Last Resorts: The West’s Rural Outdoor Paradises are Getting Richer

HEBER CITY, Utah — Tucked below the jagged, snowy Wasatch range 20 miles south of Park City, the Heber Valley looks like a miniature Switzerland. Dairy cows graze in bright green pastures and a small farm sells artisan cheeses and milk.

But the valley’s days as a bucolic farmland may be numbered. Over the past decade, it has become a maze of subdivisions and massive homes, all built to house a growing number of wealthy retirees and stock market investors who have flocked here for its pastoral setting and its proximity to Utah’s world-class ski areas.

Sue and Rick Nathanson enjoy the tranquility of Heber, and were drawn to the rural farm feel of the area. But a lot of the dairy pastures they fell in love with are being razed for new housing developments. (Photo by Nate Hegyi/Mountain West News Bureau)

In 2015 retirees Sue and Rick Nathanson moved to Heber Valley, in part, to get closer to Deer Valley Resort.

“Best groomed skiing in all of America,” Sue said. “We came down here and [Rick] had never skied it. We bought a house anyways.”

They now own a house in the luxury subdivision of Red Ledges in Heber City. It is the Nathanson’s second home — their other is in Palm Springs, California.

Ever since the end of the last recession, wealthier Americans such as the Nathansons have been moving to small, recreation-focused communities across the West, according to a recent report from the nonprofit organization Headwaters Economics. The influx of new money is transforming once-sleepy logging or ranching towns in ways that are both good and bad — revitalizing communities but driving housing costs beyond what’s affordable for many residents.

“Who is benefiting from these booms in recreation communities?” asked Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters and author of the study. “Who is not?”

Rural Growth

Empty storefronts, tired cafes and boarded-up gas stations have long identified many small towns in the rural West.

“These are places that are struggling to hold onto residents,” Lawson said. “They’re dealing with population loss and people moving away.”

The report found that since the Great Recession rural and semi-rural Western counties with a lot of recreation opportunities — hiking, biking, snowmobiling and skiing — have grown while rural counties without those amenities continue to shrink.

The transplants who are moving to these recreation meccas are often wealthier than those moving to counties without those opportunities.

“This validates outdoor recreation as an economic development strategy that can bring decent jobs,” Lawson said. “It can bring new residents to the community — not just tourists.”

The transformation is visible in Heber Valley, where new bakeries and restaurants are popping up and Wasatch County’s first microbrewery is planning to open this summer. But for Heber Valley and some other recreation paradises in the West, all this growth comes at a cost.

New homes are being built all over Heber, Utah, but many are too expensive for longtime residents. (Photo by Nate Hegyi/Mountain West News Bureau)

Unaffordable Housing

Heber City Police Chief Dave Booth has lived in the valley for two decades and has witnessed its recent transformation.

From his office window, he can see traffic pass by on Main Street. For every rusted Honda or muddy, ranch-style pickup truck, there’s a Porsche or a Mercedes-Benz hauling mountain bikes. Booth said the influx of wealthy residents means more expensive housing.

“Rents have just skyrocketed,” he said.

According to data from Headwaters Economics, almost half of all renters in Wasatch County are paying rent that is more than 30% of their income, which is considered unaffordable. The median listing price for a home has doubled over the past decade. As of May 2019, it hovered around $632,000, or nine times the median income of a family living in the valley.

Booth worried that wealthier transplants are pushing out Heber’s school teachers and police officers — the people who make a town a community.

“Everybody would like to have a home with a yard and a neighborhood to raise a family,” he said. “Why should it be said, ‘Hey, if you’re a cop in Heber City, you shouldn’t be able to have this.’ If that day comes, then the cops are going to have to live somewhere else. I think that’s a shame.”

Retirees Sue and Rick Nathanson said they were well aware of the housing crisis unfolding in the Heber Valley. They also acknowledged that they are somewhat to blame.

“Absolutely we are part of the problem,” Sue Nathanson said.

