Spring 2023 Friends of the Desert Newsletter
Our Spring 2023 newsletter showcases all the important work your support makes possible.
Check out the following articles in the newsletter:
- Reflecting on a decade of positive results from the wildlife camera program
- Interstate 11: a review and update
- Desert Fence Busters
- And more!
Thank you for supporting a protected and restored Sonoran Desert!
Honor Hector Conde with your gift today
This past winter, long-time conservationist Hector Conde passed away. Hector Conde (1930-2023) was born and educated in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hector’s world view was influenced by his classical education; he spoke five languages and studied philosophy, mathematics, opera, art, and poetry. He was an engineer, an artist and an inventor who held dozens of patents.
His understanding of the factors that led to the decay and decline of past civilizations informed his concerns for our beloved Sonoran Desert and the animals who depend on this habitat for their survival. He saw modern policy through the lens of a poet, a historian, and often, a person who simply appreciated the bird songs and blooms in his own backyard.
Hector’s interests were varied and vast, but he was most focused in his later years on concerns about water and on establishing wildlife corridors for the species who live in the Tucson region. He helped collect and analyze data and map potential corridors to connect the Catalina Mountain range to the Tortolita Range. Today, this corridor offers a safe passage for multiple species that otherwise would have died out due to the development that has blocked their habitat.
In his memory, his friends and family have set a goal to raise $5,000 in support of the Coalition’s Desert Wildlife Internship program. So far, we have raised $1,613 in Hector’s memory. Can you donate today and support future conservationists through our internship program? Donations can be made securely at our website anytime: sonorandesert.org/donate-now/ and mention “Hector Conde” in the note for your donation. Thank you!
SR77 Wildlife Gate and Fencing Ribbon Cutting Event
On April 19, 2023, the Town of Oro Valley hosted a ribbon cutting to celebrate the culmination of a years-long collaboration between the Town, surrounding neighbors and regional partners to preserve scenic views, fix fencing gaps, and protect wildlife along SR 77 near the wildlife crossings.
“This has been quite an effort on the part of groups with a wide variety of needs. Biologists, government agencies, and wildlife connectivity advocates were at odds with Oro Valley residents’ concerns about scenic views at the start of this project, with no solution seemingly possible. But collaboration won the day, with groups working literally for years to find a solution that works for both wildlife and residents. Today is a celebration of that effort,” said CSDP Executive Director Carolyn Campbell
About the project
The gate and fence project was funded by the Pima Association of Governments/Regional Transportation Authority (PAG/RTA). The Town of Oro Valley served as project administrator, with work done by AECOM, Sellers & Sons, Inc., Ninyo & Moore and Tucson Electric Power.
As part of the SR 77 road widening project improvements, game fences had been installed on both sides of the SR 77 corridor from Tangerine Road to the Pinal County line. In this area, a 10-foot-high fence was initially planned to be installed on the back side of homes along the Big Wash. This would route wildlife to the previously established SR 77 wildlife crossings. However, residents in the area expressed a desire to see wildlife from their homes, and not look at a tall game fence. The Town of Oro Valley and PAG/RTA worked with neighbors, Arizona Department of Transportation, Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection to make changes to the existing fence and add gates across the roads to prevent wildlife from dangerously crossing SR 77, keeping wildlife in the Big Wash wildlife corridor.
“Oro Valley takes great pride in our natural open spaces and wildlife,” said Oro Valley Mayor Joe Winfield. “While building upon a previously established wildlife route, this project is truly a group effort to find solutions to protect wildlife without compromising our scenic views. We are grateful for the residents, conservation groups and regional partners who share our community’s values and collaborated with the Town of Oro Valley on this wonderful project.”
The SR 77 Wildlife Bridge was the first of its kind in Southern Arizona when construction finished in 2016. The bridge provides a safe crossing over SR 77 for wildlife including bobcats, desert tortoises and mule deer. One mile to the south, a large wildlife underpass provides another safe crossing point; the underpass is located adjacent to new wildlife gates and fencing. Regional conservation groups now monitor wildlife near the bridge and underpass using cameras.
