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  • Roundup rescues riparian reptile residents

Roundup rescues riparian reptile residents
    It’s a cool morning in the Santa Cruz River bed. The springtime sun only hints at the heat of summer. A male side-blotched lizard moves furtively in a stand of tall grass. The lizard is caught. It just doesn’t know it yet.
    Rosen with lizard
    Its camouflage has failed, betrayed by its nervous movement. The sharp-eyed hunter moves in, slowly; frequently still. Then, a lightning strike and it is done.

    Now the lizard knows it’s caught. It thrashes briefly, then gives in; perhaps playing dead to fool the predator. Quickly, firm fingers take hold of the lizard and a nylon noose around its leg loosens. The lizard is saved. It just doesn’t know it yet.

    Its captor is herpetologist Phil Rosen, who is out in the riverbed during a reptile roundup ahead of a Regional Flood Control District project to dredge the Santa Cruz before the monsoon arrives.

    “It’s important to move as many of these animals as possible before digging begins,” Rosen said. “Lizards and snakes are very important consumers. They do a massive amount of work keeping down populations of many types of animals - insects, rodents, scorpions, spiders – things we don’t want overpopulating our habitat.”

    Each animal captured is measured and identified, its temperature taken and location recorded. It then ends up in a much-used resealable plastic bag of its own, waiting to be returned after the project ends or for release in a new habitat selected by Rosen.

    “They stand a better chance of survival f they’re relocated before digging begins,” Rosen said. “Once the bulldozers and trucks start rolling, it’s chaos. With all kinds of critters in a mad scramble, the smaller ones often end up on the menu.”

    Rosen continues to scour the rocky riverbed and sandbars where removal of the 90,000 cubic yards of sediment between Grant Road and Speedway Boulevard began April 23. The project seeks to ensure the channel has sufficient capacity to handle significant, even historic, amounts of stormwater and debris that often come with monsoon storms. Work will take place weekdays from approximately 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of June.
    Rosen says persistence “and practice” are the keys to trapping reptiles. A tolerance for pain helps too given the isometric positions Rosen sometimes has to hold to snare his targets.

    “Some species are nice and easy, you can just get a loop over their neck or mid-body. Sometimes they bite it. They don’t recognize it as a threat,” Rosen said. “Others require more elaborate means like fence traps which direct the lizard into a net.”

    So far Rosen and other biologists from contractor Harris Environmental have removed just shy of 100 lizards and two snakes from the project area. They have also broken up a number of pack rat nests, to catch the animals or encourage them to move out of harm's way.

    The Grant-to-Speedway work marks the first phase of a three-part maintenance project extending four miles south to 29th Street. The collaborative effort with the City of Tucson and the Army Corps of Engineers will remove 30 years worth of buildup in the Santa Cruz that has reduced flow capacity and increased the risk of flooding.

    Crews will preserve stands of desirable vegetation while removing invasive species and other plant life that could contribute to flooding or hamper Flood Control’s response. Sediment removed from the riverbed will end up filling an old, cutoff section of riverbed north of Grant Road, transforming it into a new nature park and water harvesting feature. Truck traffic will close The Loop path near Juhan Park, 1770 W. Copper St., for the duration of the project. The path will open on the weekends.

    For more information on the project, read the Regional Flood Control District's full report.
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