But it’s a problem that is pushing out more than just the valley’s school teachers and police officers. The quaint dairy farms that the Nathansons fell in love with when they first moved to the Heber Valley are quickly turning into dirt construction sites after being sold off to real estate developers.

Eventually, the Nathansons said, they too will move away.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Biologists Suspect Rat Poison after Another Mountain Lion Contracts Rare Disease

SANTA MONICA – A mountain lion in the Santa Monica Mountains is suffering from mange, a rare but possibly fatal skin disease, and National Park Service biologists suspect the cougar was exposed to rat poison.

P-53, a 3 ½-year-old female, was re-captured in February after researchers monitoring her on remote cameras saw signs of the disease, caused by parasitic mites in animals’ hair and skin.

Biologists treated her with a topical medication, fitted her with a GPS collar and released her back into her home range, according to Kate Kuykendall, spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).

“It’s concerning to see this mange in a mountain lion, because it generally means that the animal is compromised in some other way such as having been exposed to toxicants,” said Seth Riley, a wildlife ecologist with SMMNRA and adjunct associate professor at UCLA. “We are hopeful the treatment will be successful and that we can monitor P-53’s recovery through remote camera images.”

P-53’s diagnoses marks the fifth recorded mange case among the park’s mountain lions. In the previous cases, Kuykendall noted, two pumas “died from uncontrolled bleeding as a result of anticoagulant rodenticide poisoning.” Another was treated and believed to have recovered — but was found dead over a year later. The other recent case was L.A.’s most famous mountain lion, P-22, who was treated in 2014. The celebrity cat later bounced back to a healthy state.

All four of those infected pumas had anticoagulant rodenticide (aka rat poison) in their system, Kuykendall said. Researchers are awaiting test results to confirm that P-53 was also exposed to the compound.

Mange is usually rare in wild cats, Kuykendall said, though the bobcat population in the Santa Monica Mountains has been experiencing an epizootic (the animal version of an epidemic) of the disease since 2002, leading to a “significant population decline.”

NPS researchers said 17 of 18 local mountain lions they’ve tested have been exposed to rat poison, including in a three-month-old kitten.

What most likely happens, according to biologists, is mountain lions are exposed through “secondary or tertiary poisoning,” meaning they eat a smaller animal that had ingested the poison, or a smaller predator that previously ate poisoned prey.

“Exposure to these toxic compounds can lead to unchecked internal bleeding and death,” Riley said in a previous news release. “This kind of poisoning was the second leading cause of death in our coyote study and continues to be a significant source of mortality and disease for bobcats and mountain lions.”

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Rat Poison in Prey Threatens Owls, Other Animals

Of course, this whole thing is really our fault. Local wildlife wouldn’t be exposed to rat poison if humans weren’t using those poisons in and around our homes.

That’s why park officials and their friends group launched an awareness campaign last year to educate the public about the threat to animals further up the food chain and inform residents about alternative pest control options.

Storage of Commercial Honeybees on Federal Land May Protect Hives, Threaten Diversity

MANTI-LA SAL NATIONAL FOREST, Utah – Although a beehive adorns Utah’s state seal, honeybees have not always lived in the “Beehive State.” They arrived in Utah with Mormon settlers, who held the honeybee in high regard for what they considered its industrious nature and collective spirit, virtues they saw embodied in their own community. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young initially named the region “Deseret,” the Book of Mormon’s word for honeybee.

The 1876 Utah territory coat of arms features a beehive. (Image via Henry Mitchell/Wikipedia Commons)

Less celebrated is the state’s notable native bee diversity. In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument alone, more than 650 native bee species have been identified. By comparison, just 750 documented native bee species exist in total east of the Mississippi River.

Now, a push to store commercial honeybees in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest could threaten its native bee diversity. Located about 100 miles north of Grand Staircase, the national forest is home to hundreds of native bee species, including the declining western bumblebee. Scientists worry that a large influx of honeybees could bring resource competition, disease and ecosystem impacts.

