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Center for Biological Diversity

California's Grand Deserts


The Center for Biological Diversity has successfully filed scientific petitions, lodged administrative protests and even filed suit against the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over impacts of mining, livestock grazing, road proliferation, suburban sprawl, inappropriate off-road vehicle use, and exotic species on 24 threatened and endangered species within the California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA).

Desert tortoise Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep
Mojave chub Desert pupfish
Desert slender salamander Bald eagle
Yuma clapper rail Inyo California towhee
Arroyo toad Least Bell's vireo
California condor Southwestern willow flycatcher
Amargosa vole Triple-ribbed milkvetch
Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard Ash Meadows gumplant
Cushenberry buckwheat Amargosa niterwort
Cushenberry oxytheca Coachella Valley milkvetch
Peirson's milkvetch Cushenberry milkvetch
Parish's daisy Lane Mountain milkvetch

Daniel Patterson

The desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) has thrived on Earth for 67 million years. It spends most of its time under ground. So many other species use its abandoned burrows – like burrowing owls, snakes and badgers – that it has become a keystone species in the Mojave and Sonoran desert ecosystems. Where thousands of tortoises once lived in peace, a network of roads, ORV trails & open areas, livestock allotments, and mines now dominate the landscape pushing the tortoise toward extinction. Disease related to human caused stress is also taking a heavy toll.

The desert tortoise has been at the epicenter of the Center Biological Diversity's campaign to save the CDCA from livestock grazing, road proliferation, mining, inappropriate off road vehicle use and other desert abuses. A series of legal actions brought against the BLM and the National Park Service has resulted in the closure of the largest mine within the National Park system, the banning and limitation of livestock on millions of acres of tortoise habitat, and the closure of 4,500 miles of roads.

Bighorn Institute

The Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis cremnobates) scamper across steep desert mountainsides from the northern Santa Rosa Mountains near Palm Springs south to the Mexican border and into Baja California. These majestic animals are highly disturbed by human stresses brought on by mining, urban sprawl, grazing, utility projects, and recreation. One of the most endangered animals of the CDCA, there are now only about 400 individuals remaining in the Peninsular Ranges of Riverside, San Diego and Imperial Counties.

In response to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service mapped out and designated 844,897 acres of "critical habitat" for the Peninsular Ranges bighorn sheep in 2001. The Center has also successfully challenged many development projects, roads and trails within the CDCA on behalf of the bighorn.

The desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius) can survive in desert springs heated to 113 degrees. It also tolerates water twice as salty as the ocean. As hardy as it is, the pupfish must struggle to stay alive against the impacts of livestock grazing, water diversions, and exotic plants and fish. Once found thriving in seeps, springs, and marshes of the lower Colorado River, the desert pupfish now is only found in a few isolated Mojave springs in and around Death Valley and Salt Creek and San Felipe Creek in the Sonoran desert which flow to the Salton Sea.


The Inyo California towhee (Pipilio crissalis eremophilus) is another ecological wonder of the California Desert Conservation Area. Reflecting the extremes of the desert, it nests in cool, shaded willow patches, but feed on seeds, insects, and cactus fruits on adjacent desert slopes. It is completely isolated to unique riparian areas surrounded by Mojave desert scrub within Inyo County's Argus Range. Now reduced to 200-300 individuals, destruction of riparian habitat by grazing, mining, ORVs, and water diversions are immediate threats.

The Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard (Uma inornata) depends on windblown sand dunes and hummocks. A specialized sand dweller colored like the sand it lives on, this lizard is threatened by ORVs, agriculture, urban sprawl, loss of sand sources, exotic plant invasions, and utility projects. Uma's fringed toes allow it to speed over and under the sand. Every orifice of this lizard is protected to keep out sand when the lizard is under the surface. This species typically remains under the surface from November-February.

Peirson's Milkvetch (Astragulus magdelenae var. peirsonii) is a silvery, short-lived perennial plant. A member of the bean and pea family, it can grow to 2.5 feet tall and is notable among milkvetches for its greatly reduced leaves. It produces attractive, small purple flowers, generally in March or April, on stalks with 10 to 17 flowers per stalk. Peirson's milkvetch also has the largest seeds of any milkvetch, an important adaptation to it's dunes habitat. Large seeds provide a greater reservoir of stored food and enable a seedling to grow a greater distance before emergence and/or depletion of their stored energy.

In the U.S., the plant is known only on the Algodones Dunes and is highly threatened by off road vehicles. The Center won a precedent setting legal settlement in 2000, closing 49,310 acres of the dunes to ORVs and establishing a planning process to ensure the Peirson's milkvetch is forever protected in the CDCA.

The arroyo toad (Bufo californicus) has lost over 80% of its habitat in southern California. The toad is dependant on reliable water for reproduction which has become scarce as streams have been dammed, diverted, grazed by livestock and overtaken by exotic plants which dry up surface water and choke riparian areas. Pollution and sedimentation from road and development run-off also wrecks toad habitat. Adult toads burrow into sandy wash substrates and are threatened by ORVs and mining.

The arroyo toad is now limited to a total of 22 riparian areas, some of which are within the CDCA. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a successful lawsuit which resulted in the designation of 182,360 acres of critical habitat for the arroyo toad in 2001.

The southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is one the most imperiled birds in the United States. It was listed as an "endangered species" under the Endangered Species Act in 1995 in response to a petition and several lawsuits by the Center for Biological Diversity. Formerly common throughout desert riparian areas in northern Mexico, CA, AZ, NM, and the southern portions of NV, UT, and CO, the flycatcher has declined to less than 1,000 birds. Dams, water diversions, urban sprawl, cattle grazing, roads, bridges, and spread of introduced tamarisk and brown-headed cowbirds are the flycatcher's most pressing threats. Six hundred stream-miles of "critical habitat" were designated for the species in CA, AZ, and NM in 1997 in response to litigation brought by the Center.

In the CDCA, the flycatcher still occurs within the Jawbone/Butterbread Springs complex of eastern Kern County. Suitable habitat also exists on the slopes of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.

The Ash Meadows gumplant (Grindelia fraxino-pretensis), a member of the sunflower family, is a 28-40 inch tall woody perennial herbaceous plant found only near the Inyo county CA and Nye county NV stateline. Its leaves are leathery, dark green, and dotted with resinous glands. The gumplant sports yellow flowers from October-June. Decline of the Ash Meadows gumplant is due largely to road construction, alterations in spring hole and outflow morphometry at six sites, utilization of land for agricultural purposes, grazing by cattle and feral horses. It suffered 90% decline in an area fenced off for grazing horses near Ash Meadows Rancho. The gumplant is threatened also by the possibility of altering surface drainage patterns and mining the aquifer which would reduce or eliminate surface water, lower the water table, and interfere with ground water recharge. The resulting destruction of down gradient wetlands would be extremely detrimental to this and other species of Ash Meadows.