Arizona: Trees, animals stressed

Randy Babb, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, offers the Gambel’s Quail as Exhibit A on the impact of the state’s drought.

The birds forage on winter annuals that contain a chemical similar to estrogen. In dry years, when those plants are sparse, quail hens lay fewer eggs, and hatchlings are more likely to die because of lack of food and cover, Babb says. Twelve extremely dry years have devastated Arizona’s quail population, he says.

“This drought is catastrophic,” Babb says. “No one alive has seen a drought of this severity.”

June 8, 2007

By Dennis Wagner

Arizona is so known for its arid climate that “It’s-so-dry” jokes are part of the culture. But after years of below-normal precipitation, nobody’s laughing.

Bob Dyson, a spokesman for the Apache and Sitgreaves National Forests, says the environmental impact is readily apparent from an aircraft. Giant cottonwood trees along the Little Colorado River near Springerville are dying in clumps, as are huge numbers of pinyon pines near Heber.

On the ground, examples are just as obvious. Boats can’t launch at some mountain lakes because docks are on dry land. Last year, wildlife officials resorted to hauling water into the White Mountains for elk, and to southern deserts for bighorn sheep, Game and Fish spokesman Rory Aikens says.

Also last year, Babb says, more than a dozen black bears invaded Sierra Vista searching for food – several had to be killed – after oak trees in the Huachuca Mountains failed to produceacorns.

An Arizona monitoring system lists every county in extreme or severe drought. And the long-term forecast is pessimistic: Researchers say Arizona’s dry years represent a new climate for the Southwest, with the Colorado River shrinking by 30%.

From the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa highlands, dryness from the lack of rain has fueled huge wildfires.

The Rodeo-Chediski blaze of 2002, Arizona’s largest ever, charred more than 460,000 acres of pine country and wiped out about 450 structures. The Cave Creek Complex fire followed in 2005. It blackened 243,000 acres of desert north of Phoenix, baking saguaros on its way to becoming the state’s second-largest blaze.

Tourism, timber, development and towns have suffered even without fires as rivers run dry and aquifers shrink.

“It’s a biblical drought,” says Steve Brophy, president of the giant Aztec Land and Cattle Co. “It’s cut our (number of calves born) by 25%. And it’s reduced our carrying capacity (the number of animals that can graze on an acre) by about 75%.”

Brophy says the devastation of the land is heartbreaking. He describes a canyon in Gila County with a series of springs where hackberry trees grow. “Some of the hackberries are 300 years old, and every one of them is dead.”

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Copyright 2007 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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