Archive for the ‘Updates’ Category

Pima County pursues new protected open spaces

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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

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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.

This happy coyote was photographed near the Oracle Road wildlife underpass by our CONFORTI camera, monitored by Pat & Henry Miller.

 

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.

Two coyote pups in the Tucson Mountains. Photo by Raynor Vandeven.

 

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.

A deer navigating a wash in the Sopori Creek area.

 

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.

Read the Final Report here.

A deer heads towards a wildlife underpass in the I-10 East area with the lights of cars seen above. Photo by Raynor VanDeven.

 

The latest on I-11: Lawsuit sees its first day in court

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On Wednesday, January 25, 2023, U.S. District Judge John C. Hinderaker heard arguments on the federal government’s motion to dismiss a portion of our challenge to Interstate 11 filed in April 2022 in collaboration with the Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, and Friends of Ironwood Forest. Big thanks to the 30 Coalition supporters that showed up to support us at the hearing.

According to a press release about the hearing, “The lawsuit says the agency failed to consider other transportation alternatives, such as rail, and sidestepped the required environmental review before approving the 280-mile-long highway between Nogales and Wickenburg. The planned interstate’s west option would plow through desert wildlands in rural Avra Valley and between Saguaro National Park and Ironwood National Monument. It would disturb hundreds of archaeological and cultural sites and spread invasive buffelgrass known to fuel wildfires.” 

You can learn more at at a KVOA4 story that aired after the hearing and a KGUN 9 story that aired before the hearing. We will update you when we learn more about a timeline for Judge Hinderaker’s decision on the case.

Whatever his decision, we remain grateful for your support as we continue advocating against the West Option for Interstate 11 and for a connected and restored Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona for all. 

Want to learn about the history of Interstate 11 and ways to get involved today? Head over to our comprehensive set of webpages (also found at the top of this page under the “Our Work” tab), including a history of the planning process, a thorough list of media articles,  maps, and more. 

Desert Fence Busters tackle the Big Wash in Oro Valley

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In mid-November 2022, the Desert Fence Busters tackled a section of the Big Wash in Oro Valley. Over the course of a beautiful Saturday morning, 35 people removed 1.5 miles of old barbed-wire fencing from the wash, improving the safety of this area for both people and wildlife. The fencing added up to over 2,000 pounds of both barbed wire and t-posts. 

The Big Wash is a critical wildlife movement area between the Santa Catalina Mountains (including Catalina State Park) and the Tortolita Mountains. It is also a popular area for local hikers, wildlife watchers, and mountain bikers. Removing this fencing will allow wildlife to move more freely and safely and improve safety for nearby residents. 

The Desert Fence Busters officially formed in late 2021, but emerged from a long-time collaborative effort among a variety of public agencies and non-profits. This unique partnership began seven years ago to share information between agencies on projects centered in Avra Valley west of the Tucson Mountains. In 2021, it emerged that multiple land management agencies had outdated fencing that are impeding wildlife, with animal carcasses found hung up on barbed wire while attempting to jump or crawl through the fence. While the work of the Desert Fence Busters is largely focused in Avra Valley, it was exciting to remove old fencing from an area connected to the Oracle Road wildlife crossings and that has seen so much public investment and interest in recent years. 

Future Desert Fence Busters events will be announced on our main Desert Fence Busters webpage

Check out the slideshow below of the amazing group of volunteers that removed fencing in the Big Wash (click on the slideshow to view it in a larger format):

Remembering and Celebrating Josh

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Our community suffered a tragic loss when our first Desert Wildlife Intern and long-time volunteer Josh Skattum died tragically on October 22, 2022 after being involved in a serious car accident. 

Josh with his bright smile and his signature CSDP hard hat taking a selfie while checking wildlife cameras near I-10 East.


Josh was a force to be reckoned with, a ray of sunshine in an often dark world, and we miss him deeply. Folks have come from many different communities in Tucson and his home is Wisconsin to remember Josh and support the healing of his partner TJ. We are so grateful for this community, and for you, and are comforted to know that Josh’s light will never fade. His light and passion for life is amplified in everything we do.

