Locally renowned wildlife biologist Jim Boone disagrees with the theory that thousands of rare Tiehm's buckwheat plants on a site proposed for lithium mining were destroyed by humans.
But while investigating that mystery -- and working on the other projects that take him all over the Nevada desert -- Boone uncovered something potentially worse.
“It looks like this year we came into the season with more rodents than normal," Boone told KNPR's State of Nevada, "I don’t know if anybody is measuring this, but probably just based on patterns we’ve seen in the past and now we’ve gone into an extreme drought so all this high population of rodents are out there, and they’re all dying of thirst.”
Boone says rodents are chewing on plants they don't normally chew on because there has been so little rain, including no monsoon season this year.
He's seen the particular problem with Joshua trees. Boone said normally rodents don't chew on the bark of Joshua trees; on rare occasions, they might chew on the leaves. That's not the case this year.
“Now, you can walk through a place and virtually every single Joshua tree has been chewed on, at least on its leaves,” he said.
Boone has hiked all over Southern Nevada and has found the same thing. He has also received pictures from other hikers that show damage from rodents on trees and cactus.
At the very heart of the problem is climate change.
“The climate is changing and changing in unexpected ways,” he said.
Boone first came across the chewed on cacti when he was helping a researcher in Canada monitor and document a cactus species.
Then, after hearing reports of the Thiem's buckwheat damage, Boone went out to the site to take a look, believing humans had dug up the buckwheat in an attempt to keep the purposed lithium mine on track.
“But surprisingly it only took about two or three minutes of walking around looking at the site to realize this was not somebody out with a shovel or a trowel digging up plants," he said. "This was rodents trying to get down to the roots and chew on the roots of these plants for a little bit of moisture."
He could see where the rodents had dug around the plants to get to the roots and where they had chewed through to the moist part of the roots.
Now, he's noticed the problem is a lot more significant. “It’s disturbing. It’s very widespread and unexpected,” he said.
Boone would like to see someone take up a rigorous scientific study of the new trend. In the meantime, he is doing what he can do to document it before the winter rains come, which will likely solve the problem.
In an ecosystem, a problem with one species can have an impact on many other species, but Boone is not sure what impact this will have on the whole desert.
“You can imagine all sorts of horrible things, but it’s hard to really imagine that this is going to be a major changing event in the desert, assuming that the rains come back,” he said.
The real solution is addressing climate change in a meaningful way. “All we can really do is get together as communities, as societies, and get our governments to act in coordinated ways to do things to stop climate change,” Boone said.
Boone has spent his adult life working on issues impacting biology in Nevada. He worked to document and research mammals and reptiles at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
He's also worked for the Forest Service, the Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Now, one of his main passions is knocking down mine markers. For years, people have been able to mark a mine claim on public lands by sticking a piece of PVC pipe into the ground.
The problem is that the white, four-inch-wide pipe attracts all kinds of animals looking to build a nest or a hive or a place to live. Birds, bats and bees that go into the pipe can't come back out, because they can't spread their wings or fly straight up.
Boone has discovered as many as 35 dead birds in one pipe. Others who are looking for the pipes have found up to 100 dead birds in one pipe. Nevada is littered with thousands of these pipes, especially in Northern Nevada.
He encourages hikers who find these pipes to knock them down, or email him if they see a pipe but can't get to it. People can contact Boone through his website birdandhike.com.
Boone's efforts are featured in a new short film that will be shown at DOCUTAH film festival in March.
Jim Boone, retired wildlife biologist
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