With a voracious appetite, a long snout, and tiny bead-like eyes, the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew is one of California's most intriguing mammals. It formerly inhabited the nearly one million acres of wetlands and riparian forests that ringed the massive Tulare, Buena Vista, Kern, and Goose Lakes in the southern Tulare Basin. Today 95% of the wetlands and riparian areas in the southern Tulare Basin have been destroyed, impoverishing what had once been one of North America's greatest wildlife havens and leaving just 57,000 acres of potential shrew habitat. Much of this habitat, however, is too small and fragmented to support viable shrew populations.

Fewer than 30 Buena Vista Lake ornate shrews are known to exist today. They are divided among four populations inhabiting just 575 acres scattered along a 70-mile stretch of the west side of the basin. The populations are threatened by water diversion, agricultural expansion, pesticide spraying, selenium poisoning, and drought.


The Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew has been thought to be imperiled since it was first discovered by Joseph Grinnell in 1932. By that time, most of the basin's wetlands had already been drained to create an immense network of croplands, roads, ditches, and dikes. Though the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, it was not until 1988 that an effort was mounted to save the tiny mammal. In that year the Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the shrew as an endangered species. The Service made an initial finding that it might warrant federal protection on 12-30-88, but then left the shrew waiting in the wings as its habitat continued to dwindle.

Rather than processing the petition and issuing a final decision by 1990 as required by the ESA, the Service put the shrew on the federal candidate list as a "C2" in 1989. In 1991 it upgraded the animal to a "C1," meaning that it possessed enough information to issue a proposed listing rule. But the listing proposal was delayed another nine years until June 1, 2000. In the spring of 2001, with a final protection rule nowhere in sight, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Native Plant Society, and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project approached the Department of Interior with a creative plan to protect the shrew and 28 other imperiled species. In August the agreement was finalized, requiring that the shrew be listed as an endangered species by March 6, 2002.


A recovery strategy for the Buena Vista Lake ornate shrew was included in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's San Joaquin Valley Upland Species Recovery Plan (1998), but has not been enacted because of funding shortfalls, lack of a legal mandate, and political opposition by agribusiness. The listing of the shrew will ensure allocation of recovery funds while providing the legal mandate and political will to restore much-needed wetland habitats in the southern Tulare Basin. But first, the recovery plan will have to be revised. It calls for the establishment of at least three disjunct populations that collectively contain at least 4,940 acres of occupied habitat. Monitoring and management plans for each population must also be enacted.

To ensure the recovery of the shrew and other endangered San Joaquin Valley species, the Center for Biological Diversity believes a more ambitious wetland restoration program must be developed. A network of interconnected wildlife areas with guaranteed water supplies and management funds should be established throughout the San Joaquin Valley, including the Tulare Basin.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
July 3, 2003
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