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Ajos-Bavispe: A Reserve Left In the Bureaucratic Cooler

This wide, scenic shot shows tall trees in the foreground, a blanket of snow in the middle, and a lightly snow-powdered, tall mountain range rising up in the background against a blue sky.

This is post 2 of 4 in "Protecting the Ajos-Bavispe Reserve."

In this series, we follow the protection of Ajos-Bavispe, a special reserve of biodiversity in the center of Mexico's Sonoran Sky Islands. For a long time, the protected status of this unique place was uncertain. Learn about Ajos Bavispe's history, how we lobbied for its recategorization to a protected place, and the future of conservation in the reserve. All posts in this series…

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Ajos-Bavispe is the name we all use for the reserve in the center of the Sonoran Sky Islands, a few miles south of Arizona in the Mexican State of Sonora.

There aren’t many places like this in the world. It is a land in the crossroads of tropical and artic climates where a jaguar (Panthera onca) can wander in winter over snow-clad hills, while, only a few feet away, black bears (Ursus americanus) hibernate in caves, placidly unaware of its presence. It also stands out when compared to other Mexican Natural Protected Areas (ANP for their Spanish acronym): if we take into account its Areas of Influence in the San Pedro River Basin and the Sky Islands, Ajos-Bavispe is the ANP with the highest concentration of Priority Species[*] in the whole country, for besides hosting jaguars and bears it is home to ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), beavers (Castor canadensis), thick-billed parrots (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), river otters (Lontra longicaudis), pronghorns (Antilocapra americana mexicana), bison (Bison bison), aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis septentrionalis), and black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus).

Its protection started with a presidential decree, covering the sierras (mountain ranges) Ajos, Buenos Aires and Púrica. These were then re-decreed and expanded in 1939 by President Lázaro Cárdenas with the official designation of National Forest Reserve and Wildlife Refuge Bavispe (I will keep on referring to it by its more popular name Ajos-Bavispe).

This reserve has been a leader in the implementation of new fire-management techniques; it served as backdrop for the drama of Mexico’s first Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) reintroduction; is an example of transboundary conservation and also a key corridor for species in motion, from migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), or jaguars recolonizing the United States, to species adapting to Climate Change by shifting their range north or upwards where it is colder. Today Ajos-Bavispe faces a challenge that, on certain days, seems harder to resolve than fire, climate change, or rancher-carnivore conflicts: the challenge of bureaucratic limbo.

Ajos Bavispe_Mario Cirett_004
Ajos-Bavispe staff are trained in fire control and management, yet fire is no threat when compared to the effect official neglect could have on an area so coveted by mining interests. Photo: Mario Cirett


Twenty years ago, Mexico’s Environmental Act (LGEEPA-1996) identified the need to renew old decrees and give Forest Reserves a new category in line with newer rules for Natural Protected Areas. To do so for Forest Reserves such as Ajos-Bavispe, the law states, the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has to do a Justifying Study that can provide grounds for the permanence of the reserve and then publish the re-categorization in Mexico’s equivalent of the Federal Register the Diario Oficial de la Federación or DOF .

More than ten years would have to go by for the modernization effort to reach Ajos-Bavispe and though late, the reserve also had its moment, or so it seemed when in November of 2010 the National Council of Natural Protected Areas issued a recommendation to the head of the SEMARNAT urging it to publish a Secretarial Agreement to formalize the re-categorization of Ajos-Bavispe, now as an  Area for the Protection of Flora and Fauna. With this step the red-taped gears of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and of SEMARNAT started their slow grind. In due time the Justifying Study was finished, allowing Ajos-Bavsipe to be brought firmly into the conservation agenda of the twenty first century. Sadly, the opposite seems to have happened.



In the last few years the presence of Ajos-Bavispe has been gradually disappearing. It is no longer listed in CONANP’s official inventory of Natural Protected Areas, nor in its website; it is not in the latest official GIS layer, updated in 2015 and, what’s more concerning, it seems to be disappearing from the structure and budget of CONANP.

