Fountain Hills Receives Rare Honor for Dark-Sky Preservation

A full moon illuminates the night sky over the Fountain Hills fountain. | Rob Mains / Courtesy of International Dark-Sky Association

The town of Fountain Hills, on the edge of the Phoenix area, is best known for its namesake 560-foot water feature. Now, it's getting worldwide recognition for something even higher in the sky.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has named Fountain Hills an International Dark Sky Community. It's the 17th city or town worldwide to receive that honor; it's also only the second such community to be located near a major metropolitan area. The IDA works to preserve areas of darkness so that stars, galaxies and other celestial wonders remain visible at night.

Scott Feierabend, the IDA's executive director, called the designation "an important moment for the movement to preserve dark skies in the American West."

A group of Fountain Hills citizens, who later formed the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association, began pursuing the designation three years ago, partly out of concern that the advent of bright LED lights would contribute to light pollution. As a result of the group's efforts, the town's outdoor lighting and sign ordinances were updated to address new causes of light pollution.

Mayor Linda Kavanagh said the town has pursued dark-sky-friendly policies since its incorporation in 1989. Many residents attend local star parties or even maintain domed observatories in their backyards.

Arizona's other International Dark Sky Communities are Flagstaff, Sedona, the Village of Oak Creek and the Kaibab Paiute Tribe's land. The IDA also designates International Dark Sky Parks, and that list includes several sites in Arizona. In addition to Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon-Parashant, Wupatki, Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon national monuments are on the list, as are Oracle and Kartchner Caverns state parks.

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Park Service Seeks Public Input on Non-Native Aquatic Species Plan

Humpback chubs, an endangered species, are translocated to Shinumo Creek in Grand Canyon National Park in 2010. | Courtesy of National Park Service

Non-native fish continue to threaten native species in the Grand Canyon area, and the National Park Service is looking for public comment on a plan to manage the situation.

The Park Service hopes to expand its management plan for non-native aquatic species in Grand Canyon National Park, along with the section of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that's below Glen Canyon Dam. Its expanded management plan and environmental assessment are open for public input through January 5.

An expanded plan is needed, the Park Service says, because of an increase in green sunfish and brown trout, two non-native species, in these areas. Additionally, the agency says, other non-native aquatic species have become an increasing threat to native species since other management plans were completed in 2013 and 2016.

The plan is in the scoping period, meaning this is an opportunity for the public to weigh in early in the planning process. The Park Service will host a webinar November 28 — plus open houses December 6 at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, December 7 in Flagstaff and December 12 in Phoenix — to provide more information on the proposal and solicit feedback.

For more information on the proposal and the public meetings, or to comment electronically, visit this link.

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Grasshoppers Threaten Southeastern Arizona Crops

One of Arizona's many grasshopper species. | Paula Stewart

An unusually high number of grasshoppers are causing damage to crops at properties in the southern part of Arizona, according to a recent report.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the grasshoppers, which arrived at farms in Southeastern Arizona in September, have been munching on cantaloupes, corn, greens and other crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the population surge seems to be isolated to that area of the state.

A University of Arizona professor told the newspaper that the increase likely is a result of three consecutive years of well-spaced rainfall during the summer monsoon. That allowed plants to flourish and provided more food and habitat for the grasshoppers, he said.

Grasshoppers, as their name suggests, usually prefer to eat grass, but they'll eat whatever is available if all the grass is gone. Arizona has the greatest diversity of grasshopper species in North America, the UA professor told the Daily Star.

There's good news for farmers, though, the newspaper reported: More grasshoppers likely means more birds that prey on them. And that could mean fewer grasshoppers in the area at this time next year.

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Wildfire Could Mean Extinction for Mount Graham Red Squirrels

Mount Graham red squirrel | George Andrejko, Arizona Game and Fish Department

An endangered squirrel species found only in the Pinaleño Mountains of Southeastern Arizona was heavily impacted by a forest fire this summer, federal wildlife officials say.

According to a new survey, Mount Graham red squirrels, found only on their namesake peak and other mountains in the Pinaleños, now number only 35 in the wild, the Arizona Daily Star reported last week. That's a dramatic decrease from the more than 250 of the squirrels estimated in last year's survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The decrease is due to the Frye Fire, a lightning-caused blaze that burned 48,000 acres in the Pinaleños this summer, a Fish and Wildlife Service official said. Steve Spangle, Arizona field supervisor for the agency, added that he's "not optimistic" about the species' survival.

“We’re very worried about a critter going extinct under our watch,” Spangle told the Daily Star. “It doesn’t mean we won’t do what we can."

