Wildlife at the Wall

The US-Mexico border runs through the heart of the Sky Island Region—a unique continental crossroads between temperate and neotropical worlds—rich with both human and animal life. For millennia, wildlife freely roamed between major mountain chains of the Sierra Madres and the Rocky Mountains, thriving in the Sky Islands that rise up from the desert southwest as cool and lush mountain refuges. Three Sky Island mountain chains, six National Parks, 25 million acres of protected public lands, and countless wildlife pathways intersect the US-Mexico border. 

Today, 700 miles of wall stand at the border and more walls are coming. Border walls stop animals in their tracks, cutting off their access to food, shelter, and mates. Seven hundred species of vertebrates living in the borderlands today face unprecedented threat today from new border wall construction that will prevent threatened species like jaguar, ocelot, and Sonoran pronghorn from migrating north into the US from Mexico. 

Sky Island Alliance studies the presence and movement of wildlife species through the borderlands in Arizona and northern Mexico to learn which wildlife pathways need protection most urgently. In our new Wildlife at the Wall campaign, we are doubling our effort to document where species need open borders so that we can build public support to stop the wall.

To learn more, read about our ongoing study of wildlife in the borderlands and come join us to celebrate wildlife at the border on October 5, 2019 at our Celebration of Crossborder Cats at the Borderlands Festival from 10am to 4pm at Coronado Memorial.

Santa Rita Mountains Saved for Now

Last week in the Sky Island region was momentous. Wednesday evening a federal district judge blocked construction of the Rosemont Mine, a proposed open-pit copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. With construction poised to begin on August 1st, the July 31 ruling was a dramatic last-minute reprieve for the plants and animals that call the San

SIA staff member Bryon at Aliso Spring in the Santa Rita Mountains.

I stood on my back porch Wednesday evening, restlessly awaiting news, breathing the smell of a monsoon shower, looking south to the Santa Rita Mountains, and contemplating what a special place they hold in my heart. We conducted our very first volunteer spring survey trip in the Santa Rita Mountains not far from the proposed mine site, a trip I had the honor and joy to lead. Wildlife tracking volunteers trained by Sky Island Alliance found a jaguar track while hiking in the Santa Rita Mountains not long before El Jefe was photographed living there.

Rain and snow that falls in the Santa Ritas provides pristine groundwater that recharges the aquifer under Tucson. And the spectacular skyline capped by Mt. Wrightson is an ever-present vista from my home in Tucson, a constant reminder that the Santa Ritas are still standing strong and bursting with life.


When the ruling finally came out, my house was filled with exhilarated shouting, a few spirited expletives, and tears of joy. The Federal District Judge ruled that the U.S. Forest Service analysis was “inherently flawed from the inception” and overturned the agency’s 2017 decision to approve the mine and its 2013 environmental impact statement. This means Hudbay cannot dump toxic mine tailings on public lands that are also the location of burial grounds, sacred sites, and traditional resource gathering areas for the Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe.

As news that the proposed mine was halted sank in, I began thinking of all the people and organizations that worked heroically for the past 12 years to stop this mine. And I thought of you!

Sky Island Alliance only succeeds in protecting pathways for wildlife and flowing water because of you, our donors, volunteers, advocates, partners, and activists. Your support allowed Sky Island Alliance scientists to play a leading role in developing the 1,000-page public comment letter that pointed out the many deficiencies in the Forest Service’s analysis and created the foundation for this legal victory.

Thanks to your support and your love for Sky Islands and the wildlife, springs and streams, and sacred places in the Santa Rita Mountains, they remain safe for now.

The battle to fight this mine has been a marathon relay race. The baton passed between organizations, local governments, and tribal governments as different strategies came into play.

I’m deeply grateful for the work of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Hopi Tribe, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter, and Earthjustice. These organizations and Tribal governments now hold the baton strongly in their hands as they continue to litigate to keep the proposed mine from being constructed.

This is a tremendous victory for all of us who care about this irreplaceable Sky Island and  our quality of life and economic future. It is a momentous victory for the wildlife and water of these mountains and for indigenous people.

