It's Too Late
Western Landscapes In the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, deserts harbor a great wealth of species. The Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of the southwest differ from one another in their vegetation, topography and wildlife. All are dotted with deep springs and oases, each having endemic species of fish ‒ vestiges from ancient times when seas covered the land. The Sonoran Desert, most verdant of the three, is studded with giant Saguaro cacti (Sereus giganteus), more than 60 feet tall and found nowhere else on Earth, along with many other unique and beautiful desert plants. Deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and a variety of predators — from grizzly bears and jaguars to gray wolves and coyotes — lived in this desert, the most botanically rich in the world. Bird life was also prolific, and desert tortoises sheltered in burrows during the day. Mountain ranges jut from the Chihuahuan Desert to the south, and the Mojave of California is characterized by an extremely hot and arid climate, in which many unusual plants and animals manage to survive.
In southeastern Utah and Nevada, pinyon‑juniper vegetation once covered thousands of square miles. The US Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management has converted millions of acres into shrubland for the benefit of cattle. The pinyon pines, whose nuts have been a source of food for native tribes for thousands of years, have been destroyed in large part by chaining, wherein chains are stretched between two bulldozers, which then drag them across the pine-juniper bushes and trees, uprooting them. This ecosystem is home to desert tortoises and a wide variety of birds and small mammals, but today, the diversity and abundance of wildlife has been greatly diminished.
Much of the deserts are federally owned, and management has been primarily to benefit livestock owners and other users. Portions of the Mojave Desert and more than a million acres of spectacular Utah cliffs and desert have recently been made a National Reserve. These areas will not receive strict protection, however, since oil drilling and other activities, such as livestock grazing, will be allowed.
Streaming through the dry Southwest, the mighty Colorado River carved the vast Grand Canyon in Arizona as the land was thrust up and sunk with movements of the Earth over millions of years of geologic time. Some of the oldest rock formations have been dated at more than 1 billion years. These eons are etched in the Canyon's layered slopes. This canyon is one of the great natural wonders of the world, a wilderness of pastel-hued cliffs and beautiful vistas. Plateaus surrounding the canyon are geographically isolated, and many endemic animals inhabit these pine forests. In the Colorado River's turbid waters, a large number of unique fish evolved. The river has been dammed throughout its course, however, to supply water for irrigation, cities and suburban homes, as well as to generate electricity. One-fourth of the Colorado's water is used to irrigate the crops of California's Imperial Valley. The delta of this once immense river was described in 1922 by the conservationist Aldo Leopard as teeming with wildlife. That same year the Colorado River Pact was signed, which gradually removed its flow. Today the delta in northern Mexico is almost dry. The endemic fish and birds of the Colorado River system have been decimated by these projects. Some are being conserved under US Endangered Species Act programs conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The dams that pepper the river turn the once warm and silty water cold and clear, a new habitat that native fish find intolerable.
The Sonoran Desert's unique and beautiful plant life has declined in the decades since 1970 because of unrestricted development for suburban housing; much of it is for retired persons seeking a dry and sunny climate. New houses, roads and commercial centers are gobbling up tens of thousands of acres, and in the process, the venerable giant Saguaros and other desert vegetation are bulldozed. These new communities use enormous amounts of water piped from the Colorado River and several diverted desert rivers. These desert oases turned to dust, eliminating their wildlife and plants. One of the few desert-nesting bald eagle populations became extinct as a result of the Central Arizona Project, which diverted water for agriculture and towns. Most residents in the Southwest have eliminated natural desert vegetation and planted grass lawns in front of their homes, which require almost constant watering and heavy use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides ‒ pollutants of the water table.
Merriam's elk (Cervus canadensis merriami) was native to various mountain ranges of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The antlers of this elk were the largest of all the elk races, and the animal was described as more pale and reddish than the Rocky Mountain elk (Allen 1942). Vulnerable because of its restricted range, it was hunted by cattle ranchers in the late 1800s, and crowded out by livestock. The last individuals were killed around 1906 in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona, where they had sought refuge in high altitudes (Allen 1942).
Thousands of elk and bighorn sheep died from diseases brought by domestic cattle. Lacking natural resistance, entire populations died soon after they came into contact with domestic cattle and sheep that carried disease. Native Americans also died by the thousands because of diseases ‒ from measles to small pox ‒ brought by colonists and settlers. A number of tribes that had inhabited the West for thousands of years became extinct. In some cases, the tribes lost their land and dwindled to extinction.
West of the Rocky Mountains an unbelievably rich and beautiful land awaited settlers. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow through the huge Central Valley, an area covering thousands of square miles. Prior to settlement, breathtaking vistas of wildflowers and grasslands grazed by innumerable elk and mule deer were framed by distant snowy mountains. The largest lake west of the Mississippi River, Lake Tulare, covered much of this river valley. Shallow and seasonal, this lake swelled after spring rains to serve as a breeding ground for an estimated 100 million waterfowl. Early naturalists spoke of the birds darkening the sky for days.
