The wealth of biodiversity of the Sky Island region is well known and increasingly well documented. For instance, the Sky Islands harbor thousands of species of plants and half the diversity of all the birds of North America (madrean.org). Protecting and restoring the astounding diversity of plants and animals that coalesce here is a major emphasis of the Restoration Program.
Our projects all strive to preserve or improve habitat for the greatest diversity of species possible, including common wildlife species, threatened and endangered species, and pollinators. We work with federal and state agencies to conduct conservation measures for threatened and endangered species that achieve goals identified in their recovery plans. Our extensive work with the Chiricahua leopard frog is one example. The climate in the Sky Islands is changing. Summers are getting hotter, and our previously predictable rainy seasons are getting less and less predictable. We use restoration methods that increase ecosystem resiliency, the capacity to tolerate disturbance without collapsing to these changes. We take these actions to ensure that plants and wildlife have the best chance possible to persist in the Sky Islands.
Chiricahua leopard frogs are one of the 26 amphibians native to the Sky Islands, and one that we spend a great deal of time and effort conserving. This species was listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2002 because of population declines due to introduced predators, disease, and habitat loss and degradation. SIA has been working to strengthen native leopard frog populations (including the related lowland leopard frog) across the Sky Islands in a variety of ways:
Pajaritos Mountains Complex Bullfrog Eradication
Bullfrogs, native to the United States east of the Mississippi River but not in our region, are voracious predators of native leopard frogs and other wildlife. We have been working with the Coronado National Forest, Arizona Game and Fish Department, private landowners, and University of Arizona leopard frog expert David Hall to survey areas with permanent water in the Pajarito Mountains west of Nogales. We have been monitoring the presence of native leopard frogs and bullfrogs in conjunction with bullfrog removal activities.
Installation of Wildlife Escape Ramps
Leopard frogs are truly aquatic and require permanent water to live and reproduce. In many areas, water infrastructure for cattle provides permanent water that frogs and other wildlife can use, but it is not always safely accessible due to steep-sided tanks. We work with the Coronado National Forest and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to install ramps on the insides and outsides of tanks for safe access. We select locations for this work very carefully to provide connections between native frog metapopulations in areas absent of bullfrogs and to enhance recovery of the Chiricahua leopard frog.
Permanent water is a resource that has become increasingly scarce in the Sky Islands, and this drying trend is expected to continue. Maintaining permanent waters free on non-native predators on the landscape is critical to the continued existence of native leopard frogs. In addition, native bats need open waters for drinking water – and water sources at middle-elevations in the Chiricahua Mountains have been disappearing. We worked with Center for Wetlands and Stream Restoration, Coronado National Forest, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to create three small ponds in an opening adjacent to Ash Spring, a mid-elevation spring in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Arizona Game and Fish Department will release captive-bred Chiricahua leopard frogs into the ponds, and SIA Adopt-a-Spring volunteers are diligently monitoring the site seasonally.
These activities all support the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Recovery Plan, which is designed with specific goals to remove stressors and strengthen populations across the range to the point where they are sustainable.
Nearly 200 species of birds including various tanagers, hummingbirds, warblers and hawks disperse throughout the U.S. and Canada for the summer months to breed after having spent the winter months in warmer climes to the south. They move north for many reasons including less competition for resources. We are collaborating with ranchers and communities to ensure that the birds’ wintering grounds along riparian areas in northern Sonora afford them ample protection.
In 2011, we began a coordinated and multifaceted approach to landscape conservation in the Sky Island region of northwest Mexico. This effort, sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) and other partners, expands our work in the region by bolstering community support for active restoration efforts in degraded riparian areas. This effort also expands education and outreach on conservation of neotropical migratory birds and their habitats.
Although cottonwood-willow gallery forests along major drainages are critical to migration success, they are rare, threatened, and degraded in the region. Our work is located throughout northern Sonora including sites along:
- Three perennial streams in the Sierra La Esmeralda on the western edge of the Sky Island region.
- The Río Cocóspera-Aribabi, at the base of the Sierra Azul.
- The Río Santa Cruz at San Lázaro, where landowners and ejidatarios have many years’ experience partnering with conservation groups on restoration activities.
Sky Island Alliance works with community members to build erosion-control structures, erect exclusionary fencing for livestock and re-vegetate riparian banks with native trees. This restoration project also allows us to join forces with regional restoration experts in order to train landowners, volunteers, partners, and agency personnel in methods to assess and restore riparian areas. By integrating our education programs with examples of successful riparian restoration, we hope to expand future restoration efforts and galvanize efforts by local landowners and their communities to conserve and enhance habitats for neotropical migratory birds.
Our approach is based on the principle of linking restoration, monitoring, and education while maintaining relationships based on trust and credibility with landowners to enhance the ecological and economic value of riparian areas. Although the target beneficiaries for this work are the birds themselves, habitat improvement of riparian ecosystems is not only “for the birds” but also benefits the many other species, and people, that call this region home.