Throughout his 4+ year tenure as a Coalition volunteer with his Desert Monitor teammates Sam Wilber and Courtney Neumeyer and as our intern this past fall, Josh deeply touched and impacted many of our projects and programs. Here is a sampling of how Josh positively contributed to Sonoran Desert conservation and protection:

Beginning in 2016 as our Desert Monitor “Zoo Crew” team with Sam Wilber, Josh monitored four east approach cameras on the Oracle Road wildlife bridge, helping prove the success of the first wildlife bridge in the Sonoran Desert.

Assisted staff with wildlife camera placement and deployment decisions.

Recruited and trained new Desert Monitor volunteers for our program.

Documented the first badger using the wildlife bridge after searching for badger burrows and placing a camera to confirm. Josh’s cameras were very successful at finding badgers across all of our projects.

Taught close to 1,000 kids about wildlife tracks and wildlife corridors during our Critter Cam for Kids Field Days.

Was instrumental in launching and maintaining nearly 40 cameras for our I-10 East monitoring project, which has led to conservation plans for new crossing structures and funnel fencing for black bears and other wildlife, and the expansion of our Tucson-Tortolita linkage monitoring project east of I-10.

Documented the first kit fox ever photographed on one of our cameras.

Shared an enthusiasm for documenting species using the iNaturalist app, collecting records for 91 different species (including quite a few fungi!). Explore his observations here.

Promoted our work and organization in his other social circles, inlcuding the Feminist Birding Club, the Reid Park Zoo, and Pima County Master Naturalists. Josh is one of the reasons Arizona Master Naturalists became a CSDP member group this year. 

As our first Desert Wildlife Intern, Josh came up with new ideas to improve our volunteer training and science communications, ideas which we will continue to implement, and helped put on our Volunteer Appreciation events in September.

He was a big part of the planning team for the first Tortolita Preserve Bio Blitz, held shortly after his passing. The wildlife camera dedicated in his name is located here, and collected data during the Bio Blitz in his stead. This data will be used to protect the Preserve permanently.

Josh had an incalculable impact simply by being himself: authentic, enthusiastic, kind, curious, and patient, with bright ideas and an even brighter laugh.

Josh was an inspiration to those around him in other ways too. He bravely and humbly knew the life he wanted and threw himself towards it completely. As author T.J. Klune writes, “Sometimes… you were able to choose the life you wanted. And if you were the lucky sort, sometimes that life chose you back.”  Poet Richard Shelton writes in his poem “Desert”:

“Those who have lived here longest
and know best
are least conspicuous.
The oldest mountains are lowest
and the scorpion sleeps all day
beneath a broken stone.

If I stay here long enough
I will learn the art of silence.
When I have given up words
I will become what I have to say.”

Josh needs no more words. He lived what he had to say. He lived the life he wanted.

_____

In addition to dedicated tree and saguaro plantings, and other ways we are each remembering him, the following planned events will be held in March 2023 in his memory:

Save the Date

Saturday March 4th
Join family and friends for a celebration of life event and hike in Sabino Canyon

 

Sunday March 5th
Bench and brick dedication event at the Reid Park Zoo

 

_____


If you want to do something in Josh’s memory yourself, here are some ideas:

Share photos and stories with us to include in a memory scrapbook

Curl up and read one of Josh’s latest favorite cozy fantasy books,
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Kline
.

Raise a toast with Josh’s favorite iced lavender americano with oat milk, or an expresso,
and a jalapeño cheddar cream cheese bagel from his favorite Tucson coffee stop, The Coffee Exchange.

Visit the Reid Park Zoo and tell the Sun Bear that Josh says hello.

Rekindle your wonder and excitement in nature, and build your own iNaturalist or eBird observation list.
Teach a friend what you learn.

Live your life as Josh did: with joy and authenticity.

Drive with greater patience, kindness, and awareness, because every car on the road carries someone who is loved.

