Eureka Valley sand dunes

From the Verge of Extinction To An Ecosystem Saved: A Botanist’s Story

About a half decade ago I was introduced to two very rare plants found only in a few sandy spots in the northwest corner of Death Valley National Park. After driving all day, my team was at the base of what are believed to be the tallest sand dunes in North America. The dunes appeared ominous, endless, yet inviting.

It was late May and unbelievably cold. The average temperature at that time of year is usually pushing 100 degrees in the afternoon, but on this day we were bundled up in sweaters and rain jackets. We even saw snow flurries in the northern part of the valley while driving in. Snow in May in Death Valley? Definitely the land of extremes!

The wind was blowing harshly across the dunes as we trekked out in search of the Eureka dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae) and the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica subspecies eurekensis). These two species are not only limited to California, but they’re Eureka Valley endemics—meaning they’re only found in a few sections of Eureka Valley and nowhere else on the planet. 

Eureka dunes!

Hiking in sand is twice as hard as hiking anywhere else, one step forward and two steps back. We climbed along a dune crest and then onto another, and then onto another, until we were well above the valley floor with a 360 degree view of the vast desert landscape around us. Far below, the lower dunes gave way to valley floor, itself fading into rugged limestone mountains—the Last Chance Range, its many different geological layers and chocolaty colors like some giant layer cake floating above the desert.

In the deep shifting sands at the top of the dunes, we found the Eureka dune grass. In fact it was the only plant growing in the upper section of the dunes. This intrepid species has evolved to survive on the rapidly shifting dunes by being able to move with this dune system. Growing in hummocks, or large clumps, it literally clings to the shifting sands and lives its life in continual motion.

Eureka dune grass

We headed down these massive dunes to the opposite side, where we eventually found the Eureka Valley evening primrose. The large white snowy flowers were open and pointing like radar dishes toward the sun, inviting in pollinators such as bees and butterflies by day, and hawkmoths in the evening. The populations of these showy sand dwelling plants appeared healthy. They were doing well. It was a successful trip and one I will never forget.

The Eureka Dunes have not always been as healthy and intact as they are now. Prior to their inclusion into Death Valley National Park only 20 years ago, off-highway vehicles ran rampant here, tearing up the dunes. Because of this motorized traffic, both the Eureka dune grass and Eureka Valley evening primrose have been on the federal list of endangered plants for decades now—both of these rare and endemic plants were on the verge of extinction.

Since Death Valley’s expansion under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, the Eureka Dunes were designated wilderness, bringing permanent protection to this fragile habitat and its inhabitants, including these two rare plant species.

The ongoing recovery of these dunes is now entering its third decade. The watchful eyes of biologists, conservationists, park managers and rangers have been of utmost importance for the dunes’ recovery and future. And with these strong conservation actions and good management, these two rare plants have seen a remarkable recovery.

Just two weeks ago, on February 26, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife removed Eureka Valley evening primrose and Eureka dune grass from the endangered species list. This success story is proof that when fragile habitat is set aside for conservation and has proper management and enforcement, species can be saved from extinction. Entire ecosystems can thrive again.

Duncan Bell is a field botanist who works in the unexplored and undercollected mountain ranges of California’s deserts.

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