According to documents acquired by the Center for Biological Diversity through Freedom of Information Act requests, Adee Farms, the largest private beekeeper in the country, has persistently applied for bee storage on several Utah national forests since 2012, boosted by a 2014 Obama administration memorandum that directed federal agencies to aid both honeybees and native bees. In the fall of 2017, Adee applied to place 100 hives each on 49 sites in Manti-La Sal, which equates to hundreds of millions of bees. To date, it has received permission to place 20 hives at just three sites each in the national forest.

Commercial honeybee populations have plummeted in recent decades, in large part due to months spent pollinating crops coated in pesticides. With immune systems weakened by chemicals, honeybees are vulnerable to diseases and pests, including the varroa mite, which latches onto honeybees and sucks them dry. Meanwhile, available land for storing bees during their off-season has shrunk, thanks to funding cuts to a federal program that paid Midwestern farmers to let land fallow. Beekeepers often stored their hives on this land.

“We are desperately trying to get out of pesticide areas due to the loss of our bees,” wrote Brian Burkett, an Adee Honey Farms employee, on one bee-storage application.

Tara Cornelisse, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, called pesticides the “common enemy” of both honeybees and native bees. “The reason honey producers want to put their hives there is that there are so few unimpacted places,” she said.

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The company has sought bee storage on at least three national forests in Utah. Honeybee storage on forest service land is not new: The practice exists in Arizona and California, as well as on Wasatch-Cache National Forest in northern Utah. Even so, scientists and conservationists fear what the spread of bee storage to southeastern Utah might do to the area’s native bee populations.

The threat to native bees stems from the same collective nature that the Mormons admired in honeybees: Honeybees, which are social, direct others in the hive to viable sources of pollen and nectar. Most of Utah’s native bees are solitary, not social, so they risk being outnumbered in the hunt for floral resources. Honeybees are also generalists; they pollinate many plants, which accounts for their value as commercial pollinators. Many native bees, meanwhile, have evolved to visit specific kinds of plants, so if they are driven away, they have fewer options, and their populations could decline from lack of food. That can affect an ecosystem’s makeup, because native bees often are better at pollinating native plants than honeybees. According to Vincent Tepedino, a retired bee biologist who has urged the Forest Service to reject honeybee storage, substantial honeybee storage in the Manti-La Sal could eventually change fruit and seed production. This would impact birds and other animals throughout the ecosystem.

Biologists also worry about the sheer magnitude of resources used by honeybee colonies. A research paper by Tepedino and James Cane, an agency entomologist based in Utah, calculated the amount of resources collected by a honeybee colony, and translated that into the equivalent number of baby solitary bees. In four months, the 4,900 hives requested by Adee would remove enough pollen to rear hundreds of millions of native bees.

Scientists say the effects of honeybees on native species, especially the potential for disease transfer, demand further study. “Absolutely there needs to be more research to learn more about competition and impacts,” said James Strange, a Forest Service research entomologist.

This story was originally published at High Country News on March 7, 2019. You can read the original story here.

100 years: Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates the Past, Prepares for the Future

GRAND CANYON VILLAGE – It’s a cold winter night along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and as she shuffles through the fresh snow, Abbie Smith can’t think of a better place to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

As midnight strikes, the Mesa resident is overjoyed to be staying in the park that has reached its centennial year.

She and her friend of six years, Anne Kenison of Gilbert, are just two of more than 6 million people from around the world who enjoy the canyon’s natural splendors each year.

Both of them recognize that while visiting Grand Canyon allows them a place to escape, all visitors share a responsibility to preserve the park, which faces challenges in how to manage all those people while protecting the park for future generations.

Smith and Kenison, who bonded over their love for national parks and Arizona, used the park’s 100th anniversary to launch a yearlong quest to try 100 new things at the park. So far, they’ve hiked into the canyon, eaten dinner at the Grand Canyon Lodge and braved the cold to take in the view at Yaki Point.

At each checkpoint, the women write the accomplishment on a whiteboard, snap a selfie and move on to the next adventure.