 

_____

When Josh joined our staff as our first Desert Wildlife Intern in August 2022, he shared the following bio for our website, which we want to preserve here:

I first started to expand on my passion and interest surrounding wildlife conservation during my undergrad studies at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point where I studied Wildlife Research and Management, Biology, and Captive Wildlife Management. This academic setting led me into discovering the empowering experience of being involved in volunteer fueled non-profits that engage their local communities in land stewardship, environmental education, and community science.

This passion continued on as I relocated to Tucson, Arizona in 2018 as I pursued my wildlife career as a zookeeper while also jumping into the Community Science Desert Wildlife Program for the Coalition as a Pima County Master Naturalist (PCMN). One of my service projects as a Master Naturalist is contributing towards the Coalition’s research on how wildlife linkages between our sky islands are impacted by roads and infrastructure. This project started with volunteering alongside PCMN Sam W, maintaining wildlife cameras at three sites: the Oro Valley wildlife overpass location, along I-10 (outside of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon), and now currently outside of the Tucson Mountains. When I’m not checking wildlife cameras, I also serve on the PCMN Board as the Communications Committee Chair. Within this role I help create an inclusive environment while sharing the Cultural and Natural history of Arizona as well as our Pima County Master Naturalist’s experiences and volunteer work. Arizona is such an incredibly diverse landscape filled with so many incredible people! I’m excited to see how this desert internship interfaces with both wildlife science and science communication! 

_____

Josh was a Desert Monitor for so many of our cameras over the years that we have many candid photos of him checking cameras, along with a variety of other photos out volunteering in the desert and the community. We’ve put these photos together into the slideshow below (click on the slideshow below to make it bigger): 

 

Finally, in November 2022, we placed a new wildlife camera named for Josh, the SKATTUM camera, in the Tortolita-Tucson Mountains wildlife linkage. On the ID tag for the camera, Jessica Moreno, our Conservation Science Director, stamped in the quote, “Some bring a light so great that even after they are gone, the light remains.” The photos below are of our staff setting up Josh’s camera in a beautiful stretch of Sonoran Desert at the Tortolita Preserve, along with the first wildlife photos captured by the camera (click on the slideshow below to make it bigger). 

The latest on Interstate 11 and our lawsuit

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The Coalition has been involved in commenting on the proposal for a new southern Arizona federal highway, Interstate 11, for a decade. We first commented on the Corridor Justification Study in July 2013. As the project studies further progressed, the federal and state transportation agencies were seemingly bent on building a new freeway through the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson. However, you responded en masse, and by the time the Tier 1 (of 2 tiers) Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was complete, thousands of Tucsonans had registered our adamant opposition to this proposal, which would have impacted multiple protected parks – from Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument to our beloved Tucson Mountain Park – and sever wildlife movement throughout Avra Valley. Because of this overwhelming response, the federal agency partially backed off of pushing the western route, and instead included an I-10 “co-location” option, with both options going forward to a Tier 2 EIS.

Where is this now? The Coalition filed a lawsuit in April 2022, citing the failure of the federal transportation agency to fully consider the importance of the parks, and the direct and indirect impacts this freeway would have on the critical and sensitive resources of these lands. They also failed to follow the US Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, which necessitates a sign-on from other agencies to bisect certain protected areas, in this case the Bureau of Reclamation Tucson Mitigation Corridor. The Coalition’s lawsuit was filed in partnership with the Center for Biological Diversity, Tucson Audubon Society, and Friends of Ironwood Forest. The suit has been assigned to federal court judge John Hinderaker in Tucson.

The case has not been decided, as both parties filed for extensions of the deadlines for responding to documents. Most recently, the judge has given the federal government (defendants) until October 19 to respond to our (plaintiffs) latest filing. In summary, the federal government has asked the judge to throw out our lawsuit, and of course, we disagree and have filed a response to that effect.

As to funding for Tier 2, the Arizona legislature passed a bill that provides funding for the next round of studies, but only for the section in Maricopa County. We will continue to update all of you as this progresses. Thank you all for all your work to prevent this project!

