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Inyo California towhee

The Inyo California towhee (Pipilo crissalis eremophilus) inhabits the west and east slope of the southern Argus Range (from Wilson Canyon and Indian Joe Canyon northward to Bendire Canyon) at elevations ranging from 2,680 ft to 6,200 ft [2]. Approximately 68% of its range is within the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS), 26% is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 5% is administered by the California Department of Game and Fish, and less than 1% is privately owned. Within this range, the towhee breeds in relatively small and sometimes isolated patches of dense thickets of willows and desert olive (Forestiera pubescens) along stream sides, springs and seeps [2]. It forages in the adjacent arid uplands.

The primary threat to the towhee has been the destruction of its habitat by cattle, feral horses and burros, off-road vehicles, campers, and hikers [1]. All of these threats have been substantially reduced since the species was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1987 (see below). Fire has recently become a localized threat, but magnitude of its impact is unknown [10].

The Inyo California towhee is believed to have been relatively stable (100-200 birds) between 1978 and 1987 [1, 3, 4] and between 1992 and 1995 (about 200 birds) [1]. A comprehensive 1998 survey located 640 adult [5]. Of birds on public lands, 72% were on NAWS, 25% on BLM, and 2% on state lands [2]. A survey of BLM and state lands in 2004 documented 204 adults and estimated a range-wide population of 725 adults [2]. Sites surveyed in 1998 and 2004 increased by an average of 13.6%. The increase was attributed in part to the reduction of feral burros and horses numbers [2]. Over 11,600 burros and 2,400 horses were removed from the Argus and Coso ranges since 1980, improving riparian and upland vegetative conditions [2]. A legal agreement in 2001 required further reductions of feral equines, off-road vehicles, camping, and other impacts on specific towhee habitats on BLM lands [6]. An August 2005 fire on NAWS impacted some riparian habitat, as did a 2005 flash flood in Mountain Springs Canyon, but the extent of habitat damage its impact on the towhee is not known [10].

While the population increased between 1998 and 2004, the range contracted, probably due to drier conditions reducing the suitability of marginal habitats [2]. The towhee appears to expand into marginal breeding habitats during wet years and contract to core riparian habitats in drier years. The appearance of singing birds in the Panamint Mountains 20 km to the east of the Argus Range suggests the towhee may be colonizing ranges beyond that historically known, and may be capabable of recolonizing the Coso Range 20 km to the west as well [2]. Comprehensive surveying of this ranges has been recommended [2].

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan requires a minimum of 400 birds with a stable population for at least five years before the species can be considered recovered [1]. The towhee appears to have maintained a population of 640-725 birds for six years, but the estimate is based on a projection from BLM and state lands to NAWS. If surveys on NAWS confirm the population level, the species should be considered for delisting. Before delisting can occur, however, long-term management agreements must be executed to ensure continuing control of feral equines, off road vehicles, uncontrolled recreation, and water diversions. The species' habitat and population are relatively small; they will rapidly shrink to pre-conservation conditions if not continuously protected [2].

[1] USFWS. 1998. Recovery plan for the Inyo California towhee (Pipilo crissalis eremophilus). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, OR. 32 pp.
[2] LaBerteaux, D. 2004. Inyo California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis eremophilus) Survey in the Argus Range, Inyo County, California. Prepared for the BLM, Ridgecrest Field Office. 62pp + appendices.
[3] Cord B. and J.R. Jehl, Jr. 1979. Distribution, biology, and status of a relict population of brown towhee. Western Birds 10:131-156
[4] USFWS. 1987. Determination of threatened status and critical habitat designation for the Inyo brown towhee. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, OR, August 3, 1987 (52 FR 28780).
[5] LaBerteaux, D. L., and B. H. Garlinger. 1998. Inyo California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis eremophilus) census in the Argus and Coso Mountain Ranges, Inyo County, California. Prepared for Commanding Officer (83E000D), Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, CA. Contract N62474-98-M-3113). 94 pp. + appendices.
[6] CBD v. BLM. 2001. Stipulation and proposed order concerning all further injunctive relief. Settlement in Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. Bureau of Land Management et al., CIV 00-0927 WHA (JCS), approved by the court on March 1, 2001.
[7] NRPI. 1998. Indian Spring Exclosure. The Natural Resource Projects Inventory, reported April 16, 1998, www.ice.ucdavis.edu/nrpi/NRPIDescription.asp?ProjectPK=4460
[8] RRPI. 1998. Christmas Spring Exclosure. The Natural Resource Projects Inventory, reported April 16, 1998, www.ice.ucdavis.edu/nrpi/NRPIDescription.asp?ProjectPK=4463
[9] BLM, USFWS, and CDFG. 1999. West Mojave Plan, Draft Evaluation Report, Suggested Conservation Strategies. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Game, working
draft, September 22, 1999.
[10] LaBerteaux, D. 2005. Personal communication with Denise LaBerteaux, Eremico Biological Services, October 23, 2005
[11] West Mojave Planning Team. 1999. Current management situation of special status species in the West Mojave Planning Area. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Game.

Banner photo © Phillip Colla