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CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

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Just before President Bill Clinton left office in 2001, he designated more than 487,000 acres of rich desert land in the heart of Arizona as the Sonoran Desert National Monument. He praised this land’s wide valleys, four distinct mountain ranges, and iconic saguaro cacti as “a magnificent example of untrammeled Sonoran Desert landscape” with “an extraordinary array of biological, scientific, and historic resources” and “excellent habitat for a wide range of wildlife species.” Unfortunately, much of this public-lands treasure trove has been overrun by illegal off-road vehicles and crushed or consumed by cattle.

Clinton’s Monument Proclamation acknowledged that livestock grazing has a detrimental effect on the monument area, singling out the Sand Tank Mountains — where no grazing has occurred for more than 50 years — as an extraordinary example of vegetation diversity attributable to a lack of cows. The Proclamation also closed the southern half of the monument to livestock grazing and stated that grazing in the northern portion should only continue if compatible with resource protection.

It isn’t. The Bureau of Land Management, charged with maintaining this national monument, has allowed grazing to degrade it. Vegetation has been devastated, with some sections denuded of grasses and annual plants — leading to massive erosion from which some fragile areas may never recover.

In addition, while Clinton’s Proclamation prohibited all mechanized vehicles from straying from the monument’s roads, many off-roaders have ignored the law and forged through desert habitat with motorcycles, jeeps, and all-terrain vehicles. Off-road traffic has contributed to erosion and disturbed both plant and animal populations.

In 2006, the Center hosted a field trip to the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Meeting with the Bureau of Land Management, we helped close illegal off-road vehicle trails and discussed how the monument-planning process can address conflicts that threaten the sanctity of the area for wildlife and quiet users. We also visited with biologists from the Arizona Fish and Game Department to talk about how grazing impacts wildlife corridors by depleting forage and removing hiding cover. Preserving these corridors is especially important for the gray fox, mountain lion, and desert bighorn sheep, which are accustomed to moving between the Maricopa Mountains and the Sierra Estrellas.

Other wildlife on the monument includes numerous common desert creatures like the mule deer, javelina, and bobcat, as well as imperiled species like the endangered Sonoran pronghorn and lesser long-nosed bat. More than 200 species of birds, including raptors and owls, have been observed on the monument, as well as a diverse array of reptiles. The Center will continue to monitor the monument and its inhabitants to ensure that the Bureau of Land Management is managing it with the protection of its most irreplaceable resources in mind.

Photo © Daniel Patterson