Beatty Habitat Committee

Posted: Mar 25, 2009
Written by: 
Carol Daly


Location:
Beatty, Nevada

Objective: 
The Beatty Habitat Committee (BHC) and other cooperators have been working for nearly a decade on the Beatty Habitat Trails Project, a planned greenbelt through the town of Beatty along the Amargosa River in southwestern Nevada’s Oasis Valley. The goal is to enhance tourism and the quality of life in Beatty while protecting the Amargosa toad, the subject of a petition for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as threatened or endangered.

Participants: The BHC is a small, all-volunteer group, which has worked with The Nature Conservancy, Amargosa Toad Working Group, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Friends of the Amargosa Toad, Nevada Natural Heritage Program, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Amargosa Conservancy, the community of Beatty, Nye County, the Southern Nye County Conservation District, individual private landowners, and others.


History: The 1904 discovery of gold in the Bullfrog Hills of the Oasis Valley triggered a rush of prospectors and merchants to the area. Beatty, one of the many new settlements that sprang up, became the transportation and service center for the area’s mining and ranching operations. When the gold rush ended, Beatty survived, due in no small part to the river running through it that provides ample water and a welcome respite from the area’s harsh desert conditions. The Amargosa River is a 125-mile-long, mostly underground river that normally flows on the surface in only two locations, one of which is the 12-mile stretch that runs through Beatty. The river supports dozens of species of birds and other wildlife, including the small, somewhat reclusive Amargosa toad, which occurs only along the Beatty stretch and around nearby upland springs.

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At the eastern gateway to Death Valley National Park, the area near Beatty offers a reprieve from the harsh desert terrain.
Photo by James Marble

In 1994, a biologist’s study concluded that only 32 adult Amargosa toads remained, and shortly thereafter the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, based in Boulder, CO, petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) for emergency listing of the toad as endangered under the ESA.

The petition sparked an angry and fearful local reaction. Beatty was already experiencing an economic and population decline, largely due to reduction of local mining operations. With Las Vegas 125 miles southeast and Death Valley National Park only eight miles west, Beatty was actively working to increase tourism and attract new industries to stimulate its growth. The possibility of an ESA listing raised the specter of onerous restrictions being imposed not only on the limited private lands in area, but also on the surrounding public lands, potentially stymieing future development.

The Nature Conservancy of Nevada (TNC) and the Nevada Natural Heritage Program (NNHP) were concerned that a listing would be ill-advised, particularly given the political situation at the time. Nye County was the epicenter of a resurgence of the Sagebrush Rebellion movement of the 1960’s which advocated returning federal lands in the West to the control of individual states. Seeking a positive outcome for both the toad and Beatty, TNC and NNHP brought together concerned federal and state agency and university biologists and others to form the Amargosa Toad Working Group (ATWG) and try to find a way to recover and protect the toad without the necessity of an ESA listing.

During the FWS’s year-long status review of the Amargosa toad, intensified survey efforts found hundreds more toads than had been estimated in 1994. Based on those new counts, the FWS determined in 1995 that an emergency listing of the Amargosa toad was not warranted. That ruling, however, was predicated on the commitment made by a number of concerned parties to produce a comprehensive conservation strategy to voluntarily protect the toads’ habitat as well as that of several others species dependent on the wetlands and riparian areas of the Amargosa River.

During the next five years, considerable activity occurred. The BLM captured and removed hundreds of feral burros which had been identified as a significant source of degradation of the upland springs. The agency also worked with the organizers of popular off-highway vehicle (OHV) races held near Beatty to devise new routes that avoided toad habitat.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), with funding from the FWS, began a long-term mark and recapture study using GPS and passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags to identify individual toads and enable NDOW to track their growth, movement, and survival. TNC purchased the 130-acre Torrance Ranch outside Beatty to protect its toad population, and provide a site for experimental habitat management. The ATWG and others worked on crafting the FWS-required Conservation Agreement and Strategy.

Beatty suffered a blow in 2000 when the town’s main employer, the Bullfrog Gold Mine, closed, precipitating a sharp drop in the area’s population. Toad habitat protection efforts continued, however, and in October the final Conservation Agreement and Strategy was completed and signed at a Torrance Ranch dedication ceremony.

The all-volunteer Beatty Habitat Committee (BHC) was created as a subcommittee of the Town Advisory Board, which is appointed by the Nye County Commission. Although the town’s Beautification Subcommittee had been unsuccessful in an earlier attempt to create a greenbelt, Dr. James Marble, then-director of the Nye County Natural Resource Office, offered a new proposal for a Beatty Habitat Trails Project (BHTP) to protect and improve habitats while also creating trails and other recreational amenities along the river. Marble recalled later, "There was a lot of resistance initially. There were certain people in town who resented being forced to do something for the toad. I had to show them this was something that was going to be beneficial to the community."

2000 ended on a high note for the BHC when TNC (with assistance from the State of Nevada, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the USDA/Natural Resource Conservation Service ) in December purchased the 524-acre Parker Ranch to protect and restore habitat for the Amargosa toad and several other species.

With the continuing advice of Dr. Marble and the help of a grantwriter paid for by the town board, the BHC made definite progress between 2000 and 2005. BHC petitioned the BLM to lease 5,780 acres of federal land within the proposed greenbelt rather than designating it an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and that plan was endorsed in a Beatty town board resolution in June of 2001.

Informational brochures about the Amargosa toad and the BHTP were prepared. The National Park Service provided technical assistance in planning, grant writing, and promotion, and facilitated a landscape design charrette in Beatty in 2003. The resulting plans envisioned trails and viewing areas around and through toad habitat; additional trail routes through Beatty and the Oasis Valley, and from Beatty to Rhyolite (a nearby mining ghost town); signage at three attractive "gateways" into Beatty; an improved fishing pond south of town; "pocket" parks; and a visitor/information center. A local quarry donated decorative rock slabs, and community volunteers began placing them along the planned recreational trail system. Many private landowners cleaned up their adjoining properties.

