By: Francesca Claverie, Native Plant Program Manager
This month BRN is happy to report that we have started working with Greater Good Charities to support regional pollinator habitat!
Greater Good Charities is an independent charitable organization devoted to improving the health and well-being of people, pets, and the planet. Greater Good has supported some of our bat and agave work in the past and this year we are starting a new project to increase nectar sources for native pollinators and honeybees in the region.
The Sky Islands contains the highest diversity of not only mammals, but bees, moths and butterflies as well as nearly half the bird species in the United States, all of which depend on plants for food and habitat to survive. Pollinators are critical to the ecosystem because they help plants themselves reproduce through the process of pollination helping sustain our landscapes, support wildlife and the rich biodiversity of the borderlands.
Land degradation, climate change, and habitat destruction all threaten these important plants and animals, but by giving nature a hand by putting plants back into the landscape, we are securing a brighter future for the borderlands. Greater Good is funding 2 acres of flower seeding on some of the land Borderlands Restoration Network rents at our Native Plant Nursery and seed increaser field.
With over 10 years of practice and knowledge in propagating native plants and curating native seed collections for the Madrean Archipelago, the BRN Native Plant Program has developed effective methods for wild seed collection, cleaning and storage that support successful and genetically diverse habitat restoration projects. Our staff have also developed effective methods for producing restoration-quality plants as well as proven planting strategies for arid and grazed wildlands.
Greater Good staff, Brooke Nowak and Steve Minter, came down from Tucson to participate in the seeding event led by BRN Farm and Maintenance Lead, Travis Gerckens, and supported by staff Emmett Rahn-Oakes, Francesca Claverie, and Perin McNelis, as well as volunteer Casey Jacobs. The team worked all morning and the project was finished up by Travis, Perin, and Emmett in the afternoon.
The pollinator seed was hand broadcast throughout the 2 acres that Travis had marked off with flags and after seeding, was raked in by hand. After seeding and raking the area was irrigated with our water tank and nursery truck. The seed is expected to germinate over the spring, but is dependent on late winter rains. If our region doesn’t receive rain in the next month, we will water monthly to add moisture to the soil to support seed germination and pollinator plants.
By: Cholla Nicoll, Borderlands Restoration Lead Technician
The Borderlands Wildlife preserve has many neighbors. One of these neighbors is Borderlands Restoration Network partner, Deep Dirt Farm (DDF). DDF is a permaculture education center inhabiting 34 acres of lush rolling hills and an ephemeral stream. Both local humans and wildlife enjoy this landscape. Recently a mystery burrow was discovered within DDF at the base of an old mesquite tree. Rumors were flying of mysterious sightings of rare animals coming and going from this area. Wildlife trail cameras were employed to solve the mystery!
Even I was captivated by the mystery, what could be living in the burrow? After several weeks of collecting camera data, the mystery was solved. The primary inhabitant was a cottontail rabbit who found its nooks and crannies the perfect hiding place from several critters who would love a rabbit dinner. There are two cottontail species found in the area, the eastern cottontail and the desert cottontail.
Cottontail rabbits rarely make it past their first birthday as most of them are successfully preyed upon, giving life to many other animals. To compensate for such a short life, cottontails pack much living into that first year. Female cottontails can start reproducing at three months of age and can have up to five litters of kits in a year in productive environments. The highest number of young are produced in the spring when forage is plentiful, and cottontails use burrows and lush vegetation to conceal their young. Mothers do not stay near their young to not attract predators, so if you find a baby cottontail, it is best to leave it where you found it and allow the mother to return once you leave. Cottontails get most of the water they need from their diets and happily drink from open water sources if available, but do not need them to survive. Cottontails are most active during dawn and dusk and generally have a home range of around 1 acre.
Rabbits were not the only visitors to the mystery burrow. A curious roadrunner stopped by, along with a gray fox and spotted skunk. Even a white-tailed deer snuck in a picture behind the burrow's tree. If there is a rare mystery animal in the area, it has maintained its secret for now. We will keep monitoring this site, hoping that we may get a glimpse into the cottontail rabbit's short but essential life and any common or rare animals it may attract.
