Stretching above North Oracle Road is the first “wildlife bridge” in the Sonoran Desert; a passage of shrubs and cacti for animals to safely cross above the traffic whizzing by on the state highway. And among the scientists working on the project: the students of Manzanita Elementary.
This collaboration started last year when Manzanita students examined ways to reduce road kill around Tucson. Efforts by teachers Charlotte Ackerman and Jennifer DeBenedetti of the Manzanita Robotics Club resulted in a Heritage grant by The Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Manzanita fourth graders now study the images sent to them by special night-viewing cameras mounted around the wildlife bridge. Two of the cameras were even set up by the students themselves last May. The data processed and examined by the elementary students goes into real, public scientific data records.
“The students are having so much fun, they forget how much they are learning along the way.” said Julie Farbarik, director of community relations for Catalina Foothills Unified School District. “It was originally for the Robotics club, but we soon realized how big it could be.”
The students have been working on the project all year, but Tuesday, March 6 was the first day they saw the bridge and cameras in-person. Their field trip was much more than a visit to the wildlife bridge, however. The students also had a chance to talk with their co-scientists at Arizona Game and Fish department, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection and more.
“When we talk about the work we do, it just lights people up,” said Carolyn Campbell, coalition executive director. “It’s great that they’re getting excited about this.”
Among the events for the day, students spotted and traced animal tracks, saw live demonstrations of screech owls, pack rats and barn owls, finger-painted attempts at replicating animal camouflage, discussed predator and prey adaptations and even hiked a bit through the desert using a map and compass to identify their location.
The events took place in and around the Santa Catalina Church parking lot. The church is within eyesight of the wildlife bridge and a short hike to some of the wildlife cameras hidden throughout the Sonoran Desert.
“I think this is amazing,” said Cynthia Tigrero, a fourth grade teacher at Manzanita Elementary. “If you look at all the students you can see they’re so involved. We should definitely be doing more projects and work like this.”
Manzanita Elementary received a $2,000 Heritage Grant to both educate the students and aid scientific research on the Oro Valley wildlife bridge. According to the Heritage Fund grant application, “The Critter Cams for Kids project engages elementary school students as ‘citizen scientists’ and empowers them to play a vital role in conserving desert wildlife… the project will increase viewing opportunities and contribute to public awareness of wildlife habitat fragmentation.”
The grant enabled the purchase of two additional wildlife cameras to the existing 45 in the area and additional resources added to the elementary curriculum for desert ecological study. The 47 cameras documenting animals around the Catalina mountains and Oracle bridge have captured images of over 1,700 animals including deer, javelina, coyotes, bobcats and more.
“They’ve done so much phenomenal work,” said Jessica Moreno, a wildlife biologist presenting at the event. “It’s pretty exciting to see it all tie together. Some of these things even adults would struggle with but the kids understand it. I’m impressed how well the curriculum connects.”
The overpass is only part of the wildlife connectivity development in the area, albeit the most significant structure. The project includes both passages, and was funded by Pima County taxpayers after approving the 2005 Regional Transportation Authority plan, including a countywide, half-cent sales tax. The plan included $45 million for wildlife passages. About $11 million was spent to build the passages on North Oracle Road, which were completed in 2016.
Constructed by the Arizona Department of Transportation, the structures are managed by the Arizona State Land Department, U.S. Forest Service and the Rancho Vistoso Homeowners Association. Pima County also funded additional land acquisitions near the wildlife bridge.