Friday, May 21, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Raise a glass to your favorite pupfish, Southern Nevadans, because today is Endangered Species Day.
Perhaps this is the first you’re hearing of it.
The auspicious day, when we celebrate the critters we haven’t quite managed to annihilate, is in its fifth year. But there aren’t going to be any mall sales, silly hats or novelty drinks to help you celebrate. Hallmark didn’t come up with this one.
Taking a moment to appreciate Southern Nevada’s rare and sensitive plants and animals is important nonetheless, environmentalists say.
“Nevada is a really unique place with some wonderful biological diversity that must be protected,” Nevada Conservation League spokesman Scot Rutledge says. “It’s also quickly becoming the stage for our country’s new energy economy. These renewable energy projects will require a lot of land, which some see as a threat to species. We believe in a new paradigm that promotes new development while supporting the survival of these threaten and endangered species.”
There are 1,324 species listed in the U.S., and 40 call Nevada home. More are on wait lists or under consideration.
The Endangered Species Act is aimed at protecting the most vulnerable plants and animals in the country in an attempt to keep the ecosystem balanced. One of the first species listed was Nevada’s own Devil’s Hole pupfish, which is native to one tiny pool in Amargosa Valley. The pinkie-sized blue fish is affected by everything from overpumping at distant wells to earthquakes in Mexico. The pupfish play a role in the local ecosystem by eating phytoplankton.
“The Devil’s Hole pupfish is in our backyard and it was one of the keystone species that was at the heart of the push to pass this law,” Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Dan Balduini said. “There’s this interconnectedness that’s important. We don’t always understand it but to lose a piece of that connection could have severe consequences.”
Congress passed the Endangered Species Preservation Act in 1966. It required listing endangered native animal species and provided limited protection including allowing U.S. Fish and Wildlife to purchase land to preserve critical habitat. The pupfish was listed for protection within a year.
In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, providing more extensive protection for endangered and threatened species. Congress passed amendments in 1978, 1982 and 1988, but retained the overall framework of the 1973 act.
The result has been the preservation and revitalization of several rare species, from the bald eagle to the American alligator.
In Nevada the law has resulted in greater protection for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened. Keeping the tortoise numbers high enough to stay off the endangered list has required compromises from developers and large-scale planning by Clark County and wildlife officials. The tortoise faces threats from solar developers who plan to bulldoze tens of thousands of acres, some of it tortoise habitat.
That’s why U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went this week to schools across Southern Nevada.
The agency’s employees took former pet tortoises to classrooms to educate children about the reptile and others that live in the desert ecosystem. The Fish and Wildlife folks are trying to get the word out about the conservation programs for rare species and what the average Joe can do to help.
They’re also tying Endangered Species Day to events planned for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday. A series of wildlife-related activities are planned at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, 70 miles north of Las Vegas near Alamo, from a morning bird-watching walk to installing nest boxes for barn owls, kestrels, bluebirds and bats.
The federal agency is hoping that through a public outreach push, it can get Nevadans into the wilderness to learn about and appreciate nature’s gifts.
“The service is intent on connecting people with nature,” Balduini said. “There’s a real focus on that right now, both to get people out experiencing nature but also just to get them out of the house. There’s no better way to do that than in these wildlife refuges where there’s a diverse array of plants and animals that you can’t see anywhere else.”
Las Vegas is surrounded by wildlife refuges such as Pahranagat; Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, 15 miles south of State Route 373 in Amargosa Valley; the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge near Glendale; and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas off U.S. 95.
These areas were acquired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect and manage the most critical habitats. Some, such as Ash Meadows, are popular with day-trippers who enjoy looking at pupfish from raised boardwalks. However, the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge is usually closed to the public to protect the Moapa dace.
Endangered and threatened species can also be seen at Red Rock National Recreation Area, where the popular mascot desert tortoise, Mojave Max, lives.
Southern Nevada is a particularly interesting place to celebrate the day: It has dozens of endangered, threatened and sensitive species.
That’s because any type of oasis or spring in the desert turns into vital habitat for unique species that evolve to get the most out of their environment, but which eventually can’t live anywhere else.
“There’s unique biodiversity in Southern Nevada that very few people are aware of,” said Amy Lavoie, a Fish and Wildlife acting field supervisor.
That’s true for more than the mountains and springs, Balduini said. He hopes school activities will encourage children to drag their parents out to Nevada’s natural wonders.
“You look at that dry, dusty desert and you don’t think anything is living out there,” he said. “But the Mojave Desert is teeming with life. It’s amazing what you can see out there.”