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Posts Tagged ‘Sonoran desert’

Join us for the Tortolita BioBlitz!

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In partnership with Town of Marana Parks & Recreation, Arizona Master Naturalists, the Tortolita Alliance, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and others, we are hosting the first annual BIOBLITZ for Tortolita Preserve. Help us photograph and record as many plant and animal observations in one day as we can! How many species will we find? This data will help us protect this special place, currently a preserve under a long-term (but not permanent) lease from State Lands.

What is a BioBlitz?

A BioBlitz an event to inventory as many species as possible in a specific area during a specific time frame. Using apps like iNaturalist and eBird on smartphones, community scientists and biologists alike can collect high quality data by snapping pictures of wildlife and plants and having those observations verified by others. Data collected during a BioBlitz can be used to gain a stronger understanding of the ecosystem and may inform future research and management decisions. A BioBlitz is also an important opportunity for community members to learn about plants and wildlife, gain data collection skills, and build a stronger connection to the landscape.

One bobcat track in dirt with a tracking ID sheet next to it for scale

Bobcat tracks

CALLING VOLUNTEERS!

Interested in volunteering? Sign up today at the event webpage for free for the time slot and distance that works for you!

CSDP’s Conservation Science Director Jessica Moreno will be leading the “Tracks, Scat, and Sign Survey” at 7am. That specific event sign-up can be found here

This is a family friendly event!

Questions? Contact Jessica at jessica.moreno@sonorandesert.org or leave us a message at (520) 388-9925!

A saguaro looms over the loop trail around the Tortolita Preserve.

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.

 

Join us in removing old fencing and improving wildlife connectivity in Avra Valley!

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Join us this week to remove old fencing and improve wildlife connectivity between the Tucson Mountains and the Tohono O’odham Nation!

Background

This past December, over 65 volunteers came together one morning to remove three miles of old fencing, including three tons of fence posts and wire fencing, from an area in Avra Valley west of the Tucson Mountains. Removing this fencing is important to improve the critical wildlife linkage areas between Tucson Mountain Park, Saguaro National Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, and the Tohono O’odham Nation.  And now this collaborative project is moving forward with another opportunity to pitch in and remove even more fencing!

The details

When: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday – March 10, 11, and 12

Time: 8am-12pm, 12pm lunch (will be provided), Afternoon flexible

Where: Avra Valley area near Three Points (more detailed instructions on exactly where to meet will be sent out to volunteers after they sign up)

What to bring: Water bottle, work gloves, sturdy shoes, sun hat, etc. (again, more details to follow)

How to sign up: Head over to this GoogleForm to sign up

According to Don Swann, a biologist at Saguaro National Park, “Many studies have shown that barbed wire fences can stop large animals, change their movement patterns, and keep them away from water and food sources they need to survive. Animals can also be killed trying to jump over a barbed wire fence if they become entangled and are not able to free themselves.” 

You can sign up for one, two, or all three days! All you need to do is sign up through our online form.

To see a slideshow and learn more about the December 2021 event and what’s in store for the March 2022 event, head over to this recent blog post on our website

Questions? Feel free to reach out to CSDP Executive Director Carolyn Campbell at Carolyn.Campbell@sonorandesert.org or leave a voicemail at (520) 388-9925 and we’ll get back with you ASAP. 

2020 Annual Gratitude Report

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We recently sent out our 2020 Annual Gratitude Report with our Fall 2021 Friends of the Desert Newsletter. Please check it out today and feel good about everything we accomplished together during a very challenging year! Thank you!

Field Notes: a rare sighting of a clay-colored sparrow

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By Ken Lamberton

On day 218 of the Pandemic, my daughter Jessica and I hike in black masks south along Speeden Wash to her wildlife cameras under the I-10 culverts in the 3000-acre Empire Ranch. She is here for her research project documenting the migrations of bear and mountain lion, bobcat, badger, and coati by using her tracking skills, roadkill surveys, and 36 cameras and 14 volunteers.  I’m here for the birds.

