TECOPA, California—A wide spot on a lonely two-lane road to Death Valley, this desert hamlet, population 150, resembles many towns that dot the Mojave Desert. There’s a restaurant, a bar, a cluster of sun-bleached mobile homes, and an R.V. park where snowbirds come to roost each winter. But Patrick Donnelly is about to show me something in Tecopa that exists nowhere else in the world. We take a short drive from town down a rutted dirt road in Donnelly’s rattletrap pickup and stop near a patch of lush green bulrush jutting incongruously from the desiccated landscape. Donnelly, who at 32 is the executive director of a local environmental group called the Amargosa Conservancy, hops out and rolls up his jeans—revealing the words “Roam Free” tattooed on his left calf. Then he wades into a muck of chest-high plants.
“Look at this,” says Donnelly, bending over a stalk of bulrush nibbled to a nub. “A vole ate that.”
More precisely, an Amargosa vole, a Disney-cute rodent that is perhaps the world’s most critically endangered mammal you’ve never heard of.
Voles, you see, do not roam free.
The planet’s entire population of Amargosa voles—as few as 50 or as many as 500; no one really knows—lives in isolated remnants of marshland fed by springs that bubble beneath this valley. The one-of-a-kind ecosystem of just 247 acres is as rare as the vole itself, a patchwork of watery oases in the middle of the Mojave, where temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The marshes attract thousands of migratory birds, coyotes, bobcats, and even a rare desert-dwelling fish.
That gnawed-down piece of vegetation is the closest we’ll get to a vole today, though. The critters spend nearly all their short lives—about three months on average—in tunnels they’ve burrowed deep through impenetrable thickets of bulrush, which provide their sole food and shelter. Leaving that marshy fortress for open terrain would be tantamount to a death sentence: Weighing less than four ounces, the furry brown critters are extremely snackable, liable to become vole chow for any of two dozen predators that prowl Tecopa, including a pack of eight coyotes that live on an island in a nearby dry lake bed.
Drought, development, and climate change also threaten the rodent’s fragile habitat. Still, Amargosa voles have persisted here for thousands of years, surviving as the once vast marshlands of the Pleistocene epoch disappeared millennia ago and the wooly mammoth went the way of the saber-toothed tiger.
But now the vole’s days could be numbered. And that number is 1,825. Between 2013 and 2014, the rodent’s population violently crashed as its main marsh in Tecopa suddenly dried up. Biologist Robert Klinger of the United States Geological Survey and other scientists subsequently determined that unless drastic action was taken, there was an 82 percent chance the vole would go extinct within five years.
“It’s a little like a canary in the coal mine,” says Klinger. “As the vole goes, so goes the marsh. It’s a unique ecosystem, and if we start seeing the vole population disappear, there might be something going on with the wetlands themselves and all the wildlife that depend on them.”
But he’s clear on one thing: “We do not want to see the vole blink out on our watch.”
Countless species are blinking out on our watch and at our hands, as habitat destruction and climate change usher in the sixth great extinction: The biggest extermination of life on Earth in 65 million years.
The harsh reality is that most of the time there is little any of us can personally do to save a species on the edge of oblivion. That is, even if we know they exist. After all, only a very few biologists probably would have even noticed if a vole never emerged from the bulrush again.
All of which makes a grassroots effort by a small group of scientists, conservationists, and everyday citizens to rescue the rodent a rare tale of reversing the course of (human) nature.
Against what seem like overwhelming odds, the Amargosa vole just might make it after all.
A Furry Burrito
There’s no bad guy here; no rapacious developer, no Voledemort, if you will, was responsible for the great vole die-off of 2013. Rather, it was triggered by something utterly banal. A county work crew, doing routine maintenance to keep water from an underground spring from flooding a nearby road, inadvertently drained the marsh containing the largest vole population—the vole equivalent of New York City.
As the water level in the marsh fell—a decline of just one inch can be catastrophic—the bulrush died, and so did the voles. Their numbers fell to just eight voles at one point, according to one of Klinger’s subsequent reports.
“This is the epicenter of the vole issue,” Donnelly tells me as we pull up to the marsh. “It’s estimated that 90 percent of the vole population lived here. That’s scary.”
