By Michelle Kostuk
The water flooded my hiking boots and soaked my socks. I continued to trudge through the stream, enjoying the coolness. My three colleagues decided to rough it through the dense foliage on the banks of the Cienega Creek in Arizona. This was one of our monthly wildlife camera checks we conducted as citizen scientists for Arizona’s Pima County’s wildlife corridor monitoring project. Since we had been monitoring this site regularly starting in March 2019, we’d not only noticed trends in the animal populations using this stretch of land, but also noticed the spring’s water body depletion.
There were thick patches of bright-green algae suspended in the water. I took a deep breath and the scent, reminiscent of seaweed, filled my lungs. Tiny minnows darted underfoot and took cover in the thick algal masses. I sidestepped into clear water, where I could see the pebbles underneath.
The stream curved and opened into a larger perennial pool, which persists through the hot Arizona summers. I darted around the shallow edges of the spring and went up the bank to the tree where we had stationed our wildlife camera. The camera was encased in a camouflage-covered metal cage secured by a lock and a metal chain. I unlocked the apparatus and lifted the front of the metal cage off the camera and quickly scanned for spider webs. Handing the camera to my fellow volunteer, she put the SIM card into her computer. I pulled out some jerky and water from my day pack and then sat behind the computer with everyone. The screen flickered on as a minnow breached the surface of the pool located beyond the screen, cascading ripples to the edges of the bank.
A shock of green in the desert, Cienega Creek is one of Arizona’s most important water habitats, yet its permanence is increasingly threatened by climate change. As temperatures rise, the area is becoming more arid, diminishing the connectivity between the pools and streams, such as those I frequented in 2019 as part of the citizen scientist project for Arizona Pima County’s wildlife camera corridor project. This is not the only issue facing Arizona streams, water, and land. Forests are growing thick because of management choices and now burn hot when there is a fire. The rain and snowmelt runoff after a devastating fire, which has altered the landscape, is choked with debris. This debris-laden water is the source of recharge for the Colorado River Basin, the source of water for many southwestern states.
The Gila Topminnow (Poeciliopsis occidentalis) and Gila Chub (Gila intermedia) are two of the federally endangered species that are at risk as Arizona’s intermittent streams start to further separate and have a harder time connecting in the wet seasons. “Let’s say something bad happens and a population gets wiped out in one place. If these habitats are connected, then these fish can recolonize,” Daniel Allen, Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma, said in a phone interview.
Allen analyzed ten years, (2006-2016), of citizen scientist collected data from Cienega Creek performed by trained volunteers from The Nature Conservancy and the US Bureau of Land Management. The citizen scientists conducted yearly long-term wet/dry mapping surveys.
Allen created simulations and models to compare stream drying patterns with temperature, precipitation, streamflow, and drought conditions. In the areas that he studied in Cienega Creek; perennial water decreased by 14 %. As temperatures rise due to climate change, the habitat connection that local fish species need to survive could diminish, explained Allen. This threat to the habitat could push some species, such as the Gila Topminnow and Gila Chub, toward extinction.
Franklin Lane is a Citizen Scientist Team Leader for the Sky Island Alliance Spring Assessment Project. Despite this project not being affiliated with Allen’s research, Lane’s citizen scientist spring data collection methods are like those used in Allen’s research.
Lane and his wife go to their designated Arizona spring five times a year. They wake up at 5:30 in the morning to ensure they have enough time to hike to their location. Once there, Lane ties a measuring tape to a tree and then wades into the stream that is roughly sixty meters long. Every meter he takes a depth measurement. “I’ve done this by myself and that takes almost an hour and a half. My wife and I can do it in just under an hour. It really helps to have someone recording the data as you’re shouting it out,” Lane said. Lane does not analyze his own data, but Marco Robles, a Conservation Scientist with the Arizona Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, also uses similar citizen scientist data for his work.
