May 31, 2018

The trees of summer: Smoke trees, cacti and palms have long been revered by desert locals

Palm tree in the desert. (Photo: Palm Springs Historical Society/Special to The Desert Sun)

Tracy Conrad
Special to The Desert Sun

Signaling the end of spring, smoke trees in the desert washes become dotted with tiny bluish-purple blooms at the beginning of summer each year.

The color is deep and distinct and has been revered by desert dwellers for decades. Nellie Coffman herself was known to berate anyone who dared chop down a smoke tree.

Most visitors to the desert had no appreciation for the tree having never seen it in bloom. Visitors evaporated from Palm Springs in May as temperatures increased threatening the coming summer.

But local residents, like Coffman, knew better. Agnes Pelton famously painted “Smoke Tree in Bloom” to be auctioned off to benefit the newly formed Desert Art Center.

Carl Bray, fancied for himself the sobriquet “painter of smoke trees” as they featured regularly on his canvases. Other desert artists like John Hilton, William Darling and Jimmy Swinnerton were captivated by the indigo blooms, buzzing with bees, and memorialized their brief early summer show in paint.

Spring in the desert is spectacular, but summer is even more impressive for the cacti, trees and scrubs that survive it.

Wise and observant desert dwellers had special reverence for the plant species found in this harsh environment.

The village of Palm Springs took its name from the indigenous palms, found in the ravines of the surrounding mountains. The native California fan palm signaled the presence of water to early settlers and Native Americans. The Cahuilla used the fruit of the Washingtonia filifera for food and its fronds for weaving and roofing.

The importation of date palms to the area a century ago started the comparison of the Coachella Valley to the deserts of the Middle East and sparked an agricultural industry. Soon there was cultivation of all sorts of palm species as ornamental trees.

Grand allees of palms would soon line the boulevards of Los Angeles and San Diego. In Palm Springs, Ruth Hardy, owner of the Ingleside Inn and the first councilwoman, campaigned for planting palms along both sides of highway 111, engendering its name of Palm Canyon Drive.

Soldiering trees marched all the way to the Indian Canyons where the native palms could be found in abundance; the basis for the village itself.

The original summer survivor in the desert is, of course, the cactus. Reverence for its diversity was elevated to an art form by Chester “Cactus Slim” and Patricia Moorten. The Moortens famously saved cacti in the path of road construction for use as ornamentals in gardens.

They collected unusual specimens from all over the desert southwest and Baja Mexico, bringing them home to Palm Springs and transplanting them into the garden plot around their new home (purchased from photographer and painter Stephen Willard who was leaving town because it had gotten too crowded.)

A botanist trained at University of Southern California, Patricia published her classic book, “Desert Plants for Desert Gardens” much before the idea of using native plants in a sustainable way became the norm. The magazine Popular Mechanics even featured an article on the Moortens in March of 1960.

The Moortens’ appreciation of cacti was akin to Nellie’s reverence of smoke trees. Locals survived through the tough summers to be rewarded with mild winters and glorious springs, just like native trees, scrubs and cacti.

Locals tried to cultivate an appreciation of the subtleties of desert plants by memorializing the spectacular blooms in postcards and pictures. And they tried to inculcate that appreciation through guidebooks for newcomers.

Melba Bennett, the founder of many Palm Springs institutions including the “Palm Springs Hat,” the Palm Springs Historical Society and the Palm Springs Garden Club, wrote a little book just for this purpose. Meant to help new arrivals cultivate a proper desert garden, her little book had practical advice and was annotated in the margins with little whimsical doodles to emphasize her points. The book contains charming descriptions and recommendations gleaned from years of hard work and experimentation in her garden at Deep Well Ranch.

Plants were chosen for their riot of blooms in springtime and their ability to survive the blistering heat of summer.

The diminutive indigo blooms of smoke trees were complemented by the exuberant deep orange bouquets offered by Poinciana, Mexican bird of paradise.

Bennett counseled a variety of colors and shapes in the composition of a garden, and a rotation of flowering to provide interest in the garden through the coming long summer months.

