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Earth Notes: Montezuma National Monument monitoring

A cliff dwelling carved out of pale stone.
Melissa Sevigny
Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle is a cliff dwelling overlooking Wet Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley. No doubt it was the water, plants, animals, and other natural resources that drew the Sinagua people here a thousand years ago—and that have attracted attention ever since.

In 1937 Earl Jackson became custodian of Montezuma Castle National Monument. He conducted surveys of insects, fish, and reptiles while his wife Betty recorded birdlife.

The couple's natural history contributions have informed the work of the Sonoran Desert Network, which is part of the National Park Service's Inventory and Monitoring Program. The aim is to find out what's here and what's happening to the "vital signs" of the area's ecology.

In the national monument, scientists observe and record the presence and health of plants and animals, using sophisticated methods like environmental DNA to see what's living in and using the water. Air, soils, and invasive species are also part of this work.

A weather station and three deep wells provide measures of temperature, precipitation, and water conditions—key features of climate change. For example, scientists have seen declines in groundwater levels at Montezuma Castle and nearby Montezuma Well, from drought and increased pumping on surrounding land. Of special interest are seeps and springs, where groundwater emerges at the surface. Expansion Spring beside Wet Beaver Creek has shown signs of water in good quantity and quality.

With data they've amassed over two decades, researchers can begin to offer different climate change scenarios, providing a path for park managers to make science-based decisions.

This Earth Note was written by Rose Houk and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Rose Houk is a Flagstaff-based writer and editor, specializing in natural history and environmental topics.  Rose was a founding contributor of KNAU's Earth Notes and has written nearly 200 scripts for the series. She is also the author of many publications about national park and monuments, along with audio productions.