Biological resources in Gold Butte National Monument
What’s it like in Gold Butte?
Gold Butte represents a broad landscape of rugged terrain with an extensive system of braided shallow washes. These washes contain “caliche caves” often used as burrows by desert tortoise, burrowing owls, and heat tolerant reptiles. Rocky outcrops are home to Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Lion, and Golden Eagle aeries.
Higher mountain “pygmy forests” of Pinion and Juniper are home to many species of birds.
Creosote, bursage, and beavertail cactus dominate the landscape of the lower elevations of the Mojave Desert scrub. This habitat is critical to desert tortoise for burrows among the creosote roots, and for kit fox dens. The rocky slopes are valuable to bighorn sheep. Desert kangaroo rats and pocket mice depend on the creosote seed for food. In turn, they become prey to species of snakes and birds such as the western Diamondback Rattlesnake and the Loggerhead Shrike.
Joshua trees, blackbrush, gambles oak, and manzanita create a mid elevation mixed desert scrub on the upper bajada and higher slopes. The Joshua trees are home to the Scotts Oriole and Desert night lizard. Blackbrush is a valuable browse to bighorn sheep and nesting for Brewers Sparrow. Mid-elevation rocky outcrops are habitat for Ringtails and chuckwalla.
The upper slopes of the mountains have pinion-juniper woodlands mixed with cliffrose and serviceberry. These montane woodlands are generally found between 5,000 and 8,000 feet of elevation. This habitat is particularly important for its structure for birds and bats to use for nesting and roosting. The serviceberry is excellent browse for deer.
The peak of the Virgin Mountains is a unique biological transition zone for the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran regions. The stands of Douglas fir represent the southern most occurrences in Nevada. In addition to Douglas fir there are forests of ponderosa pine and white fir as well as the only known pocket of Arizona Cypress in Nevada.
Environmental threats to Gold Butte
The biggest threat is irresponsible off-road travel that destroys habitat and cultural resources. It only takes a few times and these illegal routes become established and confusing. At Whitney Pockets, for example, what were once a few small camp areas have become large areas that are denuded of vegetation with dozens of fire rings. And, since there are no facilities for this type of heavy visitation, human waste is also a problem.
Did you know that Joshua trees can live up to 1000 years in ideal conditions? Joshua trees grow all throughout Gold Butte. They provide shelter and resources to other flora and fauna in the region. We’ve seen an alarming trend is the use of live Joshua trees as firewood. Trees older than our constitution are being chopped into pieces or pulled out of the ground to be burned. Yes, it is a renewable resource – but not in our lifetime.
Why careful and considerate use matters
Most desert landscapes consist of dispersed islands of life and fertility in an ocean of barren rock and mineral soil. Because of the general scarcity of water, vegetation and organic soils, desert lands are particularly susceptible to damage by backcountry visitors.
Water is the key to patterns of life in the desert. Water may be permanent, as found in perennial streams, or it may be temporary or low-volume, as found in springs, seeps or potholes. Riparian zones—areas influenced by natural watercourses— are critical to the survival of many forms of desert life. Travelers seeking water and shade in these areas should take special care, recognizing the importance of riparian zones to the productivity and health of the desert environment.
The desert’s sparse vegetation is the result of slow growth and competition for water. Many of the characteristics that allow desert plants to survive, such as thick leaves and sharp spines, make them seem relatively hard to damage. For this reason, we think of most desert plants as quite resistant. However, their toughness is more of an adaptation to conserve water than a durability factor. They are not capable of tolerating considerable abuse and, once damaged, desert plants have little ability to recover.