By: Audrey Rader, Watershed & Habitat Restoration Program Manager
After nearly two years as Borderlands Restoration Network’s Watershed and Habitat Restoration Program Manager, I am writing to say goodbye. As my time with BRN draws to a close, I am filled with gratitude for the incredible opportunities and deep relationships I’ve fostered through this organization.
I am extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished with the Watershed Restoration Program over the past couple of years, and we couldn’t have done it without the tireless work and dedication of the restoration crew, volunteers, and the rest of the BRN staff. My hope was to craft a program that would holistically address the most pressing concerns across this special region. I think we’ve done a great job in pulling this off, and I hope the region we serve agrees with me. Some highlights from my time include:
The Madrean Sky Islands are home to some of the nation’s highest biodiversity, from enclaves of Madrean pine-oak woodlands, towering cottonwood galleries, sweeping grasslands so expansive they could break your heart, to riparian areas abuzz with frenetic activity. I’m beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to call this region home and to get my hands dirty restoring it. Thanks for everything, BRN!
By: Cholla Nicoll, Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
Wintertime in the Sky Islands brings cooler weather and new challenges to the wildlife living in the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve. With some much-needed rain finally falling on the preserve in late January, my mind has been on the importance of water in animals' lives. Luckily for the animals that find themselves traveling through or residing in the preserve, there are several water sources available to them. Three of these water sources are custom-made wildlife drinkers, expertly designed by local engineer Dave Ellis. These drinkers are shallow basins that allow animals to escape if they fall in the water. This shallow depth also leads to the water freezing on a rare occasion.
This frozen water provides a somewhat comical series of pictures of our local wildlife handling this situation in various ways. A bobcat decides to nap on the ice, seemingly not bothered by the cold one bit. A skunk licks the ice while two apprehensive gray foxes wait their turn. Finally, a mule deer buck decides that chewing through the tubing might be a faster option than waiting around for ice to melt. Fixing the drinkers has become a unique engineering game since you can not design something safe and indestructible for all the local wildlife.
Although these wildlife drinkers are not a natural part of the landscape, they provide a source of water in a region where most of the surface water has been depleted by human needs and wants. These drinkers are in off-trail areas providing a safe space for animals to take a drink. As the preserve’s wildlife technician, one of my duties is to maintain these drinkers. Although fixing them can sometimes be a challenge, it allows me an opportunity to provide stewardship to the wildlife in a non-invasive way. The reward is often a chance to share a wildlife trail cam image we can all relate to, the happiness a much-needed drink of water brings to all desert dwellers.
For more information on water usage in the U.S. and Arizona please see this recent U of A study on how ground water depletion effects stream flow. For a summary in local AZ news please see this AZ Central article.
By: Cholla Nicoll, Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
This year has been extremely challenging. Our collective choices have presented consequences that many of us have not survived. In the modern and wealthy world some of us live in, we rarely see the full results of our actions or inactions like we have in 2020. Many of us are learning to survive in ways we never thought we would have. Most of the time, I share light-hearted and educational stories of our local wildlife in an attempt to soften the reality of the frequently brutal nature of survival that we all as animals encounter. We need these gentle breaks to maintain hope and balance our lives, and there is beauty in the hardest of times. To close out 2020 and ring in 2021, I would like to share a beautiful story of survival from the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve.
Several months back, as summer was waning into fall, I discovered a video that was difficult to watch. A coyote appeared with hackles raised, hobbling on three legs struggling to maneuver in front of the camera. This coyote was missing the lower portion of one of her back legs, and to make matters worse, she appeared to be alone. My mind flooded with questions. What happened to her? A leg trap or snare? A brutal encounter with another wild animal or dog? How will she survive? Will she suffer? Should I help her or let nature take its course?
I alerted my coworkers to be on the lookout for a three-legged coyote and let me know if they saw anything out of the ordinary. We could get her to a wildlife rehabilitation center if she couldn't hunt on her own. Then she vanished, no more pictures, no more videos, and no sightings. I feared she had succumbed to her injury as life is already challenging for coyotes and other wild animals under the very best conditions.
