San Joaquin Kit Fox. The endangered San Joaquin kit fox relies heavily on the giant kangaroo fat as a food source in the Carrizo Plain. Abandoned kit fox pups were recently rescued and taken to an animal shelter. Photo: BLM / M. Westphal

By Darryl Fears
6 May 2015

(Washington Post) – 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 cannot 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 Bra­shares, 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 wetlands shrunk by drought, risking the spread of disease that can cause huge 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 the distress calls made to his department by residents. “At your house, everything is green and growing and flowering, and they’re being drawn to it.”

The state wildlife agency said it is 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 vanished from a mountain range near Reno since late last year, probably 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 1,000 wilderness areas across the state to provide water for wildlife. […]

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 the Central Valley, near Bakersfield.

“Just today, 20 minutes ago, four coyote cubs arrived” from 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 foxes, 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. […]

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. [more]

Wild animals in drought-stricken Western states are dying for a drink

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