The Many Creatures Who Call Mono Home
Nothing is more commonly remarked by noisy, dusty trail-travelers in the Sierra than the want of animal life—no songbirds, no deer, no squirrels, no game of any kind, they say. But if such could only go away quietly into the wilderness, sauntering afoot and alone with natural deliberation, they would soon learn that these mountain mansions are not without inhabitants, many of whom, confiding and gentle, would not try to shun their acquaintance.
The Mountains of California
HARD LIFE ON THE HOOF
Between the highway, hunters, and mountain lions, mule deer face a host of predators. Traffic on highway 395 kills hundreds of mule deer in Mono County each year (studies indicate that hundreds per year are run over). Mule deer typically migrate to lower elevations during the colder months and move to higher elevations in the summer, so they are often forced to cross the highway. Most of the year you can find them near Mono Lake, or up Lee Vining Canyon. Mule deer have even been seen on Paoha and Negit Islands! (Do deer do the dog paddle?) With the exception of the islands, wherever you find deer you can assume mountain lions are not far away, and if it's hunting season—hunters. Mountain lions feed almost exclusively on mule deer, following their movements throughout the year and keeping them continually on the alert. Hunters however, do not rely on mule deer alone for food (humans do most of their hunting with a shopping cart). You are far more likely to see a deer than a mountain lion in the Mono Basin—deer and mountain lion numbers are now much larger than they were when the Great Basin was settled 150 years ago. If you do see a mountain lion, consider yourself lucky, since few people in the Eastern Sierra ever see these magnificent, elusive predators. If you see a deer alive, consider yourself fortunate as well, since they are far too commonly found dead along the highway.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
In 1986 Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep were reintroduced to the Tioga Pass region directly to the west of Mono Lake. After promising increases, their numbers declined dramatically in the 1990s and rebounded slightly, splitting into two herds. Their native progeny, the Mt. Baxter herd, one hundred miles to the south, also declined in the 1990s and rebounded slightly (2005 graph). Mountain lion predation, disease transmission from domestic sheep, difficult winters, and a variety of human impacts in the surrounding area are all threats, however mountain lion predation was the primary cause of the sudden declines of the 1980s. As a result the sheep abandoned the lion-filled winter ranges, key areas for their recovery. A California law protecting mountain lions prevented managers from killing a few lions that targeted the sheep. When the sheep were declared endangered, managers were able to override state law and protect them from lions under the federal Endangered Species Act.
In 2008 the Mt. Warren population lost 10 of its 26 animals, likely due to disease. This was the first time pneumonia has been documented in the Sierra. Without mountain lion predation and disease transmission from domestic sheep, the Mono Basin population would have a much larger population than the 37 animals released in the 1980s. Today the Mt. Warren and Mt. Gibbs herds are still tenuously hanging on by a thread, with only about 30 sheep remaining. There are plans for more reintroductions in 2009. Around 400 adult bighorn remain in the entire Sierra Nevada range—although mountain lion predation is on the increase once again, with 38% of the ewes in the Sawmill herd being killed by lions in 2008. This mammal is one of the most endangered in all of North America. You might see Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep in Lundy Canyon or along Hwy 120 just east of the Sierra Crest. From the highest peaks, these threatened sheep roam free, gazing over the blue expanse of Mono Lake.
LOOK CAREFULLY, PATIENTLY
If you visit the South Tufa grove along the shores of Mono Lake during the summer you will see plenty of tufa, flies, and brine shrimp, but you might be hard-pressed to find wildlife among the desert scrub in the middle of the day. During the day desert mammals slow down, saving much of their activity for the hours after sunset. With good eyes, patience, and a little stealth, you may spot a Nuttall's cottontail, black-tailed jackrabbit, or perhaps a Belding's ground squirrel. Hang around a little longer, and you may see more. Coyotes, long-tail weasels, and the occasional mountain lions have all been sighted in the vicinity of South Tufa. If you camp in Lee Vining or Lundy Canyon closer to the mountains, there is a slight chance of seeing a black bear. Black bears did not usually range in the Eastern Sierra, but increased human presence here has provided a new food source for the bears in the form of human garbage and campers' food.
TOADS, LIZARDS, AND SNAKES THAT SLITHER
Rattlesnakes are rare in the Mono Basin. They generally shun the alkaline habitat near the lake. The only recent sightings have come from the northwest corner of the Mono Basin and from irrigated areas of Lee Vining next to sagebrush habitat. Garter snakes and gopher snakes are far more common, and to the west of the lake in nearby canyons, you may encounter the wayward rubber boa, a smooth, brown, rubber-looking snake that is harmless to humans. You are more apt to run into lizards than snakes. The Side-blotched Lizard and the Sagebrush Lizard, both with the nickname "blue belly" are the two most common. Great Basin spadefoot toads make their appearance as early as March near the lakeshore and in nearby irrigated meadows. Their croaking chorus in the evening hours reveal their presence. They emerge from underground burrows, mate, and lay eggs in shallow pools of water (not in the lake itself) before returning underground for most of the year.