Pursuing the Spectacular and Elusive: Just Another Day for QF Partnerships in the Southwest


By Kaitlyn Yoder

The Arizona Strip is a large and diverse area, approximately 2.8 million acres of nearly contiguous public land. It is bordered in the north by the Utah-Arizona state line and Grand Canyon national park service land in the south. We have many ecotypes from Mojave Desert to ponderosa pine forests. With all those diverse habitats we have a wide variety of wildlife which the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) and the Bureau of Land Management AZ Strip District Office (ASDO) jointly manage. Pheasants Forever now helps in their efforts through my position as a partnerships coordinator and wildlife ecologist with a focus on improving sagebrush habitat in a known wildlife migration corridor running through northern Arizona and southern Utah. As part of that work, I had the fantastic opportunity to build on the partnership with AZGFD by assisting with their surveys for desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in the Virgin River Gorge.

Desert bighorn sheep are a secretive species that live in remote hard to reach areas, mountaintops, and cliffs, so we survey for them by helicopter. The first step in my participation in the survey was to get training to learn about helicopter safety. Mostly how to approach a helicopter, how to jump out of one if it is hovering, and general dos and don’ts. I was excited to take the training, but I did not know that part of the training was approaching a helicopter while it was running and sitting on the ground. No big deal, right? Well, we had to do that after being told about the risk of loss of vital limbs if you do not approach the helicopter correctly. I experienced some anxiety as I watched some of the other trainee’s approach. I had to wait a while before I was ready, but I did it!

As many of you know, the best time to see wildlife is in the mornings and evenings, so we started to prepare before the sun had risen and planned to take flight as soon as it was light enough to see. As you can imagine we were gifted with a spectacular, unparalleled sunrise, as if it was just for us. It was equally thrilling because we completed all the surveys without doors on the helicopter! Both days we saw quite a few desert bighorn sheep, saw some beautiful males with a good ratio of males to females in general. Each time we saw a new group of desert bighorns it was thrilling; I will admit that I did have trouble seeing them at first. Some would hold still to be counted others made it difficult and ran, as if they were yelling to each other “serpentine…serpentine!”. One ran and as we tried to get a better look it suddenly vanished. As we circled where we had last seen it to get a better look, we suddenly saw it peering out of a cave it had ducked into.

All in all, it was a great experience and I hope I get to do it again someday. I also worked with some great AZGFD folks from other parts of Arizona. It was good to connect and build personal relationships, those personal relationships lead to good working relationships, and ultimately positive collaboration for the benefit of wildlife habitat. I look forward to continued collaboration with AZGFD and thank them for the opportunity to participate in the survey work.

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Winter Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!