Every spring and fall, Friends of Red Rock Canyon Tortoise Habitat Volunteers weigh and measure the shells of the tortoises in the enclosures behind the Visitor Center. Hugo was his normal, feisty self all summer but at the end of September volunteers discovered that he had lost some weight since they took his measurements in the spring. I decided that a check-up was in order, just to make sure Hugo was healthy before going into brumation for the winter.
On October 5 Hugo took a trip to his wonderful veterinarian at Lone Mountain Animal Hospital. She took x-rays to look for bladder stones, performed a complete blood panel, and a bile acids test to check Hugo’s liver function. He never enjoys being put into his large bin, but despite that he munched on the bribery kale that I offered.
The x-rays showed no bladder stones, which are frequently a problem in tortoises, so that was excellent news! All of his blood work and the bile acids test looked good as well, but his CPK (creatine phosphokinase) levels were elevated. This can happen in reptiles simply from the stress of going to the vet and being handled. Hugo’s veterinarian recommended an ultrasound, however, just to be safe.
That meant another trip to the vet, and this time Hugo was on to me. The first time I stopped by to bring him back to the vet, he was outside his burrow. However, by the time I’d gotten his bin, he had scurried several feet back into his burrow. No luck that day! I checked again the next day, but due to the chill in the air he was still inside. I finally had luck the third day, October 12, when he was basking near the wall of his enclosure. Back to the vet we went!
Hugo didn’t enjoy his ultrasound, but the doctor and techs were very gentle and careful with him. Thankfully, all his insides looked normal and healthy. I’m very happy that Hugo can go into brumation with a clean bill of health, and I’m sure Hugo is pleased that he won’t be going back to the vet for a while!
Bureau of Land Management
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area may seem rugged and desolate at first glance, but a closer look reveals an area teeming with wildlife. The desert often brings to mind snakes and lizards, but mammals too, inhabit these lands. In fact, more than 45 species of mammals occur in the Red Rock Canyon. The presence of cool temperatures, perennial water and a variety of plant species in the sandstone canyons provide escape from desert heat and aridity, making the conservation area a suitable habitat for wildlife.
Desert mammals can be divided into broad categories: carnivores (meat eaters), small and large herbivores (plant eaters), and insectivores (insect eaters). All must conform to specific behavioral traits to survive in such arid lands. Most desert mammals are nocturnal, which means active during the night. Besides being nocturnal, many adopt other water-saving habits as well.
Carnivores are predators and chiefly eat meat, although some will consume plants. They will drink water when it is available, but are not dependent on it since the moisture-rich flesh of their prey satisfies their water needs. This group includes such well known members as the coyote, kit fox, gray fox, bobcat and mountain lion.
A member of the dog family, the coyote resembles its domestic cousins except that its nose is more pointed and its tail is bushier. The coyote is a very vocal mammal, communicating through barks and howls. Its scientific name, Canis latrans, literally means ‘barking dog.” In addition to being a predator, the coyote is an omnivore (plant and animal eater) and a scavenger. This varied diet allows the coyote to exist under the desert’s harsh conditions and is one reason why the coyote is now the most widespread mammal in the United States. It can be seen occasionally from the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.
The gray fox also has a varied diet, but not to the extent of the coyote. It hunts widely at night, subsisting on rodents, ground squirrels, birds, wild fruit, insects, amphibians and small reptiles. It is an adept climber and will often search for food or escape danger by climbing trees.
Weighing only five pounds, the kit fox is the smallest dog in the United States. It survives by being nocturnal and sleeping in the shade of a tree or in its den during the hot part of the day. Its large ears and sharp sense of smell help it to catch prey. Usually the kit fox seeks kangaroo rats, but lizards, insects, birds and rabbits will also be eaten. Watch for this elusive creature alongside the road as you drive through the desert at night.
The bobcat, the most abundant cat in the southwestern United States, also resides in the area. It spends most of the day under bushes, usually in rock fractures or canyons. The bobcat has little endurance and stalks prey rather than chasing it. It primarily eats rodents, but will take rabbits, ground-nesting birds, and occasionally, a young deer. Because of its nocturnal nature, it is not often seen unless disturbed from its daytime resting place.