I’m taking a deep breath today, glad to look to the Santa Ritas with hope and renewed determination. Much work remains to be done. Please join me in continuing to raise your voice to stop this proposed mine, and take the time to actively support the organizations fighting on this final frontier in court.

To learn more about our work to protect and restore the diversity of life, lands and water in the Sky Islands visit our website, and stay up to date on the latest news about Rosemont Mine via our partners Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Today I say thank you to all of the strong, dedicated and talented people and organizations that have worked to stop this destructive mine, and to all of you, friends of Sky Island Alliance who have stood with us through this long struggle.

With deep gratitude,



Wildlife of the Borderlands

Sky Island Alliance’s Border Camera Summary

Sky Island Alliance has been monitoring seventeen cameras within thirty-five miles from the United States and Mexico border. These cameras have been operational since July 2017, monitored by dozens of dedicated volunteers and this is a summary of over twenty-two months of photo data. The purpose of this summary is to shed light on the wildlife that live in the Sky Island region and that don’t recognize any borders.

Download the report: SIA Border Cameras Report

Sky Island Alliance Camera Locations Across the Region
The total number of wildlife images over the years has fluctuated, however, since July of 2018 there have been fewer images on average than before.

A herd of mule deer (left) and a mountain lion (right)

Diversity of Species

A complete list of wildlife detected by our cameras is below. White-tailed deer make up the majority of all the photos.

Interesting Observations

84% of all black bear photos were taken in the Huachuca Mountains, only 2 miles from the Border.

96% of all mountain lion photos were taken in the Pajarito Mountains, just 5 miles from the Border.

Mountain lions and black bears have extensive home ranges, and with both of these sites only a few miles from the Border, a physical barrier will have drastic effects on how these animals move across the land.

White-tailed deer



Responding to the extinction crisis in the Sky Islands

View from the top of the Huachuca Mountains looking south across the Sky Islands.

It’s been a tough month of bad news for wildlife, water, and all of us that call the Sky Island region home. Amidst a raft of destructive proposals, the UN released a new definitive report on the state of our natural world.

A two-tailed swallow tail and Arizona sister  looking for water and nutrients in leaf litter

The report details the destruction we humans have wreaked on Earth’s web of life and the risks posed to our own well-being. Nearly 1,000,0000 species are threatened with extinction due to our actions. I’ve found myself heartbroken these last weeks for all we’ve lost and all we still stand to lose.  So much of the natural world is vanishing and will continue to do so to our great detriment unless we make radical changes. The reasons so many of our plant and animal neighbors are threatened is not new. Changes in land use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, and invasive species are the main drivers.

The 145 expert authors of the report conclude that the only scenario that will slow negative trends is one of transformative change, a fundamental, system-wide reorganization of the way we approach technological, economic, and social factors.

The authors point out that all is not yet lost. If we give nature a fighting chance, it can persist and thrive.  

According to preeminent biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson, the Madrean Sky Island region of the U.S. and Mexico is one of the “best places in the biosphere” due in part to its role as a North-South corridor, allowing species to move and adapt to climate change.  And the Sky Island region is vital to sustaining so many species that make up the vast diversity of life found on this continent.

Here at Sky Island Alliance we’re on the frontlines working to give nature a fighting chance.

Jaguar, coati and desert tortoise are three of the many species that call the Sky Islands home.

The founders of Sky Island Alliance recognized the importance of this amazing place nearly three decades ago when they created this organization to protect and restore the diversity of life and landscapes of the Sky Islands. At that time, the region was poorly defined and little studied. Since then, Sky Island Alliance has worked with many allies to develop a deeper understanding of the region, forged a research and management agenda to respond to changes, built a shared culture across the border, and expanded our knowledge of the region’s biodiversity.

We now know what is at stake, as a border wall gets built across wildlife corridors and rivers, as temperatures reach extreme highs and heat waves persist far longer, as once reliable streams and springs shrink or dry.  We also know what’s at stake when we cannot work together across borders.

