RTA funds could go toward Oracle Road wildlife crossings

Wildlife advocates have long argued for greater connectivity between pockets of animal habitat. Now, they might get their wish.

Under the auspices of the voter-approved Regional Transportation Authority, wildlife-crossing structures appear to be on the Pima County horizon.

One proposal would see the construction of animal crossings in the Sahuarita area, another in Marana along the new Camino de Mañana construction project.

More significantly, at least to conservation activists, is the discussion regarding a trio of wildlife-crossing structures along Oracle Road in Oro Valley.

"This is one of the most exciting developments that we’ve seen," said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.

A preview of the RTA funding proposal appears on the Oro Valley Town Council’s agenda July 15. RTA potentially would be asked to approve $8 million to build the three structures.

Timing of the proposal fits into the ongoing state project of widening Oracle Road, also known as State Route 77.

The crossings would facilitate the movement of animals between the Santa Catalina and Tortolita mountain ranges, two areas biologists have identified as important wildlife habitats.

Ground that lies between the ranges, including 14 square miles of nearly untouched Arizona State Trust land called Arroyo Grande, also has been deemed an important parcel of open space.

Until recently, Oro Valley and the state were in negotiations for the annexation of the area into the town. The parties made progress concerning potential development of the area and the inclusion of a wildlife corridor along the southern edge of the property. But state budget shortfalls and a change in state leadership have pushed back the prospect of annexation, at least for the year. That could pose some difficulties if the RTA opts to go forward with the crossing projects.

Under the annexation proposal, the state had conceded that at least 68 percent of Arroyo Grande would remain open, including the southern portion identified as the wildlife corridor. With the annexation now off the table, no such guarantees exist.

"I would want to make sure that the lands leading up to it are preserved as well," said Jim DeGrood, transportation director at Pima Association of Governments, the administrative body of the RTA.

The RTA plan has $45 million earmarked for wildlife crossings. DeGrood said the Oracle proposal likely would remain a primary candidate, but the long-term status of surrounding lands needs consideration.

The RTA would want assurances that the adjacent land remains undeveloped, otherwise the crossings would be irrelevant, DeGrood said.

"We should be making land-use decisions that are consistent with it (the RTA plan)," DeGrood said.

A few developed parcels are near one of the proposed crossings. The northernmost, and largest, structure would bridge Oracle Road between Pima County’s Catalina Waste Transfer Station and Catalina Mountain School, a state juvenile detention facility. The animal pathway would wind between a church parking lot and the razor wire fencing that surrounds the detention center. Further east stand open expanses of state land and the Coronado National Forest.

"It’s not perfect," said Campbell, who added some potential changes would improve the effectiveness of the structure.

County officials have discussed the possibility of closing Catalina Waste Transfer Station. Campbell also said there’s a possibility the state would relocate the juvenile detention center on the east side of Oracle. The facility leases the land from the State Land Department.

The two proposed crossing structures to the south, both underpasses, would connect tributaries to Big Wash in Oro Valley with Catalina State Park. The proposed underpasses are adjacent to Big Wash Overlook Place and Scenic Overlook Place, both roads that empty onto Oracle. The sites were chosen, in part, because of the frequency of animal crossings already.

"This spot has the highest number of road kill," Campbell said.

In 2004, the Arizona Department of Transportation conducted a road kill analysis on Oracle Road and other state highways. In the 34 days of the study, more than 2,500 animals were found dead on the blacktop. Most were reptiles, rodents and birds, but mule deer, javalina and coyotes also were killed.

The purpose of the wildlife bridges and underpasses would be to minimize animal fatalities. Biologists also say the greater the mobility of animals, the better chance of breeding and the greater their chance of species survival.

"The Game and Fish Department is very supportive of these wildlife crossings," Robert Fink of the Arizona Game and Fish Department said.

While the crossings ideally would facilitate greater animal movement, Fink said the structures would not increase the number of human-animal interactions.

Situated between two expansive tracts of wilderness, Oro Valley is known for frequent wildlife sightings. The Explorer receives photos from readers on weekly basis showing desert creatures in backyards or near homes, frequently bobcats. Recently one resident reported spotting a mountain lion near his Oro Valley home and another sent a photo of what he thought was a mountain lion. Because the animal was behind a bush it was difficult to determine what it may have been. Fink, who also saw the image, said the department deemed the sighting inconclusive.

"I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s not a bobcat," Fink said.

If a mountain lion was spotted in Oro Valley, Fink said he wouldn’t be surprised. In 2004, University of Arizona researchers put a radio collar on a mountain lion and tracked its movements for more than a year. In that time the lion passed freely between the Catalina and Tortolita mountains, spending much time in Arroyo Grande and skirting Oro Valley limits.

"In our experience, these lions tend to briefly pop into town and then leave," Fink said. "The collared ones seem to wander to the edge of town and that’s it."

He said it was likely that other lions also roam the same range. Despite the territoriality of the animals, it’s not uncommon for numerous lions to range in the same area.

Fink cites the mountain lion scare in Sabino Canyon in 2003 and 2004.

"There was a lot of lions in that area at the time," Fink said. He said at least seven were documented in the canyon.

Game and Fish estimates the state has as many as 3,000 lions at any time. It’s also legal to hunt the animals. Since 2000, the department has awarded an average of 8,100 hunting permits per year with 321 lions harvested annually.

A mountain lion living south of Green Valley was recently killed when it started to wipe out livestock at a farm and appeared to have lost its fear of humans.

In Oro Valley, police have not received any reports of mountain lion sightings, with the exception of the recent incident, nor have any residents reported house pets killed or injured by predators.

As for the possibility that the RTA would fund the three wildlife crossings in Oro Valley, Campbell remains hopeful, saying, "This is what I’ve always seen RTA money going to."

For healthier wildlife, don’t feed the animals

While feeding wildlife can attract beautiful Sonoran Desert animals, the Arizona Game and Fish Department reminds residents that it also attracts predators. What’s more, with the exception of birds and tree squirrels, it’s against the law.

Game and Fish offers the following tips to help prevent human-animal conflicts:

Feed pets indoors or remove leftover food immediately.

Store all garbage securely.

Do not discard edible garbage where javelina, skunks, coyotes and other wild animals can get to it.

Keep birdseed and water off the ground and out of reach of wild animals.

Securely close all openings to spaces under buildings and mobile homes. This is even more critical in the spring when many animals from foxes to skunks are looking for den sites.

Don’t let your pets be free roaming, they may end up as a meal for coyotes, hawks, owls, bobcats and other predators, or come into conflict with javelina and skunks.

Keep your pets on a leash whenever they are out of the yard.

Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department.

To see this article in its original format click here.