Wild animals dying for a drink in drought-stricken West

By Darryl Fears
The Washington Post | Posted: Thursday, May 7, 2015 7:00 pm

For the giant kangaroo rat, death by nature is normally swift and dramatic: a hopeless dash for safety followed by a blood-curdling squeak as their bellies are torn open by eagles, foxes, bobcats and owls.

They’re not supposed to die the way they are today — emaciated and starved, their once abundant population dwindling to near nothing on California’s sprawling Carrizo Plain about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where the drought is turning hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland into desert.

Without grass, long-legged kangaroo rats can’t eat. And as they go, so go a variety of threatened animals that depend on the keystone species to live. “That whole ecosystem changes without the giant kangaroo rat,” said Justin Brasheres, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of California at Berkeley.

Endangered kangaroo rats are just one falling tile in the drought’s domino effect on wildlife in the lower Western states. Large fish kills are happening in several states as waters heated by higher temperatures drain and lose oxygen. In Northern California, salmon eggs have virtually disappeared as water levels fall. Thousands of migrating birds are crowding into wetland shrunk by drought, risking the spread of disease that can cause massive die-offs.

As the baking Western landscape becomes hotter and drier, land animals are being forced to seek water and food far outside their normal range. Herbivores such as deer and rabbits searching for a meal in urban gardens in Reno are sometimes pursued by hawks, bobcats and mountain lions. In Arizona, rattlesnakes have come to Flagstaff, joining bears and other animals in search of food that no longer exists in their habitat.

“You think about it. In our urban environments we have artificial water. We’re not relying on creeks,” said David Catalano, a supervisory biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “We have sprinkling systems. We water bushes with fruit and water gardens. That’s just a magnet for everything.

“We’ve seen an increase in coyote calls, bear calls, mountain lion calls — all the way to mice and deer,” Catalano said of residents placing distress calls to his department. “At your house everything is green and growing and flowering and they’re being drawn to it.”

The state wildlife agency said it’s preparing for a deluge of calls reporting bear sightings from Lake Tahoe this summer when berries and other foods they eat disappear for lack of rain.

About 4,000 mule deer have disappeared from a mountain range near Reno between late last year and now, likely because of drought. “Our level of concern is very high,” Catalano said. Nevada has placed low fiberglass pools called guzzlers that hold up to 3,600 gallons of water at more than a thousand wilderness areas across the state to provide water for wildlife.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department sent a message for a second year to residents in Flagstaff near Grand Canyon National Park: “Don’t be surprised if you see more wild animals around town in the next few months. Drought conditions may cause creatures like elk, deer, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and even bears to wander further into town than normal, as they seek sources of food and water.”

Don’t feed them, the department warned. Remove pet food, water bowls, garbage and other items that attract wild animals. It does more harm than good.

In California, where mandatory water restrictions were passed by the state water board on Tuesday, humans are already coming into contact with desperate wildlife from the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument in California’s Central Valley, near Bakersfield.

“Just today, 20 minutes ago, four coyote cubs arrived” from the Bakersfield’s outskirts, said Don Richardson, curator of animals for the California Living Museum, which has an animal shelter in the city.

“We actually get everything from reptiles to mammals,” Richardson said. “We have 13 San Joaquin kit fox, an endangered species. They were abandoned, orphaned. The kit foxes health was impacted by the struggle to make it with reduced resources. Then of course we see a lot of birds of prey — owls and golden eagles.”

The animals are already suffering from the fragmentation of their habitat because of ranching and urban development. “It’s looking to be a very, very difficult year for wildlife,” Richardson said.

Endangered San Joaquin kit fox, coyotes and birds in the wildlands outside Bakersfield all rely on the giant kangaroo rat to survive. But those rodents are struggling themselves.

“We fear that a semi-arid grassland is becoming a desert,” said Brasheres. “The giant kangaroo rat can’t survive in desert.”

A study by the university recorded a 95 percent population loss since 2010.

Before the drought, 60 percent of their habitat was covered in grasses they eat and seeds they store for hard times in a network of underground burrows, Brasheres said. Four years of little rain has reduced the cover to 18 percent.

“They simply lack food so they starve,” Brasheres said. As the state wildfire season approaches, the remaining grasses could be wiped out.

For a study, biologist caught a few kangaroo rats this year to probe their condition. “They were skinny,” Brasheres said. “We looked at females to see whether they had young, whether they were lactating.” They weren’t.

In this reality where food is scarce and births are few, kangaroo rats are still a top prey item, further shrinking their numbers.

The demise of this species would be unthinkable, Brasheres said. There’s no overstating how important the rodent is in the ecosystem. Few others are around to feed snakes, badgers weasels and animals already mentioned. Even the soil kangaroo rats dig for burrows creates moist habitat for insects.

A worse situation is hard to imagine, said Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. But there is one.

Chinook salmon are in great danger, he said. For two years, only 5 percent of their eggs have survived winter and spring migrations because the cold water their eggs need to survive drains from rivers and reservoirs.

