In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Snipe Hunt - for Salamanders

When I visited the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, Dr. David Wake mentioned an unconfirmed salamander report from Sheep Spring in the Avawatz Mountains, just south of Death Valley.  A week ago, I hiked to the site with Patrick Emblidge, a Brockport Environmental Science alumnus who works as a biological technician for the US Geological Survey out of Henderson, Nevada. We left camp at 5:00 a.m., and so our five mile walk up a broad alluvial fan to Sheep Spring was leavened by a brilliant, waxing moon. It was a lovely time to hike – cool and perfectly still, with the viscid scent of creosote bush in the air, and the Panamint Mountains standing clear to the north, more than 50 miles away. We reached Sheep Spring before sunrise, and found a small stream of water flowing for about 150 meters through thick stands of mesquite, tamarisk, common reed, and willow. Although there was water enough for slender salamanders, the site didn’t feel right to me - the soil was mostly coarse granitic debris, the water was warm (about 70°F), and there was too much dense vegetation.  We found no salamanders at the spring, and I doubt that there are any there. I’d like to think that I’ve developed a decent search image for slender salamanders, and that I’d be able to find them if they were present, but it’s far easier to demonstrate that a species is present than to prove that it is not there.
There are other sites where Inyo Mountains slender salamanders are rumored to occur, and entire ranges that have not been thoroughly searched. And so, as I walked back down to the car, I wasn’t disappointed by our failure to find salamanders at Sheep Spring. I’d had a beautiful walk, which led me to imagine wandering the arid canyons of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains. It would take years to search all the possible habitat, those springs hidden far from the nearest washed out, tire-shredding four-wheel drive track. In those lost and distant desert ranges, there must be undiscovered populations that have hung on for thousands or even millions of years, surviving glacial advances and retreats, as far as they can get from the concerns of humans, patiently unrolling the long and beautiful skein of time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View from Telescope Peak

In late September I visited Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 272 feet below sea level. The hypersaline waters support the tiny Badwater snail, which is endemic to springs in the area. A look west from the snail’s home, past the salt-rimmed pools and across a huge, yawning space, took in the main crest of the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak, rising 11,300 feet above Badwater. It was a hot morning, and as I watched the snails retreat into the shade of salt crust and pickleweed, I imagined the cooler world of the Panamints, and searching for a plant restricted to the highest 500 feet of Telescope Peak – a subspecies of bedstraw, Galium hypotrichium tomentellum, whose entire population may number less than a thousand individuals.
Badwater; Telescope Peak in the Distance

Other tasks, and vagaries of the weather, forced me to postpone hiking up Telescope Peak, and it wasn’t until October 23rd that I set off on the 14-mile hike. I wanted to see sunrise from the summit, and so I left the trailhead at 3:20 a.m., climbing through scattered pinyon pine to the long, sagebrush-covered ridge leading toward the peak. It was a cold and beautiful morning – the full moon high in the western sky, broken clouds scudding overhead, the snow-covered mountain gleaming in the distance.  I switched off my headlamp and walked with the moon, through a sea of sagebrush laved by silvered light, before climbing into bristlecone pines and crusted snow. I reached the summit at dawn. Below, clouds lay over Death Valley and Panamint Valley like blankets of thick, damp gauze; only the main crest of the Panamints, and the shadows of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains, far to the west, rose above the mists. Badwater was invisible, although I could recall the view from decades before, when Melissa and I had made the hike on a much warmer October day, and the white salt flats lay shining in the sun.  I pulled on several extra layers of clothes and huddled in the lee of some rocks, trying to escape from a bitter north wind. For a half hour or so, I sat and thought about pupfish, toads, and salamanders – the lost and lonely populations of the region, the trajectories of their histories, the imperative of water. Much of their beautiful country lay hidden beneath the clouds, as obscured as are the species’ futures.  In place of certainty we only have their tenuous present, and our hope, rising through the clouds like those distant desert mountains.
Sunrise from Telescope Peak

When I began to shiver, and sunrise broke over the clouds, I took up my pack and started down from Telescope Peak, descending into the sweetness of the gathering day.

