Yosemite’s Pandemic Shutdown Allows Wildlife a Respite From Mankind

Coyotes are roaming empty campsites. Deer are grazing on empty fields. Rivers are rushing as the ice melts.

Yosemite National Park is virtually empty of humans.

For weeks now, wildlife has been allowed to move freely about the park since officials closed the mountains and valleys to humans to stem the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can go for a run around a meadow and see deer and coyotes and hear the red wing blackbirds…and listen to the river from my bedroom window,” said Breezy Jackson, director of UC Merced’s Yosemite Field Station, where scientists normally conduct research and teach classes year-round. “I feel incredibly fortunate and well-placed to shelter the storm.”

Jackson has lived alone with her husband, Paul, in one of the station’s seven homes since stay-at-home orders took effect in March. A wildlife biologist who normally would be working with dozens of scientists, keeps watch on the site as a caretaker while her colleagues stay away.

Along with some residents and park rangers, Jackson is one of the few humans to stay inside the park since the shutdown.

“I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility,” Jackson said. “I get to enjoy the park with relatively few people around and be a steward of this place.”

Yosemite is usually a busy place. Last year, 4.5 million people visited Yosemite, ranking it at the National Park Service’s fifth most-visited park in the country.

Overcrowding also has been an increasing challenge, with hours long waits to enter the park. A normal day on an April weekend might draw 10,000 people.

But now, Yosemite’s empty, harkening back to an earlier time before humans invaded it.

For weeks since the park closed, Yosemite park rangers have posted videos on social media showing animals seeming to enjoy life without humans, wandering freely through campsites and on roads where normally they would find cars, hikers and danger.

The Yosemite Convervancy’s webcams have shown their online visitors deer and coyotes scampering through empty campsites, and bears enjoying open country. The nearly 85,000 webcam views in March doubled those from January and February. Clicks take viewers to Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America; Half Dome; El Capitan; and the High Sierra.

“At any time of year, it’s fun to see Yosemite remotely from your house,” said Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which funds grants from donations to restore trails and habitat, protect wildlife and provide education programs. “You can get an actual live shot of what Yosemite is like – has it just snowed or is there a beautiful sunset.”

The “rewilding,” Dean said, is fun to see. Animals are reverting to their natural diets, not eating scraps.

In the weeks without humans, “roadkill” is down. Coyotes, squirrels and other animals aren’t being struck by cars, Jackson said.

“I’ve seen tons of wildlife lately, lots of coyotes,” Jackson said. “It feels like the animals are more present. There are a lot of deer right now because the grass is coming up. They seem completely at peace.”

Trash is also down, especially the toilet paper people have used and discarded, and left for ravens to unravel, Jackson said.

When the park will reopen is unknown, and when her colleagues will return is unclear.

Just last week, Mariposa County, where Yosemite is located, reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection.

“When we do allow research, what will that be like?” she said. “It’s hard to imagine the future.”

Climate Change Is Decimating Bird Populations in the Mojave Desert

LOS ANGELES – We found out last year that hotter, drier weather due to climate change is likely causing bird populations in the Mojave Desert to collapse at an alarming rate. A new study suggests one big reason why: Birds are having a hard time staying hydrated, which means they’re having a hard time staying cool.

Over the past century, temperatures in the Mojave Desert have risen about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, while precipitation has declined in some parts. That’s coincided with a roughly 40% decrease in the number of bird species documented there.

Adapting has been harder for some birds than others.

“Birds that required more water over the last century to cool off experienced more decline in the desert,” said Eric Riddell, postdoc in museum of vertebrate zoology at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the paper. “If birds had an unlimited amount of water they could probably deal with a lot more heat.”

The water requirements for desert birds are increasing as heat increases. (Courtesy of Eric Riddell at UC Berkeley )

Different species of birds get water in different ways.

Birds with primarily plant-based diets hydrate by eating seeds, some insects and by drinking from pools of water.

Primarily carnivorous birds, on the other hand, hydrate mostly by eating other animals, and don’t tend to drink from oases. The problem is that they have to hunt in order to eat, which means expending lots of energy in increasingly hot environments.

“Compared to 100 years ago, some birds needed to collect up to 60 more bugs per day just to replenish their water reserves,” Riddell said. “So that extra cost per day of having to go out and find a little more bugs and a little more bugs, we suggest has contributed to the collapse of the desert bird community.”

Larger birds with high energy demands have an even harder time. The daily grind can lead to a decline in reproductivity and premature death.

Birds like the American kestrel, prairie falcon and turkey vulture have all suffered.

The authors estimate that there’s been a roughly 10% to 30% increase in water requirements for desert birds over the past century. That need could increase by up to 80% by 2100.

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To estimate how bad things could get, the researchers created computer models of 50 different types of desert birds, all of which they subjected to increased heat due to climate change. Thirty-nine of the species declined significantly.

“For people that want to go out and see these birds, not only will they see fewer of them, but they will have much smaller windows of time when they can see them,” Riddell said. “Not only that but the conditions that make the desert hard to live and be active in for birds will also be true for humans, as well.”

A separate, larger study published earlier this month estimated that 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America in the last 50 years.

Big Cats, Cameras and Coexistence: Learning to Live with Jaguars

SAHUARIPA, Mexico – A century ago, jaguars roamed much of the Southwest, including most of Arizona. Today, the only glimpses of the endangered big cats in the United States are caught on cameras just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a recovery plan released in April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said bringing jaguars back to the U.S. means protecting the population south of the border in Mexico, which is estimated at 120 animals. That’s what the Northern Jaguar Reserve in central Sonora is trying to do.

Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist with the Northern Jaguar Reserve, works beneath a jaguar painting in her office in Sahuaripa, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Saving Big Cats in Sonora

It’s late May in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental range. Dry grasses and gray-brown twigs crunch underfoot as biologist Miguel Gómez and his colleagues trudge up an overgrown trail to check motion-activated camera traps on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a private protected area about 130 miles south of the U.S. border.

The Norther Jaguar Reserve was created in 2003 when the Mexican conservancy Naturalia purchased the 10,000-acre Rancho los Pavos in northeastern Sonora.

The cameras are tucked into hillsides and arroyos, and fastened to trees. Gómez clicks through photos of vultures, javelina, foxes and, most important, cats: mountain lions, bobcats, lots of ocelots. Then, finally, a jaguar.

“There it is, the jaguarón,” Gómez said, his colleague whistling at the sight of the endangered cat.

Miguel Gómez adjusts the position of a jaguar camera. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Caught midstride, the jaguar’s unique pattern of rosette spots were illuminated by the camera flash as it strolled through a palm-shadowed arroyo just a few nights before.

“Just knowing that you’re walking in a place where a jaguar has been a day, two days, two hours, before is something not very many people have the chance to do,” Gómez said.

He has spent more than a decade tracking and studying jaguars in this region. But he’s still awestruck to walk in the footsteps of the huge cat.

“It’s something really special,” he said.

A Diminishing Species

Jaguars are shy, solitary animals with territories that can span hundreds of miles, Gómez said. But habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans has meant both their numbers and range have diminished.

A century or so ago, jaguars roamed from southern Argentina all the way north into much of the southwestern United States, including parts of Texas, News Mexico, California and most of Arizona. Now, most U.S. sightings are in the mountain wilderness of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

A teacher and students with EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa show their best jaguar roars in front of a mural they painted. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
The EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa painted this mural in their town. “We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” says Claudia, 11. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments now consider Panthera onca an endangered species. But many biologists worry a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well as expansion and fortification of existing barriers, will threaten conservation and make it harder for jaguars to re-establish north of the border.

In its recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the best way to bring jaguars back to the U.S. is by protecting the estimated 120 jaguars that live in Sonora, expanding that population and maintaining cross-border corridors that jaguars can use to move northward.

Coexisting with Big Cats

Central to that plan are such efforts as the 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve, which was created 16 years ago by buying former ranch land and turning it into a haven for the northernmost breeding population of jaguars in the world. Here, jaguars and other animals can roam free without roads, mines, hunting or other human interference, Gómez said.

“The goal of the Northern Jaguar Project is to safeguard jaguars in this region,” he said. “And because the jaguar is an umbrella species, we’re protecting the rest of the plants and animals in the ecosystem at the same time.”

The 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve is 130 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

But it’s not enough just to buy up land for the reserve, he said. Jaguars live in and roam much larger areas. And once they leave the reserve, one of the biggest threats to the northern jaguar in Sonora is retaliation, he said. A jaguar kills a rancher’s cattle – or the rancher thinks it has – so the rancher traps and kills the cat.
“The perception here that the jaguar is a predator to cattle is one of the primary problems we have,” Gómez said.

So to break that cycle, in 2007 the reserve started Viviendo con Felinos, or Living With Cats, a voluntary program for local ranchers. If they allow biologists with the reserve to place and monitor cameras on their property, the reserve will pay them every time a picture of a cat is taken on their land. Ranchers also have to agree not to hunt cats or their prey, and reserve biologists work with them to manage their livestock in a way that discourages depredation, or cats killing cattle.

For ranchers like Diego Ezrré, it seems to be working.

Changing Perspectives

Every week, Ezrré drives his well-worn 1989 Toyota 4×4 up the mountainside from his home in the little town of Sahuaripa to his 2,000-acre Rancho El Calabozo, just south of the jaguar reserve.

On a good day, the 45-mile trip takes him four hours, he said. It took us six, crawling up the rocky dirt road overlooking deep canyons and towering rock formations. It’s hot and barren at this time of year in this part of the Sierra Madre. But as soon as the monsoon storms start, everything changes, turning lush almost overnight.

Ezrre has been part of the Viviendo con Felinos program since the beginning.

“At first, the attraction was the money,” he acknowledged. “But most of the ranchers who are in the program, our perspective has changed. We realize that the jaguars aren’t such a threat. They don’t cause nearly as much damage as illness and other things.”

Diego Ezrré runs cattle on his land just south of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. He is part of the Viviendo con Felinos program, which helps protect the endangered cats. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Ezrré calls the Northern Jaguar Reserve a “good neighbor.” Since the reserve blocked off the land to hunting and worked with other ranches to do the same, jaguars passing through his property are less likely to target cattle because there are plenty of deer and javelina, he said.

It’s that kind of change that has made the Viviendo con Felinos program popular, said Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist for the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

“There is a big waiting list,” she said with a laugh. “At the beginning, in 2007, nobody wanted to work with us. But now they know that it’s better to have wildlife than to kill wildlife, so they are realizing they want to be part of this.”

Seventeen ranches covering more than 88,000 acres are part of the program, Gutiérrez said. That’s more doubled the area where biologists can track, study and protect jaguars.

But change is slow, she said, and a lot depends on the choices the next generation of cattle ranchers make for their land.

“We don’t want them to decide not to be a cattle rancher, no, but to be a good cattle rancher,” she said.

Hope for the Future

As the morning bell rang at the local secondary school in Sahauripa, a group of kids ran across the street to a nearby basketball court to show off a mural they painted. Rolling green hills covered with trees, flowers, birds and, of course, a pair of jaguars.

Conservationists have dubbed this big cat Zapatos. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
Libelula saunters past a camera. (Photo courtesy of Nothern Jaguar Reserve)

“We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” said 11-year-old Claudia, one of a couple dozen members of the EcoGuardian Club.

