The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Fires Restore Wetlands for Desert Fish
By Sam Schipani
It may seem strange to burn the area around the wetland as a habitat restoration technique, and even more oxymoronic to do so in order to save an aquatic creature in the desert. But for a nearly extinct species of fish in the arid Owens Valley, a prescribed burn is exactly what the doctor ordered.
After years of planning, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cal Fire executed a prescribed burn this past December in order to create a sustainable habitat for the Owens speckled dace, a small fish that is listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.
Fish in the desert might sound impossible, but there are several species of desert fish in California. During geographically transformative events that occurred thousand of years ago, these fish found their way to tiny pools and streams that punctuate the dry landscapes during wet periods. As landscapes changed over time, the desert fish have adapted into unique species specialized for their environs. According to Peter Moyle, a biologist at University of California, Davis, genomic testing suggests that the Owen speckled dace's prehistoric ancestors came from around the Mono Lake basin, where volcanic activity blew out the waters and dropped the common ancestor of the Owens speckled dace and other dace species into surrounding areas.
"These fish have been going their own way for a very long time and adapted to very difficult conditions," Moyle says. "If we can restore the speckled dace, you'll have brought back a significant part of the fish fauna in that region. It just belongs there."
Over the past 80 years, the Owens speckled dace has been in steep decline due to water mismanagement, pressures from agriculture, and encroachment by non-native species. Streams and seasonal ponds in the Owens Valley are expected to decline further with climate change-related temperature increases and less snowpack, and what has not evaporated will continue to be diverted for agricultural use. Thirsty cattle, a linchpin of the valley's ranching history, are especially hard on area streams. The little water that does remain is often overrun with invasive plants and non-native fish species. According to Moyle, in the 1920s and 30s, any body of water without catchable fish was considered barren. Fish and Wildlife agencies felt it incumbent to remedy the "problem" by relocating catchable fish to these areas, where they are now incredibly difficult to eradicate. The Owens speckled dace is outcompeted and eaten by species like the Sacramento perch, which can grow over five times as large and makes a quick snack of the little dace.
"[The Owens speckled dace] is a native fish, and it's about to be extinct," says Kay Ogden, executive director of the Eastern Sierra Land Trust. "They're desperate for a place to live right now."
In order to save the desperate dace, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust started seeking suitable locations to reintroduce the species. With the help of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, the group found the perfect candidate: the Benton Hot Springs Ranch. The spring-fed ponds on the property once contained the Owens speckled dace; with a little help to raise the water level and remove the non-native plants and fish, they could again. The ponds were located on private property owned by fourth-generation rancher Bill Bramlette. Luckily, Bramlette was happy to join the dace restoration efforts. The ranch has been in his family for four generations, and Bramlette is invested in continuing a legacy of responsible habitat management. In 2008, Bramlette signed a conservation easement with the Eastern Sierra Land Trust and agreed to preserve the habitats and prohibit future development in the area.
"I saw an opportunity to do meaningful conservation by working with partners who had access to resources and experts," Bramlette said in an Eastern Sierra Land Trust press release.
With Bramlette on board, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust's staff and volunteers began meticulously removing the invasive hardstem bulrush and cattails choking out the fish habitat in the water. They spent years trying to remove the plants by hand, but the aquatic plants were too aggressive and fast-growing. The only option was to take the plants down in a literal blaze of glory. In 2013, Cal Fire joined the cause to help organize and execute a prescribed burn at the Benton Hot Springs Ranch.
According to Henry Herrera, a unit forester for Cal Fire who worked on the project, properly planning a prescribed burn is a lengthy process, but "the benefits outweigh all the work that goes into it." Besides going through a standard environmental review, the local air quality board must determine whether the wind conditions will impair air quality or cause the flames to stray beyond the prescribed area. Cal Fire also conducts various fire behavior calculations to determine what the ideal environment would be to keep the fire under control. The agency had to check the moisture of the targeted vegetation—too little and it would burn too hot, too much and it wouldn't burn at all. To avoid disturbing nesting birds, most burns can only take place between November and January. Plus, everyone—the Cal Fire crew, the Eastern Sierra Land Trust staff, and Bramlette himself—had to be available. With all the variables at play, it took three years for the stars to align.
"We came really close two years ago and a snow storm came in," says Eastern Sierra Land Trust executive director Ogden. "I cannot even tell you how frustrating that was. But we take fire seriously"
Finally, the Goldilocks conditions emerged. The crews removed heavy fuels like logs, snags, and brush piles away from the site and then started the burn, systematically lighting the perimeter in accordance with the wind. The scene looked apocalyptic as the fire lapped up the brushy plants, but thanks to the careful planning, it went off without a hitch. When the fires subsided, the ponds emerged from clearer and more open to the new possibilities that lie ahead.
Hopefully the Owens speckled dace will have its own phoenix moment soon, but the burn was only the first step in the process to restore the habitat. Next, the water level in the ponds will be raised to drown out any remaining burned and cut plants (all of the plants must be removed—even one aggressive and fast-growing bulrush would start taking over the habitat again). Then, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will remove and relocate the Benton Pond's non-native aquatic residents. Once the vegetation and non-native predators have been removed from the ponds, the Owens speckled dace will be brought back to its historic home.
The coalition that is working to restore these fish relishes the little victories. According to Ogden, a greater expanse the pond's water surface is already more visible, and birds like ducks, grebes, and herons have returned to the wetland habitats. The Eastern Sierra Land Trust has partnered with Bramlette to host events at the ponds, giving the community the opportunity to view birds and other wildlife in the habitat until the fish arrive.
"It's really fun to see," Ogden says. "Any time that humans can step in and try to collaborate and help save a species, I think it is incumbent upon us to try and do that."
- California's Ten Most-Endangered Species | KCET ›
- Alaska's Earthquake Caused Endangered Desert Pupfish to Spawn ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
‘Companies Should Not Be Allowed to Use Hazardous Ingredients in Products People Use’: Michelle Pfeiffer Speaks Up for Safer Cosmetics
The beauty products we put on our skin can have important consequences for our health. Just this March, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that some Claire's cosmetics had tested positive for asbestos. But the FDA could only issue a warning, not a recall, because current law does not empower the agency to do so.
Michelle Pfeiffer wants to change that.
The actress and Environmental Working Group (EWG) board member was spotted on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying lawmakers on behalf of a bill that would increase oversight of the cosmetics industry, The Washington Post reported.
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
The climate crisis is a major concern for American voters with nearly 40 percent reporting the issue will help determine how they cast their ballots in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, according to a report compiled by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed on global warming, climate and energy policies, as well as personal and collective action, 38 percent said that a candidate's position on climate change is "very important" when it comes to determining who will win their vote. Overall, democratic candidates are under more pressure to provide green solutions as part of their campaign promises with 64 percent of Democrat voters saying they prioritize the issue compared with just 34 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill that will help Americans still recovering from the flooding, hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated parts of the country in the past two years. Senate Republicans said they struck a deal with the president to approve the measure, despite the fact that it did not include the funding he wanted for the U.S.-Mexican border, CNN reported.
"The U.S. Senate has just approved a 19 Billion Dollar Disaster Relief Bill, with my total approval. Great!" the president tweeted Thursday.
"There was a lot of devastation throughout the state," Governor Mike Parson said at a Thursday morning press conference, as NPR reported. "We were very fortunate last night that we didn't have more injuries than what we had, and we didn't have more fatalities across the state. But three is too many."