VAN­ISH­ING CIR­CLES

New ex­hibit high­lights dis­ap­pear­ing wildlife

Imperial Valley Press - - IV DESERT MUSEUM - BY RYAN MCHALE

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.

BY RACHEL IVANYI

“Net Loss Vaquita in a School of Toloaba.”

Map of the Sono­ran Desert.

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