El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve
The 714,566 hectare site comprises two distinct parts: the dormant volcanic Pinacate Shield of black and red lava flows and desert pavements to the east, and, in the west, the Gran Altar Desert with its ever changing and varied sand dunes that can reach a height of 200 metres. This landscape of dramatic contrast notably features linear, star and dome dunes as well as several arid granite massifs, some as high as 650 metres. The dunes emerge like islands from the sea of sand and harbour distinct and highly diverse plant and wildlife communities, including endemic freshwater fish species and the endemic Sonoran Pronghorn, which is only to be found in northwestern Sonora and in southwestern Arizona (USA). Ten enormous, deep and almost perfectly circular craters, believed to have been formed by a combination of eruptions and collapses, also contribute to the dramatic beauty of the site whose exceptional combination of features are of great scientific interest. The site is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
2020 Conservation Outlook
Current state and trend of VALUES
Overall PROTECTION and MANAGEMENT
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Description of values
Extraordinary landscape beauty
Extraordinary volcanic and geological features
Scientific importance of volcanic and geological features
Rare, endangered and endemic species of flora and fauna
Endemics include two arenicolous lizards, the flat-tail horned lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii) and the Yuma fringe-toed lizard (Uma rufopunctata), both considered as Near Threatened (IUCN) (Bezy et al., 2017); a local endemic plant restricted to a small part of the volcanic shield and several subspecies of plants endemics of the dunes of the Gran Desierto. Endemics include two freshwater fish species. There is a population of the endemic Sonoyta mud turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense longifemorale) which have recently declined markedly and should be closely monitored. The many other noteworthy species include the endangered subspecies of the Sonoran Pronghorn (Antilocarpa sonorensis), the Mexican subspecies of the bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana) subjected to special protection, the Near Threatened lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae yerbabuenae) and the endemic (listed as Vulnerable) fish-eating bat (Myotis vivesi).
Scientific importance (desert ecology and biology)
The localized impacts of past extraction of volcanic ash (Morusa) and cinder mining of volcanic rock and pyroclastic material will be visible for a long time. Gold mining further east in the state of Sonora deserves to be mentioned. Despite the distance from the property the mining area belongs to the range of the last Sonoran Pronghorns like the property itself. Mining may therefore negatively affect the flagship species of El Pinacate (Burquez y Martinez-Yrizar, 2006; Burquez y Castillo, 1994; Castillo-Sánchez, 1999).
Prior to the establishment of the Reserve, rock and sand extraction was one of the most productive activities (Brusca et al 2001). Currently, it seems that commercial extraction of sand, gravel and cinder in certain locations within the buffer zone is allowed. Plant extraction is currently practiced in the Pinacate Reserve on a small domestic scale and is not regulated. The principal species extracted are mesquite, ironwood, and ocotillo. Mesquite is used in construction and for firewood. As mentioned above, there are a few, scattered local settlements and it is from these settlements that the reserve is exploited of cinder, sand, volcanic rock, firewood, and fauna.
There is a large open-pit gold mine in the region (“Mina La Herradura”) (31°8'56"N 112°51'47"W), some 125 Km from Caborca, outside the Reserve and close the town of Sonoyta and operating since 1997. It is own by Minera Penmont S de RL de CV, a subsidiary of Fresnill PLC. (http://www.fresnilloplc.com/; http://www.desi.economia.gob.mx/empresas/empresas3.asp?Clave=977).
While earlier plans for transmission lines along the coast were abandoned to conserve the visual integrity of the area, a major transmission infrastructure project is proceeding in parallel to Route 2 and the international border. It will connect the two Mexican States on the Baja California Peninsula with the Mexican power grid (IUCN, 2013).
Surface water (in particular the Sonoyta River) and groundwater are scarce and of utmost ecological importance in and around EPGDABR. The increasing pressure from pollution and overuse on both sides of the border in the broader region is likely to have long-term impacts on the entire Sonoran Desert (IUCN, 201).
The Colorado River Delta is located just west of the Altar Desert. The huge Colorado River system has been massively transformed and overused to the point that hardly any of its water reaches the Gulf of California. This clearly constitutes a major ecosystem modification of an area that has intricate geological and ecological linkages to the property and the adjacent Gulf (Chester, 2006; Hume, 2000; IUCN, 2011.