While the southwest might be getting warmer, the full picture is more nuanced than the area simply getting drier. The Colorado River Basin supplies water to parts of California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, and all of Arizona. Robles commented that drier temperatures due to climate change are diminishing this reserve. “All the states had to recently renegotiate their treaty because of drought and water supply. The states are prioritized in terms of who gets what amount of water and Arizona is low on the list. This is not going to just impact the cities, but also agricultural use,” Robles said.
Another source of water in the Colorado River Basin is runoff from snow-melt, but rising temperatures and forest fire risk could threaten the efficacy of this water supply. “When we’re talking about the snow-pack, the data is really clear that warming is going to impact the water flow and the amount of water in the upper Colorado River Basin,” Robles said.
Arizona is drying and its water supply is diminishing. Yet another threat is the increase in forest fires, which threatens both water supply and quality. Fire management is playing a large role in these trends.
Over the last 100 years in Arizona, fire management has concentrated on prevention. While this has helped save buildings and property in the short term, this strategy has thickened forests with dense layers of underbrush. When fires burn, this clears out the forests and runoff is filled with debris that clogs water systems.
Trees take a long time to grow and open spaces are prone to a runoff in rain events. When it rains after a forest fire, local waterways become filled with debris. “Healthy forests are really good for the water supply from a water quality and water quantity standpoint. That is one of the risks of having unhealthy forests that are really dense,” Robles said. Now, the fires that rage in these forests burn hot and decimate the local forest communities.
There are many factors that play a role in how Arizona’s streams and basins are recharged and maintained. Climate change is making intermittent streams and the animals that depend on those water sources scarcer. Fire is transforming the way runoff water is collected in the Colorado River Basin. Many of the long-term data sets researcher depend upon are observed and documented by citizen scientists.
After previewing the charismatic mammals that paraded in front of our camera, we packed up and re-secured the camera so we could collect our data bounty for next month. As we walked back, I noticed the water-smoothed rocks shining brightly. During previous trips, those rocks had been submerged under the water. The signs of fire and climate change are not always apparent, but an apt observer can notice the trends and hopefully fathom the implications of these changes.
Note: Franklin Lane and the author are both a part of the Sky Island Alliance and the Arizona Master Naturalist Association.
List of Sources
A Capstone Project written by PCMN Marlene
Target Audience: elementary school children.
Silky Pocket Mouse (Perognathus flavus)
The Silky Pocket Mouse is so small it can fit inside your pocket! It’s about the size of your pinky finger (2 ½ – 3 ½”). One of the smallest mice in North America, it has grayish brown fur on its back and white fur on its belly and legs. You’ll know it’s a Silky Pocket Mouse if you see a tan spot of fur behind each ear. It has a short tail, for a rodent, and amazingly soft fur: that’s where it gets its name, the Silky Pocket Mouse. And this amazingly soft fur is also on its back feet.
What is so incredible about the Silky Pocket Mouse is the way in which it has adapted to our desert environment. Think for a minute about what is in short supply here in the desert: water. Well, the Silky Pocket Mouse NEVER has to drink water! It gets all the water it needs from the food it eats. Just as some of the food we eat is juicy, it’s the juice in the food that the
Silky Pocket Mouse eats that keeps it going without ever having to drink water. Isn’t that amazing!
Now let’s examine what the Silky Pocket Mouse eats. Like most other mice, it eats plant parts like seeds and berries. And it likes to collect the seeds and berries and take them to its burrow to store them in storage chambers for later use. But how do they get the food back to their burrow? They have pouches, or storage bags, in their cheeks to carry things in. Some mice have cheek pouches with the opening on the inside of their mouths, but every time they open their mouths to put something in the pouch they lose a little bit of moisture into the air. But our little Silky Pocket Mouse has its cheek pouch openings on the outside of its cheeks so it doesn’t have to open its mouths to fill them and therefore doesn’t lose any water. And if you don’t ever drink water you don’t want to lose any unnecessarily, right?
