Sky Islands - Chiricahua, © Roxie Crouch
© Roxie Crouch

Sky Islands

Defenders in Action in Sky Islands

Defenders in Action

Keeping Wildlife on Public Lands

Our Southwest forests, which continue into Mexico, are threatened by climate change, drought, overgrazing, lack of natural fire, mining and development, and invasive species.  If apex predators,  nature’s wildlife managers, can be returned to the landscape, it will increase the health of the ecosystem. Yet decades after being wiped out by humans, apex predators like Mexican gray wolves and jaguars are still struggling to reestablish themselves in these stressed forests.

Defenders is constantly working to improve the ecological integrity of federal and tribal lands, including the Apache-Sitgreaves, Gila and Coronado National Forests, within the Sky Islands region to boost populations of important wildlife species. In turn, these species, particularly predators, can help improve the health of the ecosystem.

Within the Coronado National Forest, we are concentrating our efforts on forest planning and on putting a stop to destructive new mining operations. These mines directly impact jaguars and ocelots in the area, and the cumulative effects of exploratory drilling and mining can stop recovery in its tracks. Defenders worked to curtail mining in the Santa Rita and Patagonia ranges, and we have held special events highlighting the importance of wildlife corridors in Naco, Sonora, Tucson, the White Mountains and the Patagonias.

Living With Southwest Wildlife

Although wolves kill very few livestock (less than 1 percent of livestock losses in Arizona and even fewer in New Mexico, as reported by ranchers), these losses can be a significant hardship to individual ranchers. Such losses lower tolerance for wolves and can lead to illegal killing, renewed calls for agencies to remove wolves and vocal anti-wolf politicking, which in turn slows down agency actions in support of recovery.

Defenders’ staff works directly with ranchers and tribal members to implement proven techniques to keep wolves and livestock safe. These include using range riders and guard dogs to watch over livestock, moving livestock away from wolf dens, erecting special fencing and more.

For more details on these conflict-avoidance tools and techniques, see Livestock and Wolves — A Guide to Nonlethal Methods for Reducing Conflicts. While no single approach to reducing conflicts is effective in every situation, by working together with affected livestock producers and wildlife managers to troubleshoot problem scenarios, we’ve made improvements on the ground for wolves and humans.


Success Stories

Mexican Wolf Numbers Up

It has been more than 40 years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) first listed the Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Today the lobo remains one of the most endangered mammals in North America, its recovery hampered by political interference. After having been extirpated in the wild, eleven Mexican gray wolves were released in Arizona in 1998. Since that time, Defenders has worked to increase their numbers and the many ecological and cultural benefits that accompany their return. The wild U.S. population has grown to over 100 and the Mexican population has grown to several dozen.

Sunnyside Mine

Defenders of Wildlife and partners in the Sky Islands of Arizona stopped a Canadian mining company from exploratory drilling for copper deposits in the Coronado National Forest near Patagonia, Arizona. The drilling would have required heavy equipment and cleared drill pads along the banks of a critical water source, Harshaw Creek, inhabited by the threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo.  Defenders of Wildlife and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA) filed a lawsuit in October 2014 claiming the Forest Service’s approval of the drilling violated environmental laws and posed a risk to threatened and endangered species in the area.  The court agreed in September, 2016.

Pygmy Owl

Defenders has been fighting for the cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl for decades, but a recent court victory gives the tiny bird a new chance for endangered species protection. The cactus ferruginous pygmy-owl once ranged from southern Mexico up through Arizona and Texas. Now the little bird is almost extinct in the United States. The species is threatened by habitat loss, particularly the loss of at least 85% of Arizona’s riparian areas due to development, livestock grazing, water withdrawal and other factors. Climate change is another major threat to the owl. Defenders of Wildlife and partners filed a lawsuit in federal court in Arizona against the FWS, challenging the decision to deny ESA protection to cactus ferruginous pygmy-owls. The Court decided that the FWS’s policy not to list the pygmy-owl contravened the ESA, and that therefore the FWS would have to reevaluate its decision to deny the bird protected status. This decision marks not only an important victory for pygmy-owls, but for application of the ESA as well.

Oracle Wildlife Crossing

The preservation of the Tucson-Tortolita-Santa Catalina Mountains wildlife linkage in the Sky Islands Focal Area has been a priority for Defenders of Wildlife and our partners. In 2009, Defenders, as a member of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, partnered with the Arizona Department of Transportation on a proposal to the Regional Transportation Authority Wildlife Linkages Committee for $8.2 million to build three crossing structures across Oracle Road in the Tortolita-Santa Catalina Mountains linkage. This proposal was approved by the RTA in December 2009. Construction on the crossings began in Spring 2014 and was completed in Spring 2016. The crossings are now in use by multiple wildlife.