May 30, 2018

How wildland springs affect mule deer population dynamics studied by CABNR

Kelley Stewart lab looked at mule deer in arid environments, particularly juvenile survival

Led by CABNR associate professor Kelley Stewart, a team of scientists and students capture, study and release mule deer in their research to quantify the effects of springs and cattle-watering stations on juvenile mule deer populations.

By Robyn Feinberg
Nevada Today

In 2008, Kelley Stewart, a large mammal ecologist in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, started a project looking at how wildlife guzzlers, or springs, affected population dynamics of mule deer.

"The park service was trying to decide if they wanted to allow California Department of Fish and Wildlife to turn deactivated water sites into water developments for wildlife" Stewart, associate professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said.

"We were asked to determine how important those water sites were for mule deer. We did that for eight years, and had some really interesting information not only on water and how water developments help wildlife, but a lot of it became timing of precipitation and timing of green-up and how that affected juvenile and adult survival and helping those populations persist."

"Green-up" refers to the beginning of a new cycle of plant growth following winter. The research conducted at the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California, in the Mojave Desert completed in 2017.

Decommissioned cattle watering sites studied

Before the research began in this area, the U.S. National Park Service put out a request for research because of the wells that were left behind when the cattle allotments were purchased from cattlemen and troughs that had been maintained for cattle were decommissioned. They required an environmental assessment of the effect of the wells before the California Department of Fish and Wildlife could change anything.

"Right before I got hired here, two colleagues, Jim Sedinger, professor in the natural resources department, and Vern Bleich, emeritus biologist from California Department of Fish and Wildlife, put in a proposal to look at the effects of providing water to mule deer," Stewart said. "When I got here, I took over the project, and I got to run with it because I was hired as the large-mammal ecologist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science.

"I wrote a more detailed proposal describing the experiment to test the effects of provision of water on mule deer population dynamics. It was really exciting to get here and have this project kind of ready to go, so I designed the experiment for the study on how we could experimentally manipulate water availability and test the effects on mule deer populations."

Stewart's particular interest was in the juvenile mule deer population.

"When we looked at juveniles, we captured neo-natal mule deer, fawns, and put small, expandable collars on them and monitored their survival," she said. "We started doing that right as we entered the four-year drought that we just recently went through, and so survival was pretty low. In fact, the lowest deer survival rate was about 19 percent for the year, and then in 2016, when we had this great winter, we had really good rains between January and March, which translated into really good green-up that spring, and survival went to about 70 percent."

"So, the drought had a really huge effect on that population, and that pulse of water, which of course affected vegetation, affected nutrition, which helped those females be in better shape to be able to pull off those offspring," Stewart said.

While Stewart's team had originally been studying water sources in terms of survival and importance to deer, they found that the green-up in 2016 also played a pivotal role.

Maintenance of water in the desert

"Maintenance of water is probably really important for a lot of populations in the desert, including species we didn't work on, like mountain sheep and desert tortoises, but really, that timing of green up, and the timing of the amount of green up in the spring, also had a big effect on survival of juveniles," Stewart said. "And juvenile survival is the life-history characteristic that varies the most, and has the biggest effect on changes in populations."

Stewart and her team looked more closely at juvenile mule deer because their general survival rate is lower than fully grown mule deer, so their population can be affected easily.

"Adult survival has a very big effect on population growth. You can tweak it just a little bit, and it has a big effect on the population, but adult survival tends to be pretty high and doesn't vary that much," Stewart said. "So generally, if you make it to be an adult, you're pretty good, but the fawns, we lost the majority of them in the first month of life, and if you get them through that first winter, get them recruited into the adult population, then they tended to survive for a long time. Increasing juvenile survival is where you can actually tweak things to help the population, much more than trying to affect adults."

Stewart's overall research showed the importance of water to mule deer survival rates, with strong selection for areas closer to sources of water. They also saw strong effects of timing of precipitation on survival of fawns, as well as size at birth playing an important role in survival. Stewart said that while the U.S. Park Service is determining what to do with those water developments since the conclusion of the research, she advocates for keeping the water available.

