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Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology’s George Hess is working with Iowa State’s Jan Thompson to lead small, interdisciplinary classes of graduate students on a five-year journey, exploring a different metropolitan region each year. For their inaugural offering, Hess, Thompson, and 12 students visited Pima County during spring break.

Crisis as a key catalyst for conserving urban wildlife

Nearly 20 years ago Pima County, home to Tucson, was at a crossroads. Two decades of barely controlled growth saw homes and businesses sprawling up the surrounding foothills. There had been some progress protecting habitat for wildlife, but no comprehensive approach to land conservation. And development continued apace.

Then crisis struck.

The Cactus ferruginous pygmy owl was declared endangered in 1997 and discovered a year later in parts of Pima County under heavy development pressure just north of Tucson. The owl’s endangered status shifted the balance of power from economic toward conservation interests – the owl could not be ignored and development came to a standstill.

Tuscon, Arizona

Tuscon, Arizona

A new way forward

Rather than simply map and protect owl habitat, bold leaders in Pima County embarked on what has become a nearly 20-year journey to develop and implement the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Their innovative response was enabled by a favorable political climate, “never say die” attitudes among people in key positions, and willingness to pursue a grand vision that linked conservation to people’s lifestyles. A broad coalition of organizations and individuals were enticed by the combination of a core habitat and biological corridor plan – designed by conservationists to protect some 50 species of plants and animals – with additional plans to conserve riparian areas, mountain parks, ranch conservation, and cultural resources.

A wildlife overpass under construction.

A wildlife overpass under construction.

One outcome of this effort is a wildlife overpass just north of Santa Catalina Church, coupled with a wildlife underpass a mile down the road, now under construction. The $11M crossings are intended to maintain movement corridors for wildlife between the Catalina Mountain Range to the east and the Tortolita Range to the west. In a truly collaborative effort, wildlife biologists worked with developers, ecologists, engineers, and transportation planners to help make this happen. Funding includes installation of monitoring cameras to evaluate how well the crossings function.

The journey continues 

After studying the conservation plan, the students were ready to meet and talk with key players in its creation and implementation.

One of the things they heard more than once: “Thank goodness for that little owl! This conservation work would not have happened without the crisis it created.”

Next year, they’re off to Chicago to examine Chicago Wilderness, a coalition of more than 200 organizations working to protect wild lands and wild life in the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Region.

To read more about the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, visit …