in the 50s, as part of a concerted effort by the state DFW to create and enhance water sources for wildlife, even then recognizing the important to mitigate for urban sprawl and loss of historic natural water sources. There has been no effort by Preserve staff to recognize the historic value of these guzzlers or to maintain them for their intended purpose.

The park service has even been obstructing the gathering of data that would show the importance of water for the Preserve’s wildlife. Eight years into a comprehensive deer study on the Preserve, the park service removed its support of the project when it was entering a phase when the importance of man-made water sources would be evaluated and tested by turning on and off some of these sources and measuring impacts. The reason support was removed: It wasn’t going to affect the park service’s decision on how to manage the water sources.

The document also says there are 311 natural springs on the Preserve. Somehow that number has increased in this period of drought from a list of 101 that were found to hold year-around water in the 2008 NPS survey of springs. Many of the 175 suspected springs checked during those surveys proved to be dry or seasonal water sources.

So, how has the number of springs increased?

Is that a fabrication that includes historic (now dry) springs, seasonal seeps, and tenejas? Who knows? Is the number included to make the Preserve seem awash in natural water?

It’s not. It’s a desert and barren of wildlife where there is not available water. Sadly, that includes most of the Preserve’s lands. Where there’s water, the Preserve is a wildlife oasis.

So what is this water removal plan really all about?

That is the mammoth in the creosote that no one is talking about:

Fundamentally, it is about the bias the NPS staff has against the Preserve’s number one visitor: Hunters. Hunters still make up the bulk of the visitation on the Preserve. Hunters are the only volunteers trying to maintain this desert wildlife water since that job was abandoned by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and never even attempted by the federal land management agencies, like the NPS.

Hunters (and cattle ranchers) are the only reason there is the diversity and quantity of wildlife there is on the Preserve. Over 350 species of birds and mammals have been documented on the man-made water. (So, no, it’s not only about the seven species of wildlife that may be hunted in the desert.) Preserving and adding water in desert is a good thing for all wildlife, and it is a means of mitigating for what has been lost through human activity elsewhere in the Mojave.

But it still sticks in the craw of the National Park Service staff that hunting was allowed on the vast property, and they are willing to sacrifice the Preserve’s wildlife to try to reduce or eliminate the number of hunters. They are willing to abandon 75 years of solid conservation efforts to bring the deer and desert sheep herds back. They are willing to dramatically reduce the numbers and diversity of birds and small mammals for their agenda.

There is no other explanation for this insanity. They all know the Wilderness Act doesn’t mandate actions this extreme. There is simply no other explanation.

Hopefully, enough people will get their federal representatives involved. Maybe then Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of Interior, will hear about this outrageous proposal and have it quietly withdrawn because it clearly violates Interior policy about cooperation with state game agency efforts and a recent policy to enhance recreational opportunities -- like hunting -- where appropriate.

The NPS staff got away with ripping out the cattle/wildlife water and seriously impacted the Preserves wildlife populations over a decade ago. That can’t happen again.