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It's like a VIP pass to saving our endangered species

CARTOON TURTLE MOJAVE MAX and his kangaroo rat sidekick have a hook-up in Washington: the Endangered Species Coalition. The league of conservation organizations says that Nevada's Mojave and Great Basin deserts -- home to desert tortoises, rodents and many other animals -- are among the top 10 ecosystems in the United States whose endangered species need saved.

Titled "It's Getting Hot Out There," the recent report singles out 10 U.S. regions with habitats of highly vulnerable species. And those species are worth saving not because they're cute and fuzzy (which they are), but because they're critical puzzle pieces in their own ecosystems. One of the 10 ecosystems is our own yard: Southwest Deserts. That's the Mojave and Great Basin, in addition to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Together, they span Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico.

"In terms of the diversity of the Southwest and the fact it's being so hard-hit by climate change and will continue to be hard-hit by drought, it's a hot spot for potential species extinction," says Shaye Wolf of the Center for Biological Diversity. Wolf led the team that nominated Southwest Deserts for inclusion in the report.

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[On Nevada Public Radio: Hear about an endangered species making a comeback in Nevada: the Sierra Nevada red fox]

Nevada is home to a lot of the endangered or threatened species discussed in the report: desert tortoises, four species of pupfish and aquatic beetles, to name a few. The report also highlights the peril of springsnails, freshwater mollusks that live in both the Mojave and Great Basin and are essential to food production, water chemistry and nutrient cycling.

The kicker is the diversity and rarity of species found here. "Many of them are found nowhere else," Wolf says.

What's causing the downward slide of these species? A number of culprits. Cattle grazing, dam building, drought, fires, invasive species, mining, off-road vehicles and urban sprawl all have encroached on or destroyed animals' native habitats. And all are compounded by global warming, the biggest threat of all.

"Even if you choose to ignore the overwhelming body of science about climate change, it's still worth it to save our endangered species for future generations," Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, says. "Certainly it's important in a place like the Southwest, which is going to see incredibly difficult times from increased heat, to maintain as much water as possible. It only benefits humans in the long term."

So, we've got a top-10 list. Now what? On the upside, the report offers advice for protecting and restoring the top 10. In the Southwest Deserts, that means establishing and extending refuges, reducing combustible, invasive plants and saving water. For average Joes, the report prescribes taking public transportation, reducing fossil fuel consumption and switching to sustainable energy sources. "Locally, what you can do in the desert is water conservation," Wolf says. "It's such a big issue already, and it's going to become a bigger issue."

Huta adds, "For future generations of people who live in the Southwest, there's a very high chance the landscape will look very different -- more weedy and fire damaged -- and none of us wants that."
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