Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge


Desert bighorn sheep have responded exceedingly well to the conservation of their habitat and to hunting regulations. An estimated 50 animals were present when the refuge was established in 1939. Now the population is estimated at 450 animals, a level considered sufficient to permit the taking of seven rams in a year by trophy hunters. Aerial censuses are conducted every three years by state and refuge personnel. In 1999, the seven state-issued permits resulted in the killing of four rams. The highly sought after hunting permits are issued in a state-sponsored lottery. Hunters are limited to only one permit for life.

The status of Sonoran pronghorns is a different story. Found only in Arizona and northern Mexico, they are one of five subspecies of North American pronghorns and were listed as an endangered species in 1967. Numbers vary depending on the statistical method used to estimate total population, but it is clear that the species is at a critically low level with few indications of improvement. Most experts agree that fewer than 150 pronghorns exist at Cabeza and the surrounding gunnery range and national monument. They require huge expanses of desert to thrive. Cabeza and adjoining federal lands represent 5,000 miles of Sonoran desert, but agriculture, fences, canals, and highways prevent access to their much larger historic range. Historically, the pronghorns would roam into California, north of the Gila River in Arizona, and deep into Sonora, Mexico.

Pronghorns faced further displacement by the cattle that were allowed to graze at Cabeza and Goldwater, consuming the grasses favored by pronghorns. That competition ended in the 1980s when domestic cattle were removed and both the restoration of perennial grasses and expanded distribution of pronghorns began.

While Desert bighorn sheep and Sonoran pronghorns receive a lot of attention, the most prolific mammals in the refuge are bats, squirrels, rabbits, hares, mice, rats, and gophers. An endangered species, the lesser long-nosed bat roosts in an abandoned mine on the refuge. It pollinates saguaro cacti with pollen it collects while sipping nectar from the blossoms that appear at the tips of the stems and arms of the night-blooming saguaro. Others of the 40 mammal species recorded in the refuge include coyote, fox, bobcat, mountain lion, javelina, and mule deer.

Experienced and neophyte herpetologists alike will wonder about the refuge's array of reptiles and amphibians. The response of frogs and toads to rainfall is dramatic. Red-spotted toads are the most common. Fortunate observers may even see the desert tortoise, a species of concern.

But lizards and snakes are ubiquitous. Chuckwallas are the largest of the desert lizards found in the mountain ranges. The desert iguanas run away on their hind legs. Desert horned lizards can squirt blood from their eye sockets. The gila monster is the only poisonous lizard. Snakes include the sidewinder (the most common), several rattlesnake species, and more than a dozen other species.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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