The annual squirrel census found evidence of fire activity in 95 percent of surveyed areas, and 80 percent of those areas showed at least some habitat loss.

Mount Graham red squirrels, one of more than 20 known subspecies of red squirrels in North America, were listed as endangered in 1987. Besides the Pinaleños, the only other known living specimens are five squirrels in captivity at the Phoenix Zoo, the Daily Star reported.

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Spider Rock: How Canyon de Chelly's Iconic Spire Was Formed

Spider Rock rises from the floor of Canyon de Chelly. Before erosion took its toll, Spider Rock was part of the formation to the right. | Russ Glindmeier

In our October issue, we featured Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo Nation. That canyon's best-known feature is Spider Rock, a sandstone spire that rises more than 700 feet from the floor of the canyon. It's named for Spider Woman, a key figure in Navajo lore. And it was what prompted Bob Klages, a reader from Oxford, Michigan, to write to us. (It actually was the second time this year that Bob has asked a great question; the first was about Petrified Forest National Park's logs.)

"How does nature carve away all the rock around a spire like Spider Rock, leaving 700 feet of such a skinny needle formation like that?" he asked. We didn't have an answer, and as it turned out, neither did the monument's staff. So we contacted Harold "Hal" Pranger, chief of the Geologic Systems Branch of the National Park Service's Geologic Resources Division.

Spider Rock, Pranger says, is the last remnant of stream and hillslope erosion process that continue to make the canyons deeper and wider. He writes in an email: "Spider Rock at one time (many thousands to perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years) was connected to the ridge between the main Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. The hillslope and stream erosion processes worked at different rates along that ridge, obviously at a slower rate right at Spider Rock. The differential erosion left this tower that is now called Spider Rock behind."

Eventually, Pranger adds, Spider Rock will topple, as have other rock monoliths in the national monument. For now, though — and likely for centuries to come — it's a highlight of any visit to Canyon de Chelly.

If you'd like more information about the monument's geology, you can check out a report the Park Service produced in 2007.

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Poachers Are No. 1 Threat to Arizona Cactuses, Expert Says

One of Arizona's many native cactus species. | Angela Corrie

Arizona cactus species are under increasing threat from those looking to sell them on the black market, a cactus expert says.

"There's a black market for cactus, just like there's a black market for orchids," Dr. Kimberlie McCue, of Phoenix's Desert Botanical Garden, told Phoenix TV station ABC15 last week.

McCue said that of the 1,800 known cactus species, about a third are considered endangered, adding that poachers will sometimes put smaller cactuses in their pockets to bypass border checkpoints or airport security checks.

Some of the cactuses seized at those checkpoints are sent to the DBG, where they're cared for or sent back to their country of origin, McCue said.

Under Arizona law, it's illegal to move or harvest many of Arizona's native plants, including cactuses, without proper authorization — written permission from the landowner, plus a permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. McCue said anyone who notices someone tampering with a native plant should contact the Agriculture Department.

(Also, we know it bothers some of you that Arizona Highways uses "cactuses" and not "cacti" as the plural of "cactus." We're sorry.)

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Arizona Bald Eagle Population Doing Well, Officials Say

A bald eagle flies over Woods Canyon Lake east of Payson. | Gerry Groeber

Eighty-two bald eagles, the most since recovery efforts for the species began, were born in Arizona during the 2017 breeding season, the Arizona Game and Fish Department announced last week.

That number was up slightly from the previous high of 79 bald eagle chicks, set during last year's breeding season, which typically runs from December to June. The number of young that actually fledged, though, decreased slightly, Game and Fish said. At least 95 eggs, two fewer than in 2016, were laid in the state, the department said.

All those numbers represent a marked recovery for the species, which had just 11 breeding pairs in Arizona in 1978. Today, there are an estimated 67 adult breeding pairs in the state, Game and Fish said. A record 85 breeding areas, including two new ones, were identified.

The department attributed the species' rebound to the efforts of the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee, which includes Game and Fish, other government agencies, private organizations and Native American tribes.

Bald eagles no longer are considered endangered in Arizona — they were removed from the federal Endangered Species Act in 2011 — but still are protected by federal law. Among the best places to spot them are Woods Canyon Lake, on the Mogollon Rim, and Ashurst Lake, southeast of Flagstaff.

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At Prescott-Area Nature Center, a Chance to Connect With the Wild

Highlands Center for Natural History | Kirsten Kraklio

Surrounded by ponderosa pines in the Prescott National Forest sits the Highlands Center for Natural History. The nonprofit organization, originally named the Community Nature Center, has served the residents of Central Arizona since 1996.

