Pathways for Wildlife
The Madrean Sky Islands are one of North America’s most diverse places for wildlife. Nearly 3,000 animal species — from birds to mammals to mollusks — make the Sky Islands their home. Wildlife need safe pathways between habitats to travel to new territories, find mates, or move in response to drought or fire. Wildlife linkages establish and protect these pathways so animals have critical room to roam. Connected habitat for wildlife is urgently needed across a landscape increasingly fragmented by roads, developments and border infrastructure, in a region with a rapidly growing human population.
Roads and highways are one of the biggest threats to wildlife, including tortoises, black bears, mountain lions and deer, nationwide. Roads separate and fragment habitat, cause genetic isolation in wildlife populations, and increase vehicle collisions that harm both animals and people. In Arizona, nearly 1700 reported animal-vehicle collisions occur each year, resulting in an annual average of 3 deaths, 225 people injured, and over $101 billion dollars in economic losses for the state (2011, 2012, and 2013 ADOT Arizona Crash Facts Summary Report). In addition, unknown thousands of unreported animals are killed. Safe passages for wildlife across roads, highways, and other barriers are a win-win solution for both wildlife and people. Identifying the corridors that wildlife use to move across the landscape can show where to invest in safe wildlife crossing structures, and where to prioritize open space conservation.
We have monitored over 50 areas across nine Sky Island mountain ranges and wildlife linkages. Every year, we reach thousands of people through citizen naturalist trainings and workshops, field trips and outreach. Wildlife tracking volunteers and “Wildlife Steward” camera volunteers document thousands of wildlife observations in these places each year. Together, we have provided the first photographs of ocelots living in Arizona and successfully raising young in the region. We provide information that helps protect wildlife habitat, such as Las Ciénegas National Conservation Area and the Historic Town of Ruby, Arizona. We inform and advocate for conservation of jaguars and other carnivores, map important linkages for wildlife, and support new wildlife crossings across our highways.
As our work continues to grow, we are discovering more ways to ensure a healthy and vibrant place for wildlife.
The Cuatro Gatos project began as a wildlife monitoring effort in northern Sonora, Mexico. Our goal was to document the presence of the region’s four feline species: jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion, while engaging local landowners in wildlife conservation. Our geographic focus was northern Sonora, geographically connecting monitoring efforts in Arizona and New Mexico with studies several hundred miles to the south.
Today, we have expanded this effort to include carnivore conservation on a much broader level – we publish new scientific discoveries resulting from our wildlife monitoring; conduct public outreach on the importance of carnivores to our ecosystem and our quality of life; and advocate for science-informed carnivore management policies.
The Benefits of Carnivores
The Sky Island region has been home to large carnivores like the grizzly bear, black bear, jaguar, mountain lion and Mexican gray wolf for thousands of years. Smaller carnivores like the gray fox, kit fox, bobcat, ocelot, coyote, badger and four different species of skunks are also native here. With the exception of the Mexican gray wolf, jaguar, ocelot and kit fox, which are federally protected in the U.S. and in Mexico, most carnivores are largely unprotected. Many carnivores are hunted as game or furbearing species, or as a predator control practice. But perceptions are changing. We now know that carnivores bring greater benefit to us alive and well in their native habitat. For some, simply knowing that animals like jaguars and mountain lions exist in the wild, in a place they can visit and hike to, provides a quality of life benefit all of its own. They are also an essential part of the food web, and as territorial animals, act as land managers for the home ranges they inhabit. They manage their own population sizes, and keep herbivores in balance with nature by affecting their numbers and their behavior, in turn promoting healthy ecosystems and biodiversity.
Our wildlife monitoring success goes beyond building a wealth of new scientific knowledge. We’re building a trusted resource that informs real decisions about public policy, land management, and conservation for the benefit of people and wildlife.
With the help of hundreds of trained volunteer naturalists, Sky Island Alliance has a long, successful history of wildlife monitoring and research. We use non-intrusive techniques including track and sign identification, wildlife camera monitoring, and crowd-sourced observation. With these techniques combined, we’ve amassed an incredible amount of data. We share this information on our Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment (MABA) database, which anyone — scientists, students, planners, resource managers, and others — can view and use.