Bristlecone Pines, Telescope Peak

Same Planet, Different Worlds

On October 22nd I met with Richard Friese, a US National Park Service hydrologist, to talk about groundwater withdrawals in Nevada, and how they might affect biodiversity in Death Valley. Although the massive project planned for north-central Nevada probably will have little direct effect on Death Valley, other groundwater withdrawals closer to the park’s eastern border do threaten the area’s springs and streams. The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) holds groundwater rights in several basins with aquifers that drain toward Death Valley, and current withdrawals from the Amargosa Valley, immediately to the east of the park, vastly exceed recharge rates.  Ironically, a “green energy” solar farm planned for the Amargosa Valley will require a substantial amount of groundwater. 
There’s a famous Gary Larson cartoon, “Same Planet, Different World,” a title appropriate for the attitudes of the SNWA and National Park Service on groundwater withdrawals.  It is no surprise that the SNWA is more optimistic about the process than the Park Service. According to Mr. Friese, research suggests that there are “no young waters” in the region’s deep carbonate aquifers.  If most deep groundwater dates from the last glacial maximum, then current recharge rates are low, and pumping will inevitably deplete the aquifers: “Anytime you do large-scale exporting, something is going to dry up.” Another concern is that well monitoring, although important, may give a false sense of security, for hydrogeological models suggest that large groundwater systems may take a millennium to reach a new steady-state. In other words, if monitored wells indicate that storage is declining too rapidly, it could take many years for a decrease in pumping to stabilize the system.  One of the most important lessons from the history of resource exploitation is that a conservative approach, one embracing environmental uncertainty, is necessary if the resource is to be managed in anything approaching a sustainable manner. I would hope that this will be the case with groundwater pumping in the Death Valley region, but I am not optimistic.
The other night, I slept on an alluvial fan at the base of the Avawatz Mountains, just south of Death Valley National Park, near to where Amargosa River pupfish and Saratoga Springs pupfish swim. Eighty miles and several mountain ranges, one 12,000 feet high, stood between my camp and Las Vegas, but a vast, nacreous halo of city lights gleamed above the peaks.   Even though my camp felt lost in the desert’s great emptiness, it was impossible to ignore those lights, or the future that they implied; there are so many people out there, and so much thirst.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Lake Mead Blues

This morning, on my way from Arizona to Death Valley, I stopped for a few moments at an overlook above Hoover Dam. I walked out onto the dam and looked east, past the huge intakes for the dam’s turbines, over the waters of Lake Mead and the huge swath of bleached rock surrounding the reservoir. The bleached rock told an eloquent story about how the recent drought in the Colorado Basin has affected the river’s flow, and suggests how continued drought will impact water supplies available to Las Vegas. Las Vegas currently gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, but the surface elevation of Lake Mead dropped about 100 feet between the late 1990s and 2009. The elevation of the falling reservoir is approaching 1050 feet, the level of water intake 1; intake 2 would become inoperative at 1,000 feet. Although the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) maintains that there is only “a 1 percent probability that Lake Mead will reach an elevation of 1,075 feet by 2011 and 1,025 feet by 2014,” models suggest that conditions slightly better than those experienced between 2000 and 2008 could cause Lake Mead to decline to 1,000 feet by 2015. This would lead to severe water shortages, because sufficient water could not be drawn from Lake Mead through existing intakes. In anticipation of this problem, the SNWA is constructing a third intake at 860 feet elevation – but because the intake will use the pumping station for intake #2, the effective intake level would still be 1,000 feet.
As I see it, the declining levels of Lake Mead and Lake Powell (combined storage currently about 52% of capacity), prospects for continuing drought, and the almost inevitable growth of Las Vegas, will push exploitation of groundwater stored in the deep aquifers of northern and central Nevada. Impacts on water-dependent ecosystems will follow.
I thought of these things as I drove through the tangled sprawl of Las Vegas and pushed north into the basin and range country, toward Death Valley and the pupfish of Salt Creek and the Amargosa River.  
Lake Mead from Hoover Dam

