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CHIHUAHUAN DESERT

In the 1850s, the Chihuahuan Desert’s lush grass was described by Spanish explorers as “belly high to a horse.” Today, thanks to livestock overgrazing, agriculture, and oil and gas drilling, the desert’s native plants are disappearing — along with rare habitat many species depend on for survival.

Straddling the United States-Mexico border, the Chihuahuan Desert covers about 175,000 square miles of northern Mexico and portions of southeastern Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme western Arizona. Largely because it’s isolated from other regions by Mexico’s two great mountain ranges, it has developed into one of the three most biologically rich and unique desert ecoregions in the world, with up to 1,000 species adapted to live nowhere else.

But no Chihuahuan species is immune to the threats the desert faces. When cattle or sheep eat the area’s native grass and other vegetation, desert-adapted herbivores miss out on nutrition and invasive plants quickly move in, disrupting the food chain and contributing to increased soil erosion. Waters are diverted to stock tanks, degrading riparian areas and reducing populations of water-dependent species, while native predators are killed by livestock owners and the federal government. Due to habitat loss, large desert vertebrates are rare and isolated — bison, pronghorn, and large cats have almost disappeared from the Chihuahuan Desert, and brown bears have been completely extirpated from the region.

To help restore degraded deserts, the Center is supporting a national coalition offering ranchers a positive plan for voluntary grazing permit buyouts. We’ve also petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the sand dune lizard, a small Chihuahuan Desert reptile native to shinnery oak-covered sand dunes that are increasingly lost to herbicide spraying and oil drilling.

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Photo by Patrick Halloway, NPS