A Step Forward for Desert Wildlife

BLM takes one big step towards sustainable renewable energy planning, but can do more to protect wildlife

One of the rarest sightings in the California desert is not what you think it might be. It is not the appearance of water, the presence of a desert tortoise emerging from its burrow, or even the spying of the mysterious mountain lion. It is the sighting of a Mohave ground squirrel above ground.

These elusive mammals spend perhaps two months of their lives above ground when conditions are right, and they can only be found in the West Mojave Desert of California. Unfortunately, the sighting of the Mohave ground squirrel is becoming rarer as their habitat is lost to energy development, industrial development and other land-intensive development and their population shrinks. The specter of large-scale renewable energy development is the latest potential threat to the survival of this state-protected species.

Mohave ground squirrel, © Dr. Phil LeitnerSeveral years ago, the fate of the ground squirrel – along with other desert wildlife – hung in the balance as hundreds of thousands of acres of desert lands were proposed for industrial renewable energy development. Fortunately, California and the Department of the Interior joined together to propose a new approach to energy development – a landscape scale look across the California Desert to determine where projects could be placed on already disturbed and degraded lands, while protecting those areas most important for desert wildlife, recreation, and other natural resources. This new approach started with the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS), but was significantly expanded in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).

The DRECP represents a paradigm shift in how renewable energy development is planned in California and nationally. If done well, the DRECP could mean that desert wildlife like the tortoise and the ground squirrel have a future even in the face of climate change.

This week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released a new part of the plan that addresses how and where different types of land will be used for renewable energy. It is an important step forward for the DRECP, and is expected to be finalized in early 2016.

There is a lot to celebrate in the BLM’s latest plan. It protects 3.8 million acres of lands with important natural resource, scenic and recreational values by designating them as part of the National Landscape Conservation System. Iconic areas such as the Silurian Valley, Chuckwalla Bench and the Amargosa River watershed are designated as National Conservation Lands. Most importantly, these protections are permanent and cannot be overturned in the future.

desert tortoise Joshua Tree, ©Phil & Loretta HermannThe plan also includes 388,000 acres of BLM lands in the desert where renewable energy projects can be built without significant impacts to wildlife. These projects will help California meet its aggressive climate change goals without putting vital wildlife habitat under development.

So, is the new plan a win for desert wildlife conservation? Should we celebrate the conservation of desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel for future generations?

Not yet. While the latest plan has some important benefits, there are still pieces of it that are damaging to wildlife, and must be improved when the BLM issues its final plan in early 2016. The fate of the West Mojave hangs in the balance.

The West Mojave Desert is a checkerboard of public and private lands where development has already fragmented the landscape. Although it is a disturbed landscape, the West Mojave still has immense value to the future of desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel and other desert wildlife. The best available science shows that this region will serve as a critical refuge for desert plants and wildlife in the face of climate change. As the desert becomes hotter and drier, the West Mojave will continue to provide the right habitat conditions for desert wildlife to survive.

Unfortunately, while the new DRECP BLM Plan focuses millions of acres of conservation in the eastern part of the California Desert, the West Mojave’s future – and that of the Mohave ground squirrel — is far more uncertain. The plan would open up large areas of the West Mojave to renewable energy and other development. The Fremont Valley, Rose Valley, North of Kramer, and Pisgah Valley areas are especially critical to the future survival of desert wildlife. These areas should be re-designated as conservation lands, and be closed to any kind of development.

The BLM Plan also doesn’t affect private lands in the West Mojave, even though these are just as important to wildlife as public lands. The BLM should integrate its plan with the planning that desert counties are already doing for renewable energy development and conservation. These plans are critical to allowing both renewable energy development and conservation to worth together across the desert landscape.

While the future for the mysterious Mohave ground squirrel remains uncertain, it is not a lost cause. When the DRECP BLM Plan is finalized in early 2016, it can provide an important path forward for preserving our conservation legacy, while developing renewable energy in a responsible way. Only by pursing both of these goals can we meet California’s renewable energy needs and help combat the growing impacts of climate change.

4 Responses to “A Step Forward for Desert Wildlife”

  1. Gail Calhoun

    Currently Oregon is considering delisting the wolf from the endangered species list for the state. I haven’t seen any petitions to sign or share or tweet. I would like to and would submit my name to add to any list defending this animal. Petitions are terrific because in a moment at a glance a legislator can see the support for a animal or issue. Please also tweet about the little ground squirrel.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Gail. Yes, we are aware of Oregon’s decision to delist wolves, and have spoken out against it (more on that here http://dfnd.us/1llKDRs). We don’t currently have a petition on this issue, but are looking at all possible ways we can continue to work for wolf conservation in the state. We will keep you posted about any opportunities to get involved. Thanks so much for your support!

  2. Richard Spotts

    Thanks for this excellent article Kim. I greatly appreciate your and other Defenders’ work on behalf of protecting threatened desert tortoises and other native wildlife in California’s Mojave desert. I’ve been working to help protect Mojave desert tortoises in the northeastern-most corner of their range in southwest Utah’s Washington County. The county commissioners and other local officials are pushing BLM to approve a controversial four-lane “Northern Corridor” highway through the Red Cliffs Tortoise Reserve, which would violate the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan under the Endangered Species Act and severely fragment critical tortoise habitat.

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