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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See a California Condor Nest From Navajo Bridge

A California condor stands outside its nest in Marble Canyon. In the cave to the right, its mate and chick are visible. | Courtesy of John Sherman

John "Verm" Sherman loves California condors. As we've reported in Arizona Highways, Sherman, a frequent contributor to the magazine, has been on a quest to photograph every condor in Arizona. Along the way, he's gotten to know these unique and rare birds — and he recently told us of an equally rare opportunity to see a condor family in the birds' natural environment.

"Condors 354 and 496 picked a nesting site in clear view from Navajo Bridge," Sherman says in an email. "This gives the public a never-before-had chance to personally watch a condor chick grow up in the wild."

Sherman photographed the nest May 30 and saw an egg inside; the next day, the egg had hatched, revealing the newly designated Condor 891. He plans on following the chick until it fledges, which probably will happen around November. Until then, it will remain in the nest in Marble Canyon, upstream from Navajo Bridge.

Sherman says biologists with the condor recovery program are frequently at the bridge with spotting scopes that the public can use to see the nest. Visitors also can donate to the program, which Sherman says has been decimated by budget cuts this year.

Sherman says it's hard to see the chick in the morning because of the harsh light, but in the afternoon, between 4:30 p.m. and sunset, if you have a good pair of binoculars, you should be able to get a glimpse of the condors and their chick upstream from the bridge. Keep in mind that drone flying is strictly prohibited in the area.

Through a variety of conservation measures and reintroduction programs, the condors now number more than 400 in the wild — up from just 22 in 1987.

As for Sherman's quest to photograph every condor, he recently bagged his "white whale": Condor 203, which was the last of the condors that were in the wild when Sherman decided to photograph them all. But his quest has taken long enough that several new captive-bred condors are now flying free in Arizona. And Sherman has yet to photograph one of them — Condor 850. So his search continues.

You can see more of Sherman's work on his website or Instagram feed, and you can learn more about the condors by visiting The Peregrine Fund's Condor Cliffs page.

All photos courtesy of John Sherman.

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Know These 6 Causes of Forest Fires

Firefighters conduct mop-up work during the 2014 San Juan Fire on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. | Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

Unattended campfires get a lot of the blame for starting wildfires. And they should, especially in Arizona. The Wallow Fire, the biggest fire in our state's recorded history, started when two cousins didn't properly extinguish their campfire. It went on to burn more than half a million acres in Arizona and New Mexico.

So, yes, campfire safety is important. But as The Arizona Republic reported last week, officials want you to know that plenty of other things can cause wildfires — especially when you get out of the high country and into the desert.

Safety chains hanging from trailers is one of those causes, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman told The Republic. Those chains can throw sparks when they hit the ground, and the BLM says that often starts brush fires along Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Flat tires on trailers can do the same thing, and the BLM said one vehicle in April started 18 different fires when a trailer tire went flat and the exposed rim touched the pavement.

A hot vehicle pulling off the road can ignite dry grass underneath it, too. And engaging in target practice, if you're shooting at something metal that can throw sparks, might start a blaze as well. The BLM notes that tracer rounds and exploding targets, two other common fire causes, are illegal on public lands.

Finally, it should go without saying that embers from a cigarette butt flicked out a car window can easily start a fire in dry grassland. And, again, campfires cause devastating blazes, too, so douse your campfire with water and stir it, then make sure it's cool to the touch. As both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service note: If it's too hot to touch, it's too hot to leave.

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How Should North Rim's Bison Be Managed? You Can Weigh In

A small herd of bison on the Grand Canyon's North Rim. | Courtesy of National Park Service

We told you earlier this week that the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is now open for business. Now, an ongoing study of how to manage a herd of non-native bison that roam near the North Rim is ready for public review and comment, the National Park Service announced last week.

The bison, frequently sighted along the North Rim Parkway, are descended from animals brought to the area in 1906. They numbered about 100 in the 1990s, but now, there are estimated to be 400 to 600 of them on the Kaibab Plateau, the Park Service said. That number could grow to nearly 800 in the next three years, and 1,200 to 1,500 within 10 years, if management actions are not taken, according to the Park Service. That would increase the herd's impact on the park's water, vegetation, soils and archaeological sites.

An initial environmental assessment of how to reduce the herd size has been completed, and through June 7, it's available for public review and comment at this link.

The Park Service said the goal is to reduce the herd to fewer than 200 animals, and its "preferred alternative" for reaching that goal would involve a combination of "lethal culling" and non-lethal capture and removal.

The Kaibab Plateau herd is one of two Arizona herds of bison, which are not known to have ever roamed in Arizona prior to their introduction in the 1900s. The other herd is at the Raymond Wildlife Area, about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff.

Before 1800, tens of millions of bison roamed present-day Canada, the United States and northern Mexico, but due to widespread hunting in the 19th century, just 1,100 were left by 1900. Today, there are around 500,000 bison in North America, although most of them have been cross-bred with cattle.

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How to 'Bee' Safe During Swarm Season

Bees play a vital role in our environment and economy, but it's important to take precautions to avoid being stung. | Randy Dean

It's May in Arizona, which means it's the season of bee swarms in the desert. But according to experts, swarms of bees aren't as dangerous as you might think — and with a few common-sense tips, you can help keep them that way.

According to the University of Arizona, bees swarm when a bee colony produces a new queen. The old queen and some of the worker bees then leave the colony to start a new one. But the queen isn't a great flier, so the swarm must make stops to give her a chance to rest. 

It's important to know the difference between a bee swarm and a bee colony, the UA says. Bee swarms are usually out in the open, such as hanging from an exposed tree branch, and the bees rarely behave in a defensive manner. These swarms typically leave within a few days.

Bee colonies, on the other hand, are mostly hidden from view and can stick around for months, or even years. Those bees often do become defensive, and Africanized bees — which all of Arizona's wild bees are presumed to be — aren't as particular as European bees about where they set up shop, which can bring them into conflict with humans more often.

If you notice a bee swarm on your property, the UA recommends cordoning off the area until the bees move on. A bee colony, on the other hand, should be removed by an experienced beekeeper. Don't try to do it yourself.

People often call 911 to report bee swarms, but the UA's experts say there's no need to do that unless you've been stung and can't get away, or you see someone else being attacked by bees.

If you are attacked, don't panic. Most bee-related deaths occur due to people causing their own demise, such as by running into traffic or staying underwater too long and drowning, the UA says. You should run, though, in a straight line, and find shelter in a car, house or building. If you're out on a hiking trail and there's no shelter nearby, run the length of two football fields — that's 240 yards, or 720 feet — before stopping. And try to avoid other people, or they'll be attacked as well.

Bees are slow fliers, the UA says, and a healthy person should be able to outrun them. Once you're out of danger, scrape off any stingers, and wash sting sites with soap and water. If you've been stung more than 30 times, the UA recommends going to the emergency room. An ER visit is also necessary if you notice symptoms of anaphylactic shock, which include difficulty breathing or swallowing, itching and swelling of the eye area, a rapid or faint pulse, and dizziness.

Bee swarms are most common in May and June, experts say.

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