-Video by Gabrielle Olivera/Cronkite News

The Journey of a Lifetime

Smith’s love of national parks began at a young age.

“I grew up going to national parks as family vacations,” Smith said. “I have a love for natural places and national parks. I have a picture of me at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when I was really little.”

But it wasn’t until Smith and Kenison went to hear photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko, who traveled more than 750 miles within the Grand Canyon to raise awareness about sustainability, speak at a National Geographic live event that they decided to get to know the canyon better.

“I know it’s four hours away, but it’s still my backyard,” Smith said.

The project is more than just checking off things to do, she said.

Abbie Smith, second from the left in the front row, visited Grand Canyon National park when she was four years old with her family. “I have a love for natural places and national parks,” said Smith. (Courtesy of Abbie Smith)

“It centers me,” Smith said. “It grounds me. It makes me reflect on my life. … I’m disconnected from things that don’t matter and connected to the things that do. It’s easy to just turn things off and just tune into other senses and the canyon itself. It is an amazing place. It’s unfathomable.”

The canyon’s popularity with visitors has led to an increase in traffic over the past few decades, she said, making the push for sustainable efforts at the park more urgent.

“I think protecting the resources at the park allows our future generations to also have spaces where they can disconnect from computers, from screens and the pressures of everyday life in a beautiful place that makes them feel grounded,” Smith said.

McBride, who is passionate about park preservation, hiked the entire length of the Grand Canyon in one year to raise awareness for the challenges facing this natural treasure, which President Theodore Roosevelt called “absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.”

“It’s not a bucket-list item that we check off for luxury and convenience,” McBride said. “It’s a place that requires you to get away from your vehicle, embrace its silence, appreciate its night sky, be aware of its remarkable biodiversity, and not its geological history but also its archeological history.”

He said threats to the park include a proposal to build a tourist gondola across the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, ongoing uranium mining and a huge expansion of helicopter tourism at the park. There are nearly 120,000 commercial flights every year, according to 2016 data from the park.

“If it continues the way it is, we’re not going to leave the park the way it is,” McBride said. “It would set aside what has been called ‘America’s best idea’ to create these national parks and leave them for the next generation. It would be sad to change it in the name of making a profit for a small number of people.

Although Native American tribes who live in the canyon deserve economic opportunities, he said, they often do not profit from expansions at the Grand Canyon.

“People just assume it’s a protected landscape, and I believe it requires each generation to step up and voice how they feel about it,” McBride said.

100 Years of Exploration

Humans have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for thousands of years, but efforts to reserve it for the public are relatively recent.

“It was a national forest and then a national monument and then a national park in 1919,” said Paul Sutter, environmental history professor and the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement, which tackles the dilemma of national parks protecting the landscape while accommodating increased tourism.

Once Americans embraced the automobile, he said, the National Park Service was able to attract large numbers of tourists.

“There was a shift in tourism from 1901 to years after World War I when a large number of automobiles started arriving, and it really changed the nature and patterns of visitation,” Sutter said. “The infrastructure of the automobile travel began to catch up around World War I.”

The National Park Service began a See America First campaign during World War I to entice people to drive out West, Sutter said.

“When most Americans thought about tourist travel, their first impulse was to go to Europe and go on a grand tour of all the famous sites,” Sutter said. “When that possibility got shut down around World War I, the See America First campaign was to increase tourism but also to create American identity through spectacular landmarks.”

-Video by Jonah Hrkal/Cronkite News

Places like the Grand Canyon are what make the U.S. stand out, he said.

“Europe may have these ancient ruins and all this history, but we have these monuments to nature, and that’s what made America a distinctive place.”

As a historian, Sutter knows every national park struggles to protect natural resources and manage visitation.

The Grand Canyon had nearly 38,000 visitors during its first year as a national park in 1919.
Today, the park welcomes more than 6 million annually.

“I personally wish we could figure out a way as a society that could better socialize the costs across the entirety of the population rather than raising the prices so much that you begin to put the experience out of reach for some people,” Sutter said. “I also know this is where they get their money and parks are in desperate need of money.

