Archive for the ‘Field Notes’ Category

In wonder of bighorns and tortoises

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A Sonoran Desert tortoise, affectionately nicknamed “Calypso” by the family that found him, gets ready to be released back into the wild with a tracking device affixed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

by Jessica Moreno

Calypso is a healthy desert tortoise of about 25-30 years and a tortoise on a mission. He was named by a caring, bright 7-year old, whose family found him on their front doorstep no less than three times – after several kindly reminders to return to Big Wash and to stay on his side of the street. When they called us, I was eager to meet them. Arizona Game and Fish biologists joined me and placed a tracker on his shell using special putty, offered him a drink, and we returned him with ceremony once again to Big Wash, carrying him low as we crossed back over the street. Calypso was trying doggedly to travel east, but instead of using the very accessible wildlife underpass, he was taking the open high road: climbing up a rocky embankment, crossing the busy neighborhood street, and wandering just yards from the highway. (His tracker confirms he is now finally snuggled in for hibernation over winter, southwest of the wildlife bridge.)

Calypso may live to reach the ripe age of 80. But his story almost ended differently, and there are still animals getting killed on Oracle Road by moving through openings in nearby neighborhood streets, where either cattle guards couldn’t be installed at the highway entrance or the sound wall ends. We have identified the last remaining areas like this where animals like Calypso are accessing the street – and the highway – near the wildlife underpass in the Vista Mirabella and Vistoso Vistas neighborhoods. Arizona Game and Fish Department’s roadkill surveys confirm a growing hotspot of animals being killed on the highway south of the underpass crossing, where these gaps in the wildlife funnel-fence begin. The Regional Transportation Authority, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and your Rancho Vistoso HOA have joined together with neighbors to solve this problem. We’ve been communicating closely with residents living next to these openings to find the best fencing solutions.

Thanks to residents’ help and feedback, the first of these gaps have been closed to wildlife at the end of N. Big Wash Overlook Place. A pedestrian gate was included for trail access to Big Wash. The wildlife fence has been a critical part of the effectiveness of the wildlife crossings, and we look forward to working with residents to close the remaining few gaps so wildlife like Calypso can continue to travel between Big Wash and Catalina State Park without risk of traffic accidents or casualty.

The promise of that remains. Recently, a young desert bighorn ram trotted down a small desert wash east of Oracle Road – the wildlife underpass directly before him, and the Catalina mountains behind him. This rare and memorable wildlife camera photo out of hundreds collected that morning caused us all to cheer! The potential is there for the Big Wash Wildlife Corridor to become a path for Tortolita-bound bighorns.

A young desert bighorn sheep ram trots north near the Oracle Road wildlife underpass.

 

The importance of this effort lies still in my heart. It comes with the wonder, excitement, and hope that a bighorn and a tortoise bring. For all of us desert dwellers, what better gift is there than that?

For more information:
Visit www.sonoranwildlifecorridors.org for local wildlife monitoring results and wildlife crossing info, or email us at admin@sonorandesert.org. The Coalition will provide brief updates at the Rancho Vistoso HOA Board Meetings.

The new Big Wash Multi-Use Trail has been in Pima County’s planning books for decades. However, with wildlife funnel-fencing guiding animals into the area near the wildlife crossings, and surrounding development constraining open space, Big Wash has gone from an important wildlife movement area to a wilderness-style traffic jam of animals moving and living in this natural corridor. The Coalition successfully worked with Pima County to move the multi-use trail further west, away from the crossing structures. And, by asking people to stay on the trail, we can give people the chance to enjoy the desert without disturbing the larger area and the needs of the critters that rely more than ever on Big Wash. We are also working with Pima County after some erosion-control work in Big Wash resulted in re-vegetation needs near the wildlife underpass. Wildlife are moving around with a bit more frequency before the cold of winter sets in, and we’ve seen quite a few other surprises.

