[Source: Sierra Vista Herald] – The Arizona wilderness became a bit more populated this week, thanks to a team of biologists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Phoenix Zoo’s Conservation Center.
More than 1,700 threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs were released into the Tonto National Forest. The frogs, including adults and tadpoles, were released at multiple sites in the forest near Payson. The frogs were raised from eggs collected near Young. Additionally, 100 frogs that were bred and raised at the zoo were released last week near Camp Verde in the Coconino National Forest.
“Thanks in part to Game and Fish’s Heritage Fund, we are making great strides in re-establishing Chiricahua leopard frogs to their native habitat in Arizona, and this release marks a significant accomplishment and milestone for the recovery effort,” said Michael Sredl of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Our goal is to work through partnerships to preclude the need to list species on the federal endangered species list, or in cases where they are already listed, to recover them to a point where they can be removed from the list.”
Until the 1970s, Chiricahua leopard frogs lived in ponds and creeks across central and southeastern Arizona, but populations have declined significantly since then due to drought, disease, habitat loss and threats from non-native species. They were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2002. A recovery team was created to help bring the species back from the brink of extinction. The team developed a recovery plan with the goal of recovering the species to the point where it can be removed from the endangered species list. The plan includes releases of captive-bred frogs, habitat restoration, and monitoring.
What we found was a wide variety of wildflowers along the nearly three-mile hike, which starts at the visitor center follows Rudd Creek to the Mckay Reservoir and then loops back around to the visitor center, which is the old ranch homestead and worth seeing in its own right.
There are more obvious areas in the White Mountains for a hike, hunt for wildflowers or wildlife, but few nicer than the wildlife area outside of Springerville for an early morning or evening adventure.
Since photographing wildlife was the goal of the day we rose early at 4 a.m., grabbed a quick bite of breakfast and drove the five miles on U.S. Highway 180/191 to the turnoff to Sipe. At the top of the mesa there is a sign and pretty good forest road that takes you to the 1,362-acre wildlife area, which is surrounded by national forest. The road is good, I don’t know that I would take a car on the road, but we did see one person with a car.
The night before the visitor center manager told us they spotted a large herd of elk, but after searching during the evening hours we found none. But we still had high hopes for the next morning’s hike.
Starting the hike at around sunrise we expected to see some wildlife, but they all must have known we were coming. There were lots of sign and tracks, but no wildlife this morning.
What we did find were isolated areas of a wide variety of wildflowers. There were no meadows blanketed with brightly colored summer blooms, but there were enough wildflowers to add interest to the hike since the elk were not cooperating.
The hike is an easy one. It follows a meandering trail along the creek up to an old cabin, and then circles through a forest area to the reservoir where you can find migrating birds in the fall and spring, but only one duck and his mate in July.
On the way back to the visitor center you pass an old Native American ruin with its own history that is worth a quick look.
The wildlife area is the former White Mountain Hereford Ranch, which according to the visitor center host, had problems with too many elk. Seems the rancher planted alfalfa to harvest for winter feed, but the elk ate the grains before it could be harvested despite the best efforts to the contrary. No harvest meant no winter feed for the Herefords, which probably meant it was too expensive of a proposition. So the ranch was sold and the state game and fish folks purchased it in 1993 to meet the objectives of the Arizona Heritage Fund Program for threatened, endangered and sensitive species and their habitats and also for recreational opportunities.
The site has several wetlands area, several easy to moderate hiking trails, a wildlife viewing area and a visitor center with numerous displays.
The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the wildlife area is open from one hour before sunrise and to one hour after sunrise.
Wildflowers are nice right now, but the best time for wildlife is fall and spring. There are special programs from time to time: such as the recent event that allowed the public to observe and photograph hummingbirds; and in early September AGFD conducts a basic wildlife-viewing workshop. For more information on special programs at Sipe, call (928) 367-4281.