Last summer, I listed two dozen species, including several raptors and the tiny, gray desert-riparian warbler with the rufous rump and crown named for the daughter of a nineteenth-century ornithologist and the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution.  Lucy Hunter Baird, an expert naturalist and scientist in her own right, came from a family and history of strong, independent, and intellectually curious women.  Which isn’t surprising to me.  I’m surrounded by such women.

This morning, trailing behind Jessica, I count the birds on one hand.  A pair of cactus wrens rattles somewhere unseen.  A curve-billed thrasher becomes mesquite shadow.  The desert is cool and quiet—quiet, at least, until we reach the freeway.  While Jessica pulls the memory cards and changes batteries on cameras we previously glued to the concrete culverts, I search for Lucy’s warblers in the usual places but find none.  Despite the one in my yard last week—a first-ever and number 129 on my Bisbee yard list—I imagine most have already made the fall journey back to southwestern Mexico.

When she finishes and we hoist our packs, a small sparrow lands in the sand in front of us.  I see a rusty crown and think juvenile white-crown sparrow, another common bird, but snap four pictures anyway.  Species number five for the day.

Then I’m off to Willcox and the Twin Lakes Golf Course to check out the shorebirds and a recent rare bird report of a greater white-fronted goose while Jessica heads for home in the opposite direction. 

This evening, as usual, I download the day’s photos and begin deleting them—mostly scores of images either out of focus or of something I don’t recognize or remember.  Why did I take a fuzzy picture of this white-thorn thicket?  The joys of digital technology.  When I come to the sparrow at Speeden Wash, my finger pauses over the delete key.  I enlarge the image and see that it’s not a white-crown.  Maybe a chipping or Brewer’s sparrow?  But the lores—the tiny spaces between the eye and beak—are pale.  And the cheek patch looks well defined above a dark “mustache.”  The breast feathers seem buffy, almost the color of clay…

With rising excitement, I post two blown-up pictures of the sparrow to my birding friends on social media and get an immediate response: Clay-colored Sparrow!  A rare transient in Arizona and a species I’ve never seen before: Life Bird #437.

A clay-colored sparrow in Speeden Wash east of Tucson. Photo courtesy Ken Lamberton.

 

Ken Lamberton on a field expedition with his daughter, Coalition Conservation Science Director Jessica Moreno. Photo courtesy Ken Lamberton. 

 

Our 2020 Strategic Plan lays out our vision for the future

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After a year-long process of internal reflection and evaluation, surveying our key stakeholders, and working closely with our Board of Directors, we recently finalized our 2020 Strategic Plan. We are excited to share this with you and hope you are inspired to continue walking with us on this path towards a protected Sonoran Desert for all. 

We’d love for you to read through our Strategic Plan and be inspired to join us as we continue passionately pursuing our goals and objectives in the months and years ahead. Thank you for your ongoing support – it is an essential component to this important work!

 

Intern Spotlight: Rob Wisler

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When did you fall in love with the Sonoran Desert? I suspect your answer and mine are the same – you fell in love the first time you wandered into it. For me, this was in early April 2009 on my first visit to Tucson. There’s something so transfixing about all of it: the majestic, arborescent Saguaro; the fascinating varieties of chollas; the stately Ocotillo; and the incredible biodiversity in terms of wildlife that though I did not see on that first visit, were very much there.

I had many options for post-grad institutions, and all things being more or less equal, academically, between different Public Administration Programs, I wanted to live in a place where I could hike and explore year-round. Clearly Tucson, in the lower Sonoran Desert and surrounded by imposing Sky Islands, fit the bill.