The reserve hosts workshops and campouts where these students learn that having jaguars in their midst isn’t a threat but an asset. And it’s making an impact, teacher Ramón Córdova said.

“They have a different perspective than my generation,” he said. “Little by little, they’re learning that it’s something special, that their home is like a sanctuary for these animals, and that they should want to take care of them.”

Still, there’s a long way to go to fully protect the northern jaguar even just in this corner of Mexico, Gutiérrez said.

“The work to try to change the mind for the whole community will be very, very difficult, and maybe I won’t see the results,” she said. “Maybe that will be my son, my grandson, something like that. But I think we’re doing what we can.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Nature’s ASMR: How Deep Listening Could Help Save the Environment

PHOENIX – Saguaros and cardons tower against a soft gray sky as a family of quail tiptoes through the brush. Flowers glisten with raindrops. Under a tree, a man stands motionless. His eyes are closed, and he’s smiling softly.

Garth Paine is listening to Mother Nature.

Paine is an associate professor of digital sound and interactive media at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He co-leads the Acoustic Ecology Lab, where he studies how sounds can help understand the environment and potentially help predict climate change.

At the Desert Botanical Garden, there are sounds of birds singing, critters tapping and insects chirping. There also are the sounds of cars zooming down Loop 202 and noise from airplanes overhead. These sounds all contribute to what Paine calls the sonic environment of the garden, which is in Papago Park.

Born in Sydney and raised in Tasmania, Paine is infatuated with sound. As a child, he said, he loved going into the wilderness by himself, whiling away the hours watching and listening to the world around him.

He later became a sound engineer for the national broadcasting network in Australia and started composing music with the sounds he recorded in nature.

“Throughout my life wherever I’ve gone in the world, I’ve made time to do field recordings to just kind of sit down, be still for a few hours and listen to the world,” Paine said.

His passion for environmental sounds inspired him to study them as a scientist.

“As somebody who goes out and listens to the environment on a very regular basis, I’ve heard changes in the environment and I’ve felt the changes in the sound quality because you literally feel them with the body, and I’ve been conscious that the acoustic ecology is changing.”

He’s now pioneering multiple projects to help communities understand their own environments through sound, and working to understand how sound could be a tool for predicting changes in the climate.

The Listen(n) Project

Paine spends a lot of time recording in Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and on other public lands, recording for his music and the Acoustic Ecology Lab.

“It struck me talking to people who live near those places that they were also very concerned about climate change and climate impact and they felt somehow disempowered because they were not in the cities, they couldn’t march in the marches,” he said. “They felt like there wasn’t a lot they could do.”

Thus the Listen(n) Project was born.

Six years ago, Paine and his team began holding listening and field-recording workshops and “soundwalks” in these communities. From those, he recruited a team of citizen scientists to record in the same location every month, and from this work he created the Listen(n) Project.

“That has really empowered people in those communities because they feel they have a role in the stewardship of those lands,” Paine said. “They’re much more conscious about then having something to say about that.”

Almost 50 citizen scientists contribute to Paine’s recordings.

“It’s spiritual. It’s science, and it’s a process of rehumanizing us in an overly technological society,” said Jennifer Kane, who has been a citizen scientist in Joshua Tree National Park since the Listen(n) Project began. Learning how to listen has empowered her understanding of the environment, she said.

This project is ongoing, and Paine and his team continue to conduct listening workshops and train citizen-scientists to contribute data to the EcoSonic Project.

-Video by Chloe Jones/Cronkite News

In field-recording workshops, citizen-scientists are trained to record the outdoors in surround sound. This data is contributed to the EcoSonic Project, and participants can use the recordings however they like. If time permits, Paine will add a workshop on composing music.

A Growing Database of Sound

Originally, the recordings from the Listen(n) Project were used only for music.

“I started to think about how we could use those recordings as a big data set to develop tools that would actually allow us to show transformation (of the ecology of an environment),” Paine said, “and if possible tools that will help use predict impact based solely on sound recordings.”

The EcoSonic Project began two years ago in collaboration with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, which studies and supports the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve in northeast Scottsdale.

The purpose is to create a psychoacoustic model that can act as a baseline for environmental sound. What sets EcoSonic apart from other psychoacoustic studies is that it focuses on psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound. It looks at preferential sound qualities of natural environments, like reverberation from plants, and looks at ways to maintain these qualities in environments over time.

Paine defines psychoacoustics as the way sound is interpreted in the brain. The problem is that everyone’s brain perceives sound differently.

“Everything we hear is a construction, and this really comes to the core of the phenomenology and of psychoacoustics,” he said. And because everyone interprets sound uniquely, the challenge is measuring these subjective variables in an objective way.

Garth Paine studies the ecology of sound and how it helps us understand our environment. His work currently looks at the potential of sound to help predict climate change. (Photo by Chloe Jones/ Cronkite News)

Paine does this by analyzing sets of recordings, and he listens for various psychoacoustic properties, such as loudness, to create a model showing how these properties change based on, for example, the weather. To graph the data into a model, Paine fed the system information about psychoacoustics and the corresponding weather of those psychoacoustics when they were recorded.

“When I got the first graphing of that data, out of the model I was stunned because I was like, ‘Wow, it’s like so clear,’ like I had not for a second thought that the correlations were going to be so strong.”

To do the first predictions, Paine said, his team fed weather data in the model and asked what the psychoacoustics would be like the next day.

“The 24-hour trends were so close that I literally sat and stared at it for 10 minutes because I was like, this could actually be really powerful,” he said. “It was also a validation of what I’ve felt in my body for a long period of time being out in the world.”

Paine believes what he’s found is a connection between how changes in sound in everything from national parks to cities could be predictors of climate change. That change is heard before it’s seen, he said.

