Jaguar, © David Stein

Southern Arizona’s Mountain Empire: Sanctuary for Rare and Unusual Species

Mountain Empire, © Google MapsImagine a little-known national treasure — a largely wild land home to ocelots, exotic and imperiled birds like elegant trogons and Mexican spotted owls, imperiled reptiles and amphibians like the threatened Chiricuahua leopard frog, and El Jefe, the only jaguar currently living in the United States. This is the Mountain Empire of southern Arizona, a place as special as Yosemite or Yellowstone, and worthy of international recognition. Extending across the border into northern Sonora, Mexico, this region is bounded by mountains that rise from the flat desert floor to touch the sky. With one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity in the U.S., the Mountain Empire is a sanctuary for imperiled species. But even a sanctuary can be threatened.

Refuges in the Sky

One reason the Mountain Empire has so many rare and unique species is the rugged sky island mountain ranges. Each range, like the iconic Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson, stands alone surrounded by desert flatlands like an island in the sea, with mountains so tall that they span climate zones from hot, dry desert to moist forests at higher altitudes. Together, these characteristics give the mountains their nicknames of “sky islands.” For many species, the sky islands are refuges where human impacts have been relatively small. Streams rise from the rocks, nurturing rare fish, frogs, snakes, and nesting habitat for birds like threatened yellow-billed cuckoos, southwestern willow fly catchers and hummingbirds.

Western yellow-billed cuckoo, © Creed Clayton/USFWS

There are so many hummingbird species in the Mountain Empire that the Tucson Audubon Society founded the Paton Hummingbird Center, dedicated to conserving hummingbirds and other local biodiversity.

Birders visit from countries around the world for the chance to see so many species in one place. One of Defenders’ board members, Dr. Ron Pulliam, works with the Mountain Empire group Borderlands Restoration to restore the plants that hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and moths need along Harshaw and Sonoita Creeks in the Patagonia Mountains. The globally imperiled Patagonia eyed silk moth, once widespread in native grasslands, is now making its last U.S. stand in the Patagonia Mountains. The threatened southwestern willow flycatcher, once common near Tucson in now-vanished gallery forest along the Santa Cruz River, is today found higher up in riparian vegetation along still-flowing mountain streams.

One of the gems of the Mountain Empire is the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area: 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands, oak-studded hills, along with the Cienegas Creek wetlands. This is home to the world’s largest population of endangered Gila topminnow and other federally threatened and endangered fish, frogs and snakes. Las Cienegas provides a vital corridor of protected lands that connects the Santa Rita and Whetstone sky islands.

The most revered animal in the Mountain Empire is El Jefe, a powerful male jaguar. Video of him prowling along a stream in the Santa Rita Mountains recently went viral, with at least 20 million viewers. He and other jaguars and ocelots most likely came north to the U.S. from Sonora, Mexico in the past decade, travelling along sky island mountain corridors with little human activity.

Jaguar, © Barry Draper

Threats to the Empire

Sadly, as much healthy habitat as there is in this region, there’s also a problem: Industrial mining. The Mountain Empire is riddled with old abandoned mines and grandiose plans for new ones. As you can imagine, mining has a massive impact on an ecosystem, from the land itself, to the noise that can scare wildlife away, to the traffic that would come in and out of the mining project. And perhaps most importantly, there’s the water.

Santa Rita Mts, © Larry Jones/USFS

The diversity of the “sacred” Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest is threatened by mining interests.

Throughout the Southwest, so much groundwater has been pumped for agriculture, industry, and towns and cities that water tables have dropped and streams and ponds have dried up, desiccating wildlife habitat in a land already parched. This is why so many water-dependent species have vanished, or are threatened or endangered. In Arizona, 20 of 35 surviving native fish species are endangered and one is already extinct. Mining presents yet another threat to the water supply, using up billions of gallons of groundwater over the course of years, and often contaminating it with pollutants.

The giant open-pit Rosemont Mine is planned for the Mountain Empire’s Santa Rita Mountains, where it would destroy habitat that is home to El Jefe and endangered ocelots. It would also decrease the water for the topminnow and other species in the Las Cienegas wetlands.

