Ask most people to describe their impressions of a desert and they will likely answer, “It’s a place where almost nothing can live.” The truth is that the number of different species of plants and animals in the Mojave Desert is much greater than many of the iconic scenic areas in California, including old growth redwood forests, coastal bluffs, and picturesque meadows in the Sierra Nevada.
The Mojave Desert is home to a wide variety of plants, insects and invertebrates, birds, mammals and reptiles. This diversity includes a number of endemic species that are not found anywhere else on the planet.
As human use of rural areas of the Mojave Desert increases, conflicts between wildlife and people follow. The majority of public safety questions about wildlife here on post are concerned with animals that could cause injury to humans or otherwise affect human health. Most of the potential human injury issues are related to rattlesnakes, stinging or biting insects, coyotes, and more recently feral burros (non-native donkeys). For the most part, negative human/wildlife interactions can be avoided or significantly reduced with a proper understanding of wildlife behavior along with appropriate safety precautions.
Nearly 80 percent of conflicts between wildlife and humans that are reported at Fort Irwin involve snakes. When wildlife biologists respond to this type of call, almost half of the animals in question are identified as snake species that are non-venomous. Out of the 16 species of snakes native to Fort Irwin, only three (all rattlesnakes) are venomous and potentially dangerous to humans and pets. A non-venomous snake does not have the ability to cause serious harm to humans or pets and all snakes are beneficial members of the environment, keeping rodent populations in check and in turn, are a food source for a variety of native wildlife.
There are some basic facts to keep in mind that will minimize your risk of injury from snakes. You can minimize your risk of attracting snakes to your home or work area by taking a few precautions:
• Snakes are particularly attracted to buildings that offer food or shelter. Small mammals (mice, rats, ground squirrels) are the main food source for most snakes and these animals are attracted to brush and wood piles and other debris.
• Keeping work sites and locations of human habitation free of debris piles and properly disposing of trash items will greatly reduce the likelihood of snake encounters.
• Avoid piling or leaning boxes or debris up against buildings. This situation attracts rodents, black widow spiders and other pests right to your door.
Even with precautions, not all snake encounters can be avoided. During late fall and early spring, snakes can move long distances as they migrate to and from overwintering sites (called hibernacula). As a result, during these seasons snakes can sometimes be found in unexpected locations. If you do encounter a snake do not try to capture or kill it. Out of the millions of people who have come through Fort Irwin in the last 35 years only 15 individuals have been bitten by rattlesnakes. Fourteen of these bites occurred because the individual who was bitten was not using good judgment. Examples of these incidents include attempting to capture or kill the snake or wearing inappropriate footwear (flip-flops) while walking around in the training area after dark.
Another recent concern in the cantonment area is the presence of feral burros in the vicinity of residential areas and sports fields, particularly at night. Burros are increasingly attracted to the cantonment area by water and green grass as their natural food and water sources dry up in the desert. The Directorate of Public Works has placed water troughs and supplemental food at locations between Goldstone and cantonment in an attempt to diverge these animals away from human habitations. If you encounter a burro treat it like you would any wild animal. Do not leave food out for the burros and do not attempt to approach them. A burro that feels threatened or cornered, or is defending a food or water source can be very dangerous.
If you have questions or concerns about wildlife related issues during business hours, call the Natural Resources Division of DPW at 380-5044. If you need immediate assistance with a wildlife issue in cantonment between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m., Monday – Friday, or on the weekend call Fort Irwin Police at 380-1258. All wildlife concerns that occur in the training area after business hours should be referred to Range Operations at 380-3878. If you would like additional information about the ecology of the Mojave Desert or have general questions about wildlife at Fort Irwin, call the DPW lead Wildlife Biologist, Liana Aker at 380-2681.