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Road Ecology Reaches the Sky Islands of Sonora

In my experience, road engineers are way more enthusiastic about wildlife crossings than we give them credit for. Nowhere was this more evident than in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico earlier this month.

A dead coyote along the side of the road, with a truckload of people about to drive by
A coyote killed by a vehicle on Mexico Highway 2. Photo: Jan Schipper

As part of our work promoting wildlife connectivity along the Sky Islands stretch of Highway 2, Wildlands Network coordinated an introductory workshop on Road Ecology on October 6 for what we thought would be a small group of road engineers from Sonora. These road engineers are the men and women responsible for building the actual roads that fragment habitat, introduce invasive species and, in short, signal the beginning of the end for the wild places we love.

Yet conservationists such as myself have more in common with them than we’d expect. Their work is to connect communities divided by forest, jungles and prairies through the use of roads. Our job is to connect wildlife populations divided by roads through protections for forests, jungles and prairies. Similar enough, right?

Well, the enthusiasm of the more than 140 engineers, environmental consultants, and ecologists who showed up for our first Road Ecology Workshop is a clear indication of common ground for everyone in Sonora to start collaborating on how to keep wildlife and people connected.

Juan Carlos Bravo presents at the first Road Ecology Workshop in Sonora, Mexico, cohosted by Wildlands Network.

The workshop was conceived as an effort to ensure we preach outside the choir and reach those who could have the greatest impact on the landscape so as to avert and mitigate the effects of roads that currently fragment the Sky Islands region, home to jaguars, black bears, ocelots and many other vulnerable species including recently-reintroduced Mexican wolves.

The highlight of the workshop was the presentation on wildlife crossings by Tony Clevenger, longtime friend of Wildlands Network and road ecologist extraordinaire. Tony is best known for his work in Canada and is a fluent Spanish speaker with a love for Latin America that urges him to share experiences and connect people throughout the continent, fostering a network of road ecology experts to match the paved network that causes so many environmental woes.

Vegetated bridge spanning highway with forest and mountains on either side
An overpass designed for safe wildlife passage at Banff National Park, Alberta. Photo: Adam Ford

Tony recounted his experience designing some of the most famous wildlife crossings in North America in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The road engineers were fascinated to learn about building roads in such a way that protects both people and wildlife.

A close-up of a large jaguar walking through the desert under a bright blue sky
A jaguar photographed by a motion-triggered camera in northern Mexico. Photo: Northern Jaguar Project/Naturalia

Mirna Manteca from our partner group Sky Island Alliance was also there to introduce attendees to the uniqueness of the Sky Island region and to the roadkill monitoring on Highway 2, which informs our recommendations for wildlife crossings. I completed the line up with information on jaguars and other species of the region that need crossings as soon as possible.

Staff from Mexico’s federal parks agency, CONANP, were also there, representing the Bavispe and Álamos protected areas for the jaguar, as well as Pinacate, a pioneer area for the establishment of bighorn sheep crossings.

The workshop was coordinated with the Sonoran chapter of the Mexican Association of Engineering of Terrestrial Ways (AMIVTAC, for its Spanish acronym), which brings together road experts from all over the country, and was held in the offices of the Secretariat of Communications and Transport, Mexico’s federal road agency. Funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders program made travel and logistics possible.

A man in an orange utility vest stands in front of a small underpass near a busy highway as a truck comes toward him on the highway. Another man in an orange utility vest stands above the underpass on the highway.
Two crew members survey a potential site for wildlife crossings along Mexico’s Highway 2. Photo: Ricardo Felix.

With agency and guild support, as well as first class faculty to join me, it is safe to say we made a splash on the road building community of Sonora, so much so that we’re going to explore the possibility of hosting a much larger workshop in Mexico City with a similar agenda.

I am confident Road Ecology’s time has come in Mexico. The engineering community is ready, authorities are receptive, and the conservation community has reached the level of expertise and networking necessary to put together regional corridor models and on-site project plans at the same time.

The prospects for wildlife mobility south of the international border are looking brighter. Here’s hoping the rest of North America takes this issue seriously and pulls together to keep our landscapes wild and connected.

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