This group includes the rodents, rabbits and hares. As herbivores, they primarily eat plants, although some will supplement their diet with insects and dead or decaying flesh. They rely on their diet to satisfy both their food and water needs. Some small herbivores found in Red Rock Canyon are the antelope ground squirrel, kangaroo rat, pack rat, blacktail jack rabbit and desert cottontail.
Although most mammals in this group are nocturnal, the antelope ground squirrel is undaunted by the desert sun. This rodent is often seen from the 13-Mile Scenic Drive during the hottest parts of the day, with its white tail held close over its back as it runs about. To cool off, it may go below ground but usually flattens its body against the soil in a shaded area and loses heat through conduction. Although it can drop its body temperature by as much as seven degrees in this manner, it can lose 13 percent of its body moisture per day. To make up for this water loss, it feeds on green leaves and drinks early morning dew.
The kangaroo rat, named for its habit of hopping rather than running, does not drink, use dew or eat succulent foods. Its only source of moisture comes from metabolic water, water produced through the digestion of food. However, digestion creates very little water, so the kangaroo rat must conserve every drop. Its nasal passages are much cooler than its internal body temperature. Air which passes through these nasal passages cools and water condenses on the mucous membranes, where it is absorbed. The kidneys of the kangaroo rat are also very efficient, producing a urine four to five times as concentrated as human’s. Additionally, the kangaroo rat has adapted behavior to survive in the desert. It spends the hot days underground where the temperature is 30 °F (17 °C) cooler and the humidity is much higher. Seeds are stored in the burrow where they absorb additional moisture before being eaten.
Unlike rodents, rabbits and hares have two pair of upper incisors, one right behind the other. Thus, they are not classified as rodents, but as Lagamorpha, literally “animals of rabbit-like form.” Rabbits differ from hare in that their young are born naked and blind, while young hares are born furred and sighted. The blacktail jack rabbit, contrary to its name, is a hare. To escape the heat it sits in “forms” during the day. Forms are shallow depressions near the base of plants where soil and air temperatures are cooler. Its enormous ears also provide a surface over which heat loss can occur.
The desert cottontail, a true rabbit, prefers brushier areas than the jack rabbit, such as rocky canyons, floors of dry washes and river beds; mesquite and catclaw thickets are preferred. Unlike jack rabbits, it retreats into burrows to escape heat and danger. Both cottontails and jack rabbits are very prolific. However, their numbers are kept low by predation and disease. Watch for these two mammals throughout the 13-Mile Scenic Drive.
Mule deer and desert bighorn sheep can also be found within Red Rock Canyon. Large herbivores derive some moisture from their plant food but unlike the small herbivores, also need drinking water periodically. The mule deer prefers foothills with low scrub growth or thick growth along washes. By late evening, it leaves its daytime hiding place to find water in seeps and springs.
Desert Bighorn Sheep
The desert bighorn sheep prefers steep, rocky terrain which provides escape from enemies and shelter from the weather. There are more than 13,000 acres of such habitat inRed Rock Canyon. The bighorn survives in the desert by traveling to water. It will not live more than two miles from a permanent water source. It may expand its range after rains fill more potholes, or tinajas, but such expansions are only temporary. The horns of the bighorn are formed by a bony structure at the base of the skull and are made of material called keratin. It takes about ten years for a ram horn to reach full size and they are often worn by butting and rubbing. Watch for these magnificent mammals on rocky cliffs throughout the area.
This group includes bats and shrews and primarily consumes insects. Bats are separated from all other mammals by possessing the power of true flight. To escape the heat and avoid competition with birds, they are active only at night. Seldom using their vision, they rely on echo location to find prey and avoid obstacles. To echo locate, the bat emits a series of chirps and clicks from its throat. These sounds reflect off nearby objects, informing the bat of moving insects or stationary obstacles.
The odd facial structures of many species aid in the reception of the reflected sound. Although the majority of bats eat insects, a few feed on the nectar of flowers. These bats have long tongues with hair or bristles on the tip to allow them to reach in to gather nectar. Thus, bats serve not only to control disease-carrying insects, but act as pollinators as well.
Shrews are very small mammals which spend most of their lives underground. They have reduced eyes and rely on their sense of smell and touch to locate insects. A voracious eater, the shrew is also a ferocious hunter, for to be without food for more than six or seven hours means certain death. Being an underground dweller, they are rarely seen.
