Commentary

May 3, 2013

Happily coexisting with wildlife in the desert

Spring season wildlife issues to know about on Fort Irwin

 

Sidewinder rattlesnake

Wildlife activity at the National Training Center and Fort Irwin is increasing as winter has transitioned into spring.

Near the end of March, reptiles within the Mojave Desert emerged from winter dormancy. Most reptiles at Fort Irwin pose no threat to human safety and the only snakes in California considered dangerous to humans are rattlesnakes. All rattlesnakes have a rattle at the end of their tails and triangular heads, which are noticeably larger than the neck. In contrast, the 13 species of non-venomous snakes at Fort Irwin have tapered tails with heads about the same width as the neck.

Fewer than 20 rattlesnake bites have been reported since the inception of the NTC in 1979. The risk of rattlesnake bites is extremely low when considering nearly five million Soldiers, contractors, and federal civilians have passed through the NTC. Most snake bites occur when untrained individuals attempt to capture or kill the snake or do not follow safety precautions. In general, snakes only bite when they feel threatened and will often retreat into the desert when left alone. However, a rattlesnake in or near a building is a legitimate safety concern.

Springtime is also a busy period for birds. The breeding season for many birds in the Mojave peaks in spring but nesting continues throughout the summer. Most native birds in the Mojave build open cup nests. However, a common non-native species, the European starling, nests inside cavities. They are particularly fond of attic vents found on houses. Residents should make sure protective screening is in place on attic vents during the spring breeding period. If not, you will likely get a noisy, messy starling nesting in your attic. Once you have an attic nest, coordination between DPW Environmental, All-Pro Pest Control, and Pinnacle Housing is required to remove the nest before vents can be re-screened.

One of the most serious wildlife issues at Fort Irwin is humans subsidizing food for coyotes and ravens. Not only is it against Army regulations to intentionally feed any wildlife, but feeding coyotes often has unfortunate consequences. Coyotes fed by humans lose their natural fear of people and can become aggressive. Once this happens the animal must be captured and euthanized so that it doesn’t bite an adult or child. Many coyotes living near cantonment become infected with mange, an infectious parasite that causes skin disease. Some citizens feel sorry for these animals and give them food to be “kind.” However, negative consequences for both the coyote and the human community far outweigh benefits a coyote gets from such handouts. Often, a “fed coyote is a dead coyote.”

European starling.

People can practice some basic precautions to reduce negative interactions with wildlife. Ravens, coyotes, and small mammals thrive on human trash. Concentrations of small mammals, in turn, attract snakes. Properly disposing of trash and keeping dumpster lids closed dramatically reduces negative wildlife encounters. Because rattlesnakes are nocturnal, ambush-predators that sit and wait for prey to walk by, it is a good practice to wear boots and long pants when camping or hiking in the desert, especially at night.

Snakes, bird nests and coyotes account for most of the nuisance wildlife calls to DPW Environmental. Other common wildlife reports include desert tortoise sightings, injured or baby animals, feral burros in the cantonment area, and an occasional bobcat. In most cases, wild animals will leave you alone if you leave them alone. However, if a wild animal becomes a safety issue, you can call DPW Environmental at 380-5044 for assistance (Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Assistance after business hours is coordinated within cantonment through the Fort Irwin Police Station by calling 380-4444 and in training areas through Range Operations at 380-3878.




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