Paine hopes this model eventually will predict psychoacoustics of environments in the far future, and analyzing those sounds could provide information about the physical environment in that future.

A Link Between Sound and Climate

Sonic environments differ depending on the physical environment. A sound reverberates when it bounces off a surface and echoes to another location. Reverberation is more likely to occur off hard surfaces, so an urban environment with concrete and buildings will be much noisier than an environment with lush vegetation, which absorbs sound.

“One of the most exciting parts of what Garth is doing is that he is tapping into a part of the environment that we can’t sense,” said Sharon Hall, an ecosystem and urban ecologist at ASU. Animals, for example, are sensitive to sound and vibration, she said.

“What we don’t know yet is how the things that we’re doing in the environments – they could be slow kinds of changes, like climate change, or it could be kind of fast changes, like urban development,” she said.

But all of those changes, Hall said, will change the sonic environment “in ways that affect animals and even plants that we have no idea about now.”

In downtown Phoenix, for example, the soundscape is rich with noise of vehicles and the light rail; on First Fridays, add music and revelers. These sounds echo off structures to create a louder, busier sonic environment.

Natural sonic environments are more muted, with fewer human noises, and plants absorb a lot of sound. That’s why it’s important to listen.

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Paine said changes in sonic environments potentially could be heard years before corresponding physical changes are apparent.

“We hear things before we see them. … We hear the bird before we see it, but also actually we hear change before we see it,” he said. “Reduction in species count, we can hear that possibly a couple of years before we actually start to be able to count it in the behavior of the environment.”

With his work in the Listen(n) Project and EcoSonic Project, Paine is listening for sonic changes in environments, and hopes to see correspondence with physical changes, and while more time is needed to establish results, Paine said the results so far are promising.

The Power of Listening

Standing beneath a tree in the Desert Botanical Garden, Paine is tranquil.

“That plane is very obvious to us, right?” he asked, pointing to the sky. “The traffic on the freeway over there is also really clear, and what we can hear is that the plane masks the freeway.”

The plant life in the Desert Botanical Garden absorbs sound, Paine said, yet the reverberation from concrete can still be heard.

He talked about the difference between listening at the garden and listening in Joshua Tree before the sun rises, recounting how he lays on the earth there, completely still, completely present. With all of his attention directed toward his listening, Paine said he could hear tiny bat wings flutter, a woodpecker wake up and begin to steadily thrust its beak into wood.

“I like to say that listening makes the world remarkably richer. It really does.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

How a Sea Turtle Led an Arizona Company to Make Paper Straws

GILBERT, Ariz. – The push to ban single-use plastics is paying off for a Gilbert company.

When two Intel engineers founded Footprint five years ago, they focused on designing and making paper bowls, trays, cups and packaging. And then a YouTube video caught fire.

Recorded in 2015 by Christine Figgener, a marine conservation biologist, it shows her colleague pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose. (Video contains graphic content and strong language.)

“Unfortunately, I have to say, this is not a super uncommon sight,” Figgener said.

As her video racked up views, Jeff Bassett, senior vice president of marketing at Footprint, said companies asked them to come up with an alternative. So, they started making paper straws last fall and just announced a deal with Wegmans, an upscale grocery chain on the east coast. Bassett said they’ll be used in store delis and sold on shelves at 99 locations.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to produce 27 million paper straws a day,” Bassett said.

He said Footprint has four production facilities, more than 800 employees and one ocean ambassador — Christine Figgener from the YouTube video. She said Footprint convinced her they had a good product.

Gilbert-based Footprint began making paper straws in 2018. (Photo courtesy Footprint)

“It started to become this thing that a lot of companies claimed to be biodegradable or all this kind of greenwashing vocabulary and it’s not true,” she said. “Here [at Footprint], it is the case, it’s not even a plastic, it’s fiber-based. It’s truly degradable. So, you know, you could throw it on your own compost, you could actually leave it in the marine environment. And, it’s third-party certified, so that’s kind of what I was looking for.”

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Last year, Nature, the International Journal of Science, published a study of ocean debris between California and Hawaii that found 90 percent made up of large pieces of plastics. Figgener said people should remember every river leads to the ocean.

“So that means you might have disposed of your plastic, you know, responsibly, it went onto the landfill,” she said. “But then, the next storm, the next hurricane, the next flood might have just transported it into the river and from there it went into the ocean.”

Next year, Starbucks says it will eliminate plastic straws at its stores worldwide. The change has been challenging for McDonalds. Some customers in the UK and Ireland have called on the fast food giant to stop its roll out of paper straws claiming they “dissolve” in drinks.

Footprint says its straws are engineered to last over days of use and still break down completely within 90 days.

“We actually delivered all the paper straws for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival that was about a month or a month and a half ago,” Bassett said. ”And the straws were very well received at that event. We actually had people there taking surveys on them.”

In Colorado River’s Final Hundred Miles, Small Signs of Life Return

LAGUNA GRANDE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — It’s mid-morning in the Sonoran desert and already the temperature is rising.

Karen Schlatter suggests we find some shade, a relatively easy task at Laguna Grande, a restoration site along the Colorado River’s historic channel in Mexico. It’s managed by the Sonoran Institute, where Schlatter is associate director of the binational environmental group’s Colorado River Delta program.

We head over to a stand of 30-foot cottonwood trees within the intensely managed site. Walking through the canopy, away from the direct sun, the temperature drops quickly.

“This forest here is probably five years old,” Schlatter said. “Trees and habitat can establish really quickly in the Colorado River Delta when you give it the adequate conditions: water, sunlight and not very high soil salinity.”