Two other mines are planned for the Patagonia Mountains in the center of the Mountain Empire. A Canadian company (ironically called Arizona Mining) is planning the Hermosa mine, which means beautiful in Spanish. There is nothing beautiful about this proposed silver mine: If done by the most economical open-pit method, it would gash a huge 4,000 foot wide hole in the mountains and dump the waste rock on the ground. A recent study by Earthworks and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance estimated that an open-pit mine here would take as much as 1.2 billion gallons of water per year from nearby streams and wells, harming wildlife as well as the local economy, which is based largely on ranching and tourism. Exploratory drilling (to prove the minerals are worth mining) is already taking place right next to Harshaw Creek, up against the protected activity center for a pair of threatened Mexican spotted owls and habitat for threatened yellow-billed cuckoos.

Thankfully, none of these projects are going unchallenged. Defenders and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA) are currently reviewing and preparing formal federal comments on a proposal by Arizona Mining to expand exploratory drilling onto Forest Service land. Last year, Defenders and PARA also joined in a lawsuit that overturned the Forest Service’s illegal approval of plans by another mining company, Regal Resources, to drill exploration cores along Harshaw Creek.

The Mountain Empire is an irreplaceable landscape in the Southwest. Defenders will keep working with local activists to monitor toxic spills and stop illegal mining that would harm the jaguars, ocelots, and other rare species that make it their home.

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Categories: Wildlife

51 Responses to “Southern Arizona’s Mountain Empire: Sanctuary for Rare and Unusual Species”

  1. steve kam

    Tourism will bring income forever. Mining is transient. . Don’t destroy this.

    • carlo

      Too much “tourism” is as destructive as any mining. “people” seem to bring degradation wherever they go. “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY , AND HE IS US.” – POGO

  2. Elizabeth K Williams

    Protect vital habitat from mining, logging, agricultural use or overdevelopment.
    Loss of habitat with devastating effects of climate change are threatening the very survival of many many many species.

  3. Louis Coin

    These are our treasures that will be ruined by the greed of far away parent companies that have no vested interest other than profit. We need to stand up and shout, the madness stops here.

  4. renee choi

    PLEASE do whatever it takes to save all species of all animals. I have been to Africa twice and volunteered in collaring leopards to study their behavior and save the species. Here in the United States I do what I can to rescue animals and advocate for all animals. I firmly believe that we have to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. EXTINCT IS FOREVER. There is no going back once extinct. Every living thing/being has a purpose on earth. When extinct/removed from the equation that purpose is not covered by another being. Now we have to prepare for the catastrophic unknown of mother nature. Look at all the natural disasters that continue to occur. Don’t people realize we, human beings, are playing with fire. Habitat destruction, cloning are just a few examples of human intervention’s that are causing unnatural occurrences. Preserve and Protect against unnatural occurrences by protecting habitat and all animal species. We, as humans, are not the dominant species. ALL animal’s are born with instincts. For example, cats/kittens know that birds,mice,lizards are food and will survive without being taught that. They are taught how to hunt by their mother but even if not taught by mother for whatever reason, they figure it out and can survive. Cats are not”litter box trained”. It’s instinct to dig a hole then cover their waste. However, humans must be taught how and where to properly dispose of their waste. We, as humans, NEED to be taught what to eat and what not to eat. Obviously we have done this through trial and error. We have to put items that are poisonous out of reach for children, etc. We continue to have episodes of food poisoning daily world wide. The only time animals die of poisoning is because of the human being intentionally doing so. WHAT A CONCEPT!!
    This is my firm belief until I am proven wrong and I welcome ALL arguments, thank you, Renée Choi

  5. Daniel

    Very Good Renee. Bible says God will destroy those destroying the Earth. In other words God Almighty doesn’t like what greedy humans are doing to his creation and our home. Unhappiness of the World is based on greed.
    It is up to individuals to back God’s way of taking care of this Earth. That with his blessing it can be a Paradise.
    Live simple and be happy!!

