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Chain Reaction of Thirst in California Desert Dry Spell

Wildlife: Scores of plant and animal species are suffering in the longest drought on record.

June 23, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve closed a month early, with a funereal-looking black-bordered announcement on its Web site. With no poppies in bloom, the season was dead.

The worst ever recorded 12-month dry spell across California's 25 million acres of desert, from Death Valley to the Mexican border, has set off an ecological chain reaction of hunger, thirst and deprivation for scores of plant and animal species.

"Drought shrivels the supply of food for local wildlife," said Dennis Schramm, assistant manager of the East Mojave National Preserve. "This is the driest year in 100 years."

Forget the wildflowers of spring that never arrived. Creosote and other hardy native plants are now in a state of indefinite wilt, their leaves curled up tight to conserve every drop of moisture. Burro bushes stand sere and brown. They never bothered to grow new leaves. Robbed of their nutritious spring greens, imperiled tortoises and lizards are not breeding, instead hunkering underground in a state of suspended animation, trying to stay cool and conserve body fluids.

"There's no movement out there," said Jason Sexton, assistant director of the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in the Mojave preserve.

Although people tend to think of the area as an arid wasteland--it is the desert, after all--scores of species get by on the 3 to 9 inches of rain that usually fall from July through November. Since July of last year, however, some places have seen as little as a quarter of an inch.

Rare fringe-toed lizards at the Coachella Valley Preserve are burrowing deep in sand dunes, taking a break from their annual mating in favor of trying to survive. Half the population can die off in a dry year, according to Cameron Barrows, a biologist who runs the preserve. That wouldn't wipe out the species, but because they avoid reproduction during a drought, more dry years could cripple comeback efforts.

Barrows and other scientists said lack of food, which is normally coaxed into bloom by the rains, is as serious an issue as a dearth of drinking water.

The lizards "have to get nice and fat to produce the nutrients needed for egg clutches," said Barrows.

This year, much of their annual diet of spring wildflowers and the insects that go with them never bloomed or hatched out. Consequently, the lizards' fare is limited to less nutritious beetles and other bugs that feed on decaying plants. That is not the stuff of romance for fringe-toed lizards.

"They really depend on that flush of nutrients to stimulate them," Barrows said.

With so many animals underground, researchers who flock to desert study centers were disappointed this year.

"We went to four different springs, and they were all dry," said Ken Nagy, a UCLA biology professor who made his annual pilgrimage with 13 students in late May to the Granite Mountains research center in the Mojave.

One form of life that is more visible is the raptor, which normally feeds off carrion on area roads and the desert floor. With their prey hiding underground, the birds are forced to work harder to find food.

"We're definitely seeing a decrease in road kill," said Sexton. "We're seeing predators such as ravens and scrub jays basically scouring the desert looking very desperate. Our ravens are now hanging out around our dumpsters."

Volunteers from as far away as Pasadena are trucking water out to more than 40 underground tanks spread across the Mojave. Informally known as "guzzlers," they release small amounts of drinking water through drip pipes that wildlife--from bighorn sheep to kangaroo rats--have come to depend on.

Mojave preserve officials have been considering abandoning the guzzlers in future years, to try to wean desert creatures of man-made water sources.

"It's a tough sell in a drought year, though," said chief ranger Sean McGuinness.

The guzzlers can be problematic if they are not filled. In past years, said Sexton, bighorn rams have "gone into a kind of panic" and busted through the empty tank walls, frantic to find water. One lamb was found dead after it fell in and got trapped.

Preserve staff members are already removing old bathtubs, windmills, miles of plastic pipe and other jury-rigged irrigation systems laid out over several decades by cattle ranchers who are now selling their lands to the federal government.

There are still 4.8 million acres of desert being grazed, according to Stephen Razo, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management California Desert district office in Riverside.

Cattle, like wildlife, do not breed well without the vitamin-rich fresh alfalfa and other desert grasses they normally graze on each spring, said Schramm.

Many ranchers are paying to ship in vitamins, protein supplements and hay for their cattle this year, he said.

For people who must confront its effects every day, the drought is downright depressing.

"It's mentally hard," said Sexton, whose view outside the Mojave research center is of blasted, dull brown vegetation. "Normally, right now it would look like a nice mosaic of greens over the soil, and there would be all kinds of flowers."

Even the Marines are glum.

"I really miss the flowers," said Capt. Robert Crum, stationed at the Twentynine Palms base.

Old-timers in the southernmost California deserts have begun to cast their eyes skyward. With the Sonoran monsoon season set to begin in Arizona, they are hopeful rain will stray west across the border. Up to a third of southern desert rains can fall in summer months in a good monsoon year.

Others are pinning their hopes on winter.

"I hope El Nino comes along and just drowns us," said Ruth Ann Thomas of the Antelope Valley Chambers of Commerce.

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