Stephens’ kangaroo rat, a SoCal ‘ecosystem engineer,’ no longer an endangered species

March 10, 2022
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The Stephens’ kangaroo rat, a nocturnal rodent with populations in parts of Southern California, was reclassified this month from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act, federal wildlife officials said.

reclassification is being hailed as a conservation success by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which works with federal, state and local agencies to build up the rodent’s population. Considered an “ecosystem engineer,” they play a vital role in increasing soil hydrology and in nutrient cycling in the environment where they live, among other functions, said Debra Shier, the Brown endowed associate director of recovery ecology at the wildlife alliance.

The population for the rodent — named for the first director of the San Diego Natural History Museum — typically is found in western and central San Diego County and Riverside County, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But agency officials say the species has been jeopardized over time by “habitat loss and degradation due to urbanization” and habitat fragmentation.

“We’re often in rooms together talking about one species or another and we have a lot of problems as far as habitat fragmentation, especially in Southern California where there’s an intersection of being a biodiversity hot spot and being a place where humans want to live,” Shier said. “It presents a real serious challenge.”

Major efforts are underway to the north with conservation plans in place by the Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency and the Western Riverside County Regional Conservation Authority.

In San Diego County, three military installations — the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, Naval Base Coronado’s Remote Training Site in Warner Springs and Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach Detachment in Fallbrook — have developed plans in coordination with wildlife officials to aid conservation efforts.

“These three DoD facilities have implemented numerous actions to manage and conserve areas occupied by Stephens’ kangaroo rat that aid in species recovery,” agency officials wrote in a federal register.

The work of military installations along with the efforts of zoo staffers like Shier — who have developed models aimed at developing self-sustaining populations — are appreciated in a collective bid to conserve the species, said Brendan Himelright, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Even though we live in an area where there’s a lot of development, we can find space for conservation and development,” Himelright said.

Rollie White, an assistant field supervisor in the agency’s Palm Springs office, said being able to delist a species from being endangered is “just really special.” He added that utilizing the resources of the zoo is “like having a race car mechanics team working on your Camry at home.”

“We’re very fortunate to have them on board,” White said. “Not just for this species, but for species all over California.”

So, what you can you do to help? Shier says San Diegans can visit the zoo’s parks “because that’s where we’re really working to preserve wildlife.” She also recommends the following:

  • Because research shows Stephens’ kangaroo rats are impacted by artificial night lighting, Shier said residents living near preserves can assist by installing outdoor lights with motion sensors that turn off when not in use; and
  • Residents in those areas also should consider keeping domestic cats indoors at night to limit the impact they have on the species.

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