Want to learn even more about the history of I-11? Head over to our comprehensive set of webpages about I-11 here

Pima County’s 2021 MSCP Annual Report

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Pima County recently released their 2021 MSCP Annual Report. The MSCP – or Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan – is an integral part of the larger Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. According to a recent e-update from Pima County:

“Each calendar year, County staff put together a report on implementation of the Pima County Multi-species Conservation Plan (MSCP). The MSCP covers 44 wildlife and plant species by prioritizing conservation of their habitats. At the same time, the plan provides a streamlined avenue for managers of ground-disturbing projects, both private and County-led, to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act on lands in unincorporated Pima County. The MSCP is a major part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

The report consists of two main documents: the main body of the report and the report appendices.

Highlights:

  • A total of 411 private projects have been authorized to receive coverage under the MSCP since it was initiated in 2016; 224 of these projects have been mitigated to date.
  • The Regional Flood Control District reported that 95.6% of applicants avoided impacting regulated riparian habitat. 
  • Fourteen buffelgrass letters were issued to private property owners in 2021 by Pima County Department of Environmental Quality. 
  • Pima County staff, contractors, and volunteers mechanically removed or chemically treated approximately 4,942 acres of buffelgrass and other invasive plant species on County Conservation Lands and right-of-ways.
  • The new MSCP-compliant management plan for the Cienega Creek Corridor was updated to include new areas and actions.
  • Major fencing projects in the Edgar Canyon riparian area on M Diamond Ranch and along the Santa Cruz River were completed to protect species and stream health.
  • Monitoring and analyses were completed on multiple MSCP species, including Sonoran desert tortoise, lowland leopard frogs, multiple bat species, Gila topminnow, and several species of talussnails.
  • The first MSCP analyses of climate and land-use change were completed. 

All MSCP-related reports, plans, and monitoring protocols are available online.

Thank you for supporting the Coalition’s ongoing partnership with Pima County to advise as needed on the implementation of the MSCP and help keep the public informed about the progress of this important conservation plan! 

Welcome to our first Desert Wildlife Intern!

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We are excited to announce and welcome our first Desert Wildlife Intern! Josh Skattum (he/him/his) will be joining our staff on a part-time basis from August-December and we are so excited for you to get to know him. 

Here’s an introduction from Josh in his own words:

I first started to expand on my passion and interest surrounding wildlife conservation during my undergrad studies at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point where I studied Wildlife Research and Management, Biology, and Captive Wildlife Management. This academic setting led me into discovering the empowering experience of being involved in volunteer fueled non-profits that engage their local communities in land stewardship, environmental education, and community science. This passion continued on as I relocated to Tucson, Arizona in 2018 as I pursued my wildlife career as a zookeeper while also jumping into the Community Science Desert Wildlife Program for the Coalition as a Pima County Master Naturalist (PCMN). One of my service projects as a Master Naturalist is contributing towards the Coalition’s research on how wildlife linkages between our sky islands are impacted by roads and infrastructure. This project started with volunteering alongside PCMN Sam W, maintaining wildlife cameras at three sites: the Oro Valley wildlife overpass location, along I-10 (outside of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon), and now currently outside of the Tucson Mountains. When I’m not checking wildlife cameras, I also serve on the PCMN Board as the Communications Committee Chair. Within this role I help create an inclusive environment while sharing the Cultural and Natural history of Arizona as well as our Pima County Master Naturalist’s experiences and volunteer work. Arizona is such an incredibly diverse landscape filled with so many incredible people! I’m excited to see how this desert internship interfaces with both wildlife science and science communication! 

Our new paid internship program is funded by the Deupree Family Foundation. Thank you DFF for your generous support! 

Pima County’s Open Space Conservation Acquisitions: An Overview 

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Pima County has invested heavily in acquiring conservation properties, especially in fulfilling the goals of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. The County recently released a new report about all their open space conservation acquisitions.  Along with providing a comprehensive overview of this decades-long program, the report specifically touches on the transparent public processes underlying the prioritization of eligible lands, funding mechanisms, and benefits these lands bring to the community.