Volunteers installing native plants at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Over the past several decades, Sky Island Alliance has invested much time and energy fostering transformative change: transforming damaged streams, springs, and mountainsides back to diverse thriving health; transforming the public’s relationship to the Sky Islands through hands-on work to heal the land; changing how hundreds of organizations, agencies and research institutions work together and share information; and transforming the next generation of scientists who are in school right here in the Sky Islands into advocates dedicated to caring for this amazing place.


Staff member Bryon Lichtenhan installing native plants with intern Emily Patterson who graduated with a BS in Natural Resources this May.

Transformative change is not easy, and as Vincent Van Gogh said “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” More than ever, Sky Island Alliance must embody our name, building a strong alliance of organizations, agencies, policy makers and residents working across the Sky Island region in U.S. and Mexico to do small things every day that add up to great things.

We need you more than ever. We need your help to build the Alliance of people working to save the diversity of life in our Sky Islands.

I will be in touch this coming year as we fight destructive proposals in the region: proposals like the Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains that would obliterate a vital part of the Path of the Jaguar and harm precious remaining springs and streams; and, of course, the proposed new border wall through the heart of the Sky Island region that would doom Jaguars to extinction in the U.S. and further damage rivers that are the lifeblood of the region.

Our work continues, planting one blooming plant at a time, restoring one spring at a time, and engaging one person at a time.

I will also be in touch to ask for your help, as volunteers, donors, and strong voices for the Sky Islands to build a bigger and fiercer Alliance. Sustaining the Sky Island region isn’t just about helping our wild neighbors thrive; it’s about ensuring our own quality of life and survival.

In solidarity with our wild neighbors,
Louise Misztal, Executive Director


Take Action Today

  1. Grow the Alliance the of people who are engaged in celebrating and protecting our amazing Sky Islands. Share this post with two friends you think would learn something new or through your social media accounts!
  2. Become a Volunteer and join us in hands-on work to heal damaged ecosystems and study the wildlife and waters of the Sky Islands.
  3. Donate now to support our work to protect and restore the diversity of life and landscapes in the Sky Islands.

Check out which animals were the most photographed in Fall 2018

We would like to give a huge thanks to every single one of our Volunteer Wildlife Camera Monitors who work very hard and dedicate long hours to check and maintain these cameras. Without them none of this data would be available! A very special thanks also to our Conservation Technician, Meagan Bethel, who not only analyzes all the data but also makes beautiful reports that help SIA communicate science with captivating visuals!

DOWNLOAD SIA Wildlife Camera_Fall 2018 Report

Melissa’s intern photo essay: canyons, cliffs, and grasslands

by Melissa Galindo, 2018 Doris Duke Conservation Scholar

Halfway through my internship with Sky Island Alliance, and I’ve seen so much already!

Is it hot out here?

My attempt to stay cool in the Arizona heat. The only water source was a spigot roughly a third of a mile from the field site. We carried water into Bear Canyon using containers and backpacks that could hold three gallons to help recently installed native plants make it through the dry weeks until monsoon season.

Native plant nursery

I enjoy greenhouses, so getting to visit Borderlands Restoration Greenhouse was a blast. I learned more about the native plants in Arizona and the difficulties in growing them. My favorite was an exhibition garden that was filled with butterflies and some massive agaves.

Exploring and restoring Gila Cliff

Working on invasive removal is always one of my favorite things. While up at the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, we removed mullein and cheatgrass and released native seeds into the area to restore a hillside scorched by wildfire.

Taking a break and just sitting still can lead to finding some cute creatures. This pocket gopher came out of its burrow to grab some of the surrounding vegetation and take it inside the burrow.

During a lunch break, I finally achieved my goal of visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings (with my colleague, Tasia)! It was fun learning about how life may have been for the Mogollon people and all the mysteries they left behind.

Snuggling peccaries

My newfound appreciation for javelina shined through when I came across plushy versions of them at a roadside shop. I may have found and hugged all the plushies I could find!