Many more mammals live in Red Rock Canyon. Each has it own interesting adaptations for desert survival. Take the time to observe and learn about the mammals and other life forms in the area. Only through close observation can the desert and its associated plant and animal life be truly appreciated.
Bureau of Land Management
BLM protects and manages wild horses and burros under the authority of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 to ensure that healthy herds thrive on healthy rangelands.
The 220,000-acre Red Rock Herd Management Area is located in southern Nevada, approximately 20 miles west of Las Vegas. The Herd Management Area contains both wild horses and burros that represent living symbols of the Western spirit.
It’s often easier for visitors to see the burros in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area because they often congregate near Bonnie Springs, Spring Mountain Ranch and the town of Blue Diamond along State Route 159.
Burros are well adapted to the Mojave Desert and survive high temperatures and long periods of time without green forage by using shade under rocky cliffs and shrubs and by being most active in the early morning and late afternoon. They survive the apparent lack of water by seeking out the natural springs and hidden waterholes found throughout Red Rock Canyon. They eat grasses and shrubs. Burros are generally less than half the size of a horse. Males are called jacks and females are called jennies.
Each year people are injured by burros as they try to feed or pet these animals. Feeding burros also causes them to lose their natural fear of roads and cars. Every year both burros and humans die from burro and automobile collisions due to this adaptation.
Wild horses may be seen at the extreme northern end of Red Rock neat Cold Creek. They also may be spotted at the extreme southern end of Red Rock on the dirt road leading from State Route 160 to Goodsprings.
To observe these beautiful animals safely:
- Pick a safe place to stop and pull completely off the roadway.
- Observe the burros from a distance. The safest place is from your car.
- Do not stand close to them, or get on their backs.
- Refrain from the temptation to feed or water these hardy desert creatures. If you have food in an open container, seal it if a burro approaches you.
- Drive carefully and be cautious when you see animals on or near the road. Burros may step out in front of your car unexpectedly.
For more information about BLM’s wild horse and burro program, please click here.
Tabitha Romero is responsible for all the wild horse and burro herds here. She shares her work and passion for these special animals that confront constant challenges where water and forage is always so precious.
By Glenn Ritt
When Tabitha Romero comes to work, her “office” happens to extend 2.3 million acres across all of southern Nevada.
That’s the vast territory this 30-year-old northern Wyoming native is solely responsible for as a wild horse and burro specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Growing up hunting, fishing camping and riding Mustangs, Romero always knew she wanted to work outdoors and be involved with horses, but she never imagined it would be this challenging.
With a Bachelor’s degree in Natural Resources for Fisheries and Wildlife from Oregon State University, Romero’s responsibilities are wide-ranging, often changing by the day and circumstance. It requires long hours crossing rugged terrain by herself in a Jeep, many trials and errors and a willingness to learn on the spot.
“That’s why I love my job,” she says. “It’s rarely the same from week to week.”
During spring – which is the busy season – Romero will be in the field about three days a week monitoring water and forage for the animals – and sometimes training volunteers who help her cover such a vast region.
She must balance that with constant office work such as writing and analyzing environmental assessments and other documents, as well as spending time from Red Rock Visitor’s Center to Pahrump and Amargosa conducting outreach programs about wild horses and burros.
Another aspect of her wide-ranging job is working with people adopting wild horses – from interviewing them to inspecting how they are treating the animals.
Recently, The Rock spent a day with Romero driving across part of her immense region – Red Rock Conservation Area – inspecting bands of wild horses and monitoring precious watering locations ideally fed by natural springs, but during drought conditions reinforced by tanker trucks that must navigate rutted and rock-strewn remote paths for a full day.
What are the most significant challenges in your job?
Romero: Human interaction with the wild horses and burros, forage and water conditions. In the Southern Nevada District, we have a very high number of people who can encounter these animals, so we are constantly trying to educate them. if they want the wild horses and burros to stay wild, they have to let them be wild.
We have domesticated these animals for more than 6,000 years. So, they revert back to domesticated behaviors very quickly if they experience human interaction. Many people do not understand that these are not backyard barn animals. They are wild and can be dangerous.
Feeding them increases their dependence and stops them from looking for natural forage. This leads to more private property damage, animals being struck on the highways, and declining body conditions.
Forage and water availability always is a challenge within the Mojave Desert. Despite many different natural spring sources, they go dry during warmer times of the year, especially if we suffer from low precipitation.