This map from page 13 of the report shows the full suite of conservation lands in Pima County, including the open spaces owned or managed by Pima County in green and open spaces owned or managed by other jurisdictions (such as the Forest Service, National Park Service, etc.) in yellow.

 

You can check out the full report HERE.

Thank you for supporting our work as a partner and advocate for connected and robust protected open space in the Sonoran Desert! 

Reducing Roadkill: Safe Passages for Wildlife on Interstate-10 East

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By Jessica Moreno, Conservation Science Director

One of the best things about doing roadkill surveys is watching the sunrise. During the monsoons, the sun breaks across the eastern horizon and lights up the moisture laden air and morning cloud cover with light and throws the foothills into brilliant color. The sun feels hopeful and the day new. The second-best thing is knowing that every datapoint is helping us make things better.

The 20-mile stretch of Interstate-10 (I-10) between Vail and Benson, east of Tucson, Arizona, divides the regionally important Rincon-Santa Rita-Whetstone Mountains Wildlife Linkage. This wildlife pathway is one of only a few – somewhat safe – crossing points across I-10 found between Tucson and New Mexico, and it encompasses several protected areas and important waters, including Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek, making it critically important for desert wildlife in the face of climate change.

 

Thanks to aerial support provided by LightHawk, in February 2020 we were able to take to the air and photograph the project study area. The above photo is a view of the Rincon Mountains to the north with Cienega Creek and I-10 in the foreground. The Cienega Creek bridge, on the far center right, is one of the project’s wildlife camera monitoring sites, and cameras have been placed at each of the tributary drainages where they cross I-10. Roadkill surveys stretched from SR 83 to SR 90. Photo by Jessica Moreno, CSDP.

 

This wildlife pathway is protected partially by federally protected lands including Saguaro National Park, Rincon Wilderness, and Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Pima County has invested in securing additional conservation lands in this linkage as mitigation under the Multi-Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), including Bar V Ranch, Cienega Creek Natural Preserve, Rancho Agua Verde, and Colossal Cave Mountain Park, which are managed under the Cienega Creek Management Plan.

However, I-10 cuts through this area of wildlife movement, resulting in more wildlife-vehicle collisions for large animals such as black bear, mule deer, whitetail deer, javelina, coyote, and mountain lion, as well as smaller species like box turtles, opossum, Antelope jackrabbit, white-nose coati, raccoon, badger, and bobcat. It also serves as a potential movement area for jaguars and ocelots. Existing culverts and right of way fencing are not currently adequate at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions or ensuring safe wildlife passage in this area. Future growth and increases in traffic volumes will only worsen the frequency of vehicle-wildlife collisions.

Since 2006, several qualitative assessments and reports have been produced that highlight the area’s importance for wildlife movement, but there has not been a study that has collected data to build a high accuracy model of wildlife movements and roadkill locations along this corridor. With the lack of such a product, nothing has been done on the ground to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and to improve safe wildlife passage by employing effective mitigation structures like winged highway fencing or wildlife overpasses. The Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, in conjunction with partners, is spearheading the effort to collect data to provide the information necessary to make this stretch of I-10 a safer passage for both wildlife and people in this important corridor.

 

Raynor VanDeven captured this photo of a mule deer near one of our culvert study sites under I-10, just east of Davidson Canyon, with bright tail lights on the highway above appearing to streak across the night sky. He uses a custom built wildlife camera trap to gather these professional photos. Raynor’s work has been a tremendous contribution to this project!

 

In the spring of 2017, CSDP conducted comprehensive assessments and wildlife surveys of the nearly 80 existing concrete box culverts and metal plate pipe structures between milepost 277-302 (Houghton Road to SR90), with participants from several government, nonprofit, and community partners, including the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Cochise County, Pima County, Tucson Audubon Society, Sky Island Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Wildlands Network. Our results indicated that this wildlife linkage could be made safer for wildlife and motorists by 1) installing wildlife funnel-fencing to keep animals off the highway and to direct wildlife toward existing crossing points; 2) retrofitting and widening existing drainage culverts located in high volume areas; and 3) construction of an additional wildlife crossing between Cienega Creek and the railroad underpass near Empirita Rd Exit 292.

