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Amargosa Vole Study

Amargosa Vole Study

a tiny, gray rodent in a gloved hand
a tiny, brown rodent in a gloved hand
a tiny brown rodent in a gloved hand

A tiny, endangered mammal is the subject of an extraordinary conservation effort near the communities of Shoshone and Tecopa in Inyo County.

The Amargosa vole is unique to the Mojave Desert, and today, scientists estimate there are only about 500 remaining in the wild. Though the Amargosa vole is rarely seen by humans, biologists recognize that it is a key link in the native food chain. Predators, including raptors and water birds, share the desert marshes where they live, and the extinction of the Amargosa vole would have a ripple effect on these and many other species as well.

For a year, a scientific team consisting of CDFW, UC Davis and US Geological Survey biologists have conducted intensive research into the life cycle of this little vole. The team visited every marsh that potentially could be inhabited by voles – they mapped the marshes, assessed habitat quality, and determined whether or not voles were present. In a subset of larger marshes the team conducted more detailed assessments of water inflow-outflow, soil moisture and vegetation, and captured voles to estimate local population numbers, assess the health of the voles and take samples for disease and genetics studies. In addition to the hands-on study in the desert, they also studied satellite data to track the amount of vegetation and water in the area over a period of time. A grim picture emerged of a habitat range in decline, due in large part to climate change and human modification.

Some of the findings included:

  • Total available habitat for the voles decreased 37 percent between 2012 and 2015.
  • Over decades, global climate change has caused a gradual decrease in water in this region. California’s recent drought has exacerbated the problem.
  • Of the more than 80 marshes that were documented at the beginning of the study, about 60 have degraded and/or dried up. Those that remain are almost all too small to sustain vole populations. Just as pandas eat only bamboo, the Amargosa vole survives solely on bulrush, a plant that grows in desert marshes.
  • Another important finding was that 80 percent of the individual voles found and tracked during the study were adults. This indicates low birth rates and survival rates for juveniles – more barriers to the species’ recovery.

Scientists believe that the network of springs and marshes in the vole’s natural range has been so extensively modified by humans that the vole’s future existence will depend almost entirely on whether humans continue to supply water where and when needed. They found evidence to support this, as an intensive restoration effort at one of the largest marshes showed signs of successfully supporting and sustaining voles.

The report authors identified several specific measures that could be taken to increase vole habitat and improve their chances of survival – including reconfiguring water inflow and outflow, changing elevations and planting vegetation that would enhance existing marshes and/or better connect adjacent marshes.

This study is part of a larger long-term effort to secure a future for the Amargosa vole and the unique marsh ecosystems it depends upon in the Mojave Desert. In late 2014 vole numbers became so low that scientists initiated a captive breeding program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to reduce the risk of extinction. Today more than 100 voles are in the captive colony at UC Davis – providing a potential source of animals for release into restored habitats, and an important insurance population to prevent extinction.

Photos by Don Preisler/UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine


Sage Grouse Relocation

Sage Grouse Relocation

Two women hold and measure a wild sage grouse (bird)
Two women in desert with net and bird box

Five agencies in two states recently partnered to help a tiny population of Greater Sage Grouse avoid extinction along the California-Nevada border. Biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey are working together in this first-of-its kind study. On April 22, the bi-state team of scientists captured, inseminated, transported and released 17 of these female upland birds to a new habitat where they will hopefully flourish and repopulate. Eight male birds were also transported to Bodie Hills as part of the study.

The birds were captured near Bodie and moved to Parker Meadows, about 30 miles south. CDFW scientists have been tracking the number of Greater Sage Grouse in Parker Meadows for years, and it was evident that human intervention would be necessary to keep the group alive. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of males had dropped from about 17 to only four, and CDFW estimated that the entire population had a 70 percent chance of going extinct in the next five years.

Translocation was chosen as the best option to save them, as it would not only boost the number of birds in the area, but also immediately widen the gene pool.

The birds were captured at night, measured and radio-collared. The hens were also artificially inseminated with sperm from the males in the Bodie population before being transported and released to integrate into their new home. (link opens in new windowWatch video of the capture, insemination and release.)

Although biologists from the U.S. Geological Survey will be doing most of the hands-on work with the birds, CDFW biologists played an important role as well. Environmental Specialist Tim Taylor worked for months to obtain the proper land access permissions and assess the habitat near Bodie. Taylor identified several potential problems (including conifers, where raptors would likely perch while in search of prey, and barbed wire fencing) that needed to be removed prior to the relocation. And Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Gardner, in Sacramento, was instrumental in securing grant funding – without which, this partnership project would not have been possible.

“It’s a long term thing – it’s going to take about five years to get results we are hoping for,” Taylor said. “But we’ve got a great crew and I’m confident we’re going to have success and keep that little population going.”

Read more about the link opens in new windowGreater Sage Grouse study.

Photos by Dan Hottle/USFWS



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