Increased rainfall this last winter has led to a dramatic increase in wild plants in the Mojave Desert, as well as an increase in wild critters on and around Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Calif.
“We basically had normal rainfall this last winter, for the first time in years,” said Eric Fortin, the Base Integrated Pest Management coordinator. Fortin has worked in Pest Management on base for 23 years and is well versed in the creatures of the desert.
With what seemed like unusually heavy rain this last winter, several areas of California soaked up that water and then burst with “Super-Blooms” throughout the state. People were driving to remote locations to walk amongst the blooms and take photographs with family and friends. So much that many areas had to limit access and set up observation posts to enforce rules to keep people from smashing the flowers for pretty photos of themselves lying in the fields of bright orange poppies and purple lupines. Most of those “Super-Bloom” explorers probably didn’t take into account the fuller picture of what this entails.
“Increased rains means increased plants and more readily available water sources,” Fortin said. “Those plants are food for all sorts of animals. The desert animals all look for the same basic things, food, water and shelter. They instinctively seek it out. So if there is a water source, and food is abundant, and shelter is available, then you will find wildlife of all kinds.”
Many of these desert dwellers are relatively harmless, like Gopher Snakes, Coach-Whips, Red Racers, Rosy Boa Constrictors and the King Snake. The King Snake is especially revered for its ability to prey upon rattlesnakes.“
One harmless and really pretty example is the huge hatch of painted lady butterflies in the area,” said Cody Leslie, natural resource specialist on base. “They are benefiting from the abundance of wildflowers and people are seeing them everywhere in huge numbers.”
There is also an increase in insects, and spiders, such as the Desert Hairy Scorpion, and the Black Widow Spider, both of which have venom which can be harmful to humans and other animals.
All of the critters, large and small, non-venomous and venomous, have their place in the desert, explained Fortin. Some of the bugs, for instance, are decomposers, helping to process dead plants and animals. Others like lizards or snakes may eat insects or rodents, keeping those populations under control. Fortin, and Evan Schmidt, base pest control technician, each grew up handling various types of wildlife, whether here in the desert or in Wisconsin where Schmidt is from. Because of this, they both have an appreciation for the creatures and often do a catch and release, rather than killing them. “
We often have something here at the office,” Fortin said, pointing toward the back of the office. There, they were housing a large gopher snake caught on base. “We’ll release that gopher snake back out into the wild somewhere nearby, pretty soon. They’re a big help with insect and rodent population control.”
While all of the desert dwellers have their place in the desert, and their reason for existing in the ecosystem, there are some critters that families should be on the lookout for, in order to avoid contact. Due to increased numbers, encounters are more likely to occur.
“During our Annual Desert Tortoise Survey, which we conducted April 15 to 20 this year, we encountered six sidewinders,” Leslie said. “This is the first time in the last three years that we’ve encountered six sidewinders on the range in one survey period.”
On a recent hike to Amboy Crater on April 27, James Maher, Behavioral Health Section head, said he and his wife Lidiana saw several lizards. Normally, he said, they’ll see one or two. This hike, however, there were more lizards and even insects than usual.
“Thankfully,” Maher said, “we didn’t run into any venomous snakes.”
There are several things that families can do in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from negative encounters. First and foremost, clear all debris away from your homes, yards and storage areas. “
Be sure to use gloves,” Fortin said. Although he is comfortable squashing a black widow between his fingers, he doesn’t recommend that others do so. “Sprays intended to kill insects and some spiders may not work on all spiders, like a Black Widow. You can spray a Black Widow, but that alone will not kill it unless the body of the spider actually lowers so that the body comes into contact with the poison, it won’t impact them at all. You have to actually hunt down the Black Widows and kill them manually.”
One suggestion is to wait until night time, then go out into your patio and garage areas and look for webs. Black Widow webs are often a mess, he explained. You will be able to see the Black Widow hanging out, often upside down, in their web. “You just sweep the web and crush the spider,” Fortin said with a grin, making it sound so easy.
“It’s important to keep weeds clear from around your homes,” Schmidt said. Keeping areas clean and clear will help limit the number of encounters you may have, he explained. “Clear pallets and anything else that they can use to create a home.”
The Black Widows will usually go to lower areas, where they can get the most heat, explained Fortin. So, you can begin your hunt using those guidelines. While doing so, watch for other critters like scorpions and snakes, though.
“Watch your hands, and watch where you put your feet,” said Fortin.
When moving pallets, boxes, plants, and even patio furniture, check the items first to see if they have residents. Use a stick, shovel, or maybe a gloved hand, to shake the item. Then look and listen. If there is a rattlesnake, hidden in the pallet, for instance, you should hear the distinctive rattle of their tail.
“That’s not always the case though,” Schmidt said. “If the rattles are wet, the sound may be dampened. So, you still need to proceed with caution and look carefully.”
“Rattles are like fingernails, too,” Fortin reinforced. “They chip and break off, which can impact their ability to make that warning sound.”
In some cases the snake may be dozing or too cold to respond until it is too late, so be vigilant.
“On this base, we’ve seen Mojave Green Rattlesnakes, but it’s been awhile,” Fortin said. “You’re more likely to see a Sidewinder.”
Sidewinders are aptly named due to the uncanny sideways movement, rather than the usual forward slithering seen done by most snakes.
Although the desert is not a habitat for fleas, they can be transmitted on animals from other areas.
“Ticks, however, do reside in the desert,” Leslie said. “So, if you go hiking, be sure to check your sock-line, arm-pits and other warm areas on you and your pets, to ensure that you don’t have a hitchhiker.”
If you see wayward critters in your living and working areas on base, give them space and call the help desk at 577-6220 for assistance.
If someone has an encounter with a sting or spider bite, it is important to note that everyone’s reaction will differ.
“Some people are more sensitive than others,” Fortin explained. “So, doctor care may be advisable, just in case.”
All cases of snake bites should be treated immediately by properly trained medical personnel.
“In case of a snake bit, stay calm and seek help immediately by calling dispatch or 911, but do not put a tourniquet or put pressure on the bite, and do not try to suck out the venom,” Leslie said. “If a pet is bitten, keep pet calm and warm and carry them if possible, then rinse out the bite with water, and get them to a veterinarian.”
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