The Desert: More Than Meets the Eye

 Kim Watts, Rookies for Recovery Intern

On a hot June morning, I’m slowly walking through creosote scrub in the Sonoran Desert to survey for flat-tailed horned lizards (FTHL). To find these camouflaged lizards, I need to locate footprints and follow them to our scaly friend.

My mentor is pointing out the tracks of beetles, tarantulas, and other lizards when we see FTHL tracks going into a shrub. “Found it!” my mentor says, it takes me a minute to see it too. FTHL blend in perfectly to their desert environment, so well that they tend to stay still when threats (or biologists) approach and rely on their camouflage to keep them safe.

The American Conservation Experience crew, who we joined for that morning’s survey, carefully grab the lizard, exam it, take measurements, and insert a PIT tag into its abdomen. PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags are devices the size of a grain of rice that provide researchers with a “barcode” for an animal, this will help us track the lizard’s movements. Once the crew finishes with the lizard, I release it back into the shady shrub where we found it.

That was during my first week in El Centro, California working with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). I was sweaty and hot, but so excited to be learning about desert ecosystems. Contrary to popular belief, the desert is home to a variety of plant and animal species.

My focus species are the flat-tailed horned lizard, peninsular bighorn sheep, Peirson’s milk-vetch, Mojave Desert tortoise, desert pupfish, and Quino checkerspot butterfly.

All of these species are federally listed except for the FTHL which has been a candidate species three times. Surveys like the one I described above are part of an Interagency Coordinating Committee and a Rangewide Management Strategy to prevent the lizard from being listed. I spend much of my time in the office reviewing projects to ensure they are compliant with the National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

As part of peninsular bighorn sheep (PBS) management, I have been inspecting water sources on BLM lands. I check to see if they are still there, whether there is water present, and if repairs are needed. I also monitor these sources for PBS use by setting trail cameras. After not-so-patiently waiting to see them in person, I finally saw them while driving back from inspecting water sources in San Diego County. I immediately pulled over and watched as they browsed on plants.

I was also lucky enough to see a Mojave Desert tortoise. Although tortoises hibernate during the summer heat, this one came out on a cool morning. We observed the tortoise from a distance in order to avoid causing it stress and to assess if it had an upper respiratory infection. Upper respiratory infection is the most important infectious disease affecting desert tortoises. This tortoise looked healthy and we left him to continue his day.

Whether I am out in the field or in the office, protecting these species is my passion. Being able to work with the BLM, which values and protects listed species while managing for multi-use has been a great learning experience.