Desert Wildwater Study
by Jan Schiffer
The initial "Wildwater" project was based on the idea what we needed a desert foothills landscape where we could look at how wildlife communities are shaped by seasonal water availability in a "water limited ecosystem" (aka desert). In other words, how does water shape ecosystems and communities - including perennial, intermittent and ephemeral sources.
If surface water IS the most limiting factor for stable communities, and we are loosing ground and surface water across the region, what can we learn from how animals adjust to this phenomenon every year with the seasons? Wildwater, or surface water available to wildlife, could be declining further in the future as groundwater is depleted, and as the keystone resource that shapes these communities, we need to better understand the linkages between water and wildlife.
As with any new study, getting to know the logistics of access, and in this case the limitations involved with getting into some areas, is what lead us to meet Tommy Thomason. Our original study design included access to Red Creek either by 2-3 days on the river, or what would be a full day over land (with no guarantee of success). Working together with the Arizona Pilots Association not only made this study possible, but allowed us to test both water and overland routes which will greatly improve the quality and quantity of the data we are able to collect.
This far (from 2015) we were able to set over 70 camera traps in the Verde (and adjoining Cave Creek) basin, across a number of different watersheds. We collected over one million images the first year alone, and although a majority of these are of sun-warmed plants on a breezy day (moving in front of the motion/heat detector), we got a lot of very interesting data and observation of the native wildlife.
We recorded black bear, mule deer, javelina, mountain lion, ringtail, bobcat, and many others, and by placing our cameras on water holes, we were also able to observe how animals adjust their use of time and space to water availability. We were also able to record the range expansion of the white-nosed coati, a species formally only found in southern Arizona, but now rapidly expanding north (to Flagstaff).
The 2016 field season will use less cameras over a small area and sample across all available habitat types. Because we focused on water issues in 2015, in 2016 we are using a different study design to more intimately know a single landscape with vastly different stewardship types. So we hope to not only better understand how animals use the entire range of habitats at their disposal, but also if we see any difference in community composition in wilderness areas vs multi-use UTV areas, for example. The more time we spend in this landscape, learning not only the logistics or how to get around, but also learning from the wildlife communities which live in this remarkable transitional region between the desert (low) and the forest (high) ecosystems, the more we can understand.
We are very excited to be working with the Arizona Pilots Association, who we consider to be among the most valuable members of our "team" in the Verde basin. I look forward to strengthening this partnership further in the future as needs and resources allow.