So, the little Silky Pocket Mouse never has to drink water and has external cheek pouches as ways of adapting to the harsh desert environment. If you are out in the desert and you see 2 or 3 small holes under a cactus or shrub, you might be looking at the entrance to the burrow of a
Silky Pocket Mouse. All entrances to the burrow lead to a central room. From this room tunnels radiate out in all directions leading to storage chambers and nesting chambers. So keep your eyes open when you are out in the desert for the tiny Silky Pocket Mouse.
Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys merriami)
The Kangaroo Rat is not really a rat, but a strange looking rodent in the same family as the pocket mouse. It has a large head, short front arms, very long back legs and feet, a long tail with fur on the end, large eyes and small ears.
The most amazing thing about the Kangaroo Rat is it’s ability to jump up to 9’ in a singe jump! That’s all the way across a medium sized bedroom. And that’s how it got its name; it can jump like a kangaroo! And it prefers to hop to get around rather than run.
The Kangaroo Rat is 4+”; about the size of the palm of your hand, with sandy brown fur and a white belly and white markings on its face. Its long tail, 5-7”, helps to balance the rodent when it hops.
The Kangaroo Rat, like the pocket mouse, is almost perfectly adapted to the desert, and like the Silky Pocket Mouse it never has to drink water. All the water it needs is provided in the seeds and mesquite pods that it eats. And it has those outside cheek pouches so it doesn’t have to open its mouth and lose precious moisture from inside its mouth when it fills them.
They have a maze of underground burrows that have several entrances to better escape predators. If a predator comes in one burrow, The Kangaroo Rat can escape out another.
Predators include rattlesnakes, coyotes, weasels, owls and other birds of prey, foxes and bobcats.
Kangaroo Rats have another unique quality they use on predators: they kick sand in their faces with their very long feet, or jump up and down to frighten them.
A Kangaroo Rat can live anywhere from 2-5 years. They live alone in their burrows.
Grasshopper Mouse (Onychomys torridus)
The Grasshopper Mouse is a robust little rodent of southern and western Arizona. It’s about the size of your index finger (3 1/2 – 5 inches long). It’s small but very ferocious, as we shall learn.
Let’s start by examining what most mice eat: plant parts, like seeds and berries. But unlike other mice, the grasshopper mouse eats MEAT. In other words, they eat other animals. So what other animals do you think the Grasshopper Mouse eats? Judging by its name, it must eat grasshoppers. It also eats spiders, beetles, lizards and even other mice. But, its diet consists mainly of SCORPIONS!
But how can it eat scorpions without getting stung by them? Well, the answer is it does get stung, but it’s immune to the scorpion’s venom so it doesn’t get sick. Not only does it not get sick, it changes the venom into a pain killer for itself!
There is another unique fact about the little Grasshopper Mouse. After it kills a meal, it stands on its hind legs and howls into the night air: a very high-pitched scream. Some say it’s howling at the moon and for this reason it is sometimes called the Werewolf Mouse.
There are other interesting things about the Grasshopper Mouse besides killing scorpions and howling at the moon. Like other mice it lives in burrows in the ground but instead of just one burrow it has four burrows: one for sleeping, one for storage, one for raising the babies, and one is a bathroom. And when a male and female Grasshopper Mouse get together to raise a family they stay together for their entire lives and raise their families together.
Bibliography for photos
Beatson, R. Russell. “Perognathus Flavus (Silky Pocket Mouse).” Flickr, 16 June 2012, flic.kr/p/cfR53d.
Harrison, George. “Kangeroo Rat.” USFWS National Digital Librry, Kangeroo Rat, 18 Apr. 2008, digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/645/rec/1.
“HD.16.027.” Flickr, U.S. Department of Energy, 15 Aug. 2014, flic.kr/p/osHoKq.
We believe that the outdoors should be inclusive and accessible to everyone.