Our Wildlife Tracking program is a citizen-science effort that conducts surveys for animal track and sign (footprints, scat, and other evidence of animal presence). We started in 1995 with an annual Fort Huachuca Mountain Lion Track Count and a short-term survey in the Las Ciénegas watershed. Today, we run an internationally recognized, region-wide monitoring program. Each year, we collect an average of 2,000 observations of our focal study species, including coati, black bear and mountain lion, in imperiled wildlife corridors and linkages. With this data, we’re even better equipped to monitor and protect at-risk wildlife pathways.
Every year, more than 100 wildlife-tracking volunteers survey more than 20 active study sites (1.5-mile-long routes) every six weeks. In Arizona and New Mexico, we survey strategic linkage areas, mostly on public lands. In Sonora, Mexico, we work largely on private lands in partnership with local volunteers, private landowners, the national protected areas commission (CONANP), and Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Cananea.
Wildlife Stewardship & Cameras
Since 2006, we’ve used motion-activated wildlife cameras to engage with private landowners and observe the secret lives of animals. Each year, we collect approximately 10,000 images of Sky Island wildlife in rugged and remote places. The time-stamped photos and videos safely gather important data, increasing our knowledge about rare species such as the jaguar and ocelot. With this data, we gain valuable information about animals’ presence, movement, and behavior. We can analyze interactions between different species, as well as observe seasonal or daily behavior patterns. Volunteer Wildlife Stewards maintain our cameras in the field and assist us with managing our huge database of images. Landowners also become contributing stewards and monitor wildlife on their own property. Starting in 2014, we are sharing and analyzing wildlife camera data across the Sky Islands in partnership with Saguaro National Park, Chiricahua National Monument, and sister parks in Sonora, Mexico.
Sky Island Nature Watch
Using the power of individuals and the community, we launched the Sky Island Nature Watch project in 2014 to help us locate “roadkill hotspots” and document wildlife sightings across the region. With this data and increased public awareness, we are reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions and other human-wildlife conflicts. Anyone can use this project to help us collect information, and share photos and observations of plants and animals in their own backyards, urban areas and places they visit in the region. We upload research grade (scientific quality) observations from this project to our Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment (MABA) database.
View more observations from Sky Island Nature Watch on iNaturalist.org »
Sky Island Alliance has become recognized and trusted as a leader in collaborative conservation planning. Combining scientific research and engagement of people is our first step in protecting wildlife and wild places. We use science to actively study, document, monitor, wildlife, to inform public policy, to start collaborative partnerships, and ultimately to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. In the process, we build public support and create strong working relationships with key leaders, landowners, agencies, organizations, and communities.
Mapping Wildlife Linkages
By understanding the behavior and preferences of different species, we can map their optimal routes between mountain ranges, highways or human development. Once we understand where and how animals move across the region, and what types of infrastructure like culverts, underpasses and bridges they will use to travel safety across roads, we can then begin to successfully protect and connect wildlife pathways, or linkages. We engage graduate students and volunteers to create new maps and analyses. These maps, verified by on-the-ground knowledge and science, inform the best places to invest conservation resources – from habitat conservation and restoration, to improving transportation infrastructure for wildlife. These maps can also answer questions about the future:
- Where are the most important wildlife linkages in the Sky Island region?
- How will wildlife linkages shift due to climate change?
- Where do need improved wildlife crossings the most?
- How does border infrastructure affect wildlife movement?
We share our data and knowledge of the landscape to inform regional wildlife linkages assessments. We participate as a member of the Arizona Wildlife Linkages Workgroup, the Pima County Wildlife Connectivity Assessment Workgroup and the Western Wildway Network.
Helping Animals Cross the Road
We work with the Arizona Department of Transportation to improve the ability for wildlife to move safely across roads and highways, and collaborate on solving problems when the movement needs of wildlife, water, and human transportation collide. In Pima County, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) Plan, approved by voters in 2006, includes $45 million to protect and enhance wildlife linkages. The RTA prioritizes construction projects that provide wildlife crossing improvements to roadways and highways. Sky Island Alliance serves on the RTA Wildlife Linkages Subcommittee to review and recommend wildlife projects for funding. As a result, wildlife crossings have been constructed in critical areas, including overpasses and underpasses on State Route 77 near Catalina State Park, and State Route 86 near Kitt Peak.