Workers subsequently partially plugged a drain to allow water to slowly rise in the marsh. But the damage was done. What was once a vast and vibrant marsh is today a moonscape of dead, gray bulrush surrounding a weed-thin strip of green plants.
The disaster did, however, focus attention on a slower-moving catastrophe: climate change and the epic, record-breaking drought gripping the West.
The region’s hydrology is exceedingly complex, but water experts believe that one source of Tecopa springwater lies across the state line in Nevada, in the now snowcapped Spring Mountains. Over hundreds of years, water flows underground from the mountains and eventually arrives at Tecopa. Scientists believe the record dry spell, which already is taking a toll on Tecopa’s marshes, could reduce the flow of water from Nevada.
There are other looming threats to the water supply, according to a 2014 report on the Amargosa River basin. Huge photovoltaic power plants planned nearby would tap into groundwater to wash the solar panels. And the population of Pahrump, a Nevada town that relies on the same groundwater, boomed 50 percent between 2000 and 2010.
“If such groundwater pumping played out at high enough magnitude for a long enough time, it could have the same outcome as a serious reduction in available water to the marshes,” says Klinger.
Perhaps the most present threat to the vole is parked on the side of the road, in the form of a van sporting Ontario license plates. These springs don’t just attract voles—they’re also hot tubs for humans. As Donnelly and I head down a dirt path running alongside the marsh, we pass a deeply tanned and tattooed 60-something wearing nothing but a towel. Further on, his even less-clothed companion is soaking in a pool at the far end of the marsh, the water heated to 116 degrees by some unknown subterranean source. Someone else has parked her bike in the bulrush and is letting her pit bull run free while she marinates.
“There are times when there have been 45 or 50 people out here,” says Donnelly. “If someone threw a match in the bulrush, that would be the end of the voles.”
"The critter will do just fine here if we can keep the bulrush intact and keep people from trampling it," he adds.
The rise of social media has only made the situation worse. The name and location of the hot spring and marsh have been posted far and wide on travel sites (even so, Donnelly asked me not to identify it), attracting tourists from around the world to stop off for a soak on their way to Death Valley National Park.
Tecopa’s hot springs have become the town’s biggest draw, giving the desert outpost a slightly New Age vibe: Visitors can get “healing therapeutic bodywork” at Tecopa Hot Springs Massage, followed by an organic banana-avocado milk shake at the town’s sole restaurant.
As we head back to the truck, Donnelly spots a single green shoot amid a field of dead bulrush. It’s a sign of the marsh’s slow recovery. “Here’s some regrowth,” he says, “and this is clipped. A vole’s been here.”
A very desperate vole.
The eight-inch-long vole would have stood up on its hind legs like a toddler reaching for a cookie jar, grasping the stalk of bulrush with his front paws and munching from the top down; a “furry burrito” in Klinger’s words, for any passing predator. “If they did come out this far in the open, they’re starving,” Donnelly says.
Last spring, with the vole teetering on the edge of extinction, Klinger and a team of scientists—from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the University of California, Davis—took a last-ditch gamble to save the species.
“We were convinced that these guys were on their way to dying out,” says Janet Foley, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We knew the ones that were left were not going to make it and that we had to intervene.”
I’m standing with Foley and Ph.D. student Risa Pesapane inside the anteroom to a nondescript building on the Davis campus in Northern California, some 500 miles from Tecopa. We each tug surgical blue booties over our shoes and go inside.
Foley unlocks the door to a vestibule where she puts on purple latex gloves before entering another small room, this one with rows of metal shelves packed with wire-lidded plastic tubs. Inside each tub, a vole has tunneled under a bed of straw.
It’s a vole warehouse.
Last July, Foley, a small-mammal expert, and her team captured 20 voles at Tecopa. They brought the critters to Davis in an attempt to breed them to replenish the population.
Whether the animals would reproduce in captivity was unknown, as was nearly everything about their biology. The Amargosa vole had managed to keep out of human sight in modern times until 1900, when it was first spotted in Shoshone, about 12 miles north of Tecopa. But by 1917, the Shoshone vole was thought to be extinct.
The vole was rediscovered in the late 1970s in Tecopa. The state of California gave it endangered species status in 1980, as did the federal government in 1984.