Mario Cirett, who had worked in Ajos-Bavispe since 1996 and had been its Director since 2008, was fired in August 2015 and nobody has filled his position. The reserve is in hands of the Regional Director, who oversees work on eight other Natural Protected Areas, and of the person designated as “Responsible for the Office\”, a term which describes somebody who has to carry with the responsibilities of the Director without the Director’s Authority to do so. None of us would want to be in that position for too long.

As far as the budget is concerned, Ajos-Bavispe received annually, between 2012 and 2015, an average of $1.3million pesos (A little over $70,00USD), but only $180,000 pesos ($9,730USD) for 2016, which means it suffered a budgetary reduction of 86.4%. Does the Mexican government really expect that a 496,430-acre reserve be protected with that kind of money?

Without a Director, without a budget, with its name erased from all official lists of Natural Protected Areas and in uncomfortable proximity to the largest gold and copper deposits in Mexico it is worth asking: What is happening with Ajos-Bavispe? The response to a FOIA-equivalent request made by the Mexico Program of Wildlands Network sheds some light on this issue, but not enough.


According to multiple official records, the Justifying Study created by law (the aforementioned LGEEPA-1996) to justify the re-categorization of Ajos-Bavispe lies, since August 1st of 2012, in an office of SEMARNAT called the Coordinating Unit for Legal Matters. Next to the study lies a Secretarial Agreement pre-project which would make the re-categorization legally binding once published in Mexico’s DOF. Also there are additional documents from legal and procedural offices ratifying that there is no legal obstacle to publishing the Secretarial Agreement.

All that is missing is the Secretary’s signature so that the agreement can be sent to the Diario Oficial de la Federación for publishing. An yet for almost four years, nothing seems to have moved, despite CONANP’s repeated request for an answer.

It is unthinkable that the Mexican government would want to erase from the map, through bureaucratic negligence, over 496 thousand acres of conservation lands, while seeking to achieve the Aichi targets, which commit us to protect over 17% (around 82.7 million acres) of our territory. Does someone in SEMARNAT think us citizens of Sonora don’t care for our Natural Protected Areas? Is it possible that somebody believes the international conservation community will simply forget Ajos-Bavispe exists? Does this unjustifiable delay, of over four years, have anything to do with the presence of gold and copper under Ajos-Bavispe?

SEMARNAT must avoid generating an environment of speculation and must publish immediately the re-categorization of Ajos-Bavispe, updating its legal status. It is imperative that the fate of these lands be honored, as expressed 77 years ago in a presidential decree, guaranteeing the protection in perpetuity of the ecosystems and species of one of the most important regions for Mexican biodiversity. SEMARNAT must also restore and increase the historical budget of the reserve; open a call for applicants to cover the position of Director and take steps to publish an up-to-date Management Plan.


On those of us who care for Ajos-Bavispe’s future falls the responsibility of sending letters to the Secretary of the Environment asking for the immediate re-categorization that will make Ajos-Bavispe a reserve for today and for many generations to come. You can use the example below or craft your own letter.

If your organization wants to add its name to a collective NGO letter, please send us an email to get a copy of the letter and to sign it.

Ing. Rafael Pacchiano Alamán

Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources

Subject: Ajos-Bavispe Reserve Decree

 Dear Secretary Pacchiano

I wish to express my concern for the changes, in recent years, surrounding the Natural Protected Area (ANP for its Spanish acronym) Reserva Forestal Nacional y Refugio de Fauna Silvestre Bavispe (commonly known as Ajos-Bavispe) which, as you are surely aware, was decreed in 1939 by the President of Mexico Lázaro Cárdenas.