Field Notes from Wyoming: Preserving Ungulate Migrations for the Future

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June 7, 2017

By Kathleen Kennedy, CSDP Associate Director

Did you know that mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk migrate hundreds of miles each year in Wyoming? Fairly recently, scientists discovered that various herds of these ungulates migrate every summer and winter. Many of them summer in Yellowstone National Park, then fan out to the north, south, east, and west as they migrate to their winter ranges. Intermingling in Yellowstone in the summer leads to increased genetic diversity as the different herds meet up. Roads, however, threaten these migrations when thousands of animals cross certain sections of roadway in a short amount of time. Pronghorn antelope, for instance, cross Highway 191 near Pinedale, WY by the thousands, leading to safety risks for both the pronghorn and motorists. 

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation (ICOET) in Salt Lake City, UT. Together with Coalition Director, Carolyn Campbell, we presented on the Oracle Road wildlife crossings project (in collaboration with Arizona Game and Fish Department) and on how wildlife crossing infrastructure is funded in Pima County. We were also able to attend a wide variety of presentations by academics, other non-profits, state and federal agencies, and private consultants on the latest and best science around the intersection of ecology and transportation. Presentation topics included research on wildlife fencing, wildlife crossings, different wildlife species in various ecosystems, funding mechanisms for crossings, and a host of other topics. 

On Day Three of the conference, I woke up at 5am and hopped on the 5:45am lightrail train to get to the conference center by 6am. This was our departure time for a long day-trip into southwest Wyoming to learn first-hand about ungulate migrations and see the different wildlife crossings that Wyoming has built to preserve these migratory patterns. Our first stop was in Nugget Canyon on Highway 30. This is the location of a large mule deer migration. From late April to late May, thousands of mule deer migrate from south of Nugget Canyon north to Yellowstone over 150 miles. Once this migration was discovered in the 1990s, the state began by installing wildlife fencing. This reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions where the fencing was located but collisions continued in the un-fenced area (hundreds each year). By 2012, the Wyoming Department of Transportation had installed 7 wildlife underpasses and installed more wildlife fencing to connect them. This dramatically reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions, with thousands of mule deer using the crossings safely each year. 

Our second stop of the day, after winding through the Wyoming Range through intermittent snowstorms and following the Snake River for a ways south of Grand Teton National Park, was Trappers Point. Trappers Point is home to two wildlife overpasses over Highway 191 built for pronghorn antelope and six wildlife underpasses primarily used by mule deer, but also elk and moose. These wildlife overpasses were finished in 2012 and are now used by thousands of pronghorn as they migrate from their winter range east of Big Piney, WY to their summer range near Grand Teton National Park. As we arrived at the wildlife overpass and stepped off the bus, four pronghorn could be seen running towards the overpass – it was quite a welcome to this important project site. 

Wyoming is a rugged and sparsely populated state. But like anywhere, it is not immune to the pressures of more roads, oil & gas development, and growing population centers. It was inspiring to see first-hand what the Wyoming Department of Transportation is doing and has done to mitigate the impacts of habitat fragmentation through the construction of wildlife crossings and fencing. Their wildlife crossings are preserving migratory patterns that are older than we know and that are passed down each year from mother to young. We can all be grateful for that. 

Note: I found it interesting that in Wyoming, mule deer prefer wildlife underpasses while here in the Sonoran Desert, at least on the Oracle Road wildlife crossings project, they vastly prefer wildlife overpasses. To me, this points to the need for a variety of crossing types and continued research in different ecosystems. What works in one place won’t necessarily work in another place. We must always be in tune to the nuances of the ecosystem we’re working in. 

Wildlife Underpass in Nugget Canyon, WY used primarily by mule deer and elk during their migrations. Photo by Kathleen Kennedy.

Wildlife fencing in Nugget Canyon, WY. Photo by Kathleen Kennedy.

Wildlife overpass at Trappers Point, WY built for the migration of pronghorn antelope. Photo by Kathleen Kennedy.

The view northeast from on top of the Trappers Point wildlife overpass, looking at the Wind River Mountain Range. Photo by Kathleen Kennedy.