Sonoran & Chihuahuan Deserts Zone

Lepus californicus
Photo credit: Brian Gibbons

The Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts Zone (SCDZ) of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Region 2 Inventory & Monitoring (USFWS I&M) Program is comprised of San Andres, Sevilleta, Buenos Aires, Leslie Canyon, San Bernardino, Kofa and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuges. We are co-located and have a strong collaboration with the National Park Service (NPS).  The SCDZ works most closely with the Sonoran Desert, Chihuahuan Desert and Southern Plains I&M networks of the NPS. This collaboration provides the mechanism for integrated broad-scale data collection through shared protocols and increased efficiency.  It also allows the NPS and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to capitalize on expertise that exists within each agency.  Due to the scale at which consistent protocols are being applied, our data are highly applicable to the mission of the broader Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative. National Wildlife Refuge managers across the Desert Southwest are confronted with increasingly complex and challenging issues. Through this collaboration, data necessary to inform management at both local and broad-scales are acquired.  The inventory and monitoring summaries below briefly describe our current collaborative projects.

Yucca sp. at sunset
Photo credit: Brian Gibbons

The Flora of US Fish and Wildlife Refuges in the Desert Southwest

Refuge specific plant guide
Photo credit: Steve Buckley

At the heart of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program is the development of accurate baseline data on all species occupying National Wildlife Refuges. The Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts Inventory and Monitoring Zone of the USFWS has entered into a unique collaboration with the National Park Service’s Sonoran Desert Network (SODN) to develop vascular plant species checklists for the seven refuges comprising the SCDZ.  The NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program has invested considerable resources in the development of verified vascular plant checklists over the last decade and is well situated to assist the FWS to develop checklists of their own. The methodology employed by the SODN is being replicated to assist the FWS in pursuing similar goals.  The collaborative effort will result in a comprehensive assessment of the floristic biodiversity of the refuges and an accounting of the plant collection efforts that have been made in the past, in order to inform how they will happen in the future.

Hibiscus coulteri
Photo credits: 2012 NPS/Steve Buckley

The FWS is capitalizing on developed methods which will communicate current information through the SEINet Biodiversity Information portal (, as well as through the development of park and refuge-specific botanical field guides. This collaborative project provides refuge resource managers with accurate and timely baseline studies of floristic biodiversity.

For a refuge-specific species list, please go to:                                                

Inventory Climate, Groundwater, and Air Quality Data

Climate and groundwater are primary ecosystem drivers, providing important context for understanding the consequences of management actions, and the results of ecological monitoring.

Storm coming from the East at Leslie Canyon NWR
Photo credit: M. Collado

In addition, air quality is a key stressor of arid and semi-arid ecosystems of the American Southwest.  Through this project, the FWS is rapidly gaining key insights into these primary ecosystem drivers and stressors at multiple scales.  As a first step, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts Zone is working to inventory groundwater monitoring sites, air quality stations, and weather station locations for each refuge, including sites/stations not directly on the refuges, but in the surrounding areas.  Upon completion, we will summarize existing information, identify climate and air quality stations and candidate monitoring wells in and around National Wildlife Refuges, and recommend approaches for further monitoring of these parameters.  Such recommendations could include the establishment of additional sites or stations to provide more comprehensive monitoring data.

Landbird Monitoring

Monitoring changes in landbird population and community parameters can be an important element of a comprehensive, long-term monitoring program.  Relative to other vertebrates, landbirds are highly detectable and can be efficiently monitored.  Changes in bird numbers can indicate changes in the biotic or abiotic components of the environment.  At the SCDZ utility of monitoring landbirds will be strengthened by concurrent monitoring of environmental parameters that assist with elucidating changes in the bird community to other environmental factors. In addition, landbird monitoring will be combined with management practices to assess the effects of the given practice.

Currently, the SCDZ is preparing to implement the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO) ( landbird monitoring protocol and assist the NPS on future data collection, data management, and reporting of data collected using this approach.  Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory is a Colorado-based nonprofit organization with the primary focus of bird conservation.  They collaborate with multiple government agencies including the National Parks Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to conduct monitoring of bird populations.

From left to right: Cynantus latirostris, Athene cunicularia, Cardinalis sinuatus
Photo credit: Brian Gibbons

Exotic/Invasive Plant Monitoring

Detection and control or eradication of invasive/exotic plants is critical to the long-term biological integrity of all protected lands, including National Wildlife Refuges.  Invasive plants have the potential to alter ecosystem functions, food chains and vegetative structure with respect to native wildlife requirements.  In addition, invasive plants may alter hydrology, nutrient cycling, fire regime and other ecosystem processes.  The ecosystem changes caused by invasive/exotic plants can affect species distributions, richness and abundance.  The earlier detection occurs the more likely the spread of the plant species can be controlled on refuges.

Tribulus terrestris, a common exotic in Arizona and New Mexico
Photo credits: Left, Max Licher; Right, Sherel Goodrich

By applying this NPS protocol, the FWS is rapidly gaining the ability to monitor exotic/invasive plant species and the NPS is gaining greater context for understanding monitoring results from parks.  In FY2012, the SCDZ is implementing this protocol across all seven refuges with a combination of the FWS and NPS crews.

Camera Trapping

During the planning and design of the SODN monitoring program, mammals were selected as one of the top priorities for parks. However, due to cost and lack of expertise, the SODN was not able to pursue this priority. Camera traps are an invaluable tool for inventorying and monitoring mammals. Through this collaboration and the use of camera traps in science, conservation, and management, obstacles faced by the NPS are being overcome through the development and implementation of a camera trapping protocol for parks and refuges. The camera trapping collaboration between the NPS and the FWS not only increases the expertise within the NPS I&M program in the Desert Southwest, but also increases the scale at which data will be collected. The data generated can be used to create species accumulation curves as well as estimate abundance, density, relative abundance and richness. The species detection rate, proportion of locations occupied by each species and proportion of species at each location can also be estimated. Two other critical pieces of information that can be obtained are patterns of behavior and demographics. This permits a greater understanding of how ecological systems work and will allow for more informed management decisions on refuges and parks which can assist with the transformation of an ecological system or species to a more desirable state.

A photo of Felis concolor taken by a wildlife camera placed at one of the refuges in Arizona
Photo credit: USFWS

Information Management System

In addition to cooperating to leverage shared resources for protocol developement and application, the agencies are sharing skills and expertise to gain efficiency in information management and reporting. The primary goals of this project are to maximize efficiency in data management by (1) building data models for existing protocols to accommodate data collected by all units, (2) develop field data recording applications to minimize time spent entering data, (3) minimize time spent conducting data quality assurance (QA) by automating QA procedures in the database and, (4) develop database framework to add data models for additional shared protocols

We also work with personnel at the regional and national levels to facilitate connectivity (between servers, etc.) to facilitate shared data management procedures between agencies.  Products from this work include: a central database for holding data for each protocol that is accessible to all partners, a framework for adding new shared protocols, front-end applications to enter data electronically in the field for each protocol, and code for data quality assurance and data analysis built into the database for general analyses.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s