Through the duration of the project, Stewart trained three graduate students who have all since gone into wildlife careers. The research also culminated in three research papers so far, including "Timing of precipitation in an arid environment: Effects on populations performance of a large herbivore" (2018) and "Spatial distributions and resource selection by mule deer in an arid environment: Responses to provision of water" (2015).

The team has another research paper in review, titled "Resources selection by female mule deer: tradeoffs associated with reproduction."

Stewart is planning to continue research on mule deer populations, and has just begun a new study in collaboration with the Nevada Department of Wildlife involving the effects of removing pinyon-juniper trees on habitat selection and use by mule deer. Stewart has always been interested in large mammals, especially the interaction between population dynamics and effects of herbivory on vegetation and, in turn, the whole ecosystem.

Stewart received her bachelor's degree from the University of California, Davis and her master's from Texas A&M University - Kingsville, where she worked in the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute. She received her doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she worked in the Department of Biology and Wildlife and the Institute of Arctic Biology.

May 17, 2018

Park Service signs deal to round up Death Valley’s wild burros

A wild burro stands in Death Valley National Park. The agency has entered into a five-year agreement with a nonprofit rescue group to remove all burros from the park. (National Park Service)

By Henry Brean
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Death Valley National Park hopes to be burro-free within the next five years.

The National Park Service said Thursday it has entered into a contract with Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, a Texas-based nonprofit, to round up and remove up to 2,500 wild burros from the park 100 miles west of Las Vegas.

The animals are not native to Death Valley, but they have made themselves at home there, said park Superintendent Mike Reynolds. They damage springs and vegetation, create a safety hazard on park roads and compete for food and water with desert bighorn sheep and other native animals.

“Burros are not part of the natural California desert ecosystem,” Reynolds said in a written statement. “With this partnership, we have created a win-win situation for the burros, the park and taxpayers.”

Starting later this month, Peaceful Valley will lure the animals with food and water or drive them with wranglers on horseback into temporary pens. The burros will then be trucked out of the park to training centers to be prepped for adoption.

“Our main objective is to protect our wild burros. If they must be removed, we want to ensure that it is done safely with as little stress possible,” Mark Meyers, the rescue group’s executive director, said in a written statement.

“This is what they do,” Death Valley spokeswoman Abby Wines said of Peaceful Valley. “Their main mission is to rescue burros and put them up for adoption.”

Wines said the group has agreed to find room at one of its sanctuaries for any animals that can’t be trained or placed in new homes.

Pleasant Valley also plans to remove up to 2,500 wild burros from nearby Mojave National Preserve in California under the same five-year contract.

The operation is being paid for with private donations and grants to the group. Wines said the cost to the federal government is “pretty close to zero.”

Eliminating wild burros from Death Valley has been the Park Service’s stated goal since the adoption of a master plan for the 3.4 million acre park in 2002, but no roundups have been conducted since 2005.

So why now? “They’re multiplying,” Wines said. “We don’t really know what our population is, but we think it’s in the neighborhood of 2,000.”

The largest concentrations of burros can be found in Saline and Butte valleys and in the Wildrose area, she said, but the animals also have recently shown up in the Black Mountains south of Dantes View for the first time since the 1940s.

The National Park Service is allowed to remove them because it is not bound by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which requires the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to manage and maintain the animals on public land.

The wild burros of today are not related to the larger animals used in the 20-mule teams that famously hauled borax out of Death Valley in the late 1800s, but Wines said they may be the descendants of old pack animals once used by prospectors in the region.

“That’s the foundation of the wild population in the West,” she said.

The Park Service doesn’t expect the upcoming roundup to eliminate the burro problem entirely.

For one thing, Wines said, “it will be very hard to get all of them.”

And there is nothing to stop burros from neighboring parts of Nevada and California from making their way into Death Valley some day.

“We’re not going to fence the park,” Wines said.