We believe in not only making the outdoor spaces we all enjoy accessible, but safe for everyone.
We work to change the culture of outdoor recreation as designed for enjoyment only by white, straight, and able people.
It is not enough to locate your program in an “underserved” neighborhood and make it affordable to all – rather we need to do better by designing programs that are reflective of a variety of cultural perspectives. The culture of the training course must be inviting to those from other cultures.
We ensure that our white volunteers who participate in our training course and lead public programs check their privilege, stand up, speak out, and take action when they see something not right.
Many people don’t participate in lots of programs because they are perceived as unsafe for persons of color or other marginalized audiences, not because it is not something they enjoy doing. That is not ok. We can do better.
We will not work with or support organizations that practice discrimination on any level, and need to strive to make all programs a place where participants can feel safe.
Arizona Master Naturalist Association Equal Opportunity Statement:
All AZMNA activities are conducted in a manner that assures equal opportunity for all, based solely on individual merit and fitness of applicants and employees, related to specific jobs and without regard race, age, creed, color, religion, national origin or ancestry, sex, gender, disability, veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, political affiliation, or pregnancy or other basis protected by law.
Friends, it has taken me almost a week to put these thoughts on paper. As I continue to be outraged by the events in the news I know that we need to listen more, and listen carefully.
Our organization is founded on natural history AND cultural history. We must consider both of these things together, and each are unextractable from the other. We may have arrived at this point by taking separate paths but your understanding of natural history cannot exclude the unfairness that has been in place for 100s of years at the hands of white colonization. We are suffering from systemic racism and because of that many of our outdoor spaces are unsafe for marginalized communities.
Together with the Arizona Association for Environmental Education and the USA National Phenology Network we are working on a research project designed to ensure that education, stewardship, and citizen science programs we deliver and spaces we occupy are safe and welcoming for ALL people. We embrace differences and need to listen and learn. We are doing our homework and reading a lot. We want to amplify voices of marginalized communities by supporting cultural affinity groups, and donate to their organizations.
If you wish to join our training program and become a volunteer leader interested in working for natural and cultural history, know that our curriculum is designed to call out racism, teach about multiple ways of knowing the natural world, and inspires you to think beyond what you think you might know about environmental history and education. It is not simply a program that teaches you about the biome in which you live in Arizona. We ask our volunteers, especially those of privilege, to stand up when they see injustice, take the lead by getting out of the way, and ensure that every hike they take, every program they share, and every bird walk they enjoy is done with empathy, compassion, and consideration for others who may not have the luxury of enjoying the outdoors safely as you do.
This is not a political issue, it is a human rights and cultural history issue as much as it is a natural history issue. Each year as part of our curriculum for the course we’ve been honing in on content designed to ensure that the places we go and the classroom space we hold is welcoming and accessible to EVERYONE. Not just white, middle class, straight, able, sometimes retired people.
As you are out in the field or online in this time of social distancing, I encourage you to think deeply about how you are enjoying your space and how others are not afforded the same opportunity because of the systemic racism in this country. If we would like to make our programs and training course more diverse, the awareness of this marginalization must be called out so others will feel welcome to join us.
There is much to learn about how we can do better. And most importantly we need to call attention to the groups like Diversify Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Natives Outdoors, Black Girls Trekkin’, The Venture Out Project, and support them physically and monetarily as we can.
For further reading:
NOTE: if you cannot access any of these resources email firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you a copy of the article. The books are available in our public library systems. There are plenty more out there – just take the time to search.
