Leaving Las Vegas
By Frank Graham Jr.
The 17,000-acre Moapa Valley Important Bird Area (IBA) in southern Nevada is a cauldron of contradictions. Located in a harsh region of Mojave Desert scrub and mesquite, the IBA is anchored by an oasis of riparian vegetation along the upper Muddy River and the first national wildlife refuge created for an endangered fish. Thus the valley is a significant stopover for migrant birds. Yet a potential residential development and the insatiable thirst for water to sustain Las Vegas, 55 miles to the southwest, threaten its future.
A ranch on the site includes irrigation canals, along which strands of willows, cottonwoods, and other riparian vegetation spread across the valley floor. A promise of food and cover in this dry immensity attracts an assemblage of passing birds, plus breeders that include the endangered southwestern subspecies of the willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoos, and phainopeplas. Raptors are numerous in winter.
Racing against time, conservationists hope to secure key habitat—particularly the ranch itself—before it is developed. Also looming are plans to pipe the IBA's vital groundwater to Vegas. Biologists at the Moapa Valley National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1979 to preserve the rare Moapa dace, battle invasive, water-consuming plants such as salt cedar and Russian olive.
For information on Audubon's IMPORTANT BIRD AREAS program, visit www.audubon.org, go to Birds & Science/Bird Conservation, and pull down to Important Bird Areas.
© 2005 National Audubon Society