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Desert Companion

Environment: That's my house you're messing with

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 needs saving.

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 Mojave and Great Basin, in addition to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Together, they span Arizona, California, Nevada and New Mexico.

[HEAR MORE: Listen to "KNPR's State of Nevada" for a report on one species in that's making a comeback: the Sierra Nevada red fox]

"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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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.

What's causing the downward slide of these species? Cattle grazing, dam building, drought, fires, invasive species, mining, off-road vehicles and urban sprawl. And all are compounded by global warming, the biggest threat of all. But the report proposes some cures: establishing and extending refuges, reducing combustible, invasive plants and, of course, saving water.

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