LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Within its sharp peaks and sunset colors, the Mojave Desert is home to a vast number of unique species. But as the Las Vegas area continues to develop, the question remains: do these native species stand a chance?
"When you have hyper-development, your entire ecosystem shifts," said Sherri Mantanona, president of the Desert Innovation Research and Technology (DIRT) chamber. "Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes species can make due with those changes, but you see these big shifts."
"When you lose those endemic species or keystone species, it’s still a desert but it’s no longer the Mojave Desert. It is a new desert," Mantanona added. "That can be a desert that is fairly desolate of creatures and primarily filled with grasses that weren't there before or weeds."
The changing climate and decades-long drought are impacting these desert species in ways you might not think.
"With the tortoises specifically, we’re seeing more predation on tortoises by other wildlife," Mantanona said. "They’re looking for moisture sources and sometimes that comes in the form of meat. Maybe vegetation isn’t as robust, so there aren’t as many small animals like rabbits or any other rodents that they would prey on normally. We’re seeing impacts in behavioral shifts because of lack of water and lack of food resources."
The Friends of Nevada Wilderness, an organization dedicated to protecting wilderness areas, says the growth and development of Las Vegas can have negative impacts.
"We’ve seen an increase on invasive species like cheatgrass or red brome. These can take over a landscape to where there isn’t as much plant diversity or as many native plants as there used to be," said Grace Palermo, the Southern Nevada director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness. "This can be really impactful for wildfires. These things can increase how many wildfires can happen as well as how intense they are, which, of course, can have impacts on wildlife as well as us."
In order to make sure these ecosystems aren’t deeply disturbed, contractors and wildlife agencies say they take great caution with development. The National Environmental Policy Act aims in part to ensure all environmental impacts are assessed before a project starts — a process that takes time and involves scientists from different fields.
"One of the really important things that we are starting to see and learn about wildlife is that they need migration corridors — places that allow them to go to one habitat area to another," Palermo said, "whether that's east to west or from lower elevations to higher elevations. Especially with the big temperature swings, we have in Las Vegas."
Nevada has approached the need for migration corridors in "really neat ways," Palermo said. Highway overpasses put in by the Department of Transportation have been successful in allowing bighorn sheep and other animals like mule deer and coyotes to safely move from one mountain range to another, she explained.
Across the nation, it kills 200 people and 1-2 million large animals every year, costing $8 billion.— Nevada DOT (@nevadadot) September 15, 2021
Vehicle-animal collisions are tragic and potentially dangerous. That's why we partner with NDOW to construct safety crossings that cut chances of these collisions by up to 95%. pic.twitter.com/gpssoUoRkG
The Nevada Conservation League executive director Paul Selberg reports: "We helped pass AB211, which asks for developers to consult with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. This requires proposals to help mitigate or protect wildlife or different species in the area."
One big project in the works is the Brightline West project, which will connect Southern California to Southern Nevada. In this area, rich with southwest wildlife, the high-speed rail will get people from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in about three hours — twice as fast as driving. The Brightline West construction group says this will be the greenest form of travel in the country.
Carbon emissions from cars will be greatly reduced on this zero-emission train and recycling, water-fill stations and irrigation systems will be along the route. Brightline West says its goal is to do no harm to the wildlife in the area. They've moved the railway corridor to the Interstate 15 median, which is already disturbed. They say they've worked with public and private partners about wildlife issues and have biologists and trained staff on the site who know how to handle creatures like the threatened and vulnerable desert tortoise.
We'll be connecting Southern California and Las Vegas through multiple intercity projects. Where will you start your Brightline West journey? #GoCarFreeCarefree #BrightlineWest pic.twitter.com/eMr11DRYuU— Brightline West (@BrightlineWest) August 4, 2021
Environmental groups across Nevada say we are sharing their space. They say if we encounter wildlife, leave them alone and watch from a distance.
"A lot of people come out here and they don’t realize how robust the wildlife is out here," Mantanona said. "They look outside and they see tan and gray rocks, some yellowish bushes and that’s the end-all, be-all, but when you actually take a microscope to those leaves and you show them the waxiness and the little hairs, they’re actually kind of cute. When you let somebody handle a tortoise that is a pet and not a wild animal, they make that connection to the wild animal now. When you’ve been walking through life not being aware of your impacts, it makes you a little bit more conscious of your actions."
There are many more conservation and environmental groups fighting for the protection of native Mojave species. You can learn more about those projects and groups here.