Consider the vole, endangered and adorable

How a collective effort is protecting one of the most endangered mammals in the nation.

 

“What exactly is a vole?” is a question I hear a lot, whenever I tell people that I love my work on behalf of the Amargosa vole. Well, voles are rodents like mice but slightly larger; they’re stocky, short-tailed and sport whiskers. The Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scripensis), a subspecies of the California vole, lives only in the marshes around Tecopa, California, and it is one of the most endangered mammals in the United States.

“Why should I care if the animal dies out?” is often the follow-up question. The answer that seems to win over the most people is to show them a close-up picture of the voles, their little white beards contrasting with cinnamon-colored fur. There is power in cute. But the real issue is about all animals having a right to exist. Why would we casually throw any species away?

Have you met the Amargosa vole?
Nancy Good

For Amargosa voles, existence has always been tenuous. They were first discovered in Shoshone, California, and formally described as a species in 1900. But before it was even of legal age, the vole was deemed extinct in 1917. Twenty years later, they were rediscovered a few miles south, near Tecopa, on about 75 acres of marshland habitat. Unfortunately, those 75 acres are divided into about 55 individual patches that connect only marginally. In 1980, habitat degradation and the animal’s small population led to its listing as an endangered species by the state of California. Four years later, the federal government also declared the Amargosa vole an endangered species.

A “recovery plan” finally came out in 1998, but so little was known about the species that the plan had to infer things as simple as diet and reproductive cycles. More neglect followed; the recovery plan was archived on a shelf, and the voles were left lingering in their desert marshes, growing their Rip Van Winkle beards for the next decade.

Then in 2009, the voles found a champion in Tammy Branson, just hired by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. She became fascinated by the animals and began to research their lives. Her involvement snowballed into today’s group of agency professionals and community members, all working passionately on behalf of the (did I say they were adorable?) animals.

Voles still teetered on the brink: In 2012, it was estimated there were fewer than 100 individuals; and researchers estimated that the vole had an 82 percent chance of going extinct within five years. What began next was an intensive collaboration to restore its current range in the Tecopa marshes and in its historic range in Shoshone, California. A captive breeding colony was also started at the University of California, Davis.

The result: The recovery efforts have started to work. As of 2016, the colony voles are thriving, one restoration project in their current range is proving successful, and the restoration project in Shoshone is progressing. In the wild, more than half of the Tecopa marshes studied are occupied by voles, and their numbers have rebounded from the population low. Amargosa voles have turned out to be remarkably resilient.

But these days, voles face more loss of habitat caused by development, ever-scarcer water and the growing impacts of climate change. In the area that stretches from Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to the Spring Mountains north of Las Vegas, and to the terminus at Badwater in Death Valley National Park, all wildlife depends on springs and seeps. Many of these water sources date back to Ice Age lakes, and the water that comes up stems from a deep carbonate aquifer that is less affected by declining precipitation and snowmelt than shallower basins.

But groundwater drilling by our Nevada neighbors, and those who wish to develop at a large scale here on the California side of the marshes, could reduce the springs in the Amargosa Basin. No one knows, for instance, how long it takes this ancient aquifer to recharge. This is the kind of ultimate threat that can’t be solved with restoration initiatives in the short-term.

Voles are a key part of the web of life in the marshes. Their presence is important even though we still don’t know exactly how this web interacts. The delicate Amargosa Basin system doesn’t support canaries or coal mines, but we can keep an eye on one of its smallest inhabitants to show us what’s happening. As the great ecologist Aldo Leopold put it: “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. ...To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” 

And did I mention that the vole is a really cute animal?

Tanya Henderson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She works on behalf of the vole as Stewardship Program Manager at the Amargosa Conservancy in Shoshone, California, tanya@amargosaconservancy.org.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.