Cuenca los Ojos Fundación Project

Rio Yaqui headwaters/W. Radke

Cooperative efforts between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and landowners in both the United States and in Mexico are providing tremendous opportunities to restore and secure habitat and water sources, conduct scientific research, and introduce and maintain self sustaining fish and wildlife populations and habitats.

Adjacent to each other, but on opposite sides of the international border between the United States and Mexico, are the 2,369-acre San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and the 25,000-acres managed by Mexico’s Fundación Cuenca de los Ojos (Fundación), which includes the Rancho San Bernardino, Rancho Las Anitas, and Rancho El Fisz. 

The primary role of the refuge is the sustainability and recovery of native fish in the Río Yaqui Basin, while the primary objective of the Cuenca de los Ojos properties is working to preserve and restore the biodiversity of the borderland region between the United States and Mexico through land protection, habitat restoration, and wildlife reintroduction.  The Fundación seeks to support these programs through scientific research and sustainable resource management techniques. 

Because successful projects benefit both sides of the border, management activities are coordinated and designed to benefit the landscape.  To ensure progress, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and Fundación share in the interest and problem solving and strive to find innovative ways to complement the other’s efforts.

Invasive American bullfrog/C. Lohrengel

The project area is in the San Bernardino Valley of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. This region is well known for its amazing biological diversity. Transcending the man-made border are mountains and valleys that run in a north and south orientation. Several rivers also cross the border and are part of a watershed that includes the largest historic wetland of the region. The vast wetland situated within the desert landscape of the southwest serves as a migratory corridor for wildlife traveling between the mountain ranges of Mexico up into the Rocky Mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. 

Since 1400 BC, the dependable presence of water in this otherwise arid environment has drawn humans to the area.  From native Americans, to Spanish explorers to settlers interested in working the land, impacts to the landscape have caused significant damage to the natural resources.  Diverted and channelized waters dried up historic wetlands and lowered the water table; cattle overgrazed the grasslands; loss of vegetation along stream banks led to significant erosion during flooding events; and suppression of wildfires allowed for the invasion of exotic and invasive plants.  

Today, the United States and Mexico partners of the Rancho Bernardino Project are working to reverse that history.  Damaging erosion is being reduced and ground water aquifers are being protected.  Native forests along waterways are being established to benefit raptors, migratory birds, and other wildlife.  Wetlands are being restored for fish, as well as waterfowl nesting, feeding, and resting.  Former grassland invaded by fast-growing mesquite trees are being reclaimed and re-seeded to benefit a multitude of grassland-dependent species, like Cassin’s sparrows and scaled quail.  Invasive, non-native plant and animal species like American bullfrogs are being removed or controlled.  Important research is being conducted to learn more about the complex ecological relationships and to help document the results of management efforts.  Slowly, the land and its associated fish and wildlife are recovering.

Mexican duck/W. Radke

Partnership Goals
Specific goals and objectives of the Rancho San Bernardino Project include:

  1. Re‑establishment of an elevated water table by repair of eroded channels with rock‑filled, wire‑basket gabions and cottonwood ‑ willow pole plantings, with the latter designed both for erosion control and repair and to re‑create riparian gallery forest for use by raptors, migratory birds, and other species, including resident biota.
  2. Contouring, directing water flow, and excavating wetlands to redirect and retain water on reclaimed agricultural lands to re‑create ciénega conditions for waterfowl nesting, feeding, and resting, and for other aquatic biota.
  3. Reclaiming old agricultural and mesquite‑invaded lands on stream terraces by mechanical removal of undesirable woody plants, contouring and excavating shallow depressions to retain water, followed by re-seeding with native grasses.
  4. Repairing steep slopes and poorly managed uplands by reducing sheet flow through contouring, excavation of shallow depressions to retain water, and re-vegetating with native grasses.
  5. Reducing negative impacts on native biota through dedicated eradication and exclusion of noxious and invasive non‑native species.

Securing Funding
Partners work together and coordinate efforts to secure funding for landscape-level projects.  Their accomplishments have resulted in:

  1. The construction of several extensive rock and wire gabions in Hay Hollow Wash and in Río San Bernardino.
  2. Installation of concrete and earthen barriers to slow erosion in Silver Creek.
  3. Removal of large numbers of invasive mesquite trees from grassland areas.
  4. Restoration of seasonal and permanent wetlands in portions of the historic San Bernardino Ciénega.
  5. A project to restore extensive native grassland in abandoned agricultural fields.

Benefits to the Watershed
Partner’s efforts have incrementally helped restore wetlands in portions of the watershed. 

  1. Groundwater levels have been raised in the San Bernardino Valley.
  2. The Río San Bernardino now flows continuously and perennially from north of the U.S. Border well into Mexico.  
  3. Seasonal and permanent ponds exist along the edges of Río San Bernardino, where they provide habitat for numerous fish and amphibians and invertebrates, which in turn provide abundant food for green kingfishers (Chloroceryle americana), common black hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus), white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi), and large groups of waterfowl and shorebirds which are beginning to utilize the newly restored wetland areas. 
  4. Rich riparian corridors are emerging along the banks of Silver Creek, Río San Bernardino, and Hay Hollow Wash, and extensive ciénegahabitat is regenerating naturally in Mexico near the confluence of Silver Creek and Río San Bernardino.

Bumblebee on a snapdragon/W. Radke

Benefits to Wildlife
Wetland restoration throughout the watershed is expected to benefit all native plant and wildlife populations by not only increasing the availability of seasonal and permanent water, but by improving the overall quality and quantity of water.  Efforts are lessening the potential for the erosion of wetlands that occurs during extreme flood events. 

Successful stream restoration efforts are allowing native fish to re-colonize refuge wetlands on their own.  Researchers have concluded that overall fish populations of the upper Río Yaqui appear to be doing well, with Mexican longfin dace and Mexican stonerollers being the most commonly encountered species.  Breeding populations of