Currently we have been hauling water to two separate areas since June, one every week and the other every 3-6 weeks. We also have to haul water to two other areas within the district seasonally. Since June 2017 we have hauled approximately 180,000 gallons of water.
What brings you the greatest satisfaction in your job?
Romero: When I’m able to place wild horses and burros into good adoptive homes. We currently have approximately 46,000 wild horses and burros that we care for long-term holding corral and pasture facilities. If not adopted, horses eventually move to holding pastures in the Midwest where we maintain them for the rest of their lives. Roughly $50 million a year is spent on these facilities each year. So being able to get as many animals as we can into their forever adoptive homes is very gratifying.
What are the current conditions of wild horses and burros?
Romero: As numbers stand now the wild horse and burro population is over-populated.
Throughout 10 western states there are 26.9 million acres of public lands managed for wild horses, wild burros and other species. While this may seem like a lot of land, you have to understand that the vast majority of these areas are arid or semi-arid and contain limited resources that must not only support healthy wild horse and burro populations but also grazing permittees, mineral, oil, and gas development, native wildlife, and outdoor recreation to name a few.
Congress designated BLM a multi-use agency, so we have to strive for the best balance between all stakeholders. As of March 2017, we estimated that on BLM administered lands alone there are approximately 73,000 wild horses and burros. But we have determined that to maintain healthy range lands and herds, only about 27,000 should be on the range.
This is causing range degradation and unhealthy competition among wild horses, burros and native wildlife such as elk, deer, pronghorn and sage grouse. Wild horses and burros do have predators such as mountain lions in some of areas, but they do not make a big enough impact on herd numbers to help properly manage the populations. With an average growth rate of 20 percent per year, a wild horse or burro herd can double every four years; so, it is up to us to properly manage them.
At this time, what is the population of wild horses and burros in Red Rock Conservation Area?
Romero: There are 200 wild horses and a wild burro population of approximately 70.
When bands get overpopulated, does BLM let them die naturally if they are malnourished, or are all horses relocated?
Romero: If there are animals that are in distress due to lack of water or forage the BLM typically removes them from the range permanently. Dying of starvation or dehydration is a very painful death and is not a humane form of management.
How do you go about observing and measuring their numbers and impacts?
Romero: We do flight inventory surveys where we count the animals from a helicopter every two to three years. We use a simultaneous double-count method where we have two observers in front and two in back sighting and counting animals over predetermined flight lines. We fly approximately 150-200 feet above the ground to better see the animals.
Every year we conduct forage utilization surveys of our herd management areas. This allows us to see how much of a key species of forage is being consumed on a scale of zero to 100 percent. We also monitor spring conditions to measure impacts to riparian areas from wild horse or burro usage.
When there is drought and water is not naturally arriving for the animals, what happens?
Romero: As an emergency measure we are authorized to haul water to the animals or develop springs to allow for better storage of water that is naturally occurring. If we haul water for long periods, then we analyze range conditions and animal numbers more closely to determine if we need to gather excess animals from the area.
What do you want the public to know about these animals?
Romero: Wild horses and burros are amazing creatures, and it’s very special to see them on the range. It is important that we preserve and protect these animals for future generations to enjoy by educating ourselves on current issues and trying to collaborate on management decisions with all stakeholders.
Some believe that we are “managing the animals to extinction,” and that we cater to cattle ranchers or private individuals. This is not the case. We are passionate not only about the wild horses and burros, but also the range land and all activities occurring on them. By striking a balance among all these, we benefit all parties, not just a few.
How important are these animals to the sustainable habitat of Red Rock Canyon?
Romero: Scientific studies prove that sustainable numbers of wild horses and burros on the range lands can benefit native wildlife. Wild burros provide fine fuel management with their grazing and help create better soil conditions in some areas. They also create great hiking trails. I always tell people if you go for a hike find a burro trail because it’s going to be the path of least resistance!
At the same time, how do they potentially threaten the habitat?
Romero: When overpopulated, wild horses and burros can overgraze forage, impact soils, and severely damage riparian areas. While this area can support healthy herd numbers, if they get too numerous the results can be devastating. We do not have the luxury of high precipitation and lower temperatures here in the Mojave. The annual rainfall average is roughly four inches, so when our desert ecosystems are damaged it can take decades for them to recover. You can see evidence of this within Red Rock Canyon itself where fires burned through 10-20 years ago and recovery has been very slow going.