A stand of trees are reflected in a pool of water at Laguna Grande, a restoration site in the Colorado River delta, managed by the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Zig-zagging around us, among the trees, is a sprawling network of irrigation ditches. It’s almost laid out like a farm. Instead of the food crops grown all around this site, Schlatter’s team grows trees and willows, prime habitat for birds, coyotes, frogs and other wildlife. The whole site only receives water a couple times a year.

Midway through our walk, we come across a dusty trail leading from the woods down to a pool of water in the Colorado River’s channel.

“Yeah, so this is a beaver trail,” Schlatter explained. “We had beavers arrive to the site, I think five years ago. Two years ago we had an entire beaver family and there were little baby beavers running everywhere and everyone was freaking out.”

Karen Schlatter helps manage Colorado River restoration work for the binational environmental group, the Sonoran Institute. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

This place is an attempt to give a glimpse at what the Colorado River Delta used to be when the river emptied into the Pacific Ocean — a healthy mix of cottonwood forests, vast lagoons and thriving estuaries.

But for the last 50 years, the delta has become a husk of its former self.

Since then, growing cities and farms in the Southwest have claimed more and more water promised to them under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, leaving its delta in northern Mexico dry. The delta’s problem isn’t one caused by drought and aridity. It’s the byproduct of a river promised to too many people, collateral damage in the effort to make the desert Southwest capable of supporting millions of acres of crops and burgeoning cities.

Within the last 15 years, though, the countries that rely on the river — the U.S. and Mexico — have begun committing both funding and water to restore portions of the dried-out delta and bring some life back to the Colorado River’s final hundred miles.

“A Scarce Resource”

The water arrives at Laguna Grande the same way it arrives at farms in Mexico’s Mexicali Valley. It comes here via a network of irrigation canals that criss-cross the valley, delivering the Colorado River’s water. A concrete-lined canal passes right by the restoration site.

The water is either purchased from farmers within the valley by a trust, or water dedicated to restoration by the U.S. and Mexico. Under an agreement called Minute 323, 210,000 acre-feet of water will flow to sites like Laguna Grande until 2026. A portion of that water is made available by making irrigation upgrades within the Mexicali Valley, and the U.S. committed $31.5 million to fund those upgrades.

“Both countries have an interest in restoring the Colorado River Delta,” Schlatter said. “Particularly Mexico is interested in restoring the habitat and some of that economic value that was lost. And the U.S., because this is a binational river, also has an interest in helping Mexico do that.”

A previous agreement, called Minute 319, allowed for a pulse flow through some of the restoration sites and some water for so-called base flows, or water that would be delivered more deliberately to the restoration areas.

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farm fields in the Mexicali valley, creating patches of green in the Sonoran Desert. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC/LightHawk)

Under Minute 323, $9 million is set aside for restoration work, split equally among the U.S., Mexico and a set of environmental organizations that work in both countries. Another $9 million is committed to an ecological monitoring program. Karl Flessa at the University of Arizona is part of that team of scientists gathering data and observations from the delta.

“These are parks,” Fless said. “Think of them as little green parks scattered along the course of the river.”

So far, Flessa’s group of scientists have found a dramatic increase in the number and species of birds coming here. Other wildlife are making a comeback. Flessa says the early results are promising.

A report published in December 2018 by the International Boundary and Water Commission found the “abundance and diversity of birds in the riparian corridor increased 20% and 42% after the 2014 pulse flow.” That burst of bird activity did diminish after 2014, but remained higher in the managed restoration areas.

“The river is dried up below Morelos Dam (at the U.S.-Mexico border),” Flessa said. “And restoring some of that flow below the dam even to small park-like restoration areas, that’s restoring a little bit of environmental justice.”

“It is for Wildlife and for People”

A few miles upstream of Laguna Grande, whitewater gushes out of an irrigation canal into another restoration site, El Chausse.

Adrian Salcedo of Restauremos el Colorado manages water at Chausse. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

Adrian Salcedo manages the flow of water for Restauremos El Colorado, a Mexican environmental group. It receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

“This site is very complex, maybe more than other sites because of the water management,” Salcedo said through a translator.

Chausse is meant to replicate a bend in the Colorado River. Teams here ripped out invasive species like saltcedar, and planted native vegetation. Instead of Laguna Grande’s bare, dry furrows, the site is more “natural-looking” with water flowing through multiple channels. Achieving that look and feel, with grassy marshes, takes a lot more resources.

“We have the water rights to make this place possible now,” Salcedo said. “But thinking about the future it could be complicated to restore this kind of habitat at this level, because water could be more scarce.”

The restoration sites also employ local workers needed to manage the flow of water, plant native trees and host visitors. They’ve become regular stops for groups of school children.

“It is for wildlife and for people,” Salcedo said. “In the beginning the plan was to just restore the river, the riparian vegetation and then when you get that back, the wildlife will start to come. Birds, mammals, polecats, coyotes.

“Then when the people see that, they want to come to the area and help.”

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 1: Five Years Later, Effects Of Colorado River Pulse Flow Still Linger

Like the entire Colorado River basin, climate change will put these restoration sites to the test, turning up the heat, increasing evaporation and diminishing water supplies.

“People are always asking, ‘Are you taking climate change into account?’” said the National Audubon Society’s Jennifer Pitt. “And we are in that we know that water will continue to be scarce and scarcer. And so we’re trying to use it to greatest effect.”

(The National Audubon Society receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

For example, Pitt said, in the latest U.S.-Mexico Colorado River agreements both countries spelled out how to handle shortages, and ensured restoration efforts wouldn’t be sidelined if supplies became more scarce.

Colorado River Delta Series

Part 2: As the Colorado River Basin Dries, Can an Accidental Oasis Survive?

Before leaving the site, we head down to a marsh, where tall grasses have taken root in a shallow pool. A secretive marsh bird called a sora has captured the attention of some of the site’s staff.

