A small group of us from the Friends of Gold Butte met with U.S. Geologic Survey researchers, Dr. Lesley De Falco and Sara Scoles. We were treated to an interesting discussion and over-view of research being conducted regarding Mojave Desert burn area recovery.
We met the researchers at a burn research site known as the Jacob 2006 Fire. The researchers are developing methods to hasten recovery rates on burned areas in the Gold Butte and Parashant National Monument area of the Mojave Desert.
Rather than just monitor sites and wait for natural recovery to take place, the researchers are testing methods to shorten burn area recovery time to benefit the threaten desert tortoise. It is a bit of a best-guess effort by researchers because there are no data from tried and tested methods for recovering burned sites in desert environments. After all, desert areas rarely burned, so there has been no need for this kind of research.
Researchers De Falco and Scoles explained reseeding methods using native plant seeds and the use of a pre-emergent herbicide over the burned areas to keep exotic grasses from recolonizing the area as long as possible. Keeping the well-adapted and quick growing exotic grasses at bay in the early stages of a burned area’s recovery gives the native species a significant advantage through less competition, ensuring quicker and more robust growth. These native plants provide the food resource for the desert tortoise.
It appears from data gathered so far that the method shows promise and seems to shorten the recovery period from burning. Obviously, the rate of recovery for any given burn area is highly variable owning to levels rainfall, soil conditions, how hot the burn was (the hotter the burn the more surface soil destruction) and even effects from seed “stealing” animals, such as rodents and ants that move into the area. Research has shown that these seed gathers/consumers can have a very significant impact on seed survival, therefore, levels of germination.
The data being gathered regarding effectiveness of the different recovery methods and whether it is ultimately an easy and cost effective method is a long term undertaking. And of course the bottom line is how the recovery method affects the tortoise and its survival rate, another long term study.
So far, preliminary results are encouraging regarding shortening of burn recovery times and use of the areas by desert tortoises. The nutritious new vegetation growing in a recovering burned area is extremely attractive to tortoises and they waste no time in capitalizing on this new food resource.
However, the tortoises are not able to fully capitalize on this new resource because of plant cover limitations. The lack of large plant cover which provides shade and protective cover to the tortoises is non-existent. Therefore, the tortoises engage in a mini-migration type of movement. They move into the area to feed, then must back-track out to a non-burned area for cover.
In an effort to help the tortoises better utilize and benefit from this rich food, resource researchers explored ways of providing the tortoises protective cover in the burned area through artificial means. One, admittedly somewhat comical, method tried was planting artificial, plastic plants that could provide that needed cover. It seemed reasonable in theory.
We’re unable to comment on the exact details of that experiment other than to state that the plastic plants did not grow well, nor did they replicate, or handle the desert extremes well (he he he). Unfortunately, tortoise use was limited at best. In short, it didn’t work well enough to continue the project, but it certainly appeared worth trying. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A very special thanks to Lesley and Sara for their time and cheerful willingness to educate our group.