Desert Invasions

A desert fire survivor.

This spring was more beautiful than ever. Due to higher-than-average rainfall this winter, many plants and animals are thriving in the Mojave Desert, a beautiful sight to see for desert rats like staff at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC) in Las Vegas! Desert critters are feasting on a buffet of flowers such as the desert globemallow, which happens to be a desert tortoise favorite. We recently released healthy tortoise back into the wild, something no other organization in the state of Nevada is permitted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do, and we are confident that this release will be a huge success because of the ample forage available.

While we love to see all the native plants, this abundant bloom also presents a potential setback for the desert. Invasive plants such as brome and cheat grass are also thriving from the winter rains, and they pose a potential problem to the desert tortoise and other desert life. As summer sets in, most desert plants dry up while we are seeing invasive plants persisting all over the desert. The invasive plants can potentially catch fire from lightning strikes during late summer, causing devastation to the animals and plants of the Mojave Desert. Without these invasive plants, a lightning strike would set only one or a few native plants ablaze, but the invasive plants create a ground cover of highly flammable material that has been responsible in the recent past for fueling fires over thousands of acres of desert.

The desert after a fire.

When fire occurs in the desert, many animals can flee from the fire if they are fast enough; for the desert tortoise, however, fast is not much of an option. During a fire many desert tortoises will survive if they are in a burrow, but that doesn’t mean they are safe. After the fire is over, a tortoise comes out of a burrow to find that there is nothing to eat, which means that it must travel long distances in search of food and basically start over in finding or building a new burrow; this can cause stress on the tortoise during the extremely hot summers. The picture above is of a tortoise that survived a fire north of Las Vegas. He was tracked since the time of the fire, and I am happy to say that four and half years later he is thriving and living a fruitful life in the Mojave Desert. He was a lucky one.

Please consider xeriscaping your lawn and garden if you live in or near the desert. Strong winds blow the seeds from neighborhoods in the Las Vegas Valley out to the nearby desert, so by xeriscaping your yard, you not only have a beautiful native landscape to enjoy, but you help us protect the desert tortoise’s habitat!

Daniel Essary is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center. Read his previous post, Watch Where You Step.

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