Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Plight of Wildlife

Cycles of Nature


Last updated 2/14/2023 at 12:46pm


The casual desert observer may notice when the coyote population seems to decline or when those fat, green caterpillars are everywhere. But it's the Oldtimers, those wise and weathered old Deseret Rats, who recognize something bigger might be going on.

Even the Borrego Sun has had questions asking about why it appears that wildlife populations are not as healthy as they have been in the past?

We turned to State Park Environmental Scientist Shannon McNeil for a simple answer. But wildlife populations are more complex than a simple answer.

McNeil, whose job it is to monitor the environmental health of California's largest state park, said there are both normal wildlife cycles at work, along with what could be more concerning and longer lasting trends.

It's easy to understand that events like lots of rain bring lots of plant growth, including a wildflower Superbloom, along with hordes of caterpillars, butterflies and migrating hawks.

When there's food, everyone takes advantage. That's a short-term result of abundance.

Then there's the longer term.

Ample rainfall creating more plant growth means there will soon be a population explosion of rabbits, ground squirrels, hawks and even desert tortoises who enjoy the caterpillars.

That will be followed with more coyotes, mountain lions and bighorn sheep who all benefit as the food chain is more abundant.

"Sure, there's definitely the cyclic nature of prey and predator, tied with those basic resources like rainfall. Rabbits and coyotes, bighorn and mountain lion, hawk and caterpillar, though our desert tortoises also can't get enough of those caterpillars," McNeil said.

And these changes are easily noticed because they happen somewhat quickly. Caterpillars can seemingly arrive overnight after abundant rainfall and quick plant growth. And you know how fast rabbits can breed!

These are cycles driven by local events like rainfall and tied to the availability of resources.

"But your readers, especially the older ones, may be keying in on something else entirely, that is happening on a much bigger, much longer time scale: the gradual decline of all wild animals, from insects to birds to mammals, and everything in between," McNeil said. "So, while there are always the regular, seasonal ups and downs, overall, wild animals are on a downward trajectory. When insects decline, so do their bird predators, and so on up the food web."

Urban dwellers may not even notice, but anyone in tune with the natural world can't miss the changes.

"My 70-year-old friend sometimes talks of childhood road trips between California and Texas, with all the pronghorn there were, the roadkill, and always a windscreen full of insects," McNeil said. "I heard it's called shifting baselines: the new generation doesn't even know the sky used to be blue, there were no plastic bags or dog food, and there used to be more wildlife. They assume what we have today is how it always was. Meanwhile the biomass of humans and livestock are now an order of magnitude higher than that of all wild mammals combined."

CBS New recently reported that nearly 21,000 monitored animal populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians have declined 68 percent between 1970 and 2016, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report 2020.

In some areas, those declines have been even more severe, as much as 94 percent in Latin America.

"This report reminds us that we destroy the planet at our peril, because it is our home," WWF U.S. president and CEO Carter Roberts said. "As humanity's footprint expands into once-wild places, we're devastating species populations. It's time to restore our broken relationship with nature for the benefit of species and people alike."

Another concern is the collapse of insect populations. As forests, grasslands and even deserts are cut, mowed or paved over, we are seeing drastic reductions in insect populations, according to a December 2022 Reuters report.

"As human activities rapidly transform the planet, the global insect population is declining at an unprecedented rate of up to 2% per year," the article stated.

This is an alarming rate with universal implications.

"Insects are the food that make all the birds and make all the fish," said David Wagner, who works at the University of Connecticut. "They're the fabric tethering together every freshwater and terrestrial ecosystem across the planet."

And then there are the birds.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, more than one in four birds have vanished in the last 50 years. Since 1970, wild bird populations have declined by nearly 30 percent in the United States and Canada, according to the journal "Science." The translates to nearly 3 billion birds gone in 50 years.

Some of the biggest losses have been 53 percent in the number of grassland birds, and 37 percent of shorebirds.

"We were astounded by this net loss across all birds on our continent, the loss of billions of birds," said Cornell Lab of Ornithology conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led an international team of scientists from seven institutions in the analysis of population trends for 529 bird species.

While we may see cycles of abundant wildlife, the net lost over the past decades is concerning.

Survival of the planet could be a stake, but certainly the quality of human life is sadly diminished as we lose our relationships with the wild creatures and native plants that share our earth.

Borrego Springs has done a great deal to address some of the thing we have lost or are losing. The community adopted lighting regulations and a commitment to preserve the night sky as an International Dark Sky Community. Many residents may take this for granted, but there are many urban places in the world where the inspirational view of the summer Milky Way is not possible.

Borrego Springs is also blessed by being surrounded by 700,000-plus acres of state park. A natural footprint this large allows for biodiversity so that animal populations can thrive.

This is not the case in many places, where efforts have been made to set aside natural areas, but they are simply postage stamps that do not contribute to the welfare of the environment.

This spring may well produce a wildflower Superbloom, or at least an above average display, followed by record numbers of migrating hawks, soaring rabbit populations being chased by hungry coyotes, but the larger concern is the long game.

What will our children miss by not seeing a bluebird, a woodpecker or seagull?

A bigger question is, how long can the planet survive if we continue to lose our natural plants and animals at an alarming rate?

All the answers are not yet known. But knowing the problem is a big first step.

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