Friday, November 28, 2014

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge

We pulled into our winter volunteer job camp site in the afternoon of October 30. After picking out a spot we thought would work for the next 4 months and spending the night (there's no designated campground), we made the 65 mile trek to Yuma to meet the refuge manager (and our boss) Greg on Friday. After 8 months and 6000 miles of driving from Florida to the west coast and down to Arizona, we got hopelessly lost trying to find the refuge visitor center complex in Yuma, getting there about 45 minutes late! He got a chuckle out of that when we pointed it out to him. He was one of just a few staff in that day, so we spent a few hours talking over what we were going to be doing and getting to know each other. Since no one was there to set us up with what we needed to exist up here, we went back on Monday to get that done, and so had the weekend "off". We spent it hiking, and driving around with the Tracker, but found that most of the roads were just too rough, mainly because of it's ground clearance. Monday we got mostly outfitted, and returned with a 3/4 ton 4wd Ford diesel pickup, a 300 gallon "water buffalo" (water tank on a trailer), and a bunch of equipment ranging from GPS's, radios, hand tools etc. On Wednesday we drove over to Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, a sister refuge along with Cibola NWR, for a day of training. Thursday, we headed back into Yuma for more hands on work, and to tweak out the truck and whatever else we needed for living and working on Kofa, or "The Kofa", as some refer to it.

A not so quick run-down is we live off Rt. 95, 3 & 1/2 miles from the highway, just inside the refuge boundary-far enough that you never hear a sound-and we've always loved the desert for it's silence. (Rt. 95 runs between Quartzsite and Yuma-you can find Palm Canyon Rd on satellite view on Google maps, about 25 miles south of Quartzsite)

Signal Peak and Palm Canyon-the big "V" in the rock from where we're camped-it's about 3 miles away. It's 4900' high-we're at 1600'

Looking out back

Left of Signal Peak-Queen of Kofa Mine Canyon road runs left to right behind the lower, jagged rocks (in shadow).

View off the front "porch".

Our "job" is to drive the refuge roads (about 365 miles of them!) looking for damage-ATV tracks going "off road", trash, illegal campers/campsites (they're required to camp and/or ride within 100' either side of established roads), downed "no vehicle" signs, checking "water attributes" (called "drinkers"), which can be springs, windmills, "tanks" which are depressions in rock ledge that trap water or are filled by a spring etc., reading rain gauges after a rain (none yet), filing reports on all that stuff and a lot more. There are 60 to 80 drinkers scattered over 1200 square miles of mostly roads that are nothing more than tracks through the deserts & mountains, that you can't go more than 2 or 3 miles-an-hour on. About 80% of Kofa is designated wilderness, and a few of these roads travel 80 miles or more across to the east side of the refuge, coming back out to civilization over there, 100+ miles away from our camp here! Those are overnight inspections, as you couldn't possibly drive one in a day at a couple of miles an hour, and nothing we have tackled yet. In addition, there are special jobs that come up from time to time, usually coming from the staff biologist, a doctorate in wildlife biology, who is a hoot to talk to and fascinating in her knowledge of the place. She's also a great source of interesting projects, more than 2 people can handle, so we have to pick and choose. Kath has really hit it off with her, as she seems to have taken Kath under her wing.

Morning sandstorm 2 weeks ago-we stayed home that day!

Looking back at camp (white speck in center) from Palm Canyon Entrance

Palm Trees of Palm Canyon-a very unusual situation, normally found in California

Mountains to the south at Palm Canyon entrance

Vegetation out back-Ocotillo

Vegetation out back-saguaro cactus and creosote bush

Moonrise near Signal Peak

Sunset on Signal Peak while the moon was coming to it's left in the above pic.

We set our own schedule-no micro management, and have been warned NOT to overdo it-many in this job burn themselves out by trying to do too much, but this is what we do ANYWHERE we stop for the night-jump in the car and poke around on every road in an area! Only here, we're in a government supplied truck, almost all expenses paid. We're basically living for free, other than groceries, and driving/hiking around the most remote (and beautiful) country we've ever been in! The refuge headquarters are 65 miles from here down in Yuma, so we end up going there every week or two, when we need supplies for our work, tools, water, or to turn in paperwork etc. which also gives us a chance to do a little of our own shopping.

