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Archive for the ‘Updates’ Category

Updates from the El Rio Riparian Preserve

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By Janine Spencer-Glasson, Friends of El Rio Preserve

The Santa Cruz River serves as an important resource for migrating birds in the southwestern United States. Migrating birds depend upon riparian habitat more than any other type of habitat in Arizona. There are several links along the chain of stopovers for migrating birds on the Santa Cruz River. One of them is the El Rio Preserve in Marana. To date, over 240 species of birds have been identified at the Preserve (go to ebird.org and search in Hotspots for El Rio Open Space Preserve to view the complete list of birds).

El Rio Preserve is a 104-acre property located along the western bank of the Santa Cruz River. The site has a long history of human use; it is located at the northern end of the Los Morteros Archaeological site and was occupied from approximately 850-1,300 AD. In the 1960’s, a gravel pit was created there to provide material to build Interstate-10. Later, it was used as a disc golf course. In addition to the Preserve’s role in providing bird habitat, the Preserve also serves as a link between the Tortolita Mountains and the Tucson Mountains, allowing wildlife to access water and move about.

West Lake of the El Rio Preserve in May 2019. Photo By Janine Spencer-Glasson.

This site has flooded periodically over the years, and water tends to remain ponded for six months or more, with periods where it is completely dry. This has created intermittent habitat for birds that need a site with surface water. Throughout this time, birders knew the spot as the “Coachline Gravel Pit.” Occasionally some interesting avian species would appear, including blue grosbeak, grey hawk, peregrine falcon, white-faced ibis, osprey, belted kingfisher, Bell’s vireo, Inca dove, and hooded orioles, to name a few.

An Indigo Bunting at the El Rio Preserve. Photo by Andrew Core.

During a major rainstorm in 2014, the soil berm was breached between the gravel pit and the Santa Cruz River, and water filled the property almost completely, creating a beautiful lake and much buzz among people familiar with the area. Rare birds showed up, like the white-fronted goose, a white pelican, and plenty of ducks. Birders flocked to see the new lake’s avian inhabitants, and the parking area often hosted out-of-state vehicles. This prompted the Town of Marana to take a new look at what was now called the El Rio Preserve.

There were many problems at the Preserve, however. During storm events, invasive weed seeds and huge patches of trash would flow in and settle in the basin. Mosquitoes would breed where water remained under spots of dense vegetation. Much planning and work was needed to create a riparian site that would be an amenity to the neighborhood, while maintaining a natural state for birds, wildlife, and nature-lovers.

Improvements at El Rio Preserve have been a collaborative effort. The Town of Marana dedicated funding for design and implementation of riparian restoration. The Arizona State Forestry Department researched the area and wrote a comprehensive Forestry Management Plan that focuses on invasive species. Pima County and Marana extended the Loop Trail and constructed a parking lot with a ramada. Marana worked with a University of Arizona student, Alex Stoicof, to create a community survey, which identified riparian restoration as the top priority for the Preserve. She then designed a preliminary landscape plan. Marana has constructed a viewing deck, a water fountain, toilet, and interpretive signs, and planted native landscaping

Environmental education is an important element of the El Rio Preserve. Michael Bogan, Professor at the University of Arizona, has led a damselfly and dragonfly viewing and provided information and photos for an interpretive sign at the Preserve. The Town is coordinating with the Marana Unified School District and classes of students have toured the site and focused on science relevant to their studies. Boy Scouts have volunteered, putting up bee boards and bird boxes for kestrels and brown-crested flycatchers.

Birders at the El Rio Preserve. Photo by Andrew Core.

Tucson Audubon Society supplied plants and members helped plant a pollinator garden at the entrance to the Preserve. Bat Conservation International provided agaves and helped volunteers plant them. This spring, the pollinator garden was in full bloom, with butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees enjoying the gaillardia, penstemon, native salvias, desert marigolds, and other flowers.

The pollinator garden at the El Rio Preserve in Spring 2020. Photo by Janine Spencer-Glasson.