Then two months later, to my astonishment, she reappeared. Her leg appeared to be no hindrance anymore, and she was part of a pack of four coyotes. Four-legged animals can survive well with three legs, and this coyote with the strong bonds formed in a pack now has an even better chance of survival.
Over the past year, I have collected a small group of images showing her moving throughout the preserve. Please enjoy this unique glimpse into her life and respect her story by not seeking her out. Fleeting from prying human eyes drains vital energy from our precious wildlife. This coyote needs no further challenges.
Once again, I find myself learning and teaching from the animals I observe. When the only choice we have is to survive or perish, we must adapt, seek the support we need, and flourish despite our challenges. Never underestimate that each of us has this ability, don’t give up, disappear when you need to heal, find your pack, and keep trying to survive.
From the Borderlands family to yours, Happy 2021!!!
Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
By: Cholla Nicoll, Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
Occasionally when we experience the natural world, we are given a special gift. This gift comes in the form of a moment of awe. Maybe we see a hawk swing low to catch a mouse or glimpse a mountain lion as it slinks away into the brush. Whatever the experience, it's one we rarely forget. You would think working in a wildlife preserve, I must have these moments all the time, but honestly, most days, I rarely see more than a circling vulture or deer bounding away. I try to work from a place of inspiration and that sense of awe. Wildlife camera images often deliver the gifts I need to continue my work. I have recently been gifted some pictures of a bobcat from the BWP wildlife cameras. I want to share this gift with you and sincerely hope that it brings you a moment of awe as it did me.
The bobcat (Lynx rufus) is a North American species ranging from central Mexico to southern Canada. The bobcat is about twice the size of your average house cat. It preys on small animals such as rabbits, mice, and lizards. Bobcats are fairly common yet very rarely seen.
Bobcats are known for their short bobtail. Why bobcats have a short tail is still debated, one guess is that they evolved as ground hunters and therefore didn't need a long tail for balancing in trees. Bobcats also have black and white spots on the back of their ears, which create the illusion of false eyes. These spots ward off potential predators who might attack from behind and intimidate other rival bobcats.
The bobcat you see in the pictures was spending much time looking upwards in the camera images. I ventured out to the camera location to see what it may have been looking at in the surrounding trees. At first, I saw nothing, so I decided to take a short break under a nearby tree. It became undeniable what the bobcat may have been looking at as I was quickly surrounded by a flock of very upset Mexican Jaybirds. They loudly announced my presence was unacceptable to them. As I looked up at these very excited birds, I realized I had been given yet another gift, a notice that it was time to leave. I had outstayed my welcome and this place belonged to the birds and one exceptional short-tailed cat.
Bobcats, like all wildcats, benefit from strict regulations on the fur trade and large protected landscapes. Altogether avoiding the use of rodenticides also helps small predators like bobcats live a healthy and long life.
For more information on bobcats and other small wildcats, please visit the International Society for Endangered Cats.
By: Audrey Rader, Program Manager Watershed and Habitat Restoration
The past few months saw socially distanced Borderlands Restoration Network crews in some breathtaking places. We traversed hills and drainages, camped in oak woodlands, meandered vast grasslands, and hiked along lakeshores all in pursuit of one goal, to collect seed. As we trekked, we carefully selected seeds that would accommodate nectar or food gaps in the landscape for pollinators and wildlife. The seeds we collected this fall will shortly be returned to the landscape with the coming year’s monsoonal rains to augment ongoing restoration efforts.
Most all of our projects center on enhancing degraded landscapes. In the case of our project with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, this involves spending long days in the sun digging up the cantankerous rhizomes of Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), an invasive grass that chokes out native plants, alters the hydrology of the sites it infests, and increases fire risk.
In other cases, our restoration activities revolve around the abiotic side of things. For our ongoing collaboration with Southern Arizona Quail Forever, we are installing erosion control structures to slow and spread water across the landscape, retain sediment and mitigate erosion while supporting plant and animal life. For both of these projects, revegetation is an integral piece of the puzzle.
