I had to drive 5 mph so I wouldn’t hit any of the little guys on a really dusty Soda Lake Road inside the Carrizo Plain National Monument, the last great bastion of the federally endangered giant kangaroo rat.

Midnight was approaching and lots of nocturnal giant kangaroo rats were hopping out of the dense, tall grasses and onto the open road. It’s hard to imagine, but these unique little critters are vital to California’s remaining historic grasslands.

That’s right. Although it’s the largest of the 20 species of kangaroo rat, it only weighs 5 ounces. Yet the little buggers are the keystone species of the Carrizo Plain, and most if not all other wildlife species within the monument depend on these 13-inch-long from nose-to-tail busy burrow builders to serve as the foundation for the entire ecosystem.

“Giant kangaroo rats are basically the key species in the entire Carrizo web,” said Bob Stafford, a wildlife biologist for California Fish and Wildlife. “As they go, so do a lot of the other endangered species.”

There are many predators in the Carrizo Plain that not only rely on giant kangaroo rats as a food source but also for their maze of intricate burrow sites. Everything from kit foxes, coyotes, burrowing owls and badgers, to various snakes and long-tailed weasels. These critters locate, take over and modify giant kangaroo rat burrow sites, making them their own.

“The burrows are also used by blunt-nose leopard lizards,” he said, “and California jewel flower is often associated with the burrow systems.”

Drought conditions on the Carrizo Plain have made it a challenge to assess their population health. With their big feet, almond-shaped eyes, large heads and long tails they work like little lawnmowers on the grasslands virtually mowing down huge swaths of grasses surrounding their burrowing sites. By flying over their sites, Stafford and his team look for these mowed areas to locate and count giant kangaroo rat populations.

“They mow down the area around their burrows so we can fly transects over the area to map the areas they mow down,” explained Stafford. “Problem is, if we don’t get any growth they have nothing to mow and we have nothing to survey. Therefore, we haven’t been able to do any surveys since 2011. That will change, though, after last winter’s rains.”

That’s good news for the giant kangaroo rat and all the other wildlife on these historic grasslands, but uncertainty is bound to mount for all things living on the Carrizo Plain if President Trump decides to open up the monument to oil drilling in the future. Five other national monuments in California and another 16 across the west are at risk.

In the meantime, it’s been a banner year for giant kangaroo rats across the Carrizo Plain. I had several good looks at one in the west end of the national monument as I constantly searched in the dark for one to photograph.

I found the burrowing site of one particularly busy giant kangaroo rat in the middle of the night. I watched it stuff its cheeks with blades of grass. After that it would swiftly return to its burrow, diving into it to tend to its young. I’d turn off my headlamp and wait patiently for several minutes for it to return for more shards of grass. There was more than enough of it to pad its burrow.

Soon I was seeing lots of giant kangaroo rats bounding out in the open, their eyes reflecting off my headlamp, their big feet allowing them to cover some ground. It was a memorable year for wildflowers across the Carrizo Plain National Monument, but also for its tiny, night-dwelling inhabitants that most never see.

Adventure and travel writer Chuck Graham lives in Carpinteria and is the editor of surfing and aquatic magazine DEEP. For more wildlife photos visit chuckgrahamphoto.com or follow Graham on Instagram at @chuckgrahamphoto.

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