Alejandra Calvo, of environmental group Pronatura Noroeste, pulls out her phone to mimic the bird’s call. (The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

The tiny, spindly-legged sora weaves through the reeds and calls back, making a “kerwee” sound from its corn kernel-colored beak. It walks like it’s late for a midday appointment.
Disappointed to find only a group of gawking humans and not a mate, the bird eventually heads back into the grass.

“Nobody intentionally dried out the Colorado River Delta, but it happened,” Pitt said. “When we had our eyes open to look at it and say, ‘Oh that’s terrible, what have we done?’ it took a kind of high level sovereign-to-sovereign agreement to start doing something about it.”

This story is part of a series on the Colorado River delta, and part of an ongoing project covering the Colorado River watershed, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Special thanks for help in making this series possible to Alejandra Calvo-Fonseca, Will Worthington, Jim Afinowich, Esther Duke, Christine Steele and Esther Honig.

The Endangered Mexican Gray Wolf is Still Endangered – For Now

WASHINGTON – The National Academy of Sciences said Thursday that a six-month study determined the Mexican gray wolf is a separate subspecies from other gray wolves, which recently lost their endangered species status.

Mexican gray wolves were almost driven to extinction in the 1970s, but currently number about 100 animals in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico after decades of reintroduction efforts. Lumping them in with other gray wolves could have subjected them to more hunting, said Michael Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s definitely a positive for the Mexican gray wolf,” said Robinson, of the report’s findings.

But not everyone is a fan of the animal. Even in reduced numbers, the wolf is having an impact on ranchers in southeast Arizona, said Gaither Martin, executive vice president of the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association.

“Every calf and cow lost (to a wolf) is money out of their pocket,” Martin said of ranchers. “That money goes away from their families and their kids’ scholarship funds.”

The NAS study was commissioned by Congress to look into the status of the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf, of which there are just 24 remaining in North Carolina. The report did not consider the animals’ endangered status, only their taxonomy, and it determined that both are distinct from the generic gray wolf.

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For the Mexican gray wolf, the study’s authors were directed to determine if they are “physically or genetically distinct enough to justify that status” of subspecies, according to the report.

Joseph Travis, a Florida State University biology professor who chaired the committee that wrote the report, said committee members “read everything in the world ever written about Mexican gray wolves” to reach their conclusion.

“There’s always been this concern that when you took the last few ones you found (in the wild) and bred them … who the hell were those guys anyway?” Travis said. “Were they really Mexican wolves, were they stray dogs, what the hell were these things?”

After looking at all the available data, he said the committee determined that the current population did, in fact, descend from Mexican gray wolves, and they are still their own subspecies.

“There is no evidence there is any domestic dog ancestry mixed in” with the Mexican wolves, Travis said, and “no evidence that they, in any case, hybridized with coyotes.”

“The Mexican gray wolf has, from its discovery, been considered a distinct wolf,” the report said. “Its size, morphology, and coloration pattern distinguish it from other North American wolves.”

The findings did not come as a surprise to Robinson, who said that “since 1929 the Mexican wolf has been identified by scientists as a unique subspecies.”

Although scientific methods have changed over the last 90 years, Robinson said “all of these different techniques have concluded that the Mexican wolf is, in the words of one assessment, ‘outside the range of variance’ of other gray wolves.”

But it is still a wolf, notes Martin.

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Not only do wolves kill cattle, he said, but cows can get so badly scared around wolves that they cannot breed. He said “good black Angus” is worth about $800 and he knows ranchers who have lost six cows this year alone. For a small operation, that can be “quite substantial.”

“Our position is we would rather not have them,” Martin said. “We feel like the wolves are a direct threat to our industry, to our producers. Bottom line we don’t see, we’ve yet to be presented a way that there’s an upside.”

Martin called it a waste of federal funds to support a species that, if it were “a natural part of the habitat here they would not need to be babysat like they are being babysat.”

“They wouldn’t need to be managed like they are being managed,” he said of the wolf’s protected status. “We will continue to fight the presence and expansion of the programs.”

Robinson has heard the same complaints from ranchers before.

“(This) was an effort, once again, with no scientific basis to try and remove federal protections from wolves,” he said of the claims that led to the NAS study. “This is what the livestock industry and their congressional allies have been attempting for a long time.”

But he said he is confident science will prevail.

“The Mexican wolf has some powerful enemies and I’m just grateful that science operates on integrity,” Robinson said.

To Unlock the Secrets of Urban Coyotes, Biologists Turn to Poop

LOS ANGELES – First off, yes, this is a story about poop, which we all know is funny.

So please get all the snickers, chuckles and chortles out of your system now, because this poop story has a valuable lesson about how Los Angeles residents share this wildland-urban interface with coyotes – and why it’s our fault when things go wrong.

When it comes to Angelenos’ coyote troubles, Justin Brown, a biologist with the National Park Service, said he’s heard it all.

“I have people coming in telling me that their neighbor’s feeding them, some where the coyote’s coming up behind them, chasing them and their little dog as they’re walking down the street, to some people where there’s just a coyote that sleeps in their yard every day,” he told LAist. “If you’re having conflicts in your area, they’re coming into your neighborhood for a reason. There’s some sort of resource they’re finding.”

And Brown, fellow scientists and local nature fans investigated those reasons by looking at coyote scat.

For a little more than two years, NPS researchers and volunteers collected scat at 27 sites, most of them in LA, including spots coyotes frequent in Griffith Park, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Frogtown, Beverly Hills, Culver City and Baldwin Hills.

In all, the research team collected and dissected more than 3,200 samples, which literally is a crapload.

A few of the sample sites were in more suburban and wildland pockets in the Conejo Valley, including Thousand Oaks, “to see if the amount and types of food vary based on a certain level of urbanization,” Brown said.