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 The Amargosa toad is found only along a 10-mile stretch of the Amargosa River and interconnected spring systems.
Photo by Michael Burroughs


Accomplishments:
In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chose Nye County for a Brownfields Assessment Demonstration Pilot Program, and as a result more than 6,000 acres in and around Beatty were assessed for future use in the BHTP. The following year, a Cooperative Weed Management Area was formed to enhance toad habitat through noxious weed removal. With funding from the Southern Nye County Conservation District, the Nevada Division of Forestry, and the Nevada Department of Agriculture, local volunteers have since removed hundreds of acres of invasive salt cedar and Russian olive. Renie Younghans, one of the original BHC members, has been a leader of the salt cedar removal effort. "It's very, very time-consuming," said Younghans. "I spend probably 20 or 30 hours a week doing it, and I don't get paid."

TNC completed restoration activities at Parker Ranch in 2004. Spring pools were constructed for Amargosa toad reproduction. A small agricultural reservoir was converted to create habitat suitable for amphibians and native fish, while retaining the pond’s value for migratory birds.

In early 2009, TNC partnered with the Nevada Division of Forestry on a controlled burn on the Torrance Ranch to create conditions more conducive to natural spring pool creation and to keep bulrushes and cattails from clogging constructed pools. Jim Moore, TNC’s Oasis Valley project director, reported, “The result of the fire was what we were hoping for -- a wetland ecosystem with a patchy distribution of burned and unburned areas that are perfect for the habitat needs of the Amargosa toad, the speckled dace — a small fish — and a host of other species that call Torrance Ranch and the Oasis Valley home.”

Perhaps the most gratifying accomplishment of BHC and its partners is reflected in the recent FWS announcement that the Amargosa toad's mean population from 1998 through 2007 was 5,986 toads.


Challenges/constraints:  Funding has been a challenge. Following the completion of the EPA Brownfields assessments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced over $6,000,000 in restoration and trail work to be carried out on the land BHTP proposed for lease from the BLM. Those funds, however, were later reprogrammed to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

The BHC has been impacted by changes in elected officials and agency personnel as well as from policy shifts. Turnover in the membership of the Beatty town board dramatically altered the relationship between BHC and the board. The board ceased paying for the grantwriter who had been assisting the BHC, and concerns expressed by BHC members about private development proposals that would conflict with the trails project were not well received. Finally, in the Spring of 2006, the board revoked BHC’s status as an advisory committee, and administratively moved it to the Beatty General Improvement District (BGID). “There was a real low point in the Fall of 2006 where we were all ready to throw in the sponge,” recalls Shirley Harlan.

“There was so much resistance. We were working so hard, and not getting anything done.” Unexpectedly, BLM had announced it was planning to sell a local developer more than 5,000 acres of federal land in the same area as the lease proposed by the BHC for the BHTP. The county supported the sale, but wanted a development master plan completed before the sale to govern future uses. When the BHD asked the town board to pass a resolution confirming its support of its lease application, the board and the BGID both deferred the matter for further study.

In October 2007, the BHC and the BGID parted ways. Now on its own, the BHC continues its work. It has organized river clean-up projects, and hopes private property will be donated so that the trails project can be started on it.

Dr. Marble resigned from the county Natural Resources Office in February, 2008, and that same month the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility petitioned the FWS to protect the Amargosa toad by listing it as a threatened or endangered species. Their petition referenced the BLM’s proposed land sale, saying “If the planned sale occurs or other sales of BLM lands along the riparian corridor occur, water extractions, flood control, and urban and housing developments affecting the Amargosa toad will increase many-fold and will likely cause extirpation of some populations and risks causing extinction of the species as a whole in the wild.” The habitat preservation work of BHC, TNC, ATWG, and others is given scant acknowledgment. The petitioners claim that, “Although voluntary conservation measures have been in effect for the past 8 years, the threats to the Amargosa toad have not diminished because of continuing pressures seeking urban development, mining, grazing, water over-use, off-road vehicle use, and the lack of control of exotic plants and animals.” When FWS missed its 12-month deadline for making a determination on the listing, the petitioners filed a March 11, 2009, notice of intent to sue in 60-days “if FWS does not promptly correct its violations.”

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 Landscape architects and city planners consult with members of the Beatty Habitat Committee

Photo by Jim Moore

BHC members are determined to keep moving ahead. “I’m not angry about this,” said Shirley Harlan. “I feel it’s given the locals a wake-up call, and has given those of us who have been working on this an incentive to evaluate…the successes and opportunities we’ve had to do things. One of the big things the BHC accomplished over the years is getting the other agencies – private and public – and also the businesses and so forth involved and giving them an opportunity to know what’s going on…and what the possibilities are here and how important our projects are.”

Other communities can learn from Beatty’s experiences. TNC’s Jim Moore explains, “I can’t imagine this is that different a situation from many other small towns struggling with what they want to be. Having to deal with a possible endangered species listing creates lots of potential for conflict, but also for meeting shared goals for the long-term – especially when you fold in tourism and quality of life issues. Here we like to talk about the greenbelt, parkways, and trails, rather than about the toads. We don’t want the toads to be the issue, because then they become the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in the community. Once you take the focus off them, you can start dealing with the root causes of the problem. What’s really happening is on a global scale – the natural resource demand and supply.” 
 




For more information see:

Endangered Species Bulletin "Making Room for the Amargosa Toad"

Pahrump Valley Times article
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