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Friends of Rancho El Aribabi: Protecting a Wildlife Corridor

I like to think of Rancho El Aribabi as the gateway to the Sky Islands of Sonora, Mexico. Traveling east from the nondescript town of Ímuris, you leave behind the Sonoran Desert and its iconic saguaro cactus to reach this 4,200-acre cattle ranch of grasslands, oak groves, and riparian forests populated by cottonwoods, willows, and the occasional sycamore.

A shallow river flows along steep river banks. A fallen tree rests on the shore of the riverbank nearest the camera.
The Rio Cocospera is a perennial stream that provides life-giving water to Rancho El Aribabi. Photo: Myles Traphagen

The ranch, an important core reserve in Northern Mexico and a member of our Wild Linkages Binational Partnership, lies along the valley of the Cocóspera River between the Sierra Azul to the south and the Sierra El Pinito to the north, providing a corridor for ocelots, black bears, and even the occasional jaguar moving between these mountain ranges. Habitat models indicate Rancho El Aribabi is also the bottleneck of a corridor presumably used by three of the famous Arizona jaguars: Macho B, El Jefe and Yo’oko, making it a critical place for jaguar recovery in the U.S. as well.

As it turns out, the ranch is also in the path of a new highway bypass project that seeks to reduce the number of car accidents on Highway 2, where a treacherous 12-mile stretch between Ímuris and the mining city of Cananea regularly claims the lives of truck drivers and motorists.

This scenic photo shows desert shrubs in the foreground, with a valley rising up to a mountain on the horizon. The sun is setting behind the mountain.
Rancho El Aribabi provides important conservation protections for wild cats who pass through it. Photo: Myles Traphagen

This project was actually how Wildlands Network originally got involved with protecting Rancho El Aribabi in 2015, when the plan for this bypass would have built the road right along the Cocóspera River, destroying much of its riparian forest and impacting extremely sensitive wildlife, such as the Tarahumara salamander (Ambystoma rosaceum) and the Sonora Chub (Gila ditaenia). Our intervention convinced Mexican transportation authorities to reroute the bypass and spare the Cocóspera.

This map shows Rancho El Aribabi highlighted in green, with a yellow line marking where they proposed bypass would have cut through the ranch.
Map: Juan Carlos Bravo

Then came the plan to build a large gas pipeline, with more or less the same route, in 2017. Although that project was also moved elsewhere, it became evident that the location of Rancho El Aribabi at such an important crossroads for wildlife and people made it vulnerable to an increasing number of interests.

Rancho El Aribabi has been certified as an Area Destined for Voluntary Protection by CONANP, the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas—Mexico’s federal parks agency—meaning its owners, the Robles family, are committed to implementing conservation actions inside their property and granting some level of protection from development.

A brown cow and a black cow look at the camera between short trees.
Cattle at Rancho El Aribabi. Photo: Myles Traphagen

But having a certification hardly provides, in and of itself, the kind of protection Rancho El Aribabi will need in the future, and the Robles family has struggled for years to switch from ranching to conservation, at one point risking their income for the sake of making the place a wildlife preserve. However, they had to revert back to ranching when it became evident that conservationists were not ready to substitute the livelihood cattle provided. Commendable as their efforts are, there is only so much they can do on their own.

What Rancho El Aribabi needs is a community of supporters who are aware of how important the ranch is for the wildlife of the Sky Islands, how ocelots use it constantly as a corridor, how every once in a while a jaguar walks its arroyos. It needs benefactors to know that the Robles’, in their rewilding efforts, have fenced cattle out of the Cocóspera and out of a whole pasture where two jaguars were recorded in years past; that they are looking into ways to reduce the number of cows in the remaining places to improve overall ecosystem conditions; that they want to be active participants in the community of conservation of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Rancho El Aribabi needs scientists and volunteers willing to put some work into figuring out how best to manage and protect what’s so special about this place. It needs restoration experts and field crews willing to revive its old cienega(a unique wetland ecosystem of the arid borderlands) and enhance bird, amphibian, and fish habitat. In short, the ranch needs friends, lots and lots of friends.

A white sign with black letting underneath a tree in a desert landscape.
A sign at Rancho El Aribabi detailing its conversation status. Photo: Myles Traphagen

And this again is where Wildlands Network stepped in. For over two decades, Wildlands Network has leveraged the work of local partners throughout the most ambitious continental-scale corridors in North America. And while we focus on this big picture, we recognize that the level of passion and commitment that local groups can channel to any specific site is what makes the big picture possible.

Wildlands Network recognizes that the level of passion and commitment that local groups can channel to any specific site is what makes continental-scale wildlife corridors possible.

Because of this, we have in the past fostered the creation of new groups to fill niches that, for all our vast and bold vision, we can’t properly fill. And this is why we are now supporting a group of talented and loving volunteers who regularly visit Rancho El Aribabi from the neighboring state of Arizona. Our Mexico and Borderlands staff are facilitating and shepherding this process, which will allow these volunteers to incorporate a new nonprofit group in Arizona devoted to channeling resources and talent to Rancho El Aribabi to support the work the Robles have already started and creating a community that will join them in being stewards of this conservation crossroads.

Join Wildlands Network’s staff and the Friends of Rancho El Aribabi at a kick-starter event in Tucson’s Historic Y, for a traditional Carne Asada BBQ this Saturday, September 8 at 5pm. And stay posted for future events in Phoenix and Tucson as we help build a bridge between our countries to bring together wonderful people in support of our wonderful borderlands!

2 thoughts on “Friends of Rancho El Aribabi: Protecting a Wildlife Corridor

  1. I believe that supporting the Robles family, Rancho El Aribabi and the surrounding landscape is worth all the effort that you are making in facilitating and shepherding this process for conservation work. I hope you find lots of friends, lots and lots of friends! Muchas Gracias, Wildlands Network.

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