“The wildlife fencing project has been ongoing since 2016 and has been a collaborative effort between the homeowners, the Town of Oro Valley, the RTA, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The gates and gap wildlife fencing should serve well to protect animals from entering Oracle Road and to use the animal underpass. Congratulations to all for this wonderful outcome,” said Pat Miller, a resident who has been involved in this project.
[Adapted from a Town of Oro Valley press release issued on April 7, 2023]
An update on the Desert Fence Busters
by Trica Oshant Hawkins, Conservation Programs Director, Arizona Wildlife Federation
[Excerpted from the Spring 2023 Friends of Ironwood Forest Newsletter]
I’ve been coordinating various volunteer conservation projects for well over 20 years now. In all that time, I can honestly say that the most gratifying work I have ever done (with or without volunteers) is removing old, abandoned barbed-wire fences.
Nothing says “accomplishment” like a wide open landscape you know is safer for wildlife and allows them freedom of movement for migration, foraging, finding mates, predator avoidance, etc. Sharing that satisfaction with a group of volunteers and other like-minded conservationists is, well, exhilarating.
Those “like-minded conservationists” I’m referring to are the Desert Fence Busters, who have collaborated over the past couple of years to make these impactful fence removal projects happen.
Through my work with the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF), I’ve been involved in projects to remove abandoned barbed-wire fence from public lands for several years now. However, working collaboratively with Desert Fence Busters takes this work to a whole other level.
In the past two years with AWF’s Volunteer for Wildlife program, I’ve organized four different projects, through which we’ve removed five miles of fencing. Those projects typically involve myself (representing AWF), a couple of agency partners, and volunteers (usually less than 20 folks per project).
In roughly that same amount of time, through six Desert Fence Busters projects, we’ve removed an estimated 21 miles of fence and taken 15,300 pounds of metal off the landscape to be recycled. Now that’s impact! See what we can do when we collaborate?
For a group of six different non-profit conser-vation organizations, a cadre of volunteers, and county, state, and federal agencies to collaborate and accomplish so much so quickly is nothing short of extraordinary. There is a certain magic with the Desert Fence Busters that one rarely experiences in the conservation field.
Collaborating among different organizations without “turf wars” or power struggles is rare indeed, yet somehow this group simply gets along and gets things done. We’ve come to honor, respect, and learn more about each other’s work and mission, but more than anything, we share the same goal: to help wildlife by getting aban-doned barbed wire off the landscape…to bust fence!
While fences serve many purposes, with both positive and negative effects on wildlife and people, abandoned barbed-wire fencing poses nothing but hazards for animals on the land-scape. Wildlife get entangled in the wire, often resulting in death. Fencing also disrupts the natural movement of wildlife, causing individual stress and population declines.
Many of these fences were installed during the era of intense cattle ranching in the south-west, which coincided with the invention of barbed wire in the late 1870s. To hold on to their public land grazing allotments, ranchers had to show “improvement” on the land. Building fences was (and still is) one of the primary methods of “improving” one’s grazing allotments.
However, there weren’t (and still aren’t) any directives stating that those fences had to be removed once ranchers and their cattle moved on. As land ownership and grazing allotments changed, the relics of the cattle industry remain-ed on the landscape. And they still do to this day.
It is estimated that there are 620,000 miles of fence on private, city, county, state and federal landscapes across the west. But no one really knows how much of that is abandoned barbed-wire fence, also known as “ghost fence.”
We do know it is a significant amount. As an example, in the 776 square miles that make up the Sonoran Desert National Monument (an AWF fence removal project site), it is estimated that there are at least 40 more miles of abandoned fence that needs removing…that we know of. So, there’s a lot of work to be done!
The beauty of the Desert Fence Busters is that we have a variety of agency land managers that identify and map abandoned fence that needs removing from their respective lands. Once a project site is scouted and identified, each of the different non-profit organizations reaches out to their respective database of volunteers, invit-ing them to participate in the project.
Agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department provide resources such as tools and fence rollers. Friends of Ironwood Forest sets up an information table and welcomes volunteers. BKW partners load and haul away the dropped fencing and T-posts. All of the groups help in organizing the projects and share costs of providing lunch, snacks, and beverages.
Through the Desert Fence Busters, we are truly making an impact on our beloved Sonoran desert landscape. We are improving the habitat for wildlife… and for people. Together, we are making a difference.
There are some who say the future of conservation is in collaboration. With the Desert Fence Busters, that future is now.
The Desert Fence Busters includes the following partner organizations: Friends of Ironwood Forest, Arizona Wildlife Federation, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Arizona Game and Fish Department, BKW, Bureau of Reclamation, City of Tucson, Friend of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Mule Deer Foundation, Pima County, Saguaro National Park, and Tucson Audubon Society.
The I-11 lawsuit explained
by Tom Hannagan, Friends of Ironwood Forest, President of the Board of Directors
(excerpted from the Friends of Ironwood Forest Spring 2023 Newsletter)
Usually in this space, I would review three or four things that Friends of Ironwood Forest has been involved in recently. This time I’d like to focus on one item. We were in federal court for the first time in FIF history, to stop the proposed interstate I-11.
The FIF took a huge step forward in advocacy last year by joining three partners in filing a legal claim against the new I-11 interstate route favored by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Our three partners in this action are the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection (CSDP), and the Tuscon chapter of the Audubon Society.
The route chosen by ADOT, the so-called “west option,” would come very close to the eastern border of Ironwood Forest National Monument (IFNM) and bisect the Avra Valley, creating a barrier to wildlife connectivity between the mountains in IFNM and the Tucson Mountains, which include Saguaro National Park-West and Tucson Mountain Park. The ability of wildlife to move between mountain ranges is necessary for their genetic strength and in turn the continuing health of the species.
ADOT and the FHWA ignored the nearly unanimous objections of all bodies submitting public comments on their choice. In addition to conservation organizations, such as FIF and community organizations in Tucson, the governments of Pima County, the City of Tucson, and the Tohono O’odham Nation also filed formal objections. Even other departments of the federal government, including the National Park System, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed comments objecting to the west option.
Our lawsuit claims that ADOT/FHWA did not follow federal law in rushing through their Environmental Impact Study-Phase I (EIS). We feel ADOT ignored three separate federal laws affecting EIS requirements. Of critical importance to us was that the ADOT/FHWA excluded IFNM from any consideration as to environmental impact within the EIS. They felt that the IFNM did not qualify for consideration as a “park.”
Their rather flimsy justification for this is that the presidential proclamation creating IFNM did not use the term “park” or “recreation”. This is in spite of many references to recreational use in the BLM Resource Management Plan for the IFNM. It is clearly obvious that the IFNM is used for many public recreational activities from camping to hiking to photography to hunting and so on. It is also clear to all that the IFNM is a wildlife refuge for the only indigenous herd of desert bighorn sheep, along with other threatened plant and animal species.
Rather than waiting for the ADOT/FHWA juggernaut to proceed any further, we thought it was time to do everything possible to stop it. ADOT/ FHWA filed their EIS Record of Decision in November 2021. We began discussing a lawsuit by March 2022 and filed the legal claim in April 2022. See CBD’s press release about the lawsuit.
There were a series of minor filings by both parties regarding attorneys and other clarifying details. As expected, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss a part of our claim in August 2022. On January 25, 2023, we had our first appearance before a judge.
The attorney for FHWA/ADOT tried to justify their motion to dismiss by saying that taking into account the negative impact on the IFNM and other public lands was something they “might consider” in Phase II of the EIS process or sometime later. The judge repeatedly questioned the attorney as to why this wasn’t done, or shouldn’t have been done, sooner rather than later. Our CBD attorney argued that federal law clearly requires consideration covering impact as soon as possible in the overall process.