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Las Vegas Blues

On October 13th, I risked the freeways of Las Vegas to meet with Zane Marshall, Director of Environmental Resources for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). I first met Zane during the Devil’s Hole pupfish count, when he was working as a volunteer diver tallying pupfish in the deep parts of the spring. However, I wanted to talk to him in a formal setting about the long-term prognosis for water-dependent species, given the declining level of Lake Mead, the growth of Las Vegas, and the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to begin massive groundwater pumping in northern Nevada by 2020.
Zane, who looks to be in his late thirties, holds a Masters in Biology from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He is a life-long resident of Las Vegas who grew up “chasing lizards,” and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a biologist. He has worked for the SNWA for fifteen years, and describes himself as committed to environmental protection. He is married, has two small boys, and is passionate about his work. He believes that biodiversity has intrinsic value, and hopes that his boys will be able to “see what I’ve seen” in the natural world.
We talked for more than two hours about the mission of the SNWA, current water resources in the region, SNWA’s efforts to assume a proactive role in protecting biodiversity and endangered species, and possible effects of withdrawing up to 125,000 acre-feet of water per year from deep carbonate aquifers in northern Nevada. I was struck by several things during our discussion. First, the SNWA takes climate change very seriously, and anticipates that long-term drought will probably decrease the amount of water available from the Colorado River. Second, the SNWA appears to have established credible monitoring and mitigation programs, and is working to ameliorate potential impacts of groundwater withdrawal on the biota of the region – although some environmental groups might dispute this claim. Third, in spite of the complex hydrological models that have been developed for aquifers in the region, no one is certain how the aquifers will respond to groundwater pumping. Fourth, the SNWA has entered into an agreement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs to work together to protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems in basins that will be affected by pumping. But here’s the problem: protection is defined, in only a very general sense, as occurring when there are “no unreasonable adverse effects.”  But what do “unreasonable” and “adverse” mean? And to what extent do those terms depend on one’s perspective? The SNWA’s definitions may be quite different from those of the National Park Service or US Fish and Wildlife Service, and no one has dealt with this problem.
At the end of our talk, I stood up and looked out a window in Zane’s tenth-floor office. The view to the north took in the tangled intersections of three freeways, which were thick with rush hour traffic. Beyond was the sprawl of metropolitan Las Vegas – the strip malls, subdivisions, golf courses, condominiums, and industrial buildings, marching out toward the Spring and Sheep Mountains, twenty miles or more away. When I lived in Las Vegas – off and on, from 1975 through 1979 - there were roughly 400,000 people in the area. Now there are about 2,200,000. By 2035, the SNWA projects that 3,660,000 people will live in the Las Vegas area, which receives less than four inches of rain per year. Lake Mead is dropping, and there is a limit to how much water can be saved through conservation. Ultimately, the SNWA will have to pump more and more groundwater to meet increasing demand. There will, at some point, be “unreasonable adverse impacts;” the water needs of Las Vegas will affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and in doing so run headlong into the imperatives of the Endangered Species act. In spite of the best intentions of agencies such as the SNWA, there will be trouble. As I watched traffic crawl along the congested freeways, and contemplated venturing out into the insanity,I wondered how the Devil’s Hole pupfish will survive in the face of such an insatiable thirst. Las Vegas will have its water, but I do not know if the fish will have theirs.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander #2

I park my car and walk up another arid alluvial fan in the Inyo Mountains, climb for sixteen hundred feet through creosote bush scrub, over desert pavement, and up a boulder-strewn wash. Ninety minutes of dry and sweaty walking brings me into a narrow limestone slot; the sound of falling water drifts down canyon, past a cluster of seep willow.  This looks like slender salamander habitat, and I only have to flip two rocks before I find one – a large, chocolate-brown individual, with a beautiful constellation of silver-gray iridophores on its dorsal surface. I continue upstream for a half mile, climbing steeply through a series of small barrier falls, past maidenhair fern and flowering columbine, flipping rocks, and finding another salamander along the way. This is a good spot, the best I’ve found so far – and the only reason I know of it is because a biologist showed me an unpublished report by Derham Giuliani (1931-2010), an “old-time” naturalist who spent many years exploring the Inyo, White, and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Derham knew more about the natural history and distribution of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders than anyone, and also did a tremendous amount of field work on beetles, chipmunks, and ground squirrels of the region.  A memorial to him is at

Inyo Mountains Slender Salamander
I head downstream, and from where the tiny stream disappears into alluvium, I can look out across the arid, shadscale scrub of the Owens Valley, toward the eastern scarp of the High Sierra. In those mountains, only fourteen miles or so away, are tumbling streams, lakes cupped within glacial cirques, lush meadows – the types of habitats that would make salamanders happy. A few hours of hiking and driving would take me into the High Sierra, but for the Inyo Mountain slender salamanders living in this little canyon, tied as they are to this narrow thread of water – well, the Sierra might as well be a continent away. They have nowhere to go if this canyon ever dries, if the land falls too deeply into drought.

