Study warns of long-term environmental ramifications of small communities in the Negev desert.
By Zafrir Rinat | Feb.07, 2013

Are single-family ranches harming biological diversity in the Negev? According to a new study, they may well be doing so in the long run.

In recent years, having been approved by a special zoning plan, single-family ranches in the Negev have become a done deal. They allow a handful of people to farm on a large scale, build guesthouses and agricultural structures, and live on site. What is still unclear is the impact these ranches have on the ecosystem, but the findings of a new study, published in the most recent issue of the Israeli journal “Ecology and the Environment,” are worrisome.

The purpose of the study, conducted by researchers from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, the Architecture and Urban Planning Faculty of the Technion, and the Desert Ecology Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was to examine the impact of single-family ranches on the biodiversity of their environments. Incidentally, many of the ranchers pride themselves on taking part in a type of settlement that takes ecological systems into consideration and helps protect them from overgrazing sheep, hunting and illegal construction.

The study focused on the area along the Mitzpeh Ramon-Sde Boker road, plus an extension in the Yeruham direction, where 27 single-family ranches were built. After being built, they received legal permission through a zoning plan called “The Wine Route,” which states that the ranches will serve both as tourist destinations and working farms.

The researchers concentrated on 15 ranches approved as part of “The Wine Route” zoning plan, and collected fauna – beetles, rodents and reptiles – from nearby sites to determine the extent to which the ranches impact wildlife in the area. In addition, they collected specimens of the same species from more distant locations to serve as the control group.

The study’s findings do not indicate a serious decrease in the wildlife population near the single-family ranches. It also notes that different species react differently to the ranches, and every species reacts differently depending on the season. There are nonetheless signs that the proximity to the ranches has already started to affect the makeup of the species compared to the control areas.

Researchers did not find any real damage to wildlife, but claim that there are good reasons to worry about negative ramifications of the single-family ranches in the long run. They say that although vast tracts of the Negev were settled in the past and used for agriculture and grazing, this is the first time there is a contiguous sequence of communities reliant on water sources from other areas, leading to the creation of green islands in the heart of the desert. While this may sound lovely, in practice it creates an environment with new and different features for the flora and fauna that developed in the area.

“If ranches affect the composition of animals for a hypothetical distance of a kilometer, a corridor of an ecosystem with a new society could come into being in the Negev,” note the researches in an essay. “Such a corridor could allow various species to penetrate the desert, form a barrier and separate the Negev hills ecosystem into two parts – the eastern and western – thereby cutting species and populations off from one another.”

It is important to note that not only single-family ranches cause natural habitats to separate into disparate parts. The unrecognized Bedouin settlements do the same because of the widespread expansion of single-family dwellings, each of which creates a barrier to swatches of open areas. If more single-family ranches are built in the Negev (including perimeter fencing) and unregulated Bedouin construction continues to creep unchecked, the Negev – a varied, continuous mosaic of landscapes – will become a collection of severed patches of nature leftovers.

The authors of this study acknowledge that there are other population centers in the Negev, including moshavim, kibbutzim and unrecognized Bedouin villages, with their own environmental impact, but according to the study there is an essential difference between them and the single-family ranches they studied, namely: The average effect per person is greater for ranchers with large tracts of land. In addition, some of the ranches are located in ecologically sensitive areas, sometimes on the edge of nature reserves.

“The study’s results reinforce the need to examine new settlement that relies on existing infrastructures as opposed to founding entirely new communities and the need to consider the number of communities as an important variable when examining human impact on the Negev environment,” notes the study’s summation.

These conclusions could be relevant in the as-yet undecided debate about the future of other single-family ranches in the Galilee, Judean Hills and the northern part of the Negev. While the number of ranches in the Galilee and Judean Hills is smaller and the ranches are not contiguous, the locations are smaller, the natural areas much more rare and the density of the other communities much higher. Therefore, the impact of these ranches could be significant.

As for the desert, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel recently announced that a few months ago, a government committee approved the allocation of land for another 10 single-family ranches in the northern Negev; these already exist but have not yet received legal permission. Thanks to the committee’s approval, these ranchers can now request the Israel Lands Administration to allocate them the land.