The Friends of El Rio Preserve group has been formed to include neighbors and a diverse group of members from other environmental organizations. Friends of El Rio Preserve’s mission is “to promote wildlife habitat and connectivity in this beautiful, diverse natural area, so residents of all ages and interests can enjoy this urban oasis,” and we have planted pollinators, helped with weeding, and provided input on design elements and on interpretive signs. If you would like to learn more about Friends of El Rio Preserve, you can find us on Facebook or Instagram. You can become a Friend if you are willing to roll up your sleeves, join the team, and make a vital contribution to enhancing and protecting El Rio Preserve; contact Kathy at matproject@msn.com or Janine at janines07@comcast.net.

It has been wonderful to see so many organizations and volunteers work to create a beautiful spot for people and birds!

Currently, more improvements are underway. Pima County Flood Control is in the early stages of constructing bank protection which will cost nearly $1.9 M (nesting bird and archaeological surveys have been completed prior to ground disturbance).  The bank protection is designed to allow overflow connectivity with the Santa Cruz River during large rain events. Bank protection should be completed by this fall. There is currently no water flowing into the Preserve while bank protection is being constructed.

This fall, Marana will construct a connection to purchase water from the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District and create a permanent pond approximately 5 acres in size. The Town is currently in the process of building an island to provide a safe place for birds to wade and rest once the pond is filled. The Friends of El Rio Preserve looks forward to assisting with pole planting native trees such as cottonwoods and willows and seeding other native annuals and perennials on the island.

Come visit El Rio Preserve once construction work is completed – you will be surprised at this lush natural site in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

Raccoon tracks at the El Rio Preserve. Photo by Janine Spencer-Glasson.

Pima County releases 2019 Annual Report on Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan

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In March 2020, Pima County released its fourth annual report on its Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSCP). The full report can be found on the Pima County website HERE. According to the Executive Summary, six Pima County capital improvement projects and 52 private development projects were “covered” by the MSCP in 2019. While these projects cumulatively had 196.8 acres of impact to the habitat of vulnerable wildlife species, the MSCP required 767.7 acres of mitigation to offset these impacts. 

Some other highlights from the report include:

  • The Regional Flood Control District reported that 94.5% of applicants avoided impacting regulated riparian habitat.
  • The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved several land-use policies that promote reuse or infill instead of sprawl.
  • U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan for augmenting populations of covered species on our mitigation lands, and another for managing properties along the San Pedro River.
  • A new population of Gila topminnow was established in a stream on the County’s M Diamond Ranch.
  • During 2019, the portfolio of potential mitigation lands increased by approximately 250 acres.
  • Pima County staff, contractors, and volunteers mechanically removed or chemically treated approximately 1,470 acres of buffelgrass on County preserve lands.
  • Office of Sustainability and Conservation staff made 623 separate observations on Covered Species; these were reported to the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
  • County staff developed comprehensive monitoring protocols for seven monitoring elements, including upland habitat, water resources, landscape pattern change, invasive aquatic and plant species, off-highway vehicles, and climate.
  • County staff in partnership with Tucson Audubon Society and the National Park Service established an additional 21 long-term vegetation and soils monitoring plots on County preserve lands.

 

New data from the Tangerine Road wildlife underpasses

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Did you know that there are five wildlife underpasses that traverse Tangerine Road? These wildlife underpasses were finished in 2018 and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) is now in the middle of a post-construction monitoring study of the crossings. In May 2020, AGFD released its latest monitoring progress report. We’re happy to report there were some very encouraging data and findings! 

According to the AGFD report:

Data has been analyzed to April 7th, 2020. A combined total of 5,996 crossings by 23 wildlife species have been recorded across all 5 structures. Coyote, javelina, gambel’s quail, and bobcat constitute the most commonly recorded species with 3,002, 1,695, 482, and 403 crossings respectively, representing 93% of all documented crossings. Crossings of note include a gila monster at one underpass in April 2019, and a mountain lion at a different underpass in June 2019.

A total of 40 species have been detected across the five structures to date. The greatest diversity has been observed at underpass #2 where 29 species have been recorded. 16 species have been detected at underpass #1, which is the smallest monitored structure. 

[Note: a species is “detected” when it is observed near the crossing structure. This is a different data point than documenting that a species successfully crossed through the structure.]

