Border BioBlitz Event Sheds Light on Plants, Animals & Ecosystems

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. – “Well, this is Mormon tea, it’s ephedra.”

Elizabeth Fabry snapped a photo of the spindly green plant with her smartphone and logged her find on an app called iNaturalist.

Fabry isn’t an ecologist or a botanist. She’s a nurse practitioner from Bisbee, and she’s one of more than 1,000 people all across the U.S.-Mexico border who took part in the second-annual Border BioBlitz. It’s a binational event that lets scientists and the public get together to collect information on plants and animals in this region.

“I’m hoping to see some interesting species of birds. I’m hoping to see a bug that’s really cool,” Fabry said. “On this app I’d like to get the species of the day, but I don’t think I will.”

Unless she happens across a jaguar, she joked.

“But I don’t think so. Maybe an ocelot.”

Fabry continued down the Murray Springs trail near Sierra Vista pointing out whitethorn acacia and sacaton. It’s winter, she said, but there’s still plenty to see here.

“The desert has lots of life. It’s not a dead place,” she said.

A group gathered at Murray Springs trail near Sierra Vista, Ariz. on March 2, 2019 for the second annual Border BioBlitz. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Not a Wasteland

Bringing attention to just how alive ecosystems on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are is one of the driving reasons behind the Border BioBlitz, said Ben Wilder, director of Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, the group that organized the event.

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Some people see the border as a wasteland where building a wall might not have much impact, he said. But by collecting data on what’s really here the Border BioBlitz can help tell another story.

“Towering mountains and jaguars roaming, with trogons flying in and out across the border and ocelots popping up. That’s the borderlands for sure,” Wilder said.

The Border BioBlitz is also a way to fill in data gaps here, he said.

Nearly two dozen groups of experts and citizen scientists explored trails, parks and wilderness areas during the blitz, and they made more than 14,000 observations, logging upwards of 2,300 species along both sides of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Documenting Biodiversity

Back out at Murray Springs with Fabry’s group, her husband Jim Mahoney told everybody about the site.

“This is a unique and priceless place that’s irreplaceable,” he said.

Mahoney, a retired recreation planner with the Bureau of Land Management, has spent years building and hiking the trails out here. He tells the group they’re at an ancient Clovis site. Remains of mastodons, woolly mammoths, sloths and the people who hunted them have been found out here.

University of Arizona students Joe Black and Maya Stahl walk along Murray Springs trail during the Border BioBlitz on March 2, 2019. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

“If you wander around here and imagine that you’re being tracked by a saber-toothed tiger. Oh, I got chills just now!” He said to laughs from the group.

But it’s not the historic creatures that roamed this area that they came out for. They were documenting what’s in the area now.

“To give scientists everywhere a really good idea of how biodiverse this part of the world really is,” said Mark Apel, with the University of Arizona Cooperative-Extension in Cochise County.

He organized the 15-person group of hiking boot-clad high school and university students, amateur naturalists and professional scientists that wound their way through rough shrubs and yellow grasses toward the San Pedro River.

One pair of students from the University of Arizona trudged along the trail logging observations here and there.

“It’s been mostly creosote, mesquite,” said Joe Black, a senior studying ecology.

“I’ve seen a lot of coyote scat,” added wildlife conservation student Maya Stahl.

They both laughed.

iNaturalist

As university students studying the Sonoran Desert, they’re pretty used to cataloging plants and animals in the area. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get stumped.

Leaving the shrubby area to get closer to the river, they walked through tall grasses Black said he didn’t recognize.

“This might be one people would be able to figure out,” he said, pushing his way closer to get a picture, then loaded it into the iNaturalist app.

iNaturalist is a database of plant and animal observations where anyone can add a photo, even if they don’t know what they’re looking at. Then someone else can go in and name unidentified species.

A few minutes later, the rest of the group arrived in the same area. They recognized the mystery plant.

“Oh Johnson grass,” Mahoney said. “I’m sure somebody got that.”

That’s the benefit of the Border BioBlitz, Apel said, everybody’s learning something.

“I think the makeup of the group was wonderful because we really did have some plant experts and bird experts and people who knew this area very well,” he said.

And aside from having a fun weekend of scientific exploration, he said, they group also did their part to illuminate biodiversity in the borderlands.

Arizona county vaccinates residents after sewage spill in Mexico

NACO – Francisco Romo wasn’t sure why volunteers had come to his small home to vaccinate him and his wife, Lydia, but the elderly couple complied. They’re now protected against hepatitis A, B and tetanus.

The reason for the house call lies just a few yards from the Romos’ house. A burst pipeline had been leaking raw sewage at a rate of 300 gallons per minute every day since a state of emergency was declared on Sept. 9.

Leaking transborder pipelines have been an off and on problem in this small border town for over 30 years, but this is the first time the toxic sewage had reached residential areas. Officials in Cochise County, which is in the southeastern part of the state of Arizona, say the problem originates in Naco, Sonora.

“Our documents go back to 1984, 1986,” said Carl Hooper, county environmental health specialist. “We’ve had consistent flows roughly quarterly that can range anywhere from a couple of weeks to four of five months.”

County officials declared a state of emergency Sept. 9, after the county Board of Supervisors realized it needed additional resources and assistance to tackle the issue.

Among services offered to residents was a free health clinic, which included vaccinations to protect them from pathogens that could be present in raw sewage.

Health authorities wanted to reach as many residents as possible who could be affected by the spill, which is why the Romos received a house call.

Nevertheless, Naco residents remain concerned.

Garbage from Mexico piles up against the border fence separating Naco, Ariz., from Naco, Sonora. (Photo by Brittany Watson/Cronkite News)

Schools, businesses and homeowners rely on a sole-source aquifer for their drinking water, and they’re worried that pollutants will leach through the soil and contaminate the groundwater.

The county is working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Arizona for in-depth testing. Gabe Lavine, the Cochise County emergencies coordinator, said the amount of tests being done to the water is extensive.

“We’re doing some well testing, soil testing and surface groundwater testing,” he said. “We want to determine the extent of the spill and the exposure to the environment, but then also to provide early warning of any threats to the local (population) or any potential threats to the drinking water.”

Until test results are known, authorities are using chlorine tablets and lining flow areas with hydrophobic filters to remove potentially harmful contaminants.

A Sept. 21 town hall hosted by Cochise County officials allowed residents to voice frustrations and concerns. Authorities noted challenges in the repair process.

“When that repair takes place, we’re anticipating another flow to come across, because they have to flush out the system,” said Amanda Baillie, a spokeswoman for Cochise County.

Ray Falkenberg, deputy director of the county health department and public information officer, said state and federal governments from Arizona and Mexico will have to cooperate to find a permanent solution to the leaking pipeline.

“To fix it completely is the responsibility of Mexico, the Mexican authorities,” he said. “The water system in Mexico is ultimately their responsibility to manage their sewage flows.”