Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
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Sweetwater Community Turns Backyards Into Wildlife Habitat
bobcat drinks from water fountainPhoto by Ellen Fountain
A bobcat drinks from a water fountain in the Sweetwater in the Foothills backyard of Ellen and Jim Fountain.

By Britney Lizama, May 12, 2010

Jim and Ellen Fountain had been gone for only a few days, but upon their return they discovered a dove nesting quietly behind a potted cactus on the backyard patio. Just beyond the glass window, the dove peered into the well-kept home. Behind it lay 3.3 acres of the Fountains’ land, the first certified backyard habitat in the Sweetwater community.

“There are people here that keep their yards much tidier,” said Ellen Fountain, a Tucson resident for more than 30 years and a resident of Sweetwater in the Foothills for almost a decade. “But if you want wildlife, you have to just let things go and allow your yard to be in a more uncultivated, natural state.”

With more than 40 homes certified as backyard habitats, the community in northwest Tucson continues to sustain native wildlife since securing its status in 2007 as Arizona’s first certified Community Wildlife Habitat. As of 2010, Sweetwater remains the only certified community in the state, although another Arizona community in Ajo is awaiting certification under the CWH program of the National Wildlife Federation.

Fountain had moved into the Sweetwater community and started her backyard habitat project there in 2001. Yet, this was not Fountain’s first certified backyard.  She and her husband had maintained a habitat at their previous home, in the same area of town, for more than 23 years.

Upon receiving certification from the National Wildlife Federation for their new residence, the Fountains proudly displayed the certification sign in front of their home. Fountain recalled how her neighbors, the Harrisons, had noticed her sign and took interest.

“Next thing I know, she calls me and says ‘I want to get the whole community certified’,” said Fountain of Debbie Harrison, now the CWH team leader.

That phone call ignited the beginnings of the community-wide project.

Harrison spearheaded the community project in the summer of 2005, writing bimonthly newsletters to rally support for CWH certification. After two years – plus a two-episode feature on Animal Planet – the community became certified in January 2007.

Since then, Harrison has submitted reports to the National Wildlife Federation annually to keep Sweetwater certified.

The NWF provides guidelines for certification on the organization’s website. For a backyard to qualify as certified habitat, homeowners must provide native plants, and areas for cover and nesting, and a permanent water source for wildlife.

To become certified on the community level, the neighborhood must have a certain number of residents already certified, as well as designated community habitat. Requirements depend on the population of the community.

 With fewer than 1,000 residents, the Sweetwater community needed at least 34 certified homes and one certified community area. As of April 2010, over 40 homes were certified. The community pool, featured on Animal Planet, was furnished with a self-filling water bowl and native flora.

Despite the success of Sweetwater, the beginnings of certification were not so smooth.

“We had some contentious moments with the HOA board,” said Fountain, referring to the community’s Home Owners’ Association. Some board members and residents were concerned about providing water and about “what that might attract.” Coyote and

chipmonkPhoto by Ellen Fountain
A chipmunk visits the backyard habitat of
Ellen and Jim Fountain

javelina populations were well-established in the area before Sweetwater homes went up. These potentially dangerous animals continue to be spotted from time to time.

Regardless, Fountain said that appealing to native wildlife was the goal of the project. In addition, providing water was essential and non-negotiable to participate in the habitat programs, said Harrison.

“We can all have room on our planet,” said Fountain.

This doesn’t mean that the Fountains’ yard is free ofcritter problems. On especially dry years, rabbits have feasted on plants not normally in their diet – including Fountain’s younger shrubs – for lack of other options. However, with the unusually wet weather Tucson has seen in the past few months, this is scarcely a problem at the moment for Fountain.

As for the dove nesting on her porch, Fountain is excited and expecting the eggs to hatch soon. She tries to keep her distance to avoid disturbing the nesting mother.

“It’s a cooperative thing,” she said.

Britney Lizama is a third-year student at the University of Arizona, majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is originally from Guam, but had uprooted herself from island life in 2007 for a chance at higher education in Tucson. She is fascinated by the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert and hopes its preservation will be at the forefront, especially during the growth and expansion of Tucson.

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