Spanish colonists established vast cattle ranches, beginning in the 1600s in what is now California. After Mexico lost this territory at the end of the Mexican War in 1848, American settlers poured into the region and agriculture began on a grand scale. In the late 1800s, California became thickly settled. The grasslands, deer, elk and the distinctive California grizzly bears that roamed California's valleys were eliminated by hunting and habitat destruction. The grizzly bears, still pictured on California's flag, were hunted to extinction (Nowak 1999). The Central Valley soon became California's bread basket, with agriculture displacing the tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), whose range once extended throughout the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, half the length of the state. As a result of hunting and loss of its habitat, the small herds of remaining elk became confined to a tule marsh area near Tulare Lake (Allen 1942). Transplants to other areas have not succeeded, and this subspecies remains very rare. Ninety‑five percent of the wetlands of California's Central Valley and marshes that once dotted the coastline have been filled in for farms and development. Tulare Lake and its millions of ducks disappeared completely from drainage and water pumping, becoming the world's largest artificial farm, irrigated by water piped from elsewhere in the state. The Central Valley Project, an immense system of ditches, canals and pipelines, pumped water from the rivers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to supply Los Angeles with water, devastating salmon and other wildlife. The Sacramento River once had an estimated 2 million salmon, and a fishery, but today they are nearly extinct as a result of the water diversion and dams.
California has incurred the greatest loss of wetlands of any state. Damming and diking of waterways to divert water for irrigation in the Central Valley resulted in the extinction of a foot‑long fish once caught for the fish markets of San Francisco. The thicktail chub (Gila crassicauda) was very common until the 1880s, but by the 1920s, it had been driven to extinction (Day 1981). San Francisco Bay, the largest wetland and estuary on the West Coast, has been greatly altered by water diversion projects and drainage for agriculture and building. The bay has a great number of endemic species and races of birds and fish, and many of these have disappeared or become extremely rare. Federal protection under the US Endangered Species Act for many of these species may prevent their extinction.
North America's largest bird, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), soared over coasts and inland valleys ‒ as far north as Washington State. This bird came close to extinction as a result of hunting and accidental poisoning (see Persecution and Hunting chapter). The last wild birds were captured for captive breeding, and young birds have been released to the wild. It will be years before it is known whether this giant vulture will survive and breed in the wild. In the foothills of the Sierras grew thousands of immense sequoias (Sequoia gigantea), trees that can live for more than 4,000 years. At a height of up to 300 feet tall, these trees attain a girth of 100 feet and support wood weighing 600 tons, making them the most massive and heaviest organisms that have ever lived (Jonas 1993). Sequoias take 3,000 years to attain full growth, sprouting from a seed only a quarter inch long. These trees were logged, reducing them greatly until they received legal protection. Sequoia National Forest was declared a National Monument by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to stop logging of other types of trees in the forest, which was threatening the root systems and survival of these ancient Sequoias. It is now illegal to cut a Sequoia.
In northern California, Oregon and Washington, ancient forests of hemlocks, pines, cedars and coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) had grown undisturbed for thousands of years. Redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, reaching heights of more than 365 feet and measuring up to 58 feet in circumference (Jonas 1993). These forests once lined 2,000 miles of Pacific coastal region from northern California through British Columbia, ending in southeastern Alaska, covering 70 thousand square miles. Centuries of logging have reduced these forests to only about 5 percent of their former size in the United States, and less than 40 percent in Canada (Middleton 1992). Commercial logging began in the 19th century and has proceeded throughout this century, clear cutting millions of acres of redwoods, Douglas Fir and other evergreens in forests, cutting in a few hours trees that took a thousand or more years to grow. Once cut, these forests need hundreds — if not thousands — of years to regenerate to their former biological richness. The land where these forests once stood has been converted to other uses, precluding their regrowth.
Loggers are still fighting conservationists over the fate of the last five percent of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests and their endangered residents (see Forests chapter). Although the sequoias and coast redwoods have escaped extinction, they are far rarer than they once were, and the redwoods continue to be cut to be made into lawn furniture and decks.
A race of bison native to these forests, the Oregon bison (Bison bison oregonus), was distinct in being slightly larger than the Plains bison, with longer and straighter horns (Allen 1942). Once native to southern Idaho, northern Nevada to southeastern Oregon and northeastern California, they died out soon after the arrival of the early explorers. Although the history is unclear, tales from the Native Americans indicate that arms supplied to them by explorers were used to hunt these animals to extinction by the mid‑1800s (Allen 1942).