by Jessica Moreno, Conservation Science Director
The last time I took a stroll down Big Wash, which runs along the west side of Oracle Road, the chill air pressed against my face mask but still managed to carry the smell of triangle leaf bursage and creosote. Gambel’s quail scurried away with their bustling chip-chip-chip alarm call. Dry for most of the year in that characteristic way our desert washes are, Big Wash has served as a connection for animals moving back and forth between the Cañada del Oro Wash and open space north of Rancho Vistoso. It has always been an important wildlife movement area, a key feature in a linkage connecting the Tortolita and Catalina mountains, and now, with two wildlife crossings in place and wildlife monitoring efforts nearing a decade milestone, we are learning more every day about the habits and movements of animals that often remain just out of sight.
Five year ago, when the wildlife bridge and underpass were built on SR77, the red ribbon was cut, the first critter crossed, and we celebrated. But the work wasn’t quite over. In addition to wildlife monitoring, Phase II of the project was to finish placing the last sections of wildlife funnel fencing. Wildlife fencing is an essential part of every successful wildlife crossing and is a vital component of this project to both effectively reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and maintain a connected landscape for wildlife populations and gene flow. But a few jurisdictional issues and challenges to fencing placement threatened to hold up the whole project, so the decision was made to complete the difficult pieces after the crossing structures were done. Arizona Game and Fish Department’s roadkill surveys confirmed hotpots associated with these fencing gaps. It was a problem, but addressing it had to be done right.
One of these fencing gaps was on either side of the wildlife underpass, at the Rancho Vistoso neighborhood of Vista Mirabella. We placed wildlife cameras to monitor the gaps and reached out to the residents and the HOA to help solve the problem. The solution, made possible thanks to the leadership of the Town of Oro Valley and the wise suggestion of one of the residents, is an elegant one. And it may very well be the first of its kind for wildlife exclusion: wildlife fencing connected to the sound wall will close the gaps at the north and south ends of the neighborhood, while specially designed automatic gates will secure the neighborhood entrances.
This is a unique circumstance since these are public streets and the gates, which are designed like a gated community entrance, will open to any approaching vehicle. They are planned to remain open during high volume traffic hours and close at night. The Regional Transportation Authority is covering the cost out of remaining funds from the original crossing construction budget, including re-vegetation and projected maintenance, and Oro Valley is taking responsibility to maintain the gates into the future.
After four years of outreach and problem solving as a community, we hope that construction on this final piece of the puzzle will begin this summer. There are still details to figure out, but light is at the end of the tunnel and the end result, I think, is something everyone can be proud to have taken part in.
A big thanks to Coalition volunteers Pat and Henry Miller for their help in monitoring the fencing gaps and their overall involvement in this project! And thank you to the Regional Transportation Authority, Pima County, the Town of Oro Valley, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department for your shared persistence in this project.
More information about this project can be found in a Power Point presentation recently created by the RTA and the Town of Oro Valley.
Tags: Oracle Road, Oracle Road wildlife bridge, Oracle Road wildlife crossings, Regional Transportation Authority, SR77 wildlife crossings, wildlife cameras, wildlife crossings, wildlife linkages