Birth of a Bio-Blitz…it all started with two guys walking around in the desert

By Dave DeGroot, Cohort 2

For the Pima County Master Naturalists newsletter
During the lockdown in 2020, I came across a big piece ofdesert northwest of Tucson called the Tortolita Preserve. It is being fenced off by the Town of Marana, with recreational use mostly restricted to folks on a perimeter trail: hikers, bicyclists, joggers, and horseback riders.
Ethan Fraijo and I were curious about the “interior” of the Preserve. We both had time on our hands during the lockdown, and we started exploring the washes and cattle paths that crisscross the area. Data we collected during these walks eventually caught the attention of three respected environmental/conservation organizations. And as this is being written, it seems likely that these three organizations will cooperate in a “bio-blitz” in the Preserve.

How did informal hikes by a couple of guys turn into plans for a big bio-blitz?

Neither Ethan nor I saw it coming. Our initial reaction was that the land was dried out and overgrazed. A little later, we began to see plants and animals that were still flourishing despite the drought and the cattle. We noticed the size of the chain fruit chollas, the vocalizations of the coyotes (often fairly close to us), the lines of leaf-cutter ants carrying pieces of creosote leaves, all kinds of lizards (including a huge, bold iguana lizard), and occasional encounters with solitary velvet ants (Dasymutilla sp.) that are nicknamed “cow-killers.” Later we came upon a massive puma latrine, a herd of javelina, a bobcat posing for my trail camera, mule deer, and huge sphinx moths.

Then Ethan and I made a decision that I would recommend to other Master Naturalists: we decided to organize and quantify our observations. With some advice from a PhD botanist, we created imaginary north-south “transect lines” across the preserve and inventoried all the plants and animals we would see within 6 feet of each line, on either side. We counted only species that we observed – no non-observed species went on our list unless someone else’s sighting was very well documented. Our master list quickly grew to approximately 85 plants, 50 birds, a dozen mammals, 20 insects/arachnids, and a dozen reptiles, and it is still growing. Then we started to find cultural artifacts (which we have been asked not to provide details about).

Next came a breakthrough (for us, anyway). 

We shared our data with a fairly new, 700-member organization comprised mainly of folks who live in the vicinity of the Tortolita Preserve, whose mission is to conserve and protect the land. The organization goes by the name of Tortolita Alliance, and they are involved with both the Preserve and Wild Burro Canyon in the Tortolita Mountains. The interest of the Tortolita Alliance board was immediate and genuine. They invited Ethanand me to meet with some of their board members. These volunteer board members were struck by the fact that a couple of amateurs – “citizen scientists” – could assemble hard data on their Preserve – and they realized that assembling usable data wasn’t the exclusive domain of graduate school instructors and assistants, advanced degree candidates, or paid professionals. Three days later, board members and an archaeologist trekked with us along one of our transect lines through the middle of the Preserve.

The Tortolita Alliance board then decided they wanted to continue and expand the work Ethan and I had started – they began planning to involve volunteers in a larger-scale survey of the preserve. They floated the idea of a “citizen science survey”with the government agency that controls the Preserve. The agency’s reply: “We want you to work with a **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County].” That coalition indicated an interest in the proposed larger-scale survey.

As the Tortolita Alliance is preparing to work with this organization, the Alliance also has been introduced to some Pima County Master Naturalists for the first time. Cohort 2 members Jean Boris and Diana Holmes have explored the pumasite and scouted plants with Alliance president Mark Johnson and myself. Johnson now says the Alliance would definitely welcome participation by Master Naturalist volunteers in the upcoming survey. 

So at this time Ethan and I, along with the Tortolita Alliance, wait for guidance from the **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County]. It seems likely that the larger-scale survey will involve many volunteers in some kind of bio-blitz, perhaps timed to coincide with one or more of the Sonora Desert’s five seasons. When concrete plans take shape, Pima County Master Naturalists will be notified and asked to help with the survey. 

Do Ethan and I regret that our amateur survey has been taken out of our hands? No, not at all! We are proud of the role we played in catching the attention of the Tortolita Alliance, the land’s governing agency, the Master Naturalists organization – and now the **[well-known, respected coalition that is involved in environmental causes around Pima County]. We feel that we set in motion plans to understand and ultimately protect 2,400 acres of beautiful, struggling desert northwest of Tucson.

**I can share the name of this organization later, when the bio-blitz plans are further developed.

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