Monsoon Stories 2021: Rain And Wildlife

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Friday, August 27, 2021 - 1:02pm
Updated: Sunday, August 29, 2021 - 8:49am

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A large, heavy-bodied, big-headed cat.

So far, monsoon 2021 hasn’t disappointed. We’ve seen dark skies, cooler temps and, yes, rain. Lots of rain.

In Phoenix, we’ve gotten more than 3 inches of rainfall since the start of the summer monsoons — more than we’ve seen since 2008. Much of the rest of the state has seen 200% of their normal rainfall. And we’ve got more than a month to go.

It’s eased Arizona’s ongoing drought — for the time being, at least. At the start of the year, nearly three-quarters of the state was in a so-called exceptional drought. Now, it’s less than 1%.

“It’s definitely helpful for the monsoons to actually occur. And it’s very helpful when they have as much water in them as this year," Kathy Jacobs said.

Jacobs is the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona. She studies water policy and drought planning in light of climate change.

But she said all the rainfall is a double-edged sword.

“You may actually get flooding in some parts of the community, which isn’t a good thing. And yet, for natural vegetation and so forth it’s incredibly important,” Jacobs said.

We’ve seen the devastating results of flooding already this summer as cars were washed away in Flagstaff and took a man’s life in Gila Bend. Even the border wall in southeastern Arizona was damaged by the heavy waters.

But at the same time, we’re watching the desert come to life in the wealth of rain.

“I am really concerned about the impact of climate change on natural systems. So I’m very happy when it rains in the summer … trees, fish and birds," Jacobs said.

For more on what it means for our state’s flora and fauna, The Show turned to an expert on the ecology of the desert Southwest: Chris Bugbee.

Bugbee is a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity and is steeped in our state’s wildlands — and wildlife. Right now, his focus is mainly on protecting public lands from cattle grazing, but he also does a lot of conservation work for animals — big animals like jaguars and ocelots.

“Large carnivores, especially the rare ones — jaguars, ocelots that do occur in the state," Bugbee said. 

In fact, he’s the guy who tracked the notorious jaguar dubbed "El Jefe" using camera traps and a scat detection dog for four years. And El Jefe got to know them as well.

Once, when he and his dog hiked into a canyon to change the memory card on one of their cameras, he noticed something on the tape later.

“The first animal that the camera took a picture of was the jaguar," Bugbee said.

To him, this work of conservation is urgent.

“You know, we’ve lost about 50% of the animals on Earth since I graduated high school. This is extreme, and it's happening in real time. So, you know, I’ve dedicated my life to saving as much as we can," Bugbee said.

So when it comes to the monsoons in the desert Southwest, he said they are absolutely essential to that wildlife — and their environment.

“It is beyond important — it is absolutely vital ... in the monsoon season," Bugbee said.

When asked what happened last year when there was no rain, Bugbee said he thinks "we would have lost a lot of that habitat."

For some species that survive in here, Bugbee said the last few years of little-to-no rainfall  pushed them to their limits.

“The cool thing about Arizona … ecosystem collapse, in my opinion," Bugbee said.

So this year — and the downpours we’ve seen — came just in time. But Bugbee warned it’s still not enough to make up for all the years of drought we’ve experienced.

“We’re still kind of descending into this mega drought with no real end in sight … as it should,” Bugbee said.

Despite this, as an ecologist, Bugbee said he hopes for the best in the future.

Next week, in Part 3 of Monsoon Stories, we’ll hear about the urban side of this conversation and how monsoon rains can help our cities’ water supply as our climate gets hotter and drier.

The Show also wants to hear from you! Call 480-774-8299 and leave us a voicemail with your monsoon memories — and hopes for the future. You might just hear yours on The Show!

This story was produced by KJZZ's Kaely Monahan.

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