“I pledge allegiance to the soil,
of Turtle Island
and to the beings who thereon dwell
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.”
Blog post by Bill Huggins
Many species call the wilds of the Great Basin home, animals and plants alike. One of the most unique things about life in Nevada is that so many ranges contain species that exist only in that spot. As the waters of ancient Lake Bonneville and its offshoots faded, and the basin dried and turned into literal dry islands in individual ranges, species were forced to adapt and change with the rapidly altering conditions. Water is essential to life, and there’s little of it here, so to survive in this environment life has to be tough. Anything that survives the aridity is not only worthy of our respect but also the highest protections we can provide to keep these species around.
Plants often get short shrift in wild parlance, superseded by the animals, which is understandable—I’m not aware of many plant-watching organizations. But without the flora, we would not have any fauna. It’s the most basic of symbiotic relationships. The Basin is full of amazing plants, many of them endemic, which means they only exist in one place. They’ve become so specialized at what they do, and who they feed, that losing them could create catastrophic trophic cascades, further adding to the call to protect these areas.
Iconic trees define not just the basin but Nevada itself: Ponderosa and Pinyon pines, the Juniper, White and Douglas Fir, Engelmann Spruce, Quaking Aspen, and the Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany. But the granddaddy of them all is the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine. Nothing defines the Basin like this single tree. It’s the longest-living organism on the planet. Hiking through these ancient groves demands a quiet respect as their twisted forms swirl around you, sometimes only a single branch of a great tree showing signs of life. I always wonder at the stories they could tell. All these trees make life possible on these dry ridgelines.
The valleys between ranges have their beauty, too, though smaller, less striking. The basins contain hundreds of endemic plant species, including dozens of grasses unique to Nevada, two species of Astragalus, and six of Penstemon. One of the most unusual is the white river cat’s eye, a small flowering beauty found only here. It’s on the Nevada Native Plant Society’s watch list. It seems especially to like black sagebrush habitat. It’s a small example of how important the plant life is out here, how fragile, and how deserving of stronger habitat protection.
Of course the animals get most of the attention, and the Basin delivers in that regard, too. In spite of the aridity and the general lack of water, Nevada’s wild places are replete with plenty of four-legged and winged life. Areas across the Basin offer plenty of wildlife viewing areas, even if you’re reluctant to walk too far from your car. If you’re willing to really get deep into the wilderness, though, the opportunities are limitless.
Possibly the most misunderstood animal is the Great Basin Rattlesnake. Fear of snakes seems inherent in our culture and many of us, but as someone who’s had plenty of encounters with our slithery kin I can tell you firsthand that anyone who has trouble with a snake has either surprised it or caused it to attack. Snakes want less to do with us than we do with them, trust me. A rattler will go out of its way to avoid you. First, staying on existing trails if possible is key. Snakes generally avoid high-traffic areas. Also, know what you’re looking at: the Great Basin Gopher Snake is often misidentified as a rattler. It’s not. You’ll know a rattler when it rattles. That’s a sign it wants you to leave, not that it’s about to strike. When encountering a snake, give it a wide berth. I’ve done this many times and still haven’t been bitten.
Snakes truly are amazing creatures. Rattlers do not need to drink water—they recycle what they have in their body constantly, and get enough moisture off of what they eat generally for a year. The Great Basin rattler can go from valley to peak—they’ve been spotted at 11,000’, occurring at all topographies. They eat a wide range of other animals: small mammals, birds, lizards, other snakes, and amphibians. Out here it’s best not to be too specialized. They hibernate in communal barrows during the colder months, mate, then give birth to live young between August and October. Interestingly enough, they do have predators of their own in hawks and raptors, and while I’ve heard stories of birds flying with snakes in their talons, I’ve never seen it happen. That would be a sight to see.
Plenty of small mammals call the Basin home, feeding the large ecosystem in various ways. Some of these, like raccoons and opossums, generally stay closer to human communities, though you may see them in wild places. Opossums have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, proof that small life can outlast almost anything. Along with these little critters you may see skunks and groundhogs, as well—or in the case of the former, you may well smell him or her first. Like rattlesnakes, skunks deserve a wide berth. Squirrels are ubiquitous across the Basin, most anywhere you’ll find trees. I find these little guys comforting in a strange way, tiny agents of the forest letting me know all’s well.
Recently armadillos have been moving into the Basin in increasing numbers. Seen by many in urban settings, especially those who still insist on having grass lawns, the armadillos are simply responding to warmer temperatures. The species does not like cold. As an animal that’s been around for 55 million years, we can assume they know what they’re doing. They primarily eat insects and larva, two food sources that rarely go away, though they have been known to eat fruit and roots. After a 150-day incubation, nine-banded armadillo females will produce a litter, interestingly enough always of quadruplets of the same sex. Armadillos are blind, so rarely a threat to humans—although they are the only animal that can carry leprosy, so prevailing wisdom says we should avoid and certainly not eat them.
Though rare, beaver do occupy some spots in the central Basin. In an arid environment, beaver perform essential functions in maintaining waterways. They’re another species that’s been around roughly 40 million years. Unless mating season’s underway, they prefer solitude. They’re generally active at night, so it’s rare to see one in action, but their handiwork is sometimes noticeable on waterways around the Basin.
One of the rarer and more interesting animals of the Basin is the kit fox. This cute little dog-like animal wanders the area, with a thin long body, huge ears, and a long fluffy tail colored black at the end. They live in tight burrow enclaves and eat bugs, mice, small rodents. Skittish as they are, you’ll never forget when you see one. I was backpacking through the Burnt Springs Range in Lincoln County many years ago and caught sight of one as I came around a bend. He looked more surprised than me before he bolted away. It made my trip.
Coyote calls the Basin home, too. With the elimination of other top predators like wolves, coyotes responded by filling in the niche left behind. And then some. Coyotes now range across the United States, far beyond their original boundaries. When hunted and culled, they actually produce more young to fill in the gaps. They have a wild beauty to them, a thin ranginess, always on the prowl, always hungry. On a few Basin camping trips I’ve been lucky enough to hear their songs in the night, circling in the distance. It’s a beautiful music to fall asleep to. They’re incredibly adaptable creatures, wise and goofy at the same time. They eat almost anything: rabbits, rodents, carrion of all kinds—so if you’re seeing small scurrying things, you’re probably in coyote country, though you may not see them.
Nevada’s state animal since 1973, the Bighorn Sheep, calls much of the Basin home, as well. It’s a fitting animal to end with, strong and adaptable like the coyote, a survivor in some of the harshest environment on the planet. Rams can and often do go without water for up to three days, though ewes and young need to drink roughly once a day, though they can go longer. It sometimes takes a day to move between one waterhole and the next, and after the long trek they may find a dry hole. Their hooves are specially padded to make climbing steep rocks easier, and as someone who has had many encounters with bighorns over the years, I can tell you personally that there’s nothing like turning a bend in a canyon and coming on some of them feeding—and watching them take to the vertical cliffs and climb like they’re on the easiest of staircases. It’s one of nature’s wonders, something so well adapted to its niche in life that it looks like magic every time I see it.
All of these plants and animals are an essential part of the Great Basin ecosystem. They evolved together over the eons and centuries, grew into the symbiotic routines they have, survived the withdrawing of the great sea, the long slow retreat of the water, and are still here with us, still hanging on. It’s up to us to make sure we keep this wild heritage going, because in saving them, we may well save an essential part of ourselves, too.