University of Arizona alumnus Brian Aragon was cautiously optimistic as he walked toward water catchment No. 466, a concrete basin built in 1958 to serve as an oasis for wildlife in the eastern foothills of Arizona’s Whetstone Mountains.
During the hourlong drive to the site, Brian, a wildlife manager for the Arizona Fish and Game Department, noted trickles of runoff and small standing pools while navigating his truck along rugged, axle-twisting Pima County and U.S. Forest Service roads, hoping those clues meant the catchment had received a fresh supply of rainwater.
But 466’s bad luck—Brian said it seems to be situated in a spot that doesn’t get the same precipitation as a nearby catchment—had continued.
“Based on what we’ve seen, you would expect this to be filled up with water,” he said, peering into a nearly empty holding tank that attracts drought-parched deer, mountain lions, quail, javelina, snakes, and myriad other animals looking for a drink. “But it’s not.”
To get an exact measurement, Brian lowered a marked steel tube into the water. Each tank can hold a maximum depth of 29 inches of water. He read nine inches.
“Well,” he said, “if there’s no rain up here in the next two weeks, we’re going to have to come back.”
Coming back will mean a long, arduous day for Brian and a crew. They’ll have to fill up two portable water tanks, one holding 1,000 gallons and the other 500 gallons, and haul them back on trailers up the treacherous roads to replenish the catchment.
“Can’t drive too fast with those heavy water tanks—that’s how you break stuff,” he said. “It’s part of the job, though.”
It is a job Brian said he was interested in since age 10, when he was out hunting with his father and uncles and their group was checked on by a Fish and Game warden. “Who was that?” Brian asked after the friendly encounter. His dad explained, noting, “He protects wildlife, and he gets to be outside all day long.” Aragon recalled thinking, “Yeah, I’m in.”
Brian’s interest never went away. He graduated from the School of Natural Resources and the Environment in 2009 with a degree in Natural Resources, Wildlife Conservation and Management emphasis with the intent of working for the Arizona Fish and Game Department.
He has served as a wildlife manager since 2013, covering Sector 8 of the Tucson Region, an area that covers a large square of Arizona south of Vail, along I-19 from Sahuarita to the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales on the west, and along the San Pedro River from Benson to the border on the east.
Checking water catchments is just one of a long, varied list of duties that come with his job. He also checks licenses—like the first game warden he encountered as a kid—uses law enforcement techniques both modern and old-school to track down poachers, coordinates the state’s large predator response team—which usually means managing calls about mountain lions or bears in residential areas—watercraft enforcement, community relations, and working with farmers, ranchers, and other state and federal agencies.
He's even jumped out of helicopters in the rugged mountains near Quartzsite to assist with bighorn sheep relocations, tackling the netted animals to safely prepare them for transport.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve done that,” Brian joked. “The terrain they live on is nasty, it’s cactus, it’s sharp rock, it’s steep angles and the first time I went out I had no idea I was going to have to do that. At some point, you end up running after these things. It’s like a big ’ol rodeo. But we relocated every one of them to the Catalinas, so that’s really satisfying.”
He’s also been “bluff-charged” by black bears on occasion, noting, “It’s pretty scary the first time.”
“I love the job,” he said. “I’m 10 years in now and I enjoy all of it.”
Although Brian was sure of what he wanted to focus on when he came to UArizona, it took a little while to find the smoothest path. He did a hotel concierge internship at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and was offered a management internship with the company, a career far removed from his goal of working in the outdoors in his home state, and it made him realize, “I needed to stop messing around and go back and finish my degree.”
Fortunately, he connected with SNRE professors Mitch McClaran and Steve Archer, both world-class researchers in rangeland management and ecology, who opened their labs, indoors and outdoors, to Aragon and reconnected him with his passion.
“I took Mitch’s class and he and I got along really well,” Brian said. “He offered me a job to drive for his field trips, and later on, he said, ‘Hey, I’ve got another job for you,’ and it was working in Steve Archer’s Woodland Ecology Lab. Mitch also got me out to the Santa Rita Experiment Range on his photography project, and I did buffelgrass eradication with him, and Steve brought me up to the top of Mt. Lemmon on one of his doctoral students’ projects. They were both just awesome parts of my success.”
Mitch, who serves as Director of the Arizona Experiment Station in addition to his SNRE faculty role, has stayed in touch with Brian and the two have sometimes collaborated on projects at the Santa Rita Experiment Range.
“Brian was one of those students you like to be around and someone you could really count on,” he said. “It’s rewarding to see him successful and happy, but it also speaks to the strengths of SNRE and the curriculum and mentorship, and Brian is a product of all those things. It’s a rigorous enough curriculum that you qualify for state and federal jobs, you come out prepared, and we take great pride and interest in the success of alums, so it’s a story about that as well.”
Steve said undergraduates like Brian are key to research projects, and he works hard to ensure their experience goes hand-in-hand with their classroom learning and is more than just cleaning up or filing papers.
“Undergrads are the unsung heroes and are absolutely critical to research projects,” Steve said. “In exchange for helping us out, they get a taste of the nuts and bolts of what goes into problem-solving and research. "We’re always looking forward to working with the next generation of scientists and managers and policymakers and we’re trying to prepare them.”
With two catchments checked—the second shows an acceptable 23½ inches of water—Aragon drove along a stretch of Hwy. 90 to look in on a pronghorn herd near Sonoita before turning back toward Vail to end the day’s tour.
“When I first started out, this job was very overwhelming,” he said. “You don’t know where to focus your energy, there’s so much to it, but you learn to just take it a day at a time, an assignment at a time.”