This is where the seed comes in. Using native, locally adapted seed for our restoration projects improves plant community resilience as these seeds are best equipped to handle local environmental conditions. They also offer vital habitat for the wildlife that calls this region home. Weaving together these invasive plant management, erosion control, and seeding activities boosts plant community diversity and abundance, serving to crowd out invasive plants, prevent erosion, and provide forage and habitat to our charismatic wildlife for years to come.
When collecting seed, we cater our technique to the plant. In the cases of plants such as the Agave, we place a tarp at the base of the plant and shake the stalk to gather seeds or lightly prune them with a telescoping pole. For grasses, we typically strip or shake grasses off the stem or clip the stem right below the spikelet. Some plants have seeds that explode out and require the entire inflorescence to be cut prior to maturity and allowed to dry in a paper bag. When it comes to shrub or forb seed, we hand pick it or lightly shake the plant, using a tarp to catch the falling seeds.
In all cases, we monitor the plants to ensure the seeds are mature before collection. After collecting, we bring the seed back to the BRN Seed Lab for inventory and cleaning. It’s important to remove the chaff from the seed as the chaff can harbor fungus, pests, and other pathogens. Then we store it in low relative humidity and cool temperatures to be used for our projects.
If any of these seed efforts piqued your interest, you can collect and store seed in your own back yard. For most of human history, saving seeds was not only necessary, but expected. The act of collecting the best seed from our gardens and storing them to plant in future years is a critical step to gaining food sovereignty. If you don’t grow your own food, you can collect seed from the native plants in your yard to sow a great pollinator garden next year, enhancing the amount of nectar and food for your winged visitors.
If you’re as curious or inspired by seed collection as we are, check out such groups such as The Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN) with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, whose efforts center on providing educational resources and training for seed collection to a wide array of audiences, thus enhancing food sovereignty across North America.
By: Audrey Rader, Watershed & Habitat Restoration Program Manager
Due to drought conditions, habitat fragmentation, historic unsustainable grazing and timber harvests, and flooding events, watersheds within the Madrean Archipelago have been severely degraded. Smith Canyon is one such degraded site, located in the Sonoita Creek Watershed and part of the Nogales Ranger District of the Coronado National Forest.
In collaboration with entities such as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona Game and Fish Department, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Forest Service, United States Geological Survey, and the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Borderlands Restoration Network staff has implemented various watershed restoration techniques across Smith Canyon in an effort to address the aforementioned habitat degradation concerns. Restoration treatments within Smith Canyon were designed to reduce erosion impacts and nonpoint source pollution downstream, with the overarching goal of improving the overall ecological function of the watershed.
Smith Canyon consists of mixed mesquite shrubland and oak grassland across roughly 90 structurally similar sub-basins. The unique, repeated pattern of these ~90 sub-basins presents an exciting opportunity for rigorous, large-scale experimentation when considering each sub-basin as a replicate unit.
In 2018, Roy Petrakis (USGS) developed a model to cluster sub-sets of these sub-basins based on their structural and biophysical traits. BRN staff then assessed each of these clustered sub-basins by level of restoration need (high/medium/low), allowing BRN staff to standardize best management practices across the adjacent Stevens and Little Casa Blanca Canyons for future projects.
Between June 2019 and November 2019, BRN staff installed erosion control structures per the restoration prescription in all of the clustered sub-basins. As an effective and low-cost technique employed around the world for thousands of years, erosion control structures are potent restoration tools in arid regions suffering from ecosystem degradation and the destructive effects of drought, fire and flooding. These structures consist of several parallel rows of self-reinforcing rocks or wood incorporated into the bed of the eroding channel. Often only one-rock high in profile but several rows wide, these structures rest at right angles to the direction of flow but remain passive to overtop flows. This arrangement allows these structures to trap organic-rich sediment upstream, while slowing flows and increasing water infiltration into the channel bottom and banks.
Erosion control structures temporarily detaining water in Smith Canyon after a rain event.
These structures extend the hydro-period for plant establishment without retaining water long term. When placed in a coordinated series according to landforms and observed water flows, each individual erosion control structure is part of a system that decreases erosive forces, increases surface water availability, and aids ecological recovery. Each of the 90 sub-basins received at least five erosion control structures constructed of rock and five erosion control structures constructed of dead and down woody material, depending on local resource ability. After installing the erosion control structures, BRN staff monitored each erosion control structure within the sub-basins for theoretical sediment yield by measuring their basin length, width, and height.
