My scientific observations in Arizona date back to 1987 when I was a wildlife researcher for New Mexico State University. Based in the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, I was introduced firsthand to the biodiversity of the Sky Islands. The broad spectrum of flora and fauna that populated those remote mountains truly belied any fallacies that I had of the southwest being a Lawrence of Arabia-like wasteland.
In the intervening years I have noticed many detrimental changes to our local ecology. Perhaps the best term to describe this process of diminishment of biodiversity is ecological decay. What are the components that have recently contributed to the reduction of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, plants, and fungi? Why have populations of differential grasshoppers, marine blue butterflies, Sonoran toads, various quail species, deer herds, and countless other species been reduced to mere shadows of their former abundance
If our local natural environments, including their flora and fauna, are experiencing an ongoing “death by a thousands cuts,” then perhaps the deepest slice belongs to climate change. This summer’s monsoon season has been one of our hottest and driest in recent decades. Throughout Arizona and the western U. S. the mercury has been rising, as have palls of smoke from seemingly countless wildfires. Quite simply, a warming climate in an already arid region – with tenuous rain at best – is a very quick recipe for disaster. Since many local species of wildlife and native plants flourish only or mostly when there is ample rain, we are at great risk of creating a depauperate, human-made desert out of what has evolved into an ecologically rich region.
Even without climate change Southeast Arizona’s wild species have been on a collision course with its resident primates for over a hundred, if not over 10,000 years. The latter figure ties into Dr. Paul Martin’s famed blitzkrieg hypothesis, which provides compelling evidence that hungry Paleo Indians in the late Pleistocene (ca. 10-12,000 years ago) caused the demise of many giant mammals via their spears. The more recent figure refers to the final surrender of Geronimo and his defiant band of Apache in 1886. It was only then that widespread immigration of Anglo populations occurred in our area. With us came a litany of impacts on our native species.
Rampant overstocking of the range with cattle in the late 1800’s led to loss of topsoil and the conversion of highly productive grasslands to less diverse desert scrub. This trend often continues today with the number of cattle in any one area exceeding the ability of the land to recover. Agriculture changed from local farms and gardens to an increasingly industrial scale, effectively sucking many of our waterways dry or nearly so. In essence we are mining our groundwater at an unsustainable level with increasingly less rain to help resupply this vital resource. Polluted water is a problem as well in many areas – go put your nose to the Santa Cruz River if you would like to prove this!
Nor are chemicals confined to waterways. A few years ago, I was exposed to a throat-tingling dose of herbicide as I drove along I-19 – possibly Roundup, which is a known carcinogen. When I queried a U of A herpetologist as to why some horned lizard populations have crashed, he postulated – “chemicals?” Roads are often more directly deadly to wildlife, as evidenced by the carcasses that regularly pile up from highway impacts.
Add in rampant urbanization and its attendant habitat destruction, nonnative plants and animals taking over the landscape, cell phone tower and wind turbine bird kills, over hunting, and you begin to seen the grim reality that our local species face – ecological decay.
What can we do to mitigate, if not reverse, this alarming trend? Use less water on a daily basis, leaving more in the ground, which often equates to more in our streams. Better yet, establish a rainwater harvesting system. Don’t use manmade chemicals on your landscape or in your home – they always wind up in the environment. Create a diverse, low-water-use landscape of local, native plants that benefit a wide variety of wildlife that flocks to them. Drive slower on our roadways, sparing wildlife a gruesome demise, particularly at dusk and dawn.
Most importantly, given our dwindling natural resources, let’s create a world where we artfully and appropriately interact with the rest of nature. Then, instead of hoarding most of the resources for ourselves we can leave enough for other species – perhaps ultimately proving that we can, after all, share the planet with all of the rest of life. There is only so much pie to go around. This is a call for action, so let’s get off the proverbial bench and do our collective best to help preserve our fragile Sky Islands biodiversity legacy for generations to come.
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org