The Sonoyta River is known to suffer from pollution, mostly from industrial agriculture in the United States of America and sewage from the border town of Sonoyta (Mumme, 2002; Sistema de Areas Naturales Protegidas del Estado de Sonora (SANPES), 1994).
Visitors to the center and the Reserve have augmented significantly over the last 20 years, from 3000 in 1997 to about 25,000 in recent years. However, these figures are far from the estimated 120,000 visitors the Reserve has capacity to house.
While harsh conditions set natural limits to tourism numbers, there are a number of concerns. Tourists for example may engage in illegal extraction of plants and animals and there are indirect concerns related to water consumption in the nearby coastal tourism resort (World Heritage nomination dossier of the property).
Mainstream tourism takes place around the visitor centre and is restricted to its surroundings. Possible risks associated with tourists and scientists entering the property include unintended introductions of alien invasive species. Official and unofficial off-road rallies through the dunes of the Altar Desert are a concern. This sort of threat is growing and race organizers are looking more and more seriously on organized off road races, mainly along the western and southern edge of the reserve. They take place in areas that are very difficult to control conventionally. Indirect impacts of tourism are related to water consumption in the arid area and disturbance from increased traffic, in particular on the axis connecting the coast to neighbouring Arizona in the United States of America (IUCN, 2013; Burquez y Martinez-Yrizar, 2006).
One of the most widespread and serious threats to the Reserve, and to the entire Sonoran Desert ecoregion, is buffelgrass, an invasive exotic forage introduced on ranches throughout northern Mexico starting in the 1950s. Buffelgrass pastures are expanding especially quickly across the desert rangelands of Sonora, where since the early 1970s, nearly one million hectares of desert scrub have been cleared, tilled, and sown with buffelgrass to create cattle pastures (Brenner and Kanda 2013).
Buffelgrass has been transforming large parts of the Sonoran Desert (Búrquez and Martínez, 2006).
In addition to plants, at least 5-10 mammals, 2 amphibians, 50-60 fishes, and several reptiles have been introduced in the region (Felger et al. 2013). Known impacts mostly stem from feral livestock, competing with native species, disseminating non-native plants and raising concerns about wildlife diseases spread at waterholes (IUCN, 2013, Avila-Jiménez, 2005; Hayden, 1998).
For instance, Goode’s horned lizard (Phrynosoma goodei) might be severely threatened by combined forces of climatic and landscape change (Lara-Resendiz et al. 2014).
Also, information provided (August 2017, personal communication) by former CONANP Reserve`s staff indicate that there are plans for salt mining in or near the Reserve`s buffer zone. In March 2017, an environmental impact assessment was submitted to the Ministry of Environment (SEMARNAT) by a private company but was not approved by CONANP. However, it seems the project is still being pursued.
Since 2019 and also in 2020, the federal administration has reduced the support to environmental protection in general, which has resulted in significant cuts to CONANP's budget. If this trend continues over the next few years, there is no doubt that the overall management of this site will be negatively impacted.
On the other hand, the operation of the Centro de Visitantes seems to be well financed with funds from FANP (Fondo para Areas Protegidas), co-managed by Fondo Mexicano para la Conservacion and CONANP.
A significant issue since 2019 (which continued in 2020) is the reduced support from the present federal administration to environmental protection in general, which has resulted in significant cuts to CONANP's budget. If this trend continues over the next few years, there is no doubt that the overall management of this site will be negatively impacted.
As of 2020, the CONANP staff at the Biosphere Reserve is composed of a Director, an Assistant Director, three Chiefs Department, and an Analyst. There are also staff members hired for specific projects, composed of an Administrator for the Museum and Center of Culture for Conservation and two Field Technicians (State Party of Mexico, 2020).
Park management is struggling to have a strong voice in other public sectors, namely road construction. The compliance with requirements defined in Environmental Impact Assessments is not always secured despite frequent complaints on the part of park management, indicating a relatively weak position. Working relationships with neighboring Mexican protected areas appear to be functional. The transboundary conservation dimension in the shared ecosystem appears to have been compromised by border security issues (IUCN, 2013; State Party of Mexico, 2013).
|№||Organization||Brief description of Active Projects||Website|
|1||United States National Park Service (USNPS)||Cooperation between EPGDABR and adjacent protected areas in the United States of America, in particular provision of equipment for field monitoring.||
|2||International Cooperation||Exchange with Los Cardones National Park, Argentina.||
|3||Various academic and NGO partners||Various research projects, such as monitoring of various species. Scientific research is carried out within the reserve.||
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