The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park after Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the National Park Service, and it’s suffering from wear and tear. The park has a maintenance backlog of over $300 million.

Preserving the Park

Roosevelt declared the area a national monument in 1908, but several bills to have it declared a national park failed to pass Congress.

“In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world,” Roosevelt said. “I want to ask you to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Roosevelt, however, was out of office by the time Congress approved the Grand Canyon National Park Act. It was signed Feb. 26, 1919, by President Woodrow Wilson.

As the canyon celebrates its 100th anniversary, 2019 will be a year to honor the national park through a push for sustainability, according to centennial coordinator Vanessa Ceja.

“This is a place that’s going to stay here for thousands of years and we want it to stay for future generations,” Ceja said.

Over the next two years, the park will make the switch to zero landfill. Over the past five years, the National Park Service has put solar panels on staff housing and enforced single-stream recycling, Ceja said.

“We have one dumpster where all of our trash gets taken to so that’s increased the amount of recycling we’ve done in the park,” Ceja said. “By having less dumpsters, we’re reducing carbon emissions from trucks.”

Staff members will continue to encourage sustainable efforts, she said, but there are changes visitors can make to help preserve the canyon.

Visitors should take all their trash with them when they leave; leave all rocks and fossils; not vandalize the canyon; stay a safe distance from wildlife; and if you need to use the restroom in the inner canyon, dispose of your waste properly.

“Even though you are just a visitor, your actions here in the park have an impact,” Ceja said. “You don’t have to be a park staff to be a steward.”

Like any national park, anyone who visits has a responsibility to preserve the parks for generations to come.

“They are just places you really hope everyone can get to at one point,” Sutter said.

For Smith and Kenison, they know that a place so grand deserves multiple visits. They are continuing their quest to complete 100 adventures in and around Grand Canyon this year.

Smith and Kenison just completed over 80 tasks and their final, culminating experience will be rafting the Colorado River in June.

Six Endangered Species the Border Wall Might Doom

LOS ANGELES – President Donald’s Trump’s promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be a disaster for wildlife. The existing barriers have already taken a heavy toll on borderlands plants and animals, as has the Department of Homeland Security’s border enforcement activities’ legal exemption from most environmental laws.

A continuous wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border would cut through the habitats of 62 critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable species, according to an analysis published in BioScience. The construction and maintenance of the proposed wall poses immediate threats to 96 different species, ranging from endangered cacti and desert pupfish to California condors and golden eagles, according to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity.

We feature six of those species here. All are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Sonoran Pronghorn

The pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, is the fastest land mammal in North America. They can hit almost 60 miles per hour in a sprint. Biologists suspect the beasts, also known as “antelopes” though they’re not closely related to true antelopes, inherited their speed from ancestors who spent a lot of time outrunning the now-extinct American cheetah.

A Sonoran pronghorn is released into the Barry Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona. (Photo courtesy USAF)

Sonoran pronghorn, Antilocapra americana sonorae, are just as fast as their cousins elsewhere in North America, but speed doesn’t do them much good against the threats they now face. Their habitat in the deserts of Arizona and Sonora has been fragmented by roads, canals, and ranchers’ barbed wire fences. Much of their range in the U.S. is on an Air Force bombing range, and stress from overflights and explosions takes its toll.

But the biggest problem for the Sonoran pronghorn is the existing barriers along the border, already quite formidable obstacles for animals that despite their speed are not great jumpers. Pronghorn populations in the U.S. and Mexico are already restricted from crossing much of the border, cutting off both migration routes and that all-important flow of pronghorn genes.

That’s a serious problem for an animal that can wake up in one place, then be 75 miles away before lunch. Pronghorn need big ranges to thrive.

The federally endangered Otay Mesa mint, on right, shown with the also-endangered California orcutt grass. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Otay Mesa Mint

Vernal pools are one of the San Diego area’s most-endangered habitats. Seasonal wetlands with bad drainage where winter rains pool, they provide unique habitats for a variety of plants and animals found nowhere else. And when development or climate change threaten to destroy vernal pools, they can destroy vernal pool organisms as well.