The Ajos-Bavispe National Forest and Wildlife Refuge is an area of national and international significance. The Sierra Madre Occidental is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America and has been designated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a “Center of Plant Diversity\”. Ajos-Bavispe is also the largest federally protected area in the Sierra Madre Occidental ecoregion and the only protected area in Mexico that is not one contiguous unit, it is a critical North-South corridor for species movement to the United States and Canada including migrating neotropical birds, jaguars, and monarch butterflies. It is also one of the few habitats in Mexico for black bears, common porcupines, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and spotted owls and along with its Area of Influence it provides potential reintroduction sites for the Mexican wolf, the black footed ferret and the black-tailed prairie dog. The reserve is also the watershed for the Sonora, Bavispe, and the San Pedro rivers.

I understand that since the reform that the General Law of Environmental Equilibrium and Environmental Protection (LGEEPA) of 1996, the National Forest Reserves would be re-categorized to comply with current regulations, and that in Bavispe’s case, such a process was begun in November of 2010 with a recommendation, from the chair of the National Council of Natural Protected Areas, to publish a Secretarial Agreement to that effect in the Diario Oficial de la Federación (DOF) Mexico’s Federal Register.

Providing the Ajos-Bavispe National Forest and Wildlife Refuge with the category of Area for the Protection of Flora and Fauna, would provide the legal and technical elements for the protection of the natural resources of this important region in Sonora’s northeast; it would support the preservation and sustainable use of the biodiversity in the area, which has 1,225 species of plants and 560 of vertebrates. Within this region, there are 105 wildlife species included in the risk categories of Mexico’s endangered species list (Norma Oficial Mexicana 059-SEMARNAT-2010) and of these 11 are designated as Priority Species by CONANP. The recategorization would also allow for the protection of the hydrological cycle of the Bavispe basin, which depends on the conservation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, especially the vegetation cover of the basin, as this regulates the surface flow of water, and regulates erosion and thus prevents soil loss, all of these essential services in the region. This category will also bring about protection to the Hydrological Priority Conservation Regions Subcuenca del Río San Pedro y Río Santa Cruz and Río Yaqui – Cascada Bassaseachic, and to the Terrestrial Priority Conservation Regions Sierras Los Ajos-Buenos Aires-La Púrica and Bavispe-El Tigre, as well as provide a strategic link for actions in the Terrestrial Priority Conservation Region Cananea-San Pedro and in the Ramsar site Ecosistema Sierra de Ajos-Bavispe Zona de Influencia Cuenca del Río San Pedro.

I am aware that CONANP has produced a Justifying Previous Study with the technical information necessary, as well as a Pre-Project of the Secretarial Agreement, for publication in the DOF. According to the official letter DAJ/459/12 both documents were delivered in the Coordinating Unit for Legal Matters of SEMARNAT, and sealed as received on August 1st 2012, with a following update received on June 17 2014 (Official letter DAJ/361/2014) without this resulting in the necessary publication of the Secretarial Agreement that will provide closure to this procedure and the legal certainty that this Natural Protected Area merits.

I see with concern that, rather than making this important reserve a priority, its budget has been reduced by 86%, that the position of its Director remains vacant, and that, even worse, the process of re-categorization that will update its legal existence in the terms established by the LGEEPA, remains unfinished.

I trust you share my interest in Bavispe and our concern in its current state, which lends itself to speculation and uncertainty, which is why I respectfully request you intervene to finalize the publishing in the DOF of the re-categorization  of Ajos-Bavispe.

Looking forward to a prompt response from you



[*] A designation of the Mexican Government to help focus conservation efforts through collaborative planning and recommendations to offices charged with habitat and species management.

More posts from Protecting the Ajos-Bavispe Reserve

  1. Ajos-Bavispe: Una Reserva en la Congeladora Burocrática, July 29, 2016
  2. Ajos-Bavispe: A Reserve Left In the Bureaucratic Cooler, July 29, 2016
  3. Ajos-Bavispe Reserve Recategorized to Protected Area – Success!, May 26, 2017
  4. Reserva Ajos-Bavispe re-categorizada, May 31, 2017

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