Despite having coexisted with them in Southern California for so long, much about urban coyotes remains a mystery, Brown said, such as pack size or even how many live in the city.

Urban coyotes easily co-exist with humans in Southern California. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Investigating their diet is just one part of a larger NPS coyote study from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, dubbed the L.A. Urban Coyote Project. The overall goal is to better understand how they’ve managed to carve out such a comfortable spot in the hybrid ecosystem we share.

How Do You Study Scat?

It’s not as simple as finding droppings and grabbing a pair of gloves. Every coyote scat sample gets put through a process that basically eliminates the poopiest parts of the poop, Brown said. First the scat is brought to NPS scientists, who bake it for sterilization. The sample then is placed in a little nylon bag and gets washed and dried.

Fur and whiskers also offer clues about urban coyotes. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

“You wash it to get rid of all that extra stuff, that way when you go to dissect it, you don’t just have lots of dirt,” Brown said.

After that, the poop is ready for inspection – and it’s time to throw a party.

NPS has hosted volunteer events where members of the public learn to dissect and catalog what they find in the coyote poop samples, aptly called scat parties.

Volunteer Merri Huang first heard about the project and the call for volunteers in a KPCC story and signed up. She said she has been a “a backyard naturalist” since moving to LA in 1980 (it probably helps that she has a master’s degree in field biology).

“(I) was amazed at the number of species in my own backyard,” she said, “and front yard, where I’ve seen coyotes off and on for years.”

At a typical scat party, Huang said, you check in, get coffee and a bagel, then grab a sample and get to work. Volunteers place their samples on paper towels and start picking out the contents into separate piles: animal parts, plants, fruits, insects and trash. Some volunteers don’t even bother wearing gloves, NPS spokeswoman Ana Beatriz Cholo said, adding that ‘gloves are kind of annoying,” and fur can stick to them.

Volunteers verify or correct their findings using matching samples, field guides and the internet, but also get help from Brown and other scientists.

“People are curious. They want to know what these animals are doing there,” Brown said. “This is the way they can answer some of those questions by coming and seeing.”

NPS scientists even had to turn down some poop eager volunteers wanted to bring in from backyards and other places, since they needed to focus on specific sites for consistent data-gathering.

“My favorite part was sharing science with others who were curious, perpetual learners, collaborating towards a future goal,” Huang said. “It’s fun to be with people who share my excitement about identifying a Dixie cup, or a rabbit’s tooth, or a reptile scale, a beetle’s wing, or even a microchip in a scat.”

After a bit of work, lunch is provided, then it’s back to more poop.

Volunteers are responsible for the vast majority of collections and dissections, Brown said, and he credited them for their hard, important work.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Feces

For Brown, who has been studying coyotes for nearly 20 years, what really stood out was how much fruit local coyotes eat. Most of it isn’t fruit humans throw out – the source is non-native, ornamental plants ubiquitous across LA. Some of the fruits commonly found in coyote scat included purple figs from ficus trees, pyracantha berries and dates from our iconic (but non-native) palm trees.

“Most people don’t even realize they eat fruit,” Brown said. “The coyotes definitely take advantage of them.”

Urban coyotes are also eating a lot of human and pet food, which was found in more a quarter of the samples. Other common meals are rabbits, cats, insects and gophers.

Brown believes most of the cat remains found in urban coyote scat point to feral cat colonies in those areas, which typically means someone in a neighborhood is feeding those feral cats. Of course, coyotes do sometimes get to small dogs, house cats and other pets.

Preliminary data from the study showed a notable difference between the diets of urban coyotes and those in the Conejo Valley. Most of those more suburban/rural coyotes munch on rabbits, fruit, rodents and insects, generally consuming far less human-generated garbage.

Brown noted that resources aren’t dwindling in the more wild areas where coyotes live, though “we’ve definitely pushed more and more into their habitat.”

Coyotes are just expert life hackers.

“They’re very good opportunists. They take advantage of resources that are available,” he said, adding that coyotes also are good at making pups.

“Generally, if there’s more food, there’s going to be more coyotes,” he said. “If the landscape can support them, they’re going to be there.”

But coyotes don’t stick to just the food pyramid, as scat inspectors found over the course of the study. Some of the more bizarre items found in their poop were baseball leather, stuffed-animal parts, a finger puppet, bits of broken glass, a condom and, ironically, a dog-poop bag.

Whiskers Tell Us Even More

A coyote’s poop alone doesn’t give the full scope of their diet. A lot of easily digestible materials, including meat and dairy products, gets absorbed in the magical process of digestion. But there are other ways to see what coyotes are eating.

That’s where Cal State Northridge graduate student Rachel Larson lends her expertise. She has a bachelor of science degree in zoology, is pursuing a master’s in biology and is one of the lead volunteers on the NPS urban coyote project, focusing on diet study.

Some coyotes have a penchant for fast food, but they also eat a lot of fruit from such non-native plants as ficus and date palms. (Photo courtesy of Merri Huang)

“A delicious Egg Sausage McMuffin isn’t easy to recognize in poop,” Larson said. “However, in the United States, most of the food we consume has corn in it in some way.”

That corn contains noticeably higher amounts of carbon-13, an isotope that weighs more than a typical carbon atom. So when a coyote eats food with lots of corn or its by-products in it, that carbon-13 gets absorbed into their bodies, including their whiskers.

Larson runs collected coyote whiskers through a mass spectrometer, which allows her to detect the amount of that isotope, showing her how much human food coyotes are eating. And often, it’s a lot.

“What was surprising was how much urban coyotes relied on human garbage … it constituted 80 percent of their diet!” she said. “We would be missing a significant amount of human food if we just used scat analysis alone.”