“If you draw down a reservoir, cold water at the bottom drains first,” Lehr said.

To save them, wildlife officials tried to replenish cold water that drained from Shasta Lake north of Sacramento last year. “It didn’t work,” Lehr said.

“Ninety-five percent of eggs and juvenile brood in 2014 were killed,” Lehr said. “Those would be expected to return three years later. We also had heavy mortality in 2013, expected back in 2016. The 2015 fish are spawning right now. We’re trying everything in our power to have enough cold water in Shasta so we don’t have what we had last year.”

Salmon are only part of the problem. Smelt are at the lowest number ever recorded in the state. They are a major forage fish, feeding other fish and birds in the marine ecosystem.

“It’s part of the heritage resource in the state of California. It’s our responsibility to ensure they are protected,” Lehr said. “Every time you lose something it puts pressure on the environment.

“You lose it, and something else will replace it but it will be lost. They’re part of the ecosystem. Millions of dollars have been invested in their survival.”

Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson

9 thoughts on “Wild animals dying for a drink in drought-stricken West

  1. We need to reduce our numbers by about 7.3 thousand times – THEN we wouldn’t have climate change/global warming. THEN there’d be living-space for all of Earth’s INTERESTING species to inhabit. To do this, we need to accept Population Control & Eugeniks, which was thoroughly endorsed by, among many, MANY others: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Helen Keller, TE Lawrence (of Arabia), George Bernard Shaw, Henry Williamson, Thomas Hardy, HG Wells, Alexander Graham Bell, Bertrand Russell, Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, John D Rockefeller, Samuel Butler, Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, John H Kellogg, Charles Benedict Davenport PhD, Albert Einstein and Plato (who first suggested it thousands of years ago). We would also need to pulp every bible, qur’an and torah on the planet, and start teaching Darwinism and ecology in ALL seats of learning. IF we do all this, we just might make the future possible !!

  2. Bet there will be water in the swimming pools and on the golf courses as long as possible.

    There are articles in California also about how 250 tule elk died because they were fenced in and left without water. According to the Bay Area Drought Watch “The drought is likely causing the death, and the park is considering bringing in water for the animals, park wildlife ecologist David Press said.” Considering bringing in water?? They apparently had already observed the ponds had gone dry when doing a census. Hmm, would that have been the time to see that the elk had water?

    There is also a sad and familiar refrain about the elk mentioned in the article: “Marin County dairy farmers, however, say the elk are competing with their cattle for forage. They are urging the National Park Service to remove dozens of elk and fence off their habitat. The park service already prioritizes commercial cattle grazing in Point Reyes. Now these subsidized ranchers want to dictate park policies that could eliminate native elk and harm predators and other wildlife.”
    Same old story. The ranchers want it all.

    The drought is also forcing desperate wild animals into towns looking for food and water. The animals, as usual, will be the biggest victims of any disaster. The authorities are telling people to make sure they leave no water, etc., out, that it will do more harm than good. Sounds as if water could prevent the wildlife from dying of dehydration but allow them to become “pests” and suffer a different, but probably equally lethal end.


    • It reminds me of something I read years ago and was appalled by – some arrogant self-important colonialist/imperialist wanted to build a mega estate smack in the middle of wildebeest and cheetah migration territory in Africa. He didn’t care, defiantly built it anyway, the animals couldn’t get to water and died. Scumbag. The Tule elk story reminded me of it. We need to get rid of the golf courses and swimming pools. How many do we need?

    • Spending time with the Tule elk in Point Reyes has always been a highlight of my time there. This situation is devastating, unforgivable and utterly heartbreaking. To die in this way! And, as you say, adding to the mess is the farmers in the area, in a greedy push for scarce resources, all for their “non native,” ecologically destructive cattle. (I so wish every environmentalist would make the connection between meat production and devastation of our wildlife and wild lands.)

      We humans have obviously rigged all systems for our benefit. Could a more self-interested species exist in the universe?

      Oh hey, here’s a novel idea. Given the duress under which California’s wild animals find themselves now, do you think any hunters and hunting organizations might push for a moratorium on shooting them, just out of consideration and conservation ideals? Um, right. I proposed this to a few hunters when doves were fleeing the wild fires a couple of years ago. They were hunting at the perimeter of fire areas in California, and I suggested that in the spirit of “conservation” (since they like to call themselves our greatest conservationists) they might take mercy on doves fleeing the fires for water. I’m sure you can guess that line of reasoning didn’t go very far.

  3. I wonder if they’ve passed the point of no return?
    And WHEN will the public decide they’ve had enough ranching? Those people are killing us: virtually grazing public lands into desertification; wars on predator species to protect their livestock and overburdening taxpayers with their subsidies, among other reasons.

  4. Pingback: Wild animals dying for a drink in drought-stricken West | GarryRogers Nature Conservation and Science Fiction

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