For those who have never had the chance to observe these animals, can you describe them – their characteristics, range, predators, interaction with people?
Romero: Wild horses and burros can be very different from their domesticated brothers and sisters. Typically, they are very distrustful of humans because they believe that we can be a predator (which we were during the Pleistocene era). So, when they see people, they will typically head for the hills. But when they become accustomed to humans, they are more willing to stick around and see what’s going on.
The wild horses and burros come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors due to their mixed ancestry; and they are very versatile. We have people that have adopted wild horses and competed in different disciplines such as dressage, reining, endurance, hunter/jumper, you name it.
Wild burros have been used for therapy animals, drawing carts, and even riding if they’re large enough. So, you see a lot of these different personality traits while they are on the range as well. They can travel 12-15 miles a day looking for food and water.
Being that they have few, if any, natural predators on the range, it’s not often you will observe them doing much more than posturing to one another when trying to determine who is the dominant mare or stallion.
And as far as interaction with people, like I stated before, if you want them to stay wild, you have to let them be wild. Observing from a distance is fine, but it is never acceptable for a person to approach or feed a wild horse or burro. This can be very dangerous for your own personal safety; and if caught by BLM officials, you will receive a $500 fine.
How can someone go about adopting a wild horse?
Romero: We have 17 facilities located throughout the United States. The closest facility to Las Vegas is in Ridgecrest, Calif. or Reno. The best thing to do is call us at 866-4MUSTANGS, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to BLM.gov/WHB to see what the adoption requirements are for a wild horse or burro.
Typically, you will need to have 6-foot panels set up in a space no smaller than a 20×20 area with a shade structure. We also work very closely with the Mustang Heritage Foundation to gentle animals before they go to adopters. Doing this has greatly increased our adoption success rate, and it is a great way to get a wild horse or burro if you don’t have any holding facilities near you.
How easy is to domesticate it?
Romero: They have had little to no human interaction for the majority of their lives. It’s not necessarily more challenging to domesticate them, but you do have to work thoroughly and consistently with them to gain their trust and to advance them in their training. They are highly intelligent animals; so, if you try to speak their language instead of forcing them to learn yours, you will set yourself up for success.
Last year, BLM rounded up many wild horses. What happened to them? Is this typical and if so, how often are there round ups?
Romero: BLM only gathered approximately 4,000 animals. It didn’t even cover the foal crop from last year. Unless an animal is injured or very emaciated and unhealthy, we take all gathered animals to corral facilities. Their age is determined, they are vaccinated, given a health assessment, gelded, and provided a freeze mark.
The BLM attempts to find a home for every animal gathered from the range; however, when an animal is not adopted or sold, they are eventually sent to the Midwest and Great Plains where they spend the rest of their lives on open pasture land under contract for their use.
Gathers are typically conducted in areas where animal populations are very high, range conditions have deteriorated, or animal conditions have worsened. Since wild horses and burros are located within so many different areas, we have to prioritize who gets to gather and how many and for what reason.
Why are there so much activist protests about round ups?
Romero: Miseducation is the number-one enemy of the wild horse and burro program. We are as transparent as possible. If you have access to our website, then you have access to pretty much everything we are currently doing within the program.
Many people are convinced that we send all the animals to slaughter, that we run them down with helicopters, beat them, or kill them for no reason. They think that people who pay to have their animals graze on public lands are receiving large subsidies from the government, and that we are “managing the wild horses and burros to extinction.” These are all very far from the truth. That is why we focus so much on outreach and education. We want people to know about how we manage the program and be as involved as possible.
Within the wild horse and burro program we have very high humane animal welfare standards for the treatment of the animals, and we do everything we can to lessen their stress, whether it be during a gather or on range lands.
Equus evolved in North America, but then became extinct 10,000-13,000 years ago. They were not reintroduced here until the Spaniards arrived in the early 1500’s. Donkeys evolved in Africa and were never found in North America until they too were brought over by the Spaniards in the 1500’s.
The ecology of North America has changed drastically since that time, and while it is possible to have healthy populations of wild horses and burros throughout the western United States, they need to be managed.
It is an emotional issue and a very complicated, multi-faceted one at that. But, we have to strike a balance in order to have healthy herds and healthy range lands.