Owens Valley and High Sierra from the Inyo Mountains

Later in the day I stop at the Manzanar National Historic Site, where ten thousand Japanese-Americans were interned for over three years during World War II, in an American version of the concentration camp. There is a wonderful interpretive center at the site, along with replicas of a guard tower, barracks, and mess hall. As I wander around Manzanar, thinking about racism and fear and stupidity, I realize that I can see canyons in the Inyos where slender salamanders lived when the camp was active. And somehow this knowledge – that those patient creatures were living out their lives, and had endured, completely removed from the march of human folly – gives me some comfort.  Although I haven’t worked out all the reasons for feeling as I do, I know that the lives of salamanders offer us some solace, in the face or personal and more general grief. To understand the nature of this process is one of the reasons that I am here.
Manzanar Relocation Camp; Inyo Mountains in the Background

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This Road Sign is Telling Me Where to Go...

On the way to Death Valley....

Black Toad

Deep Springs Valley is about nine miles long and five miles long, and sits cradled by the White and Inyo Mountains. The valley has no drainage outlet, and hasn’t since the Pleistocene. It is a lonely place; a little-used state highway crosses the western side of the valley, and Deep Springs College (26 students [!] and a handful of faculty and staff) sits at the northern end of the valley, but that’s it for human inhabitants.  Deep Springs Valley also is home to the endemic black toad (Bufo exsul), which occupies four springs at the southern end of the valley, above the dry alkaline bed of Deep Springs Lake. The specific name, exsul, means “exile,” which is so wonderfully appropriate. For when you sit near one of the springs at night and look out on the dark rim of the valley, or up at the huge vault of heaven, and see or hear no sign of people, and think about how far away the nearest other toads are – then you understand the meaning of what it means to be exiled, like Napoleon on St. Helena.  
Black toads don’t look all that much like traditional toads, a la the eastern American toad. They are smaller (a big one measures about two inches, snout to vent), with a narrower head, and they have few warts. They also are beautifully colored – adults are mostly jet-black above, flecked with creamy yellow, and have a thin dorsal stripe of the same color. They were easy for me to find along the margin of a ditch draining one of the springs, and I counted over 100 in 30 minutes of searching. But I found few black toads at two of the other springs where they are known to occur. My inability to find many toads at the two springs could have been due to a poor search image, or to searching in the wrong place, but I wonder.  Perhaps succession and habitat loss is having a negative effect on the population – much of their breeding habitat is choked with emergent vegetation, which wasn’t the case thirty years ago – and there always is the specter of chytrid fungus. Whatever the case, I worry. For when you are exiled, there may be nowhere else to go.
Black toad, Deep Springs Valley

Black toad habitat; Deep Springs Valley in background

Slender Salamanders

It’s been difficult to find slender salamanders. I searched five documented localities in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for Batrachoseps robustus, the sister taxon (perhaps) to the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi), and three known sites for B. campi. I’ve driven too many miles, walked some more, soaked my “Rite in the Sweat” field notebook, and flipped a lot of rocks, but only managed to find salamanders at one site in the Inyo Mountains. Still, it was exciting to see slender salamanders again, and to consider their ability to hang on in such an inhospitable environment. There are 13 known,  disjunct populations of Inyo Mountains slender salamanders, and genetic data suggest that they have been isolated from one another for much longer than since the end of the last glacial advances – perhaps for as long as 5-10 million years. They are survivors, persisting in the face of drought, flash floods, the uplift and erosion of mountains, and time - for time, in an evolutionary sense, leads both to adaptation, and to extinction. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "I am become Time, the destroyer of worlds." Yet the Inyo Mountains slender salamanders have managed to resist time – and for me there is comfort in having held these tiny creatures in my hand, and knowing that they live on, in the face of so much adversity.
Inyo Mountains Slender salamander

Slender salamander habitat, Inyo Mountains