Otay Mesa mint, Pogogyne nudiuscula, a foot-tall, aromatic member of the mint family that sports bright purple flowers, used to be significantly more common, with recorded populations in vernal pools up and down the coast from San Onofre into Baja. It’s now known from just seven spots right along the border in the vicinity of Otay Mesa and the Tijuana International Airport.

Development pressure in the area is bad enough, and local conservationists have had their hands full protecting vernal pool plants like the Otay Mesa mint, as well as neighbors like the also-endangered California orcutt grass.

Development with federal exemption from environmental laws, as would be the case with a fortified border wall, could well be more than Otay Mesa mint can handle.

Habitat loss has pushed the Gulf Coast jaguarundis to the brink of extinction. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Gulf Coast Jaguarundi

This bobcat-sized feline, Puma yagouaroundi cacomitli, has been on the federal Endangered Species list since 1976. Things haven’t gotten much better for the jaguarundi since then.

Despite the common name, the jaguarundi is much more closely related to mountain lions than it is to jaguars. Mountain lions average about 10 times the size of jaguarundis, leading scientists to conjecture that an isolated population of cougars may have been forced to subsist on small prey such as rodents and frogs for long enough to evolve a much smaller size. Now, the jaguarundi species stretches from southern Argentina through the Amazon, the northern Andes, and Central America to Mexico, with a minute sliver of south Texas at the very northernmost end of the species’ territory.

Jaguarundis as a species seem to be doing okay. But habitat loss has pushed two of the cats’ four subspecies — the Gulf Coast and Sinaloan jaguarundis — to the brink of extinction. When the George W. Bush administration fortified border barriers in the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-2000s, biologists warned that the barrier to migration could doom Gulf Coast jaguarundis on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Populations of the Quino checkerspot butterfly on the other side of the border are doing better, and may provide a bit of insurance against extinction. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Quino Checkerspot

There used to be a lot more Quino checkerspot butterflies than there are now. When European settlers first came to California, the brightly patterned males could be seen jousting for territory on hilltops from Ventura to Baja California, stretching inland to the fringes of the desert.

Now, there are just three places where Quino checkerspots can be found in the U.S.. One is in the vicinity of Temecula in southwestern Riverside County, where suburban and wine-industry development hasn’t quite erased the last of the butterfly’s habitat just yet. The other two are on the border in San Diego County, one in the Otay Mesa area and the other almost to the Imperial Valley, in Jacumba. Populations on the other side of the border are doing better, and may provide a bit of insurance against extinction; if the States’ Quinos are wiped out, the butterflies may well resettle California from south of the border — kind of a butterfly Reconquista.

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Two big reasons for the loss of historic Quino checkerspot habitat are the Southland’s metastasizing development, and the related effort to control wildfires across the landscape. Some of the most important food plants for larval Quino checkerspots thrive in the wake of fires, and tend to get crowded out when other plants eventually move back into a burned area. That’s especially true with the advent of invasive exotic plants that can outcompete the checkerspot’s native food plants such as plantains and snapdragons.

With 75 percent of its historic U.S. habitat wiped out, a figure that rises to more than 90 along the coast, the Quino checkerspot can’t afford to lose any more habitat. And even if border wall construction activities don’t take out the Quino’s habitat along the border, the wall itself may prove a serious blow to the butterfly.

That’s because despite their wings, Quino checkerspots aren’t strong fliers. They don’t take off at all on cloudy days, and they tend to stick to within six feet of the ground. A 30-foot border wall, despite having little to no effect on crossings by earthbound human beings, may prevent that butterfly Reconquista from taking place, meaning that when California Quinos die out they’ll be gone for good.