The full AGFD monitoring report can be found HERE

An impressive deer checks out one of the Tangerine Road wildlife underpasses. Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

 

It looks like this coyote just emerged from safely crossing under Tangerine Road using one of five wildlife underpasses. Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

 

Location map of five wildlife underpasses along Tangerine Road. Map courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

 

A variety of wildlife captured on camera near I-10 East

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Over the last year or so, we have expanded our work protecting Sonoran Desert wildlife linkages to the Rincon-Santa Rita-Whetstone Mountains wildlife linkage that is fragmented by Interstate 10 east of Tucson. 40 wildlife cameras are now collecting data in this wildlife linkage thanks to the amazing help of our volunteers and community partners! 

A few updates to share:

*With our Desert Identifier volunteers that sort our wildlife camera photos currently on hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a backlog of photos waiting to be sorted at a future date. Jessica Moreno, our Conservation Science Director, is currently transitioning our sorting software and database to a remote platform. This will allow volunteers to access and sort photos safely from their homes! We are excited about this development and will let you know when the new system is up and running. 

*So far, with the photos we have been able to analyze, we have photos of 11 different mammal species plus turkeys. This includes coyote, two species of skunk, fox, bobcat, bats, badger, mule deer, white-tailed deer, javelina, and opossum. See photos below for some of this amazing wildlife!

*This data is being used to develop a funding proposal with our community partners for the Regional Transportation Authority Wildlife Linkages Working Group. The proposal will be requesting funds to install wildlife fencing and complete culvert enhancements to make this wildlife linkage area safer for both wildlife and people. 

Thank you for supporting the protection of Sonoran Desert wildlife linkages! 

 

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The latest monitoring data from the Oracle Road wildlife crossings!

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Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) just released the latest and greatest monitoring data from the Oracle Road wildlife overpass and underpass. This represents FOUR FULL YEARS of monitoring these wildlife crossings since construction finished in March 2016. 

Some notable data and results include:

  • 26 different species have been observed using the crossings, including 11 species at the overpass and 25 species at the underpass.
  • Over 10,000 wildlife crossings have been documented by AGFD cameras – 10,843 to be exact. These crossings are fairly evenly split between both structures, with 5,490 crossings at the overpass and 5,353 at the underpass. 
  • Over 98% of the crossings are by four species: mule deer, javelina, bobcat, and coyote. 
  • Total crossings at each structure have increased year upon year since construction finished. This means each year more and more wildlife are using these wildlife crossings. 

For more results, you can read the full monitoring report HERE

To learn more about why these crossings were built, how they were funded, and more, head over to the following webpages:

 

Mule deer on the Oracle Road wildlife bridge in March 2020. Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

 

A mule deer uses the Oracle Road wildlife underpass in April 2020. Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

 

Oracle Road wildlife crossings featured on FOX10 Drone Zone segment

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The Oracle Road wildlife crossings were recently featured on TV station FOX10’s Drone Zone segment in Phoenix. Check out this 3+ minute segment to see some amazing drone footage of both the Oracle Road wildlife underpass and overpass, along with a great interview of our partner Jeff Gagnon with the Arizona Game and Fish Department (click on the image/link below to access the full TV segment). 

The latest numbers from our wildlife camera program

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Thanks to all of our supporters and volunteers for another year of successful wildlife camera monitoring in the Tucson Mountains and Oro Valley study areas! See an overview of our Tucson Mountain camera project results HERE and our Oro Valley camera project results HERE.

 
 

We have been monitoring wildlife with wildlife cameras in the northern portion of the Tucson Mountains and Avra Valley for four years. To date we’ve seen over 30 species across 23 camera sites, data which helps inform our I-11 work and knowledge about the Tucson-Tortolita Mountain Wildlife Linkage. Javelina have been photographed most frequently, and it is good to see these native seed dispersers out and about! Other notable results in the last year include more badgers, and bobcats with kittens in tow.