South of the border

One of field visits took us to Sonora, Mexico. We stayed in Rancho Los Fresnos and worked with Naturalia, a group that manages the land. Our days were spent looking for invasive grasses and surveying agave. Searching for the agave among the tall grass and stumbling upon a tiny one felt like a great achievement. There was an agave that had flowered and released seeds, so we gathered a few that had remained in some pods. Learning more about agave and their life cycles made me realize how epic and important they are.

Tasia’s intern photo essay: 4 weeks, 2 countries, countless memories

by Tasia North, 2018 Doris Duke Conservation Scholar

Four weeks in, four weeks to go, in my internship with Sky Island Alliance.

The sun sets on a hard day’s work

This was taken at Sowls Pond out in the Galiuro Mountains. Last year Sky Island Alliance built several ponds and planted a whole bunch of native plants around them. I went out in early June with a group to monitor progress and success of the ponds. Many of the plants had survived and the ponds are doing so well! I saw countless butterflies, dragonflies, bees, birds, and bats enjoying the water and the surrounding flowers, and it was great to see so much wildlife there.

Water is precious!

Being in the desert makes me think about water differently. I grew up at the base of the Teton Watershed up in Idaho, which, while still technically a desert (receives less than 25 centimeters of rain per year) is nothing like this one. People water their green lawns in the middle of the day, and you never have to worry about finding potable water because all the water is potable and it’s everywhere. It’s a very different thing when you’re hauling water in to bone-dry Bear Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains for some baby native plants so they can survive another month until the monsoon rains come. I’ve never so carefully watered plants before, nor have I been so acutely aware of how much water I myself consume. This was one of my earlier field work excursions here in Arizona, and I completely underestimated how much water I needed. Luckily the spigot at the trailhead was potable, and I have learned to carry much more water with me.

Restoring the land after wildfire

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico has been my favorite trip so far. There was a major fire that went through the area several years ago, so we were there to do post-fire restoration work on a hillside that bordered the main trail up to the cliff dwellings. We spread seed balls, pulled up invasive plants, and made far too many jokes. I really love doing restoration work. Humans spend so much time degrading the land we live on, and I often feel so powerless to do much about it. The little things I do to lessen my impact are great but don’t have anywhere near the large-scale effect that we need if my grandkids are going to be able to enjoy nature the way that I do. I really love doing something to actively restore an area, especially where the effects of our work are visible like they were at Gila Cliffs. We got rain the day after we spread all those seed balls, and I hope that those little seeds got all the moisture they need to survive and hold that soil in place for a long time to come.

Hot springs relaxation

This was the first natural water I had seen since coming down to Arizona, and I had to drive to New Mexico to get it! This was taken at the hot springs at Gila Cliffs and they were glorious. They were shallow and only had room for a few people at a time, but it was peaceful and relaxing, and I had great company. I’ve really enjoyed every volunteer that we have worked with in the month that I’ve been here. I’ve found them to be an interesting, eclectic, and welcoming group of people, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to work alongside them. Tom here is no exception; we had a great 6-hour car ride together and a great time chatting in this hot spring.

Foiled by the fence!

Bob Harms: Eragrostica superba

The Los Fresnos Ranch in Sonora, Mexico shares a border with the United States. There’s a beautiful grassland on both sides of the barrier, the large dirt road the only thing that visually distinguishes one part of that grassland from another. This border is such a huge deal politically and socially, yet it’s quite literally a made-up line in some dirt. It’s always seemed rather silly to me that members of my own species can’t come visit me because somebody drew a line in the middle of this grassland. This particular day we were in Los Fresnos surveying for an invasive grass called Eragrostica superba. It has a distinctive inflorescence but otherwise blends in with the rest of the dry grass around it. Since most of us weren’t grass experts we needed a sample so everyone knew what to look for before we could start surveying.  We had spent maybe 45 minutes wandering the Mexican hillside looking for it, determined it wasn’t in that area, and got in the truck to drive to the next site. Next thing I knew the driver slammed on the breaks and hopped out of the car exclaiming that they had found the grass… on the other side of the border fence… in America… where we couldn’t reach it or look at it closely. It was maybe 7 feet from us but we couldn’t touch it, so I settled for this picture. The superba is that bigger green clump next to the road on the other side of the fence. Below is a closer look at the grass, the inflorescence is quite pretty and very easy to pick out in a field, even a field on the other side of a fence!

