Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: NORTH AMERICA: Page 9

     Kangaroo rats are other species caught up in land battles.  Native to shrub and desertland in the Southwest and Far West, several species are highly endangered.  Their name might conjure up images of enormous, menacing rodents, but these little animals are, in fact, very attractive, with huge dark eyes.  They have been named for their jumping ability.  Ranging from 4 to almost 8 inches, depending on the species, they have long tails, equal in length to their body, ending in fluffy tufts (Nowak 1999).  Weighing only between 1.2 to 6.3 ounces (35-180 grams), they are able to leap almost 7 feet on their outsized hindlegs (Nowak 1999).  
      A recent acoustical research study found that kangaroo rats communicate various messages, such as danger, by drumming their feet on the ground in different cadences.  Twenty-one species of kangaroo rats occur in North America, living in colonies in shrublands and shortgrass prairies (Nowak 1999).  Four species and subspecies of kangaroo rats live in California's San Joaquin Valley, north of Los Angeles, and each has lost at least 95 percent of its original habitat to agriculture and urbanization; all of the latter have been listed on the Endangered Species Act (Nowak 1999).  The original range of the Tipton Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys niatoides nitratoides), a terrain of iodinebush, saltbush, Red Sage and other shrub plants, once covered nearly 2 million acres of the southern San Joaquin Valley, but today, only 1 percent of this rodent's population remains, almost all in the 4,000-acre LoKern Preserve, which protects a last remnant of this habitat.  The Giant Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ingens), another endangered species of this valley, is the largest of all kangaroo rats; a population of this species lives in the LoKern Preserve (Peterson 1993).  The Giant Kangaroo Rat is considered the most endangered of all kangaroo rats, classified as Critical by the 1996 IUCN Red List Animals (Baillie and Groombridge 1996). This status designation is accorded to species in imminent danger of extinction.  Kangaroo rats are extremely vulnerable to poisoning programs aimed at ground squirrels, and without reserves where poisoning is banned, they have disappeared.  
     Kit Foxes (Vulpes macrotis) are now rare throughout their range in the West, and one subspecies, the San Joaquin Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica), is listed on the U.S. Endangered Species Act as Endangered.  Only 2,000 to 6,000 animals remain (Begley 1997).  Some of these tiny foxes live in reserves, while others survive on the outskirts of cities built on their original habitat.  Bakersfield, California is an urban area where a small and beleaguered population of these little foxes survives.  Weighing only 5 pounds, the kit foxes in Bakersfield make their dens in vacant city lots, vulnerable to injury from broken glass and predation by dogs (Begley 1997).  Cars and trucks kill and injure them. One lame Kit Fox with an injured back leg was given handouts of doughnuts and scraps by a night shift mechanic at a city maintenance yard until the animal was struck and killed by a vehicle (Begley 1997).  In a bizarre accident, two kit foxes died after becoming entangled in soccer nets at California State University (Begley 1997). 
     San Joaquin Kit Foxes are also illegally shot for sport and poisoned by ranchers in the mistaken idea that they pose threats.  They have been forced into the last vestiges of their once vast range, which becomes smaller each year.  Construction crews have bulldozed them in their dens, and pairs, who mate for life, have been forced into unnatural habitats, digging dens beneath fuel storage tanks and in other exposed areas (Begley 1997).  They have natural enemies as well, preyed upon by Coyotes and eagles.  A recent escapee from fur farms, the eastern Red Fox, now roams the San Joaquin Valley and occasionally kills these little foxes (Begley 1997).  Few of their 1-pound pups survive to adulthood.  Only in the Carrizo Plain and portions of western Kern County do sizeable pieces of habitat remain.  In all, they have lost over three-fourths of their original habitat, and these graceful, agile little foxes may disappear unless efforts are made to link fragmented populations and set aside more habitat.
     This fox became a pawn in the battle over the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which has pitted commercial interests against conservationists. Congressman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, proposed legislation in 1994 to replace the Endangered Species Act.  It would have made species preservation an optional matter to be weighed against potential economic losses that could result if the habitat were set aside, and would have required the federal government to pay property owners for the value lost on land subject to restrictions on behalf of endangered species.  Congressman Pombo's district, the San Joaquin Valley, has very little undeveloped land left, and the land value has escalated.  His family owns a large real estate firm which has profited from the land boom in the valley.  San Joaquin Kit Foxes inhabit the ranch next door to Congressman Pombo, and his neighbor, Mark Connolly, does not share his views.  Mr. Connolly likes open space as well as the foxes, and he sold the development rights on his property to a nature conservation organization, allowing him to protect the foxes along with the land (Egan 1996b).  Congressman Pombo's proposed legislation, which fortunately, did not become law, would not have given special protection for the remaining San Joaquin Kit Foxes in his district without massive infusion of public money to repay landowners.
     Private organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, have been acquiring millions of acres of grassland and desert to protect endangered habitat.  Educational programs on the importance of saving grassland and desert habitats and returning them to their original states will increase in the future as governmental entities and private organizations produce more publications, films and other materials.  Students are also becoming involved in preserving these habitats by propagating the seeds of rare plants and restoring degraded prairie.  American deserts are among the most stunning and colorful in the world, yet they are the subject of fewer conservation projects and educational publications than grasslands.  They are under assault from developers, miners, livestock and highway builders.  A growing number of conservationists are defending them, however, and designation of new national parks in the deserts of Utah and southern California stopped planned developments and mining. 

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