How to be an anti-racist educator, Dena Simmons – ACSD (October 2019)
A threat to justice everywhere – National Park Conservation Association (May 29, 2020)
9 Rules for the Black Bird Watcher, J. Drew Lanham – Orion Magazine (Oct. 2013)
Nine new revelations for the Black Bird Watcher, J. Drew Lanham – Vanity Fair (May 27, 2020)
How am I going to be perceived as a Black Man with Binoculars, J. Drew Lanham – Vanity Fair (May 27, 2020)
Five ways to make the outdoors more inclusive – An action plan for change, The Atlantic (2018)
Nature Therapy is a Privilege, Jule Beck – The Atlantic (June 23, 2017)
The woods are my safe haven but that’s not true for everyone, Jason Ward – Audubon (May 31, 2018)
The realities of being a black birdwatcher – Eric Levenson, CNN (May 27, 2020) NOTE: Trigger warning, there is a link to the Amy Cooper video on this page.
Bad things happen in the woods: The anxiety of hiking while black, Candice Pires – The Guardian (July 13, 2018)
We’re here, you just don’t see us, Latria Graham, Outside Online (May 21, 2018)
Black Communities are Reclaiming Space Outdoors, Carla Bell – Yes Magazine (May 9, 2019)
How one national park is attracting Latino Visitors, Amanda Merck – Salud America (July 19, 2018)
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh – National Seed Project (2010)
Environmentalist doesn’t just mean white and wealthy, Linda Poon – CityLab (November 2, 2018)
Celebrating Cultures of the Grand Canyon Before National Park Designation, An interview with Sergio Avila, Steve Shadley, KNAU/NPR (June 21, 2019)
Let’s talk about people of color’s trauma in the Environmental Sector, Rasheena Fountain – Medium (June 10, 2019)
After thousands of years western science is slowly catching up to indigenous knowledge, George Nicholas – Yes Magazine (February 26, 2018)
What decolonization is and what it means to me, Tina Curiel-Allen – Teen Vogue (March 4, 2018)
The environmental movement needs to reckon with its racist history, Julian Brave NoiseCat – Vice (Sept 13, 2019)
Why a wildlife biologist became a social justice advocate, Jessica Kutz – High Country News (Jan 16, 2020)
Ten books about race to read instead of asking a POC to explain it to you, Sadie Trombetta – Bustle Magazine (March 20, 2018)
Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
An African American and Latinx History of the United States (REVISIONING HISTORY), Paul Ortiz
Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall-Kimmerer
How to be an Anti-racist, Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi
White Fragility, Robin D’Angelo
Birding for Everyone, John C. Robinson
Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, Dudley Edmondson
Even more resources
An essential reading guide for fighting racism, Arianna Rebolini – BuzzFeed News (May 29, 2020)
On April 12th Pima County Master Naturalists Josh Skattum (Cohort 3) and Sam Wilber (Cohort 4) spent a day volunteering for the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection doing field work by checking wildlife cameras.
Sam and I have been volunteering for CSDP for over a year and a half now! Our first project involved checking wildlife cameras located near the wildlife overpass along Oracle Road. Starting this past February we have began working on a new project along I-10 near Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon. This highway has minimal wildlife exclusion fence lines and bisects wildlife corridors between wildlife preserves and possible migration routes between the Rincons and the Santa Ritas. Helping with this project has been a fun learning experience! We have had the opportunity to explore new sites for setting up cameras and we’ve helped with brainstorming methods and ideas for camera placement and attachment! This study will give us a better understanding on wildlife navigating near highways while using the man-made structures put into place. This has included bridges and drainage pipes!
This last outing on April 12th was exciting since it was the first time in which we got to follow up with our camera placements and settings! Cool in-person finds included spotting two horned lizards and master blister beetles!
Each time we check our cameras there’s anticipation for what might be captured! Some exciting shots included coyotes, fox, skunk, javelina, deer, a friendly dog, and bats! We’re excited to see how our sites change as we head into our dry summer months followed by monsoon season!
Despite the Covid-19 outbreak Sam and I felt comfortable checking cameras while social distancing from each other and other hikers. We also picked up this camera check outing since we are a lower risk in comparison to some of our other volunteers. We both maintained 6 feet distance between each other and sanitized between touching all equipment!