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In wonder of bighorns and tortoises

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.

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