New exhibit highlights disappearing wildlife
The Imperial Valley is no stranger to the desert — it is defined by it. From the arid Coyote Mountains in the west to the dunes of Algodones in the east, the Valley belongs to the Yuha Desert. It is a desert bursting with a large variety of plants and animals. The Yuha Desert provides almost limitless opportunities for exploration and engagement with the outdoors and nature. And yet, it is only a small part of a larger whole and a larger story.
The Imperial Valley and Yuha Desert belong to the greater Sonoran Desert. Spanning more than 100,000 square miles, the Sonoran covers much of the American southwest, including parts of California, Arizona and northwestern Mexico. Its territory is home to a rich biodiversity of plants and animals, including more than 60 mammals, 100 reptiles, 350 birds and over 2,000 native plants. It is a tough place to live, with summer highs of 118 degrees and an average rainfall of between 3 and 20 inches — the extremes for which are mostly seen right here in Imperial Valley!
A land in flux
Until recently, this desert has remained unchanged. Now, those same species that have uniquely adapted to this harsh environment face a new and fast-moving threat. The human population of the Sonoran Desert is rapidly growing, and has increased environmental pressures to push several species to the brink of extinction. Residential development, road construction, agricultural and mineral development, and use of o -road vehicles are just some of the activities that threaten the delicate balance of the region’s natural landscape. Already, more than two dozen species or subspecies have gone extinct in the last century alone.
The desert tortoise
Slow-moving and long-lived (up to 40 years or more), the desert tortoise appears in a variety of landscapes, from washes and flatlands in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, to rocky hillsides or sandy soils in the Sonoran Desert, to thornscrub and tropical deciduous forests in Sonora, Mexico. Only 50 years ago, visitors could count several hundred tortoises in a single square mile. Today, most populations contain no more than five to fifty. Though they still exist elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, the desert tortoise has faced almost complete extirpation (local extinction) in the Yuha region. Today, the desert tortoise is protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The vaquita and Sea of Cortez
Ten million years ago, the Sea of Cortez covered Imperial Valley, creating a rich underwater landscape, traces of which are still visible across the mountains and desert through fossils and ancient oyster beds. Today, those waters have retreated further south, and are home to 34 marine mammals, over 5,000 invertebrates, nearly 1,000 fish species, and five species of sea turtles.
Today, droves of fishermen and commercial vessels ply the waters to take advantage of this rich ecosystem. Caught in the crossfire is the vaquita – a small, stub-nosed porpoise now on the brink of extinction. A victim of bycatch from totoaba fishing, the vaquita is now listed as critically endangered. The population trend strongly suggests time is running out. Just 20 years ago, there were 600 vaquitas. In 2015, there were 60 remaining, and in 2017, 30. As of this August, there was an estimated 12 individuals remaining.
At this point, every single vaquita counts, but they’re dying, one by one, in the nets.
Conversations on conservation
The Sonoran Desert is a region full of life. Yet, several of its most unique and beautiful species are in danger of disappearing forever, interrupting a finely balanced circle of life. These species are inextricably linked to each other and to human kind in both subtle and obvious ways. Today, the conversation has become one of conservation — how to preserve and revive those species most threatened. It is vital work. If nothing is done to save species, it will be impossible to save their ecosystems, and it is the natural ecosystem of the Earth that humans depend on for their own well-being and sustenance.
Starting this week, visitors to the IVDM will be able to see, touch, and learn about the disappearing wildlife of the Sonoran Desert with a new, traveling exhibition: “Vanishing Circles.” This internationally traveled fine art, sculpture and photography exhibit is now open through March. Learn more about the regions’ vulnerable, threatened, and endangered species and landscapes, and come join the conversation.
The Imperial Valley Desert Museum is located in Ocotillo. It is open Wednesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A Desert Tortoise enjoys a favorite snack of fresh wildflowers.
“Net Loss Vaquita in a School of Toloaba.”
Map of the Sonoran Desert.