Nearly extinct species in Mojave Desert shows a promising return

A tiny, mouse-like species on the brink of extinction in the Mojave Desert could be making a comeback after years of intensive habitat restoration and conservation efforts in California. 

The Amargosa vole, which has a habitat spanning no more than 247 acres in the diminishing marshes in southeastern Inyo County, was previously considered one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Only about 500 of the whiskered rodents were left in the wild, fighting to survive amid a historic drought and “inconsistent water availability,” a report from UC Davis read in 2017. Two years earlier, the university’s veterinary school launched a captive breeding program as one of its “last-ditch intervention attempts to save the species,” but it feared the efforts would not be enough.  

However, a photo captured on August 8 by a trail camera set up along the bulrush by UC Davis researchers showed one or two new pups scurrying around after 16 adult voles. The adults were gradually reintroduced to the restored wetlands just east of Death Valley National Park beginning in 2020, according to a news release shared by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last month. 

A still shot from a UC Davis trail cam footage shows a mother vole and her pups.

UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

“The goal is to create an independent population in Shoshone to improve resilience of the species,” Janet Foley, vole lead and professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said in a statement. “We were incredibly thrilled to see pups this year on camera. This tells us that the restored marsh has the right conditions to support voles.”

Amargosa voles first appeared in the marshes of Shoshone Village in the late 1800s and were thought to be extinct by the early 1900s until they were rediscovered by a CDFW biologist in the late 1970s. They were subsequently listed as a federally endangered species in 1984. Research conducted by Foley in 2015 revealed the species had an 82% chance of becoming extinct within five years if immediate intervention was not taken.

FILE: Janet Foley, professor at UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine, leads a team of scientists wearing headlamps through the marshlands to check traps set to catch the Amargosa vole at night in the Mojave Desert in 2014.

FILE: Janet Foley, professor at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, leads a team of scientists wearing headlamps through the marshlands to check traps set to catch the Amargosa vole at night in the Mojave Desert in 2014.

Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

“Amargosa voles live nowhere else on Earth, except these unique Mojave Desert marshes fed by natural springs and the mostly underground Amargosa River,” Deana Clifford, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the CDFW and co-lead on the vole reintroduction effort, said in a statement. “By restoring marsh habitat, not only will we help voles, but we will provide critically needed water and habitat that many other species need and will increasingly rely on in the future to survive the predicted impacts of climate change.

“The two go hand-in-hand – to save the vole, we must save and restore the marshes that support not only voles, but many other species.”

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