Conservation in the Land of Enchantment’s Gila PARCA

Deep in the heart of the New Mexico desert, something unexpected arises from the drylands–mountain ranges teeming with life. These sky islands are home to some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world. That’s why ARC has designated one such area in the western part of the state dubbed the Land of Enchantment as a Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area, or PARCA. It’s known as the Gila (pronounced hee-luh) PARCA. It is located in the area surrounding and including Silver City, New Mexico on the ancestral lands of the Chiricahua (pronounced chr-uh-kaa-wuh) Apache Nation.

The formation of sky islands is a story rooted in the geologic history of our world. Around 20,000 years ago, what’s now the deserts of the southwest flourished with greenery and water. As the climate began to warm, creating the deserts we know today, plant and wildlife species became stranded and isolated in these high-elevation mountain ranges where they continued to evolve in an array of habitats. 

Here, in these towering reminders of Earth’s dynamic forces, the Chiricahua leopard frog has survived for millennia against all odds. Native to Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico, Chiricahua leopard frogs are large and stocky, reaching around four inches in length. These frogs are known for their distinct call that sounds like a snore. Chiricahua leopard frogs rely on permanent water sources during reproduction. Females lay 3,000 to 6,000 eggs in a large mass just below the water’s surface, and tadpoles hatch a month later.

Highly water-dependent, Chiricahua leopard frogs live in permanent aquatic habitats, including springs, streams, artificial and natural ponds, and lakes with abundant vegetation. In the face of the extreme drought that has affected the region in recent years, the species’ need for water to survive puts their very existence at risk. Shifts in water availability threaten the Chiricahua leopard frog’s survival at key life cycle stages. This compounds already perilous population declines often caused by the amphibian chytrid (pronounced kit-rid) disease known as Bd, which is short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. If that weren’t enough, invasive species such as crayfish, bullfrogs, and non-native predatory fish also impact at-risk amphibian and reptile populations. These species feed on the natives found in the Gila PARCA or provide such fierce competition that resources become limited. 

These combined threats have reduced the aquatic Chiricahua leopard frog’s natural habitat by 80%. This federally-listed threatened amphibian is now restricted to fewer than 80 sites in the upper springs and streams of sky island watersheds and the surrounding habitat. And they aren’t alone. Drought conditions have also greatly affected narrow-headed garter snakes and northern Mexican garter snakes, both also water-dependent, federally-listed threatened species that ARC is working to protect.

The biodiversity in this region is vitally important to the ecosystem, highlighting the immediate need for strategic and collaborative conservation action. In response, ARC is assembling staff members for on-the-ground work in the area to preserve the beauty and systems within. This team will inventory and monitor focal species populations, identify and recover critical habitats, and engage local people in collaboration and education initiatives.

To understand the many negative impacts on focal species in the Gila, it’s vital to assess the severity of each threat they face to determine where to begin our efforts. Using techniques such as environmental DNA (eDNA), ARC’s team is able to sample the water and better understand the current status of where these species live, as well as if invasive species or disease are present in their habitats. Surveying habitats also provides information about water quality and can help us predict long-term water availability. 

Rural communities in the region depend on the same water sources as ARC’s focal species for their health, recreation, and food availability through agriculture and fishing. ARC’s work in the Gila PARCA is not only securing a future for imperiled amphibians and reptiles in the region but helping to sustain the livelihoods of nearly 40,000 people. We will involve these locals, who know and care about the land and its wildlife, to make the work more meaningful while increasing the effectiveness of our conservation efforts for amphibians and reptiles in need. By including landowners and local agencies in the process, we increase our chances of success and longevity. ARC will host wetland restoration workshops to educate landowners and land managers, inviting them to participate in the design and implementation of habitat recovery in the Gila PARCA.

The impact of our work doesn’t stop there, however. Habitat improvements will also support a wide range of species that depend on clean water sources, including the Apache trout, Gila trout, Gila Mountain sucker, loach minnow, Gila chub, Gila topminnow, and spikedace. The benefits of restored habitats are felt at project sites and downstream, creating a ripple effect for all species–including people–in the region. 

With your help, as well as through partnerships with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and U.S. Forest Service, ARC is ready to tackle the immense challenges facing the region and its wildlife.