Discovering agave in nature

This picture was also taken at the Los Fresnos Ranch in Sonora, Mexico, where we tugged down this dry stalk to see if there were still seeds inside during an agave survey. (There were!)

Agave are definitely one of my favorite plants in the Sonoran Desert. Plant-pollinator interactions have fascinated me since I started learning about science and nature. Agave are a new plant to me. I had heard of them, but only for the products they produce. The wild plants are majestic and fascinating creatures. While at the Borderlands Restoration greenhouse, we learned some interesting tidbits about agave. The migratory long-nosed bats are their sole pollinators. Agaves need to produce flowers in order to sexually reproduce and create genetically different offspring. Humans, in order to make our tequila and agave syrup, harvest the heart of the plant before the flower can be produced. We do this because the plant uses all of its nectar in the making of the stalk and flower, so if we let it flower there is nothing to harvest! But then, when long-nosed bats fly through, they have nothing to eat or pollinate. The pollination done by bats gives agave the genetic diversity it needs to resist disease and generally be a successful plant. The lack of healthy mature agave leads to less food for bats, which causes declines in bat populations. Fewer bats means less pollination occurring in agave plants, which leads to a weaker agave population and eventually, less food for bats. And so on and so forth. This is why I’m studying ecology, I love how complex nature is, how everything effects everything and nothing happens in a vacuum.  It’s complicated, but I really love it.

Sunset on the border

This picture was taken with my cellphone out of the back of a moving truck on a bumpy dirt road while going very fast. I took probably 10 photos of this view because I thought it was pretty the way the sun silhouetted the border fence against the blue sky and the how it made the dry grass look almost golden. All of those photos were trash except for this one, and I have no idea how it turned out so clear, but I’m glad it did.

Tiny beauty on the trail

Everyone told me that the desert would come alive once there was a bit of rain, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see flowers like this! This is in Bear Canyon on the trail up to Seven Falls. I was up there to haul water out to plants that had been placed this spring. The flowers were all over the trail and stunning. I’m no expert on cactus identification, but I’m pretty sure that this is a pincushion cactus in the genus Mammillaria.

My six-legged friend

I am the biggest bug nerd. I think they’re so cool and beautiful! I found this stunning creature in Mexico at the Los Fresnos Ranch while doing grass surveys. This is the Dactylotum bicolor, or the painted grasshopper. It’s definitely one of my top two favorite grasshoppers that I’ve come across so far in my 22 years of being alive!

Raise your voice to protect the San Pedro!

Public comment period open now.

The San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) is a natural gem that sits at the heart of the Sky Island Region. Encompassing 40 miles of the San Pedro River, it was designated to protect and enhance this rare perennially flowing desert river and the lush ribbon of green it supports.
The Bureau of Land Management is revising the Resource Management Plan for the area, and current drafts include proposals to increase livestock grazing in the area.

Same location in 1998, following 10 years without grazing. Image: BLM

View of the San Pedro River from Hereford Bridge in 1984. Image: BLM

The SPRNCA has recovered remarkably since it was declared legally off limits to most livestock grazing in 1989.

According to the new plan, the BLM would increase livestock grazing in upland areas with soils that have a severe susceptibility to erosion caused by grazing. Although the plan is not to allow grazing directly in the river, as in the past, upland grazing will have impacts on water quality within the San Pedro River. A healthy river relies on a healthy watershed!

You can raise your voice to protect this riparian gem. Submit your comments online by the September 27 deadline. Ask BLM to conserve, protect, and enhance the unique river and riparian habitat of the SPRNCA.

Read more, download the plan, and learn about public meetings on the BLM website.