There are at least 100 wild wolves living in New Mexico and Arizona as a result of a breeding program. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Mexican Gray Wolves

Less than a century ago, Mexican wolves, Canis lupus baileyi, ranged into California. By the 1940s, they were extinct in the U.S. due to predator control programs intended to subsidize the ranching industry, and ranchers methodically shot any wolves trying to migrate into the U.S. from Mexico. Mexican wolves in Mexico were swiftly approaching extinction as well due to ranchers’ use of predators poisons. In the late 1970s, wildlife agencies decided to attempt to save the Mexican wolf, and captured a few remaining wild wolves in the states of Durango and Chihuahua as captive breeding stock.

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The breeding program has been a qualified success, with hundreds of Mexican wolves now in captivity. Reintroducing wolves to their former habitat has been a little less successful. There are at least 100 wild wolves living in New Mexico and Arizona as a result of the breeding program, and a handful in northern Mexico after a release there in 2014. The highest death toll of Mexican wolves since the breeding program began happened in 2016, with 14 wolves killed that year. The wolves have fervent enemies, and wolf-hating humans with guns remain the subspecies’ biggest enemy.

If the Mexican wolf is to survive long-term, it will need connectivity between its range in the U.S. southwest and the wilder mountain ranges in northern Mexico.

The Arizona jaguar known as “El Jefe” caught on camera in the Santa Rita Mountains. (Photo courtesy USFWS)


The third-largest cat in the world, and the only North American feline that roars, jaguars only became functionally extinct in the United States in 1963, when the last female jaguar in the U.S. was shot in Arizona’s White Mountains. But the big cats have been trying to repopulate the United States since the mid-1990s, with at least a sighting every few years. Documented sightings have increased recently, though whether that’s due to more jaguars or the explosion of cheap trail cameras is hard to say.

Either way, jaguars seem intent on reintroducing themselves to the U.S., and the chain of forested parks and national forests across the Southwest offers potentially suitable habitat. Though those habitats are largely already inhabited by mountain lions, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be too much competition for resources. Jaguars and pumas do coexist in the jaguar’s present range, mainly because jaguars can take down bigger prey, in the 50-pounds-and-up range. “El Jefe,” Arizona’s lone male jaguar, has even been documented as eating black bears, generally an animal significantly larger than pumas can handle.

So far, only male jaguars have been documented as coming into the U.S., and that would need to change if a self-sustaining jaguar population is ever going to establish itself in the United States. A border wall would put an end to that possibility. And that may well mean big trouble for jaguars south of the border, who won’t be able to migrate northward as the southwest’s climate continues to warm.

Decades-long court battle over water rights impedes economic investment in rural Arizona

CAMP VERDE – The “growth” industry has fueled Arizona’s economy – growth in houses, offices, and places to have fun. Consistent growth is possible, in part, because of prudent water management in the more populated areas of the state. But outside the population hubs, some water rights still are tied up in court, making it hard for developers to plan.

At the exotic animal park Out of Africa, visitors can marvel at a menagerie that includes a rhino, a king cobra and a bevy of wild cats. The marquee attraction at the park is the Tiger Splash, where staff play with tigers around a swimming pool, trying to coax them into the water.

The park gets 150,000 to 200,000 visitors each year, co-owner Bill Jump said. It would like a lot more.

Out of Africa wants to add a hotel, a conference center and, possibly, a water park. For the water park in particular, investors would want assurances the site has a defined water source and buy-in from the community. But at the moment, Jump said, a long-term water plan for something so substantial as a water park isn’t likely.

“Right now, we’re at the risk of a long-term solution being the courts,” he said. “Coming in and making a maybe irrational decision as to how they’re going to allocate water for the whole state.”

In 1980, Arizona designated five Active Management Areas – Prescott, Phoenix, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz – that are heavily reliant on the mining of groundwater. Each AMA pursues a goal of stabilizing water tables under the Arizona Groundwater Code.

Outside of the AMAs, however, water rights often are tied up in the court system. As a result, tens of thousands of users don’t have complete certainty of their rights to a portion of certain key rivers, including the Gila and Little Colorado. A judge in Maricopa County Superior Court is overseeing a lawsuit called the Gila River General Adjudication. Through the adjudication process, the judge will decide on claims to water from several Arizona rivers – or water pumped from wells close to the rivers.