One project we got involved with through the biologist is Pronghorn (antelope) reintroduction. On Wednesday, about 10 of us built a 2 acre, temporary pen for 30 Pronghorns that are coming in mid-December from Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, south of here on the Mexican border. They will live in the pen for 2 to 4 weeks getting acclimated, then the fence comes down and they are set free. There is also a separate, square mile pen that contains a breeding herd about 4 miles away from the temporary pen​, which they take animals from and release when they're ready to be in the wild. It gets better-Tuesday we meet 2 biology technicians at 6 in the morning, to be trained in feeding them, as backups for them on the main pen for a few days in December. These pens are miles out in the back country, towards the center of Kofa.

The Pen

The Pen

The Pen

Typical road we're driving on all day, only it's never that flat and usually full of rocks!

To sum it up-we get to live in a desert paradise, drive and hike (actually "patrol") around in it as our job, while working for, and with, wonderful people that are all just as enthused about what they are doing as this pair of "newbies" are. And they all are there to help you succeed, doing what ever it takes and what ever amount of their own time to help you do that.

One of the biggest problems for Kofa are geriatric 4 wheelers-yup-people our age, out tearing up the desert by leaving established roads and making their own roads, anywhere in Kofa but especially in the wilderness areas. And in the desert, damage lasts for decades and sometimes centuries, unless it's in a wash. As a teenager in NH in the 60's, I hated seeing snowmobiles coming into existence, and Kath & I both have no use for ATVs, dirt bikes, jet skis and all the other noisy junk that has followed over the decades. So, when we come across damage we take pics & GPS readings of the damage, clean up trash if any & brush out ATV tracks that head off the roads, so others don't think they are roads and follow them, put up "no vehicle" signs if necessary, and lay rock barriers across places that have been abused. There are 2 FWS law enforcement officers for Kofa and we file incident reports to them when we find problems. If we actually get to witness something live, we're to try & get pics of vehicles & license plates, and call in the cavalry if we can make a radio contact or have cell reception. So while were out looking for this kind of stuff, we also check the water sources along the way, as mentioned above. Most are loaded into the GPS units everyone carry's, and aren't usually on the road-many you hike into using the GPS to locate them. Mainly, we measure depth of the water & skim off anything found floating around in it, check for tracks and other signs of activity.

Kofa has 2 specialties in the wildlife department-the Pronghorns already mentioned, getting them re-established alongside using them for re-establishment in other parts of the state, and a couple of herds of Big Horn Sheep, which had been used as a breeding source for re-establishing them in other parts of Arizona. Unfortunately, that had to be suspended, as the herd had built up to 800 to 900 animals when the mountain lions discovered them about 8 years ago, and the Big Horns are now at around 400 to 500 animals, and the lions are on the increase.
The current thinking is to reduce the number of water sources, as the sheep can go up to 2 weeks without a drink, even in the 120 degree heat of summer. The lions need water regularly to survive. There are quite a few deer around also. More info on the critters that can be found here:

The refuge is surrounded by the Yuma Proving Ground on the south and halfway up the west boundary, where they are constantly testing large munitions (south end), training parachute troops etc. (west side). When we've worked in the southern areas, there's always rumbles off in the distance that sound like thunder going on, when they blow off guns that shoot shells 16 to 20 miles across the range! We've been told to stay away from the southern border-it's no man's land down there with all the unexploded ordinance, and live firing that sometimes strays over the boundary and explodes in the refuge. When we drove over to Imperial NWF for training, we took a road across the west side of the YPG (as it's known for short), and we were surrounded by parachutes dropping from the sky, as army troops finished a jump! ​Some were landing just feet away from the road. ​There appears to be a real cooperative relationship between the two entities, in spite of their very different needs and purposes. The main biologist on the Pronghorn project actually works for YPG and shares some of his time with Kofa when needed.

Then there's the town of Quartzsite. Another whole story, like something out of a Stephan King novel! Things are just starting to ramp up for snowbird season up there, as more and more campers move in for the winter. There are many RV parks in town, and BLM maintains 3 major long term camping areas on the south side of town, I would guess, after driving through only one of them the other day, that there must be 10 to 20 square miles of desert camping where you find a spot and hunker down for the winter. If that's not enough, THEN it apparently turns into the wild west in December and January, with 9 rock and gem shows, continuous swap meets, and a huge, 2 week RV show everyone calls "the tent", bringing in over a million people in a good year! That had us pretty concerned about what we'd be dealing with here, but the Kofa folks have said it's mostly day use along this road-phew! There's acres of big sales tents going up, and word has it there isn't anything you can't find for sale up there, if you have the patience to find it. And most only deal in cash-imagine that!

We think this winter's going to go by in a flash.