What can be done

So, LA’s most urban coyotes are getting a majority of their food from garbage left by humans. And if they’re not eating our trash, many are eating fruit that falls from trees and plants that humans introduced to the region.

“We provide a huge amount of their food to them,” Brown said. “We need to realize that we are responsible for them being in our neighborhoods and we need to be dealing with that situation if we don’t want them there.”

And now that researchers have a good sense of what coyotes are eating, Brown hopes local residents can be educated and empowered to reduce the unnatural resources the animals take advantage of.

For starters, Angelenos can remove food sources, which could mean getting rid of ornamental fruit-bearing trees or “being very adamant about making sure there’s no fruit hitting the ground,” he said. That also means securing and reducing garbage, keeping streets free of litter and not leaving pet food – or pets – outside.

But “the worst kind of feeding” that happens is when humans intentionally feed coyotes, Brown said. He has seen people “giving resources we shouldn’t be providing,” by leaving pet food bowls out for wildlife, throw leftover food to coyotes in parks – even tossing burgers to them. That near-hand-feeding behavior is dangerous for coyotes, and potentially for people, too.

“The coyotes start getting to where they expect food directly from somebody,” he said, “so they come up to people and then they end up getting a little too pushy and end up biting somebody.”

Brown also recommended Angelenos look for ways to reduce cover by removing some vegetation and keeping yards free of debris, allowing coyotes fewer places to hide.

About 100 scat samples still need to be dissected, Brown said, which should be done in the next couple weeks. After that, he and his team will write up their findings and work to get them published in a scientific journal.

Their findings also will be used locally by the National Park Service to educate the public about coyote behavior and what steps can be taken to deter them from coming in neighborhoods.

But, as Brown noted, it’s impossible for every part of LA to be coyote-free.

“Coyotes are going to live amongst us,” he said. “It’s going to occur. They’ve already adapted and they can live quite well in our neighborhoods and in our urban environments.”

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.

Is the changing climate making you anxious? You’re not alone.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – We love our rivers, our mountains, our forests, deserts and wildlife in the West. They’re part of our economies, our lifestyles and our identity. But that very connection makes us vulnerable to a growing mental health problem: climate anxiety.

Wander around any town center or school campus around Colorado Springs and ask people their feelings about climate change and you might hear the words “scared,” “worried,” “dread” or “grief.”

Things just got even scarier with the United Nations’ latest report on climate change. It said the world had already reached a 1 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial averages and that, “Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

This news alone is enough to make anyone anxious. And such groups as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association are paying attention. They’re publishing reports on how the fear of climate change can harm mental health.

Sabrina Helm, a researcher at the University of Arizona, wanted to find out who among us is the most vulnerable. She did a survey of several hundred people and found that “people who have a concern about nature and the environment in general, plants and animals, those are the ones who also report highest ecological stress. Unfortunately, also depression,” she said.

Helm believes people in the deserts of the West are especially sensitive because they “are very aware about how fragile the natural environment is. It doesn’t rain one year, and the changes are tremendous,” she said.

For Helm, who moved from Germany to the desert West some years ago, all of this hits home.

“It seems very dire to me,” she said. “If you read so much of the research, which paints not such a nice picture of future developments. … It affects researchers as well.”

In fact, based on Helm’s research, people who study the environment may actually be among the most affected by climate anxiety.

That includes Michael Lucid, a conservation biologist in northern Idaho. A few years ago, Lucid and his wife discovered a new species of slug, only to find it’s vulnerable to climate change.

Michael Lucid, a conservation biologist in northern Idaho, says climate change is part of his everyday reality as a scientist. (Photo courtesy of Michael Lucid)

He said it was disorienting to add a creature to the known world and simultaneously fear for its future. But climate change is part of his everyday reality as a biologist, as a parent and as a mountain dweller, he said.

“The last two summers in August have just been horrific smoke,” said Lucid, “and that has really gotten people talking about climate change.”

He said it makes him sad, but it also motivates him to work harder to find solutions for wildlife to survive and adapt.

This positive attitude fits with Helm’s research, which found that people who are the most stressed or depressed about global warming also tend to be the most proactive about finding solutions.

Laura Schmidt is a perfect example of this. She’s a recent environmental humanities graduate from the University of Utah.

Schmidt said the more she learned about the environment in graduate school, the more her anxiety increased. “And then I realized, you have to do something,” she said.

So she started convening support groups in Salt Lake City for people to talk about their climate anxieties. The groups became what she now calls the Good Grief Network. She said climate anxiety is something mainstream psychotherapy just hasn’t addressed head-on yet.

“Seeing the world around us come crashing down or be changed in ways we can’t even imagine,” Schmidt said, “is definitely going to have a psychological toll on us.”

So she’s growing the Good Grief network beyond Utah, and even into Canada and Europe. While developing the program, Schmidt interviewed scientists, activists, and writers about how they cope during hard times.

“Almost everybody said that they had some sort of spiritual practice,” she said. For some people, it was taking a walk in the forest.

For some people, it could be their church. Tom Trinidad is the pastor at the Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs. He said he has a number of congregants who are deeply concerned about the environment.

Tom Trinidad, pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, says many of his congregation are worried about climate change. (Photo by Ali Budner/91.5 KRCC)

“Some folks come to the church and they just want to be able to unburden their concerns and their hearts,” said Trinidad. “And that’s all we can do sometimes. But if you only say ‘Just trust God and there’s nothing you can do about it’ then that also robs them of the dignity of their human responsibility. And so we try to do a little bit of both.”

He noted Pope Francis’ lengthy treatise on actively dealing with climate change and said “all of us need to be talking about this.”

For Schmidt, it boils down to a simple choice.

“You can see this as a great opportunity for connection and for meaning and for community building,” she said. “Or you can sort of shut down and look the other way.”

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