Tens of thousands of users don’t have complete certainty of their rights to a portion of certain key rivers.

The case has dragged on since in the 1970s.

“We think we’re at the point where the adjudication is beginning to impact the ability of these communities to grow in the way they aspire to, and also to sustainably manage water,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University.

Porter recently surveyed a few dozen developers and corporate-site selectors for the report The Price of Uncertainty, which found concerns about water are growing. She also found that uncertainty about water often immediately disqualifies a site from consideration for investment.

“They don’t bother with places where there’s uncertainty about water rights,” she said.

Steve Ayres, economic development director for Camp Verde, said a better solution than a court decree would be for the various claimants to make their own deal, creating a system where water rights can be bought, sold or leased.

“So when the adjudication court comes here, those parties won’t be objecting to one another’s use. They’ll actually have a deal worked out,” he said. “The court would be foolish not to accept a resolution that is acceptable to both parties.”

And there are some glimmers of this kind of solution. Out of Africa, for instance, is paying another company to use less water through a local water-credit program called the Verde River Exchange. That way, the park can offset the 815,000 gallons it uses in Tiger Splash and an otter habitat.

ASU’s Porter thinks local programs like the exchange are promising, but she notes there are more than 50,000 water-rights claims in the Gila River watershed, which includes the Verde and San Pedro rivers.

“To actually make a settlement work, you have to get enough parties to agree to the settlement. That means compromise on all sides.”

She added a settlement could require state legislation, and there already are other water issues that need the Legislature’s attention.

Ayres suspects some water users don’t want the adjudication completed because they’ll be told to stop pumping water to which they’re not entitled. So if a settlement doesn’t happen, water users will have to wait – as they have for decades.

“Is it ever going to get adjudicated? I don’t know,” Ayers said. “I’m 63. I doubt seriously it’ll happen in my lifetime.”

Ozone pollution bad in cities all over West

PHOENIX – The nearly 250 employees who work at Coreslab Structures could have looked up one June morning to see a yellow flag flying on top of their building. It was a signal to the employees, who often work outside, that the air quality that day was acceptable but possibly concerning to those with chronic health problems.

Coreslab, which produces precast-concrete construction materials in southwest Phoenix and 17 other sites in North America, became the first business in Arizona to join the state’s Air Quality Flag Program. More than 200 schools are part of the program, which is open to everyone.

“To me, it kind of seemed like a no brainer,” said Brandon Dickerson, plant safety coordinator at Coreslab. “Everything we do here in the production yard is completely outside.”

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality established the Air Quality Flag Program in 2007 to alert the public to high-pollution advisories. Based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, there are four colors: red, orange, yellow and green.

“Red, for instance, means we are over a federal health-based standard,” said Timothy Franquist, air-quality director at ADEQ. “Green means that we are in good for the air quality for the day.”

In 2017, Phoenix had 42 days in which ozone levels exceeded the EPA’s recommended limit, which would signal a red or orange flag, according to the ADEQ.

The American Lung Association in April listed the Phoenix area as the eighth most polluted city in the country.

And when it comes to air pollution from ozone, cities in California and Arizona topped the list.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s Timothy Franquist said certain groups – including people with asthma or other respiratory diseases, children and elderly people – are sensitive to higher ozone levels and particulates.

Individuals who enjoy activities outdoors also are susceptible to the risks of poor air quality.

“We just want to let those community members know what the air quality is like that day so they can take the proper precautions to either limit their exposure or maybe go out at different times of the day,” Franquist said.

In Arizona, most participants in the flag program are schools because children tend to be the most sensitive population, Franquist said.

“The real key to this is this is a voluntary program,” Franquist said. “We have over 200 schools, but it’s open to everybody – businesses, government agencies – the more people that participate, the more we can get the message out to the residents of Arizona.”