  6. DALE

    Keep those miners AWAY! We must protect El Jefe, the ocelets, and our other precious wildlife.

    • Rob Peters

      There are several mines planned for the Mountain Empire. The Rosemont in the Santa Ritas is for copper. The Hermosa/Taylor mine would exploit a zinc-lead-silver deposit and a silver-manganese deposit. Arizona Mining, the developer, is drilling cores right now to further characterize these deposits.

  7. Richard L. Nelson

    Wow Renee I could not have said it better! My Wife and I have traveled to numerous places and seen the damage to wildlife habitat and the evironment.
    Mining has no place except in an ared that will not damage water, wildlife and or the air all of us breath. We want our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy all of gods creatures and to hike in unspoiled land

  8. Karen Speicher

    Preserve the sanctuary and care for these magnificent species! No mines!

  9. Donald Perras

    It is imperative that preservation defeats the unconscionable greed of cooperations, especially mining, which leaves permanent devastation in its pursuit of money. America cannot afford to squander its rarest natural wonders to politicians’ personal gain.

  10. Leonie de Young

    I totally agree with all comments above. The greatest issue in the World today is GREED. Scientists are being muzzled on issues that most of our population cares about. The powers that be deny climate change. It is costing the tax payers of the world billions of dollars for damage done by severe and devastating droughts, storms and floods. Devastating our land and oceans by agriculture, mining and spills – God must be sobbing at the sight.

  11. Ron C

    Narrow minded greed springs eternal. Not so our natural resources. Viva El Jefe!

  12. John Paraniuk

    The deep state sells the birthright of the people to the highest bidder for power and greed. Throwing back the shadow they operate under is the only way to save the natural world.

  13. Tony Vlachos

    Too many of our fellow creatures have disappeared. Save this land and save our fellow creatures, or we will be left lonely and desolate, with only ourselves. Look around you.

  14. Bruce Taylor

    Toxic metallic mining is very destructive. Roads and power lines can cut up the land and destroy the environment. It is impossible to properly treat the massive amounts of contaminated waste water, so it will enter the water shed. Milling and beneficiation will emit toxic dust and particulate matter that will spread poisonous waste containing heavy metals for many many miles. Truck loads of earth containing the toxic metals can be carried by truck for miles on their trip to the smelter. Along the way, more toxic dust is released as they drive past communities with their schools, churches, businesses and homes.

    In the end, the mining companies can take all the money and run but leave the poisonous tailings and waste rock behind for the communities and the taxpayers to deal with for generations and generations!

  15. Linda Howard

    STOP the mining. This is irreplaceable land and threatens irreplaceable wildlife. We must speak out in defence of the land and wildlife – loudly and often.

  16. Joy

    Please don’t destroy the beauty of the Arizona desert and mountains with an ugly mine.

  17. David J Trask

    Any loss of wildlife habitat is unfortunate, but to lose it to destructive forces such as mining, and for the gain of the few for a limited time, is unacceptable. This prospecting is art of a bygone ere that is not wanted in the 21st century. Put a stop to this proposed action immediately, for the good of all.

  18. Mike Goldscheitter

    The World Wildlife Fund issued a report saying two-thirds of the earth’s species could be extinct by 2020. That is terrifying. We need to save every last animal and every last acre that we can.

  19. Diana Disney-Coker

    This area needs protecting. Mining might make a few people wealthy but that wealth and those few people aren’t worth the destruction of an important habitat or the loss of endangered species. There’s been too much destruction because of greed. This planet is all any of us have and none of us can live without all of us, plant and animal. We are on the fast track to destruction and it’s humans who are the menace. Without humans this planet would still look as it did thousands of years ago; no pollution, no trash, no plastic no mushroom clouds and many extinct animal species would still be here and the planet would still be in balance. We like to think we are the most important species and that we have the right to do horrible things to other animals and the environment. But we aren’t. We are just a drop in the bucket though a very polluted and poisonous and disastrous drop.

  20. k schwartz

    El Jefe, the hummingbirds, and other sky island residents are priceless. Citizens of Arizona, UNITE TO SAVE THESE, YOUR BEAUTIFUL NEIGHBORS.

