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Rattlesnakes, Golfers Co-exist at New Arizona Development

Developers and environmentalists are not usually seen as natural allies, but an ongoing U.S. study suggests the two groups do not always have to be adversaries. University of Arizona scientists are tracking the fates of rattlesnakes and other wildlife in a 6-year-old golf club community near the southwestern city of Tucson, Arizona. Their initial findings point to ways that natural environments can be altered to benefit both wildlife and people.

As the sun sets over the rocky, cactus-covered hills surrounding the Stone Canyon Golf Club, the area still looks much like the desert wilderness it once was. But even at dusk, you can hear the sounds of a golf cart winding along the trails. The driver is University of Arizona herpetologist Matt Goode, setting off on another round of nocturnal snake hunting.

"We started out here because we were interested in looking at how development might affect things like snakes and lizards," Goode explains. "The Sonoran Desert is a very diverse area, with a really large array of amphibian and reptile species, and this was a good place because it was slated to be developed, but had not been yet. So that way we could get data on what the populations of different snakes and lizards were like and then track that through time as the development came in."

While he stresses that it is still to soon to draw any conclusions from the long term study, Matt Goode says the scientists have noted some positive side effects as a result of the golf course development. "With the development came a lot of additional water that increased the amount of vegetation out here dramatically, and with that water came a lot more small mammals, rodents and birds, and of course things like snakes, that eat those, also came in. So at this point, the development bodes well for things like snakes we're studying out here, in some ways probably drawing them in from surrounding dry desert areas."

Not only are the snakes increasing in number, but they tend to be larger and reproduce more than in drier areas, says Matt Goode. He notes that as more houses are built in the area, bringing added traffic, wildlife could be exposed to new hazards. Still, he says the study suggests ways in which environmentalists and developers can narrow the gap that separates them. "We're finding some very fertile ground here where we can work together, and things like wildlife around a community can even be considered an amenity. Now rattlesnakes aren't high on the list of what most people consider an amenity, but I think if we can get people to care about rattlesnakes, we can get them to care about anything."

Matt Goode and his team of researchers spot as many as a dozen snakes a night, representing some 20 different species. Those they have not seen before are taken back to their laboratory, measured, tested and surgically implanted with a radio telemeter. Then they are returned to the golf course, where their movements can be tracked with a beeper.

That means their habits have become well known over time to wildlife scientists like Melissa Amarello, who is also part of the University of Arizona research group. While making her regular rounds of the golf course, beeper in hand, she comes across a familiar female snake. "She pretty much stays in this area in the eight tee boxes and the cart path around the seven green," Amarello explains. "In the wintertime she sort of heads off course about a hundred meters, and as soon as it warms up she's right back here, just a meter or two from where all the golfers drive by."

Melissa Amarello spends long days and nights at Stone Canyon, and she has gotten to know the residents as well as the wildlife. She has even been called on from time to time to remove snakes from local yards. Her fellow researcher Jeff Smith says the team is sponsoring a variety of educational programs to help residents live with the wildlife.

"There are interpretive signs that we've had a local artist and herpetologist come up with that give some background information on some of these critters that aren't that well understood, like the rattlesnakes," says Smith. "We'll be giving talks to the neighborhood association out here, and we're also holding a workshop for golf course personnel on issues that wildlife presents and how golf courses can benefit from touting wildlife."

Stone Canyon Golf Director Todd Huizenga sees the collaboration as an opportunity for developers as well. "I think the perception is they drive away the wildlife, and I think we've hopefully been able to demonstrate that everybody can work hand in hand, and we can all coexist."

Huizenga says the collaboration also appears to have unexpected benefits for golfers. "Often we'll have members come in and say 'Hey, we saw a beautiful rattlesnake this morning on the fourth hole.' Whether it's the javelina, the bobcat, the mountain lion, deer, it's kind of a nice sightseeing adventure as well.

In fact, Todd Huizenga worries golfers will become too comfortable with the wildlife and forget there could be dangers involved. Scientists have words of caution as well -- about the dangers facing wildlife as more people move into the area. They have done studies on older golf courses that suggest some species may adapt better to development than others. And even the amenities that seem to help wildlife flourish could have a downside. Matt Goode points to a golf course waterfall and pond as an example:

"Desert breeding toads are not used to having standing water available," he explains. "Now they have a lot of standing water. If toads are using this to breed, are there chemicals in the water that might cause problems? That would be a really good example of what you might refer to as an ecological trap, where all the things an animal needs to promote its survival are there, but if the standing water has some chemicals in it, pesticides for the golf course or whatever, and it disrupts the eggs, then they're not going to reproduce."

Still, Matt Goode says the study's encouraging findings suggest possible solutions to a debate that is becoming increasingly urgent. "In Arizona development is enormous. But I think by working together rather than just fighting with each other, then we have a way to sit down at the table and try to meet the needs of both groups. That's going to require a change in the way developers think and a change in the way environmentalists think. And I think the key for understanding and predicting what that change will be is science. And that's what we're out here trying to do."

There are signs that other parts of the United States may be learning from the University of Arizona study. Matt Goode and his team of researchers were recently invited to speak at a national gathering sponsored by the United States Golf Association and the wildlife group, Audubon International.