Finally, in collaboration with the Gornish Lab of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, BRN tested the effectiveness of various planting methods on reducing erosion in Smith Canyon. Planting methods included seedling out-planting (plugs), pelletized seed addition, and bare seed addition. The target species used for this study included Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii), Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi), and Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata), chosen in order to tease out details on the influence life-form may have on treatment success and habitat value.
Planting treatments included forb seeds, forb pelletized seed, forb plugs, forb and grass seeds, forb and grass pelletized seed, and forb and grass plugs. These treatments were randomly assigned across six plots, with each treatment type replicated ten times. Five of the planting treatment replicates were installed in control sub-basins with no erosion control structures and five of the planting treatment replicates were installed in sub-basins with erosion control structures. Plots were 2m x 2m in size to cover the width of the sub-basin flow-lines. BRN and University of Arizona staff will monitor survival and recruitment of each planting method in addition to the relative cost of each. We hope this data will help improve the efficacy and cost effectiveness of planting efforts for practitioners across the borderlands region.
In the face of ever-increasing anthropogenic and natural stressors, it is critical to restore our degraded watersheds. Restoring watershed conditions to a trajectory of recovery improves water quality and quantity with additional benefits to surrounding habitats and downstream populations. We hope these projects will validate the effectiveness of various watershed restoration techniques and inform future management of the Madrean Sky Islands.
Special thanks to the Frances V. Seebe Charitable Trust for support of this project.
Contact Audrey Rader with any questions.
By: Cholla Nicoll, Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
The next time you're out at the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve, swing by the newly updated welcome kiosk! After many zoom meetings and wordsmithing marathons, Borderlands Restoration Network and Wildlife Corridors, LLC are proud to have some exceptional new informational signage at the Preserve's welcome kiosk, including trail maps and brochures,
Like most good things, these signs were a group effort. They could not have been completed without generous donations, hours of volunteer time, and the help and guidance of motivated staff. We hope visitors to the preserve will enjoy the new signs, have lunch or a post hike break at the picnic table, and refill a water bottle from the beautiful mosaic drinking fountain created by the Patagonia Creative Arts Association.
The kiosk signage provide insights into the creation of the preserve, our partners, trail maps, wildlife information, and usage guidelines. The welcome area will continue to grow into a shared space for humans, plants, and wildlife alike. Future plans include additional signage on the back of the kiosk, along with a gentle interpretive nature trail and demonstration garden. As those plans develop, we are hard at work designing new interpretive trail signs for the preserves much loved Smith Canyon Loop Trail.
One of the new interpretive signs will introduce all of the local wild cats known to this region. Wild animals, especially cats, can hide in plain sight giving many of us humans the misconception that they might not be there at all. If we look closely as we hike though, there are signs of these animals just under our feet waiting to be discovered. Learning how to identify wildlife tracks and sign can open the door to a much more interactive experience in nature.
We hope visitors will enjoy the new kiosk and the peace and tranquility of the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve. In the meantime, here is some sign we found including a mountain lion track and a humorous image of a gray fox leaving behind some scat.
If you are interested in learning more about wildlife tracking, my recommended favorite book is Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species Second Edition authored by Mark Elbroch.
By: Perin McNelis, BRN Native Plant Program Assistant Manager
This summer, BRN’s Native Plant Program team continued its collaboration with the USDA Forest Service with support from the USDA Agricultural Resource Service to document and collect crop wild relatives (CWR) in the Wild Chile Botanical Area of the Tumacacori Highlands and surrounding public lands for future research and safeguarding of genetic material that may play a role in food security in the face of hotter drier conditions.
Wild Chile Botanical Area
What is a crop wild relative, and why are they important, you may be asking. As defined by the United States Forest Service, a crop wild relative is “a plant species occurring in the ‘wild’ that is a species from which the crop was domesticated, or a closely related species in the same genus to a particular domesticated crop species. Crop wild relatives may contribute genetic material to the crop species, which may provide for increased disease resistance, fertility, crop yield or other desirable traits.