In fact, we all know that ADOT’s preference for the Avra Valley route could be materially affected by having to deal with the environmental impact on IFNM. The judge did not disagree with our line of argument. We conservationists in attendance (basically the only attendees other than members of the press) were very pleased to see the interest expressed by the judge and the performance of the CBD attorney, Wendy Park.
There is no deadline for the judge to rule on the motion to dismiss. He could decline the motion, grant it, or put it into some form of abeyance until later in the main trial. We will update you all when we get this ruling, and for other key stages of the legal claim over time. This is a rather long-term process.
I very much want to thank everyone of you who have continued to support FIF so that we have the capability to fight for the Monument. Your energy and goodwill are major factors in our continued efforts to protect the local treasure called Ironwood Forest National Monument.
Join Our Team!
The Coalition is hiring! In addition to TWO new paid internship positions open for the Fall 2023 semester, we are also seeking to grow another arm on our saguaro with a full-time Program and Communications Coordinator.
Learn more about these opportunities, and apply, on our website here:
Program and Communications Coordinator
The application period for all three positions ends April 12, 2023.
Tucson-Tortolita Mountains Wildlife Linkage: The Latest Data and Looking Ahead
Last month we shared that we expanded this project in 2022, with cameras on either side of I-10 between the Tucson Mountains and Tortolita Mountains, and six more planned to be placed in 2023. Here are some details on what we’ve found so far!
Our project is comparing five study areas, each with four cameras placed at least 200m apart. These areas are shown in the map below: Private lands in the northern Tucson Mountain range (1), Los Morteros & Rattlesnake Pass (2), El Rio Preserve (3), the Santa Cruz River (4), and Pima County Conservation lands east of Interstate 10 called Cascada (5). These study areas make up a large part of the Tucson-Tortolita Wildlife Linkage, and each has different topography, elevation, distance to water, and other unique habitat features.
Our results show that each study area is dominated by different species, but there are common species throughout, namely mule deer, coyote, bobcat, javelina, gray fox, and cottontail rabbit. Mountain lions have only been observed on Private lands, while kit fox and badger have only been photographed on Cascada lands. El Rio is thus far the least diverse in species (it is also the smallest area and the most impacted by people), while Private lands have been the most diverse – unless you count individual bird species, and then the Santa Cruz River area has them all beat. In addition to the exciting kit fox discovery, other notable species include hooded and spotted skunks, raccoon, and Mexican free-tailed bats.
Working with Pima County, this data is already informing a project to build a wildlife ramp from the only accessible wildlife crossings near Avra Valley Road, to provide entry into the Santa Cruz River over the water levy. We are also working on gaining permanent protection for the Tortolita Preserve and planning a large wildlife bridge over I-10, and a smaller crossing structure at Rattlesnake Pass. These crossings are being designed specifically with mule deer, mountain lion, and bighorn sheep in mind, but will benefit many species.
Thank you to all of our volunteers that are instrumental to this work and to our many member groups and community partners that are collaborating on this multi-pronged project!
Celebration of Life and Hike and Memorial for Josh Skattum
Please join us Saturday 3/4/23 at Sabino Canyon to remember and celebrate our friend and colleague Josh Skattum. We’ll walk in our tie-dyed shirts to the Cactus Picnic Area to gather and share our stories and favorite moments with Josh. Josh’s family will be joining us from Wisconsin and would love the opportunity to meet Josh’s Tucson community and hear more about his time in our lives.
The Coalition is putting together a scrapbook of his adventures with us to give to Josh’s parents. We invite you to bring a photo, trinket, or written story/memory you might have of Josh to add to this gift. Our goal is to give them a chapter of Josh’s, one they can enjoy again and again once they’re back home in Wisconsin.
After we gather for the memorial, we invite folks to hike back to the Visitor’s Center along the Esperero Trail or extend your time in the canyon with one of the many other trails available. Sabino Canyon was one of Josh’s favorite places and he visited to explore often, we couldn’t think of a better place to gather and celebrate him.
What: Josh Skattum Celebration of Life Hike and Remembrance
When: Saturday March 4, 2023 at 10am
Where: Sabino Canyon – meet at the open ramada in front of the Visitor’s Center. Look for the Coalition staff and others in their blue tie-dyed shirts.
*Parking at Sabino Canyon is $8 per vehicle, please consider carpooling if you can.
*Light refreshments will be provided and there will be water to refill water bottles.
*Bring a hat, water bottle, and good walking shoes.
*The ramada will provide shade for our gathering.
*There are restroom accommodations in the Cactus Picnic area.
You are also welcome to RSVP for the event and share more widely with your circles at this Facebook event although it is totally optional.
If you have any questions or need anything further information, please reach out to Whelan at Sarah.Whelan@sonorandesert.org.
Pima County pursues new protected open spaces
Late last year, Pima County announced a slate of new protected open space acquisitions they are pursuing with the $2 million allocated for the acquisition of conservation land in the County’s 2022-2023 budget. The open space parcels include:
- A set of parcels next to the wildlife crossing over the CAP canal in Avra Valley;
- A set of private inholdings on the M-Diamond Ranch in the San Pedro River valley; and
- A small inholding on the Buckelew Farm in Avra Valley.
Want to learn more about these parcels? Head over to this Pima County memo that includes more details about each open space acquisition and maps of the parcels adjacent to the CAP canal wildlife crossing.
All of these new open space acquisitions are part of Pima County’s continued implementation of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.
2022 Wildlife Camera Project Recap
2022 was another successful year for our Wildlife Camera Monitoring Program, and also our 10th anniversary of this community science-based project! Big thanks to ALL the volunteers that have been the engine behind this project from day one!
Oro Valley Linkage Wildlife Monitoring
This is the project that started it all, and gives us the distinction of having the oldest and longest lasting community science wildlife camera monitoring effort in southern Arizona. Today we have 24 active cameras on either side of Oracle Road, that have gathered over 300,000 images of wildlife, including a mountain lion who moved through the underpass this year. We have also identified 24 wildlife species in this area, with the addition of a black bear this past year.
Watch a presentation about this project here.
Tucson Mountains Linkage Wildlife Monitoring
We have expanded this project this year, with 24 cameras on either side of I-10 between the Tucson Mountains and Tortolita Mountains, and 6 more planned to be placed in 2023. These cameras have captured nearly 124,000 wildlife photos over the life of the project! We have also identified 26 different wildlife species in this area, with the addition of the kit fox this past year.
Working with Pima County, this data is already informing a project to build a wildlife ramp from the only accessible wildlife crossings near Avra Valley Road, to provide entry into the Santa Cruz River over the water levy. We are also working on gaining permanent protection for the Tortolita Preserve, and planning a wildlife bridge over I-10 and another at Rattlesnake Pass.
Sopori Ranch Linkage Wildlife Monitoring
In partnership with the Arizona Land and Water Trust, we are monitoring this linkage and using the images to promote this wild corridor. Today we have 5 cameras that have produced nearly 4,000 images and growing.
Watch a video showcasing this area here.
I-10 East Linkage Wildlife Monitoring
The I-10 East project involved two seasons of roadkill surveys and two years of monitoring key culverts and bridges for wildlife use and passage rates. Exactly 45 wildlife cameras were active between January 2020 and January 2022, during which time we collected over 789,000 photos and have identified over 36 species across our 10 monitoring sites, including both mule deer and white-tail deer, Mexican opossum, black bear, mountain lion, Gould’s turkey, white-nose coati, ringtail, striped skunk, hognose skunk, hooded skunk, Western spotted skunk, and badger.
Interesting records included a photo of a bobcat carrying a bull snake in its mouth, the Mexican opossum, and images of a likely mating pair of adult mountain lions traveling together.
This data report is being incorporated into a proposal for wildlife funnel fencing and improved underpass and bridge structures for wildlife. Pima County is also using this data to justify a funding grant to make surface water improvements near these sites, and we collaborated to submit scoping comments in October 2022 for an upcoming ADOT project to help improve the area with highest roadkill mortality in our roadkill study between mileposts 292-294.