It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the secret life of voles began to come to light, thanks to the work of a California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist named Tammy Branston, who started to trap and study Amargosa voles. When Branston found that some of the animals were infested with a parasite, she called in Foley.
“I got down to Tecopa and fell in love with the voles,” says Foley. “They’re stinking cute.”
She takes a box off a shelf, opens the lid, and pulls out vole No. 3922, a chubby male born last September. He’s Exhibit A that voles indeed will breed behind bars. In fact, put a male vole and a female vole together, and there’s a good chance that in about three weeks you’ll have four baby voles. As of the March day I visit the breeding facility, those 20 voles taken from Tecopa in July have produced 78 offspring. Across the aisle from vole No. 3922, vole No. 3962 has birthed several litters and is about to become a grandmother.
We head over to a nearby field, which Foley has dubbed Tecopa North, where the first voles to be born outside were living in enclosures fashioned from dog runs—coyotes roam free in Davis too. Foley's team wanted to see if the voles would breed outdoors and also needed to acclimate them to life on the outside before they’re reintroduced to Tecopa in April. In each dog run sit multiple mini-marshes: washing tubs stuffed with straw and topped with bulrush, like dioramas of the vole’s natural habitat. Across the field, bulrush grows in six white circular planters to feed the growing expatriate vole colony.
“The coolest thing about the vole is that they have a solid shot at recovery,” says Pesapane, a doctoral student in ecology. “For a lot of species, it’s bleak, as there’s no real chance to save them. But in this case it’s not bleak at all.”
That’s because, as Pesapane notes, “we know now that we can make new voles.”
Now they need to make new vole habitat.
Just Add Water
Creating or restoring habitat for an endangered species often means taking land, whether private or public, away from someone or restricting its use. That has triggered long, bitter, and costly fights that make species such as the gray wolf and the northern spotted owl pawns in America’s culture wars.
But the Amargosa vole will likely avoid this fate, thanks largely to a woman named Susan Sorrells. She is one of the few people to have largely single-handedly saved another desert species from extinction: the pupfish.
Yes, a fish. In the desert. Shoshone pupfish are descended from a two-inch-long pupfish that survived in small desert pools as the great lakes of the Mojave disappeared at the end of the last ice age. Over the aeons, the pupfish evolved into separate subspecies. In 1970, the federal government declared one of those, the Shoshone pupfish, extinct. But in the mid-1980s, 70 survivors (or so scientists think—they’re not sure whether the pupfish indeed belongs to the Shoshone subspecies or is actually another subspecies) were discovered in a drainage ditch in Shoshone, the privately owned town (population 11) founded by Sorrells’ grandfather.
Sorrells created a pupfish reserve where, today, a couple hundred of the tiny blue fish are swimming through pools fed by a spring that produces 500 gallons of water a minute. So, with state government funding, she’s about to expand the preserve to include habitat for the Amargosa voles being bred in Davis. The spring also flows into a series of marshes on Sorrells’ land that, if planted with bulrush, could become new vole habitat in the future.
Sometime later this year, the voles will return to Shoshone for the first time in a century, creating a sort of vole insurance policy against catastrophe again striking the Tecopa population.
“It’s not just about saving the vole, or saving the pupfish, or for that matter, saving the human beings, but about creating a biodiverse environment so all creatures flourish and a big component of that is education,” says Sorrells, a member of the vole task force and a founder of the Amargosa Conservancy. “I think it will also make the community economically sustainable to champion the vole and the pupfish and the plants.” She plans to allow the public to visit the preserve.
“Having endangered species on your property is really a wonderful blessing,” she says. “Until the community and other landowners with vole habitat embrace the idea of hosting endangered species, the vole won’t be safe.”
Donnelly’s job is persuading local residents to preserve and protect the vole, as well as to help recruit volunteers who want to get their hands dirty hand-building the vole’s new home in Shoshone in the fall. (The vole, of course, has a Facebook page, and is Tweeting.)
“Susan and I together really have this vision of Shoshone as a model for human and endangered species co-existence and mutual benefit,” Donnelly says. “The joke is we’re trying to turn this into an endangered species zoo. It’s a joke but not all that far off from reality. If we can create viable whole habitat here, create this kind of biodiverse system, we can present a new model of how endangered species conservation can work.