Almost every species of plant that we humans have domesticated and cultivate has one or more crop wild relatives. When humans find plant characteristics that may be useful to us in crop wild relative individuals, we breed those CWR plants with desirable traits until those traits are maintained in all offspring. During this process of domestication, we focus on bringing out parts of the phenotype, or how the plant appears on the outside, that we like through breeding which in turn slowly alters the genotype. We maintain these traits through continued cultivation. Once we have achieved our cultivar, often the crop wild relatives cease to be used, but usually continue to grow in the wild.
Why are CWRs important? As we face unprecedented climate catastrophe, future food security is more important than ever. Gary Nabhan and Colin Khoury, who have advocated for CWR protection and research in our region for decades, write that “to produce good, affordable food while reducing the environmental impacts of production, more diversity will be needed both in the variety of plants cultivated or foraged for the market, and in the genetic variation within domesticated crops. Crop wild relatives offer the world both of these gifts.” CWRs that have adaptations for surviving and thriving in hot and dry conditions seem especially pertinent for the future of food security in the face of global warming.
In their paper “Trans Situ Conservation of Wild Crop Relatives,” Gary Nabhan and Erin Riordan advocate for integrating in situ and ex situ strategies for CWR conservation by ramping up protective measures for landscapes where CWR plants grow, and maintaining ex situ backup in gene banks, while also promoting education, research, and relationship with these plants. BRN's CWR work is just a starting point that stemmed from this “trans situ” approach. Our work with CWRs started in 2019 and has primarily been focused in the Wild Chile Botanical Area.
Wild Chile Botanical Area outlined in red.
The Wild Chile Botanical Area (WCBA) is a 2,836-acre area under management of CNF and was designated in 1999 to protect the northernmost natural population of the chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum), the wild ancestor of many cultivated peppers. The special area was also created to provide protection and research opportunities for both the wild chile and other plants of economic importance or conservation concern.
At least 45 species of crop wild relatives (CWR) occur in the watershed containing the WCBA within the east side of the Tumacacori Mountains on the Nogales Ranger District. Many of these CWR species have proven or potential uses as crop genetic resources for improvement of domesticated crops already being grown commercially in Arizona and the rest of the U.S. and the world. The WCBA is also one of the most botanically interesting areas in southern Arizona, providing a fantastic snapshot of the unique biotic community of the Tumacacori Highlands, and is home to numerous plant species that are at the northern extent of their range and grow in few other locations in the United States. For this reason in and of itself, the WCBA deserves protective measures.
In 2019 BRN played a small role in a project that the USFS was working on with support from USDA ARS to conduct a thorough botanical inventory of the WCBA. We supported the survey work which was lead by biologists from the Forest Service Enterprise Program, we then used the geolocations from the surveys to collect voucher specimens and seed that was sent to national germ plasm banks for research focused on the specific crop and its relatives.
This year we are continuing and expanding the project with the primary objective to continue locating and inventorying CWR and to collect seeds and voucher specimens of priority species for conservation and research. This is being done primarily in the WCBA and Coronado National Forest land in the Tumacacori Highlands, Santa Rita Mountains and Patagonia Mountains, for species not observed in the WCBA. Results of plant inventories for CWR will be used to determine if further protective designation for the WCBA should be pursued as an Important Genetic Resource Reserve (IGRR) for plant species in addition to the wild chile.
Manihot davisiae or AZ Manihot, a wild relative of cassava.
There are over 300 taxa of CWR present in the Tumacacori Highlands area of southeastern Arizona, so BRN has partnered with Erin Riordan, a plant ecologist and researcher, to narrow down such a large list in order to prioritize species that have more urgent research and conservation needs, and to have a more targeted strategy for survey and seed collection work with limited timeline and people power.
Although the insufficient precipitation during the monsoon season this year has posed a challenge to voucher and seed collection, this project feels urgent and timely, and BRN is thrilled to spearhead this work.
Further reading from Erin Riordan on CWR.
Watch the zoom presentation by Perin McNelis to the AZ Native Plant Society, Tucson Chapter about our WCR work.
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