While the facility has changed — it’s now Prescott's and Yavapai County’s first LEED Gold-certified building — the mission to educate and create an interest in nature has not.

“It’s all about wonder, discover, explore — and getting, especially kids, outside to help their lives for the better,” said Lesley Alward, past president and current chairwoman of the center's Wander the Wild Committee.

The 80-acre campus near Lynx Lake allows the organization to offer community events and educational programs year-round. The Discovery Gardens, which opened in June, offer children and their families a chance to experience native plants while learning about animals and insects at discovery stations set up along the path. The center also built a play area where children can climb logs and play in a sand pit.

“It brings out their curiosity and their imagination; they’ll play for hours,” Alward said.

The center depends on donations and fundraising to support its community and educational programs, and one of its most important events, the annual Wander the Wild live auction and dinner, is coming up soon. Slated for Sunday, September 24, the ninth annual event will feature live music, local wines and appetizers, a live auction and dinner. Auction offerings include outdoor-related travel and adventure packages, educational field trips and nature-inspired artwork by local artists. 

The premier event helps enable more than 5,000 preschool and elementary-school children to visit each year and spend a day in nature through field trips and other educational programs.

“Some kids have never been ‘in the wild’ before, and there’s a certain level of fear around that,” Alward said. The center’s naturalist-led walks and programs help to teach kids how to identify plants and animals and become “wise stewards,” she said.

In addition to the Discovery Gardens and play area, the campus also has about 3 miles of trails available to the public. Along the way, hikers can find an outdoor classroom where children are taught and allowed to journal about what they see and hear.

“We want kids to disconnect and be here,” Alward said.

To purchase tickets to this year’s Wander the Wild event or learn more about the Highlands Center for Natural History, visit its website or call 928-776-9550.

— Kirsten Kraklio

All photos by Kirsten Kraklio.

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Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan Now Up for Public Comment

Mexican gray wolf | Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released a draft of its recovery plan for the Mexican gray wolf, laying out the population benchmarks the agency believes will allow the species to be removed from the federal endangered-species list.

The public has until August 29 to comment on the draft plan, which is available online.

Mexican wolves currently exist in two populations: one in Arizona and New Mexico, and one in Mexico. Under the agency's draft plan, the species would be considered for downlisting (from "endangered" to "threatened") when either the U.S. population of wolves reaches 320 for four consecutive years, or the Mexican population reaches 170 for the same number of years. Both stipulations would be contingent on achieving genetic diversity through scheduled releases of captive-bred wolves.

Assuming genetic diversity is achieved, the draft plan also says the wolves could be downlisted if both populations average 150 wolves over four consecutive years "with a positive growth trajectory."

To be considered for removal from the endangered-species list entirely, both populations would have to hit those population benchmarks for eight consecutive years. Genetic diversity via captive releases would be required then, too.

The agency says it anticipates recovery of the Mexican wolves in 25 to 35 years. There were 113 wolves counted in the U.S. population in 2016; the Mexican population is still being established and is much smaller. The species nearly went extinct in the 1980s, and the wolves living today are descended from a captive breeding program of just seven animals.

You can read the entire plan at this link, and you can get information about commenting on the plan at this link. Wolves are always a controversial topic, so we advise you to read the entire plan, then make your voice heard by adding your input.

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Federal Agencies Move to Protect Endangered Ocelots in Arizona

Ocelots occasionally make their way into Arizona. | George Andrejko, Arizona Game and Fish Department

When it comes to rare cats in Arizona, jaguars seem to get all the headlines. But ocelots are rarities in our state, too — and now, federal officials are moving to make sure these endangered felines don't become even more so.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have agreed to examine risks associated with how they trap and poison bobcats, coyotes, bears and other predators, Capitol Media Services reported last month. The move comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, which argues that the current predator-control methods used by the departments pose a danger to ocelots.

While the agreement ends the nonprofit organization's lawsuit, it doesn't actually require that any changes be made to the agencies' trapping practices, Capitol Media Services reported. But it does require the agencies to update their analysis of the wildlife-control programs currently in use.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the ocelots' range in Arizona, which includes the Whetstone, Santa Rita and Huachuca mountains, appears to be expanding. The cats have been spotted at least five times in the state since 2009; that includes a dead ocelot found on a road near Globe, a treed one in the Huachucas in 2011 and one photographed in the Santa Ritas in 2014.

The species was listed as endangered in the United States in 1982, and there are believed to be fewer than 100 of them remaining in the U.S., most of them in the extreme southern part of Texas. They're widespread in Central America and most of South America.

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