In a small section of Kern County, outside the city of Bakersfield, a dirt ridge rises above the farmland. It’s home to a couple of cell towers, an orchard, and a creature that we didn’t know was there up until the last 25 years. In fact, it's by chance that this animal is no longer flying under scientists’ radar.
The first scientist to identify it was Greg Ballmer, a retired entomologist.
In 1997, Ballmer was driving down Highway 99, just south of Bakersfield,
“I noticed a small patch of sand along the highway,” says Ballmer. “And I got off the highway, went back and checked just to see what kind of insects might be there.”
On that patch of sand, he found a bug that he didn’t expect to be there.
“I was only here for a few minutes before one of these flies flew past me and I recognized it as being of the genus Rhaphiomidas, which at that time was considered extinct by most of the people knowledgeable about the species,” Ballmer says.
That fly was a San Joaquin Valley giant flower-loving fly. Up until then, entomologists didn’t know it lived in Kern County; they thought it had gone extinct in Contra Costa County, west of Stockton.
Ballmer soon found a population of flies about ten miles away at Sand Ridge Preserve. Today, the preserve is the last known habitat for this fly.
Despite it’s scarcity, the fly is not listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but conservationists are trying to make it’s case. In the meantime, others are working to preserve the remaining habitat.
Ballmer says it’s not your normal house fly.
“It's much larger, oh, more like the size of a bumblebee or even a very large bumblebee” Ballmer says. “They could be more than an inch long and with tubular mouthparts, that protrude forward maybe, almost as long as the body.”
While the flies themselves are relatively giant, the San Joaquin variety don’t love flowers. At the same time, the population in Sand Ridge is also not very large, and even experts don’t know how many are left. Ballmer says he’s seen up to 20 flying around at once.
Since Sand Ridge is the last known population of these flies, Ballmer and fellow entomologist Ken Osborne filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the San Joaquin Valley giant flower-loving fly as endangered. They submitted this back in 2014, and they’re still waiting for a decision.
The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the Service because of the delay. Ryan Shannon is one the Center’s attorneys.
“At a certain point in time it's time to step in and kind of give them a little push to finally make a determination one way or another,” Shannon says of the lawsuit.
Shannon says that the prolonged decision puts animals and their habitats at risk for further damage.
“I think it would be tough for them to say that it’s threatened and not endangered. It's hard to say that this species isn’t in danger of going extinct possibly in the very near future,” says Shannon, “It's already been extirpated from 99 percent of its historic range.”
We reached out to the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but they declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation. They have told the Center they’ll make a decision by the end of October.
In the meantime, the San Joaquin giant flower-loving fly is helped by the fact that Sand Ridge preserve was established for the Bakersfield cactus, which is listed as endangered.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently awarded the preserve just over $250,000 to help restore the habitat. Dan Strait is a program manager with the Bureau.
“In this case the species is not listed yet, but just to try to preclude that, we're working with the Service, mostly to identify, what can we do out there at the Sand Ridge Preserve to benefit the species,” says Strait.
This will likely include using herbicide and other methods to clear the preserve of invasive plants.
Out at the Sand Ridge Preserve, Greg Warrick looks for flies. He’s with the Center for Natural Land Management, and Sand Ridge is just one of many locations he maintains in the southern Central Valley.
Much of the preserve is covered by tall grasses. Bakersfield cacti can be seen poking up through it.
“These are not native grasses,” says Warrick. “They’re from the Mediterranean region and they've kind of taken over the system. They form dense mats, you can see where they're up above the cactus and stuff. And the cactus would do better without this grass competition as well.”
We walk half a mile before stopping at an open area, where the grass isn’t as dense. Warrick says he wants more of the ridge to look like this.
“As you look across here, if we could get that all into an open sand system, we’d have a big area for them,” says Warrick. “Even though they’re called giant flower-loving fly, their density could be pretty high.”
We walked in switchbacks across the area, looking for the giant flower-loving fly. Warrick says they spend most of their life underground. They only come out to breed during August and September, and then die a few days later. The window is so limited that it can be hard to find them.
After an hour, we don’t end up seeing any flies. Warrick says it was a bit of a gamble anyway. Even during the right season, he might only see a few in one day. When I asked why, then, was the fly worth protecting, he said that maybe it depends on your worldview.
“I've never subscribed to the idea that this universe is some sort of cosmic accident and everything in it. So I think we're also to be good stewards of what we've been given.”
With a grant on the way, Warrick plans to do just that.