Mohave Ground Squirrel In Peril; Conservation Plan Lagging Behind Threats

In response to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) initiation of a status review to consider listing the Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS) under the Endangered Species Act, a representative from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station expressed opposition to the listing of MGS.  The rational of the military was that military installations in the area support a healthy populations of the MGS and are participating in conservation measures being considered through the Desert Managers Group to preserve the species through regional management.  Unfortunately, this opposition to the listing of the MGS rings hollow, since regional efforts have been slow, and the military's efforts within DoD installations do not address the threats posed to the species on 2/3 of its range outside of military land.

Mohave Ground Squirrel Thriving on Military Bases?

Although studies submitted indicate that the Mohave Ground Squirrel does have core populations located on or near China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force Base, the abundance on these installations does not negate the threats faced by the species beyond the perimeters of these bases.  Furthermore, biologists noted in 2008 that portions of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station could still use further study to determine the size and range of the MGS population there.  An Edwards Air Force Base representative claims that the base submitted additional information providing a more complete picture of the MGS studies conducted on the base in recent years, although these documents are not yet available online.

To the military's credit, it is probably one of the more responsible land manager's in the West Mojave, particularly since China Lake and Edwards AFB's activities do not involve as much ground disturbance as Fort Irwin.  The military perimeters also keep out recreational off-highway vehicle use that is damaging other MGS habitat in the West Mojave.  China Lake and Edwards AFB both claim to permit access to their grounds for biological studies,  have funded studies, and the base's are well represented on the Desert Managers Group. 

Military Installations Just One Piece of a Crumbling Puzzle

However, the military's protests to the listing of the MGS under the Endangered Species Act should be kept in perspective, since they clearly ignore the substantial and immediate threat posed to the MGS beyond the base perimeters.  The US military administers approximately 1/3 of the land in the Mohave Ground Squirrel's range, and the BLM is responsible for nearly 1/3 of the land, highlighting the importance of inter-agency cooperation and the need for outreach to private landowners.

The BLM-administered lands are currently under intense pressure by energy developers, who seek to bulldoze thousands of acres for utility-scale solar and wind energy plants that will fragment MGS populations.  Additionally, information submitted by the Western Watersheds Project highlighted that the vast majority of MGS range under BLM administration is allotted to grazing for sheep and cattle.

In addition to threats posed to the MGS on BLM lands, the State of California has been seeking to improve State Highway 58, which would lead to more traffic, and the counties of San Bernardino and Los Angeles are moving forward to construct E-220, also known as the High Desert Corridor.  This highway would cut across the MGS' southern range and lead to more urbanization and recreational use in this portion of Mojave Desert.  The Desert Xpress high speed train also plans to ultimately develop a spur connecting Victorville and Palmdale, which would cut through MGS habitat, as well.



The image above is a screenshot from the Ridgecrest Solar Power project Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and shows the MGS range outlined in black, and proposed solar and wind energy projects proposed as of March 2010.

Public-Private Partnership Slow to Address the MGS Decline

The military opponents to the Federal listing of the MGS deemed that the efforts of the Desert Manager's Group to enact a local Conservation Plan under the Group's Mohave Ground Squirrel Working Group should be sufficient.  The Desert Managers Group is composed of representatives from local government, military, Federal agencies, and private organizations with interests in California's Desert conservation.  Unfortunately, the group's development of the Conservation Plan has been slow.  Documents available on the DMG website, and even the Navy's own admission indicate the the DMG's conservation plan is only in draft stage. 

The Working Group's current focus is also on conducting more thorough research of the species and its habitat, which makes perfect sense as enhanced understanding will be critical to saving the species.   However, the MGS has been listed as a rare or threatened species under California law since 1971, and the USFWS was previously petitioned to list the species under Federal law in 1995, showing how long this species' has been on the radar of conservationists.  Yet, the Desert Managers Group still lacks a concrete plan for acquiring, managing and preserving critical habitat on BLM-administered and privately owned lands, suggesting that the Group's efforts will be outpaced by further curtailment of MGS habitat.  As of late 2009, it was estimated that the MGS had lost 20% of its range, and studies have shown a precipitous decline in the MGS population south of State Highway 58 (with the exception of a core population in Edwards Air Force Base).

As mentioned in a previous post, the Desert Managers Group has not always been able to find quick funding for its studies and projects, presenting another hurdle to the ability of local interests to reverse the species' decline without Endangered Species Act resources and urgency.   One of the objectives of the MGS Working Group is to secure and manage core MGS habitat and wildlife corridors.  As evidenced by the proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power project, the DMG has been unable to protect a potentially important MGS corridor that may soon be obstructed if the Ridegcrest project is permitted to move forward.  Additionally, no plan has yet been set forth by the group to fund and acquire conservation lands for the MGS.

Absent a current listing for the MGS under the Endangered Species Act, the Desert Managers Group is the best shot the MGS has at a coordinated land management strategy aimed at better understanding and preserving the species from rapidly encroaching development.  However, the USFWS should recognize the lack of substantial progress on this front, and both organizations should be aware that the MGS is running out of time.

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