Border Wildlife Study

Sky Island Alliance Conservation Coordinator, Meagan Bethel, installing a wildlife camera for the Border Wildlife Study

Sky Island Alliance’s binational Border Wildlife Study documents the remarkable diversity of wildlife species under imminent threat from active border wall construction between Arizona and Mexico. Established in March 2020 in partnership with Naturalia and Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, our camera array collected thousands of wildlife photographs and documented 71 species in the path of the border wall in the first 90 days of the study.

Border wall construction is severing one of the most rugged and wild stretches of wildlife habitat on the U.S.-Mexico border—threatening to stop animals in their tracks in the most biodiverse region in inland North America. Because dozens of federal laws (including the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Protection Act) are waived, border wall construction of 30-foot tall steel walls are rising in sensitive wildlife areas. In July 2020, wall construction began across the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains, 70 miles southeast of Tucson, AZ and at the southern terminus of the Arizona Trail. Wall construction and new border roads are rapidly approaching our study site—territory for jaguars, mountain lion, ocelots (whose reintroduction to the US is a focus of binational conservation efforts), pronghorn, black bear, elf owls, box turtles, and dozens of species of butterfly. Our Border Wildlife Study contributes vital data to document and monitor wildlife at the border. It’s a race against time to document which species live in the heart of the Sky Island region before the wall severs the landscape. Our study is supported by the Patagonia Foundation, Papoose Foundation, New York Community Trust, Wilburforce Foundation, and generous individual gifts that keep our cameras running 24/7.

This documentation of species is also incredibly important for understanding the depths of biodiversity in the Sky IslandsMany issues—climate change, resource extraction, Trump’s border wall, etc.—threaten the unique mesh of species we see in southern Arizona. It is inspiring to see so many of them captured on camera. This data will support efforts of conservation, restoration, and awareness in the Sky Islands for years to come. 

—Anna Sofia, Communications Coordinator for Patagonia Area Resource Alliance 

El muro fronterizo entre Sonora y Arizona es contrario al espíritu de cooperación entre su gente, a la cultura compartida y a un territorio con alta biodiversidad que se mantiene por los corredores biológicos compartidos.

— Gerardo Carreón, Director de Conservación de Naturalia A.C.

90-Day Preliminary Results 

In the first 90 days of the study (March – June 2020), we collected thousands of wildlife photos and documented 71 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Highlights include: 

  • Mountain lion and black bear were detected in both the Huachuca and Patagonia Mountains. Wide-ranging species like these large mammals need expansive territories to find enough food, water, shelter, and mates to thrive and are likely to be cut off from the Sky Island mountain ranges they roam between when the wall is built and their corridors are blocked. 
  • Elf owls were photographed on our cameras this spring during their annual migration between Mexico and Arizona. Native to Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., these birds are the smallest owls in the world and fly northwards to breed and hunt insects during the summer. Research has shown that their cousins, the ferruginous pygmyowl, do not fly over short border walls. Elf owls may very well lose their migratory access to the U.S. once the new tall wall is built. 
  • Coati, hooded skunks, and hog-nosed skunks were documented along the border. These three sub-tropical species are abundant in Mexico and only live in the U.S. borderlands. Once the wall is built, the small U.S. population will be isolated from core populations in Central America. 

See all 71 Species  

The wildlife cameras used are designed to photograph mammals, but birds, reptiles, and even insects were also documented.  


Science Behind the Study

The Border Wildlife Study collects wildlife community data with a camera array spanning 34 miles of the border across the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountain foothills. 

The Border Wildlife Study transverses the Patagonia and Huachuca Mountains in Southern Arizona, an area of border only marked with barbed wire and vehicle barrier today but where border wall construction is planned.

We designed this study to scientifically document which vertebrate wildlife species are migrating through and residing permanently in this section of border that remains passable for animals. The camera array is deployed across a grid with 58 camera observation points spaced 2 km apart in the U.S. and Mexico. A total of 62 cameras are deployed across this array (some camera observation points have duplicate cameras) to document animals moving within 100 feet of each camera lens. The passive infrared cameras trigger when they sense motion and heat to capture images of wildlife 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  

Cameras are deployed across a systematic 1 km x 1 km grid, where each camera is within 3 km of the U.S.-Mexico border. The red line is the international border and yellow markers are camera locations in Mexica (left) the U.S. (right).

This design creates a network of camera points optimized to detect both wide-ranging large mammals like jaguar and small animals like coati and birds. Our design is based on the global wildlife monitoring standard—TEAM Terrestrial Vertebrate Protocol (2011)—also used by the National Park Service, Parks Canada, and numerous wildlife biologists in ecosystems across the planet. Because the TEAM protocol selects regularly spaced camera locations across different landscape features and habitats, it removes bias in camera placement and increases the likelihood of documenting the true breadth of the wildlife community. It allows for direct scientific comparison between camera points because they are selected the same way. 

Once we establish which species comprise the wildlife community present today, we will monitor for change in the community over time, if and when, the border wall cuts through this landscape. Our data will evaluate aspects of the wall’s environmental impact and guide the future protection and restoration of vital wildlife pathways.  



Reference: TEAM Network. 2011. Terrestrial Vertebrate Protocol Implementation Manual, v. 3.1. Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring Network, Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, Arlington, VA, USA. 


How to Take Action  

Take a stand for borderland wildlife and help advance our Border Wildlife Study by: 

  • Call your Senators to Stop the WallCall for wall construction to stop immediately.
  • Raise Awareness about Wildlife at RiskSpread the word about wall construction and its threats to wildlife at the border with your friends and family.
  • Volunteer for the StudyHelp identify species photographed by our Border Wildlife Study cameras. With each camera collecting around 6,000 photos each month, our wildlife biologists have a lot to look through! By participating in our new Zooniverse community science projects, you can see photos from the field, test your species identification skills, and contribute invaluable data to the project!

Our Favorite Photos from the Study