In Oro Valley, we have been monitoring east and west of the Oracle Road wildlife bridge and underpass for a total of seven years! We now have excellent comparative data pre- and post- construction of the crossings that were built in May 2016. With 62 species across 49 camera sites (and nearly 78,000 photos!), we are seeing lots of cottontails and quail that are plentiful prey for coyotes, bobcats, and gray foxes. We’ve seen white-nose coati and bighorn, and our resident female mountain lion has appeared again this year several times just west of the wildlife bridge.

We will post more detailed results as we finalize project reports and dive into the fun and useful information these cameras have in store!

Coalition comments on proposed changes to the Tortolita Preserve

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These mule deer and coyote are using new wildlife underpasses under Tangerine Road. Three more wildlife underpasses such as these are planned for western Tangerine Road. The Coalition hopes any changes to the Tortolita Preserve ensure connections with future wildlife underpasses and nearby core preserve areas such as Tortolita Mountain Park. Photos courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The Arizona State Land Department and the Town of Marana have recently begun discussions about changes to the Tortolita Preserve. This 2,400 acre preserve was established in consultation, as required by the Endangered Species Act, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as mitigation for habitat disturbance and effects to listed species resulting from the construction of the Dove Mountain development. 

On October 9, 2019, the Coalition submitted comments to the Town of Marana with our recommendations on how to move forward with the future of the Tortolita Preserve. We recommend that any changes ensure the connection of the preserve with nearby core preserve areas and planned future wildlife crossings. 

The full text of our comments can be found HERE.

 “Marana negotiating Tortolita Preserve’s future” – Tucson Local Media (October 16, 2019)

Neighbors, conservationists closely monitor what’s next in Marana” – KOLD13 (October 18, 2019)

We’ll be updating this post as we learn more or there is additional news coverage on this issue. 

New report on I-11 calls it a “white elephant” and “unnecessary”

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On August 8, 2019, the Center for American Progress released a new report on the proposed Interstate 11 as part of its “White Elephant Watch” series, which “profiles projects that demonstrates the failures of the current U.S. policy approach to transportation infrastructure.” 

This report provides a detailed analysis of this proposed project, including a point-by-point analysis of the Purpose and Need section of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The report concludes the following:

“ADOT’s proposed I-11 corridor has four major flaws:

  • Fails to increase transportation choice or reduce local single-occupant vehicle trips made within the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas
  • Promotes low-density land use and dependence on automobility
  • Produces significant environmental harms
  • Is based on flawed travel demand models that do not adequately account for induced demand”

The report can be found online and as a pdf document. It is well worth a few minutes of your time to read this timely and well-written report! 

Pima County releases Aquatic Species Management Plan

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In July 2019, as part of the continued implementation of their Multi-Species Habitat Conservation Plan (MSCP), Pima County released a new Aquatic Species Management Plan. According to Pima County Environmental Planning Manager, Julia Fonseca:

“The Plan identifies opportunities for releasing target species on County-managed conservation lands where they do not currently occur.

The Plan inventoried streams, springs, stock tanks and large ponds for opportunities for releasing target species where they do not currently occur.  Species with the most release opportunities are the Gila topminnow (15 sites) and Huachuca water umbel (14 sites).  The most widespread target species on County conservation lands is the lowland leopard frog; there are eight additional sites available for future releases of this species. Opportunities at small, confined sites also exist, like the recent release of topminnow and umbel species at Mission Garden.

The Plan is a required element of the Multi-species Conservation Plan (MSCP).  It supports implementation of Arizona Game and Fish Department’s (AZGFD’s) priorities for the Santa Cruz watershed, as well as recovery objectives established by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Plan does not direct, authorize or fund any particular action on land owned or managed by Pima County or the Regional Flood Control District. Implementation will depend on partnerships with AZGFD and other conservation partners over the 30-year term of the MSCP. 

The Plan includes guidelines prepared by USFWS for construction of wildlife-friendly water features.  These guidelines may be of interest to private property owners who wish to maximize benefits and minimize risks to Arizona’s wildlife.”

We commend Pima County for their continued implementation of the MSCP since it was approved by the USFWS in 2016. And thank you for supporting the conservation of our must vulnerable Sonoran Desert wildlife species through our work advocating for the MSCP since 2000. 

You can learn more about the MSCP at our Habitat Conservation Planning webpage