There are four wildlife refuges in southern Nevada that are managed as part of a complex: Desert, Ash Meadows, Moapa Valley, and Pahranagat. While we were volunteering at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, we visited Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It is a tiny place (116 acres) about an hour’s drive southeast of Pahranagat. We drove down one day and got a fantastic tour from David and Vi.
Every National Wildlife Refuge protects an ecosystem for particular species. Moapa Valley restores and conserves the habitat of the Moapa dace. It was the first wildlife refuge established to protect an endangered fish species, in 1979. The Moapa dace is a small fish (about 3 inches long) with a black spot on its tail. It likes warm water and is only found in the Muddy River spring system, an area less than 10 square kilometers.
The area that is now the refuge used to be resorts. The refuge’s visitor parking lot was an olympic sized pool. There was a snack bar and a water slide, and all the springs were diverted into pipes and used for pools. There was even a nude pool that was featured in a playboy shoot. It was probably a nice place to hang out under the palm trees that were planted there, but it wasn’t great for the fish that relied on the springs, which had been diverted, capped off, or clorinated.
By the 1980’s the Moapa dace were almost entirely gone. Amazingly, a small number were found in an irrigation ditch. Since then, the land in the area is being purchased and the springs are being restored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies, including the Southern Nevada Water Authority that runs the Warm Springs Natural Area across the road from the refuge.
One of the coolest parts of the refuge is the small outdoor visitor pavilion. There are windows built directly into the springs, basically turning it into a natural outdoor aquarium. The dace like very specific spring conditions (fast moving water), so it’s easy to find them hanging out right near the windows.
We also saw Moapa White River Springfish, which are even smaller fish that have two dark lines who coexist with the Moapa dace, and Moapa pebblesnails which are a tiny green snail that we could see through the windows into the spring. These species are also endemic to Moapa Valley (which means they are only found there). Introduced fish species like tilapia, mosquitofish, and mollies compete with the dace and springfish and also prey on them. This is one of the biggest challenges that the refuge faces in conserving the Moapa dace.
There is a beautiful picnic area with murals and the Moapa mascot.
We hiked up the hill to an overlook where we could see the whole refuge.
We learned about the plague of the palm trees. They were planted by settlers and the locals like them. But, they aren’t a native species and they suck up hundreds of gallons of water each day. The inside is actually like a bunch of straws. When they do get removed, they take them to the burn pile and have to let them dry out for about three years before they are dry enough to burn! Even though they are full of water, they produce dry shaggy beards that are a fire hazard. In 1994 there was a fire that reduced the dace population in the refuge from 500 to 34! When the entire population of a species lives in such a small area, it is pretty vulnerable.
Another interesting plant we learned about is the screwbean mesquite. They have interesting corkscrew seed pods, and the seeds inside rattle when they are shaken. They were a traditional food for some Native Americans, who ground the seeds into meal. Moapa Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous people, who farmed as well as hunted and gathered. When the Old Spanish Trail trading route opened in 1830 it brought conflict and disease. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians now live on a reservation nearby.
Moapa gets hotter than Pahranagat, I believe I heard it referred to as the ‘devil’s butthole’. In the summertime they aren’t even open to visitors. That’s when they capture and band songbirds. They start at sunrise and stop when it hits 100 degrees. Some days they stop by 10 am! So, I doubt we will ever be around to witness this.
It is great habitat for birds, in addition to the endemic fish. The desert mistletoe berries are enjoyed by phainopepla, and we were able to see both males and females. Male phainopepla are glossy black, and females are a beautiful gray, both have red eyes. I think the females are even more striking than the males. We also saw Anna’s hummingbirds, and cedar waxwings, which were gorgeous but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of them.
Since we got a behind the scenes tour, we were able to see a few things that are closed to the public. We learned that on public land, anything human-made over 50 years old is considered an artifact. That sounds like a long time, until you realize that means anything after 1970! The archeologists have visited twice to document this old crap, I mean artifacts. It was actually pretty neat to see.
Brian had a few opportunities to volunteer at Moapa, first to help install a water fountain and another time to pound in a bunch of new boundary signs when the boundary changed to include a small new piece of land that was purchased. He says the ground is very very hard there! I passed on the signpost pounding project, so I didn’t have an opportunity to volunteer there until February when we cleaned cattails out of the springs. It helps the springs to keep flowing to provide good habitat for the dace, and it also facilitates the dace count. Twice a year they do a snorkel survey of the dace in the river to figure out if the population is growing or shrinking.
We wore waders and got into the spring. Brian and David went ahead cutting (very spikey) palm fronds, and Becky and I followed pulling cattails. The cattails grow from risomes that spread under the earth, and sometimes they would pull up easily, and other times they absolutely refused to budge. David and Traver have pulled cattails from the spring every year for the last several years, which has made it much easier. The young ones pulled out but some of the older ones we couldn’t pull and had to cut.
I made it less than half an hour in the spring before I punctured holes in both legs of my waders somehow and took on a lot of water. Fortunately, the spring is very warm, about 90 degrees.
Being in the warm spring, surrounded by palm fronds and cattails, it felt like a tropical destination. It was easy to forget that the desert was only a few feet away. The plants are so thick near the spring that we could barely even see the desert.
We spent two days clearing the springs, and learned the skill of launching the insanely spikey palm fronds out of the spring through the plants nearby. It was hard work, but it was such a cool experience to wade in the spring and see this aspect of the refuge, and to help with habitat restoration for an endangered species. The February snorkel survey was very successful, with over 2,000 dace counted!
February 19, 2021