ADOT, NAU biologists work to protect endangered species while improving Verde River bridges

By Ryan Harding / ADOT Communications

As you drive through the Verde Valley on Interstate 17, you won’t notice any construction work as you cross over the Verde River. But down below the highway, crews are working in the river bed to reinforce the footings of the Verde River Bridges to prevent erosion.wildlife protection

But there’s more going on than just construction work. Because that work is taking place in an area that is home to several endangered species, including snakes, birds and fish, biology teams work alongside construction crews to find and relocate these species.

This team of biomonitors from Northern Arizona University is led by Dr. Erika Nowak, assistant research professor in the Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes and director of the NAU Gartersnake Research Program.

Their purpose is to ensure that these species are protected as best they can be, given the construction activities. These species include the northern Mexican gartersnake, birds such as the yellow-billed cuckoo and the southwestern willow flycatcher, and endangered fish like the razorback sucker and spikedace.wildlife protection

Specifically, the team trains construction workers and project team members on identifying these species and what to do if they come across one. They will also watch construction activity and help ensure that any species are safely removed out of harm’s way. 

Because the work is in the river bed, crews built earthen bypass channels to contain river flow so crews can work outside of the area safely. For this team, it means that the biomonitors will remove all fish from pools that need to be filled in and rescue fish stranded during river moving events.

So what does the biology team do with these captured creatures? The team will identify the species as well as photograph and measure them. The northern Mexican gartersnakes are microchipped. And then, they are released. Fish and amphibian tadpoles are released into the Verde River downstream of the construction area.

“The relocation distance varies, but it’s typically about 50-150 yards from the capture point. We don’t want to release the animals too far away, as moving them out of their home range can disrupt their behavior, cause them to become disoriented, and thus more likely to die,” Nowak said.

You can learn more about the NAU biology team led by Dr. Nowak and their research on northern Mexican gartersnakes here.

The project to protect the I-17 Verde River Bridge footings is set to be completed later this spring. Learn more about the project itself here.