The California desert is a precious asset, famous for soaring mountains and majestic valleys. But it’s hardly a wasteland. “There’s been human activity for thousands of years,” says Mike Gauthier, Superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve.
More importantly, the desert is home to species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. It’s a jungle compared to other deserts.
But climate change is threatening unique species, including the Joshua Tree, which botanist Drew Kaiser calls a “keystone species” that many animals rely on, including birds with no other nesting sites. More than a million Joshua trees died in the recent Cima Dome Fire, and increasing temperature and drought threaten them with extinction.
The desert tortoise is another unique creature, not just beloved by tourists, but important to the environment. “Their burrows provide important habitat for lots of other rare species, and because they are herbivores moving about the landscape, they can help be dispensers of seeds,” says Tracey Tuberville, a researcher with the Savanna River Ecology Lab.
Climate change has disrupted the life cycle of the tortoise to the point where caretakers like Tuberville keep babies indoors until they’re strong enough to endure the heat and smart enough to avoid predators, including ravens.
Now the deserts are serving human needs in a new and different way. There are nine solar farms in the Mojave alone, including Ivanpah, the world’s largest. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, signed by Barack Obama in 2016, guarantees there will be many more.
Mojave Superintendent Mike Gauthier sees it both ways: “If we develop a solar farm or solar array or wind farm, that could impact the habitat of the desert tortoise or Joshua trees.” On the other hand, he adds, “It's a brave new world, and you can't make decisions in a vacuum. There's always consequences for every action in nature.”
This is the sixth episode of "In Our Backyard," a six-part series.
Read the full episode transcript here.