I’ve always been a preservationist; that value was instilled early in my life when year after year my family would visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado, but that sense has greatly expanded every time I’ve stepped onto a trail here. This was the driving factor in me pursuing an internship with the Coalition. I was brought on board, first and foremost, to take on the discovery of records related to the proposed Interstate 11 project, which would run through – and destroy – the Avra Valley as it exists today. I wrote several Freedom of Information Act requests to multiple stakeholders in the process, a sometimes arduous and frustrating task but also a greatly rewarding one that revealed among many things: the legal questionability of running I-11 thru the Tucson Mitigation Corridor, a lackluster archaeological survey, the likely inappropriateness of the exclusion of Ironwood Forest National Monument from the Tier I analysis, the questionable exclusion of the potential impacts of a high speed rail between Tucson and Phoenix on traffic on I-10, ADOT’s own models showing a merely 4 minute “negligible” time saving between Nogales and Casa Grande on I-11 versus the existing I-10 at peak driving times and a “negligible” amount of truck traffic expected to move from I-10 to I-11, and an overall general Tier I analysis that could not be considered sufficient to presenting the impacts of I-11 on the environment. Though I-11 was my main focus, I also got to work on (and get a crash course in) Pima County’s Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, Maeveen Marie Behan Conservation Lands System, and the Multi-species Conservation Plan – all projects CSDP put considerable time and energy into developing. Finally, I was able to get my hands dirty in the field while helping install cameras.

In my time at the Coalition, I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to work with a committed group of people in Carolyn, Jessica, Whelan, and Kathleen, plus Kevin Dahl with NPCA and Cyndi Tuell with Western Watersheds Project, whom are just as good people as they are advocates. It was truly a pleasure to come in every Tuesday to the CSDP Office to work. It was as much a pleasure as it was to be with them as it is to step into the desert on an early Spring hike, and this is not something I say lightly.

The Sonoran Desert is an incredibly beautiful, timeless place, as best exemplified by its ancient Saguaros, but it is not invulnerable. Buffelgrass and other invasive species and continued, mindless sprawl are immediate, serious threats in many places. These threats are exemplified by I-11 itself and the Bighorn Fire, which though spared the majority of the lower Sonoran Desert and its Saguaros, burned (and thus killed) countless higher elevation Saguaros. Had the Bighorn Fire dipped further into the many canyons in the Catalinas, the effect of Buffelgrass would have been total devastation of the Sonoran ecosystem in those areas. Further, Climate Change threatens not just the Sonoran Desert, but landscapes (and more importantly, people) across the planet. Other additional threats exist including but not limited to: mining, overgrazing, and the border wall. But I am not resigned to defeat in the face of these – there are so many organizations in addition to the Coalition fighting these threats, too numerous to name, who are making a difference.

As for me, my future is uncertain at the moment. I graduated in May with a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Arizona and entered a world ravaged by the impacts of the Coronavirus. Thus far my employment endeavors have proven fruitless and I will likely have to leave Tucson as a result. I hope to stay connected with the Coalition and even provide help, if the need arises, particularly with regards to I-11, during my time in between finding work. Yet it is not all bad news – I’m proud of the work I was able to do that has brought important facts about I-11 into the light and I’m proud to have been part of an organization that is so committed to protecting the Sonoran Desert and its biodiversity.

A HUGE thank you to Rob from all of us at the Coalition for all your work for us and the Sonoran Desert during your internship. We are so grateful for everything you contributed to our mission and can’t wait to see what you do next! 

Friends of the Desert newsletter #57 is out in the world!

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Although we know most of us are pretty preoccupied with the current global pandemic, we decided to still send out our spring newsletter, hoping to inject a little joy and positivity into your mailboxes and inboxes. 

Check out the following articles in our Spring 2020 Friends of the Desert newsletter:

  • New project collecting data on Rincon-Santa Rita-Whetstone mountains wildlife linkage
  • Healing scars in the desert: wildlife crossings an important piece of protecting the Sonoran Desert
  • Local community rallies to save Tortolita Preserve
  • And more!

And, as always, thank you for supporting a protected and connected Sonoran Desert!

New wildlife cameras generate spectacular photos

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Thanks to a new partnership with volunteer, welder, and ecology student Raynor Vandeven, there are now four wildlife cameras out in the field with professional photography equipment capturing images of Sonoran Desert wildlife. These cameras are located in an area along the proposed I-11 route, in the Tucson Mountains, near the Oracle Road wildlife crossings, and in the I-10 East wildlife linkage area. 

We are so grateful to Raynor for his willingness to share these images with the Coalition and can’t wait to start sharing more of them with you in the weeks and months ahead! 

(Note: the photos below are examples of Raynor’s wildlife photography and were not taken in the locations described above. )