Roadkill surveys were part of the next phase of this effort: to gather data on roadkill hotspots, together with wildlife passage rates using wildlife cameras in the best existing culverts. We hope this data will inform State and County highway and wildlife officials on where to focus mitigation efforts to improve highway safety and minimize wildlife-vehicle collisions with site-specific wildlife funnel-fencing installation, existing culvert retrofits, and new wildlife crossing structures. Our results illustrate the need to implement changes and provides baseline information to evaluate the success of future mitigation measures.

Our Desert Roadies project began with a team of volunteers to help collect wildlife-vehicle mortality data on Interstate-10 between SR83 and SR90, east of Tucson. Desert Roadies volunteers worked in teams of 2-4 people, including myself, to conduct driving roadkill surveys. Observations were recorded by our notetaker with the GPS coordinates. Surveys were conducted in the morning, starting up to 30 minutes before sunrise, every week for 6 weeks during the monsoon season in 2019 and 2020, beginning in July, except when conditions were bad for visibility or driving such as rain, dust storms, or other low visibility weather. In addition to these formal roadkill surveys, we collected other data on iNaturalist.org from community members and personally investigated reports about black bear mortalities. We also requested ADOT records on reported animal-vehicle crashes in the study area. This data was analyzed separately.  

Due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, carpooling with volunteers was no longer a safe option. So, we adapted as best we could by canceling the planned spring 2020 survey and having another monsoon season survey instead, which was conducted by myself and my family, Eddie Moreno (who is also a biologist experienced in roadkill surveys) and my two toddlers munching on donuts and “helping” look for animals from the backseat. This survey was done when the state was under curfew and lockdown, resulting in reduced traffic volumes. This likely was one reason for fewer observations of roadkill during this survey window.

Walking surveys are the ideal method for complete and accurate data. But safety concerns eliminated that option because we are using volunteer participation and this is a busy interstate highway with narrow right of ways. Therefore, the roadkill survey portion of this project was designed to be a broad-brush stroke only and we anticipated a small sample size. Recording categories of small, medium, large animals and/or by clade (reptile, bird, small/med/large mammal) are adequate for our purpose. Because of the project design, we have near zero detectability of small animals, and instead our target species are deer, bear, coyote, bobcat, gray fox, javelina, and those larger animals that the Arizona Department of Transportation consider most hazardous to drivers. The data will hopefully serve to provide a preliminary look at potential roadkill hotspot areas. For best accuracy 1) our GPS units had a one-button click to mark points quickly, 2) volunteers could also use maps and mileposts to confirm locations, 3) we analyzed the data in 1-mile segments, which better informs the fencing solution strategy and somewhat addresses imprecise location information, and 4) a staff biologist was always present to provide corroborating identification.

We completed two monsoon survey seasons for roadkill observations in 2019 and 2020, resulting in 78 data points of at least 14 different species. We were able to detect animals as small as a rock squirrel or cottontail rabbit. Skunks, raptors, and deer were not identified to specific species. All of our deer mortality observations (n=2) occurred between mileposts 296-297, near the Pima-Cochise County line. A hotspot of roadkill observations occurred between mileposts 291-295 (between Cienega Creek and Empirita Rd), in an area that coincides with a gap in available culverts and crossing points, and near several culvert locations between mileposts 283-287.

Coyotes, cottontail rabbits, and javelina were the most abundant roadkill species observed during our surveys. We also observed skunks, badger, opossum, raccoons, mule deer, jackrabbits, gray fox, domestic dogs, and raptors. Our 2020 monsoon survey occurred during a state lockdown at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and less traffic may be one reason for the reduction of roadkill during this survey period. Bruce Jacobsen created this “heat” map showing hotspots of our observations.

 

Our roadkill survey results for 2019 and 2020 monsoon survey seasons show hotspots around culverts east of Davidson Canyon, including an eastbound lane culvert that opens up to the median without a way across the westbound lane at milepost 285. Another larger hotspot appears between Cienega Creek and Empirita Road, which coincides with an area absent of available culverts for wildlife to use as crossing points.