  21. Julie Hukee

    Wildlife and their habitat on our continent is far more important than the income gained from any development of these lands.

  22. Patricia Flood

    These rare and wonderful creatures deserve our protection. There is a huge lobbying interest right now that is pushing for disrupting our pristine areas. We go to these places for peace and to get back to nature. This shouldn’t be threatened by anything, especially, something as destructive as mining. Thanks for listening.

  23. Rosemary Underhay

    Most silver is used for non-essential purposes. It is not necessary or justifiable to wreck the natural world in order to mine it.

  24. Larry Nipper

    Leave the minerals where they are. Protect the animals and the environment. Say NO to the mining

  25. Lee Winslow

    A friend who used to live in Patagonia took me up into the mountains southeast of town and I don’t know where we came out at. It is a special place and we don’t need mining renewed in that area. We didn’t see much wild life but human activity was mostly from the turn of the Century. It should stay that way.

  26. Carolyn McCracken

    We are responsible for taking care of the delicate balance of animals and the environment which will protect us and future generations.

  27. Cynthia Florenzen

    Save this beautiful place for El Jeffe and all the creatures who need it to survive. No mines of any kind anywhere near it!


    I wholeheartedly agree with Louis Coin’s comments. Coal mining needs to be stopped all over the globe. China’s coal burning is polluting my beloved Alaska, as well as other areas, including China itself. NO MORE COAL MINING!

  29. josephine briggs

    The animals must be allowed to occupy this piece of land.. They have been here before mankind arrived in this place. I feel it is their land to live and enjoy.

  30. josephine briggs

    These animals will attract people to come here and see them. The word for these folks is tourists. They can come and be very quiet and observe the animals, beautiful animals, beautiful country. This will also attract biologists, botanists, other scientists. They would be very welcome to come, not disturb, enjoy and not interfere with the plants and wildlife.

  31. Victoria

    Please save vital habitat for our wildlife. Humans are destroying more than they are giving back to this earth. We must do all we can to keep the habitats we have now. Look at the Amazon and the destruction by humans there. Mining is fleeting and only destroys what it touches leaving the earth barren. There are green ways to keep warm and should at all costs be the new future.

  32. David Thomas

    When are people going to realize that mining drilling etc. are temporary and destroy the earth and wildlife which cannot be replaced along with water which we cannot survive

  33. david bennett

    Once wildlife habitat is destroyed you can’t get it back. Mining is not going to be that important in the future.

  34. W L Kohler

    This can’t be allowed to happen. While I don’t have money is there a petition to congress, the BLM or any other we can sign?

  35. Ann cockrell

    Prosperity is in posterity. Our precious wildlife, their habitat, and our natural environment are priceless and irreplaceable. Choose posterity over the greed of now. It is common sense for the greater good of all.

  36. Linda Lyke

    It’s so important to protect this special habitat in the U.S. We should treasure
    our few areas that preserve the animal diversity on the planet. E.O. Wilson says
    we need to save half the planet for wildlife, just start here, every habitat is sacred at
    this point in time.

  37. Linda Tabor

    I am a snow bird to the Santa Rita Mountain area. It is a spectacular part of the southwest as are all of the Sky Islands here. Mining would truly be a shame and destroy much prime habitat for a large array of wildlife, be it feathered, furred, slimy or shinny. If you have walked or sat under the canopy of the forest just once you would know its importance. I pray these mines will never become a reality. We need to keep this area wild!

  38. Adrienne Neff

    Please save these last wild places! The animals will die without them. We can not loose these majestic creatures.

  39. michiel van hoorik

    It is not only like paradise this dreamplace Mountain Empire, we will have to surround the last wolf of america when it comes to that point with guns in our hands, here in Mountain Empire jaguar is the first and only as the new beginning, protect him with your life, IT IS ALSO THE TEST THAT WE MUST DO THIS WORK FOR GOD, and be rewarded for that

  40. selma castanheira dos santos

    precisamos estar defendendo o bem estar a nimal de liberta-los de todo o maus-tratos.

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