 

The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) collects crash records from police reports of vehicle crashes. Vehicle crashes caused by “animals” in recent years align with where we are seeing larger animals (deer, black bear) being hit most frequently on the interstate. Crash records can help make the case for increasing human safety by improving safe passage for wildlife – in addition to the goal of protecting healthy wildlife populations.

 

I-10 has been identified as a significant barrier to black bears in southern Arizona. In 2011, Todd Atwood et al published a study describing I-10 as a more significant barrier to functional gene flow for black bears than the U.S.-Mexico border, identifying I-10 as the dividing line between the Border subpopulation of black bears to the south, and the White Mountain subpopulation to the north. In our study area, these subpopulations meet and Romeo and Juliet romances unfold, ensuring healthy black bear populations in Arizona and in Mexico. For black bears, I-10 may be a barrier to gene flow as well as a “population sink” due to wildlife-vehicle deaths. This could pose a significant issue for the Border subpopulation, which additionally faces barriers to movement at the U.S.-Mexico border due to the construction of the border wall and other border-related infrastructure such as roads and lighting. Without safe passage both north of I-10 or south of the border, our southern Arizona black bears are at risk of genetic isolation and disappearing all together (what we call extirpation).

We have gathered four records of black bear mortalities in recent years, and three of these are verified with photos. These records indicate that the bears attempted to cross I-10 by following higher elevation ridgelines closely associated with the two largest underpass structures at Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek. We also have animal track and camera trap data showing successful passage under I-10 at a few specific culverts. Most of our observations show bears moving south. April-May and August-September appear to be peak periods of activity for black bears in this area according to our data.

Black bears are just one example of the impact I-10 is having on native wildlife. In addition to large animals like bear, deer, and jaguar, smaller animals are at risk as well. Saguaro National Park has been monitoring a disturbing decline in “lost carnivores” over the last decade, including skunks, foxes, and badgers. Biologists are also concerned about the local disappearance of smaller range habitat specialist species affected by habitat fragmentation, including box turtles, Antelope jackrabbits, skunks, kit foxes, badgers, and white-nose coati. Increasing wildlife connectivity conditions for black bears and deer should allow struggling populations to repopulate from connected habitat areas and also benefit a wide array of other species.

In addition to our roadkill survey data, we were also able to collect four records of black bears killed by vehicle collisions in our study area. Bear roadkill occurred near mileposts 285 and 289-290, associated with the higher ridge lines close to Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek. Deer collisions, on the other hand, were largely occurring near mileposts 296-297, where the landscape is naturally flatter.

 

With the data we’ve collected, we have solid evidence to back up the need for funding wildlife funnel fencing where it is most needed and make the case for new or improved wildlife crossings.

 

Read CSDP’s final project report to Arizona Game and Fish Department here.
(Please note: Photos of roadkill animals are included in the report)

 

Want to help?

Although collecting information on roadkill is not for the faint of heart, the data it provides is valuable. In the future, CSDP will be looking to continue our Desert Roadies program in more areas. In the meantime, folks can also document sightings of wildlife on roads in Pima County at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/csdp-safe-passages.

 

Interstate 10 is a busy roadway, with 4 divided lanes and frequent commercial truck traffic. Adding wildlife funnel fencing to existing crossing structures is one simple solution to improve safe wildlife passages in this linkage. Photo by Matt Clark.

 

Acknowledgements

This work was made possible thanks to the time, effort, and skill of the following volunteers: Matt Clark, Sami Hammer, Bruce Jacobsen, Ken Lamberton, Eduardo Moreno, D’angelo Padilla, Raynor VanDeven, Althea Weeks, and Daisy Weeks.

We also want to thank Scott Sprague, Jeff Gagnon and Brit Oleson of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and give special thanks to our collaborating partners: Myles Traphagen with The Wildlands Network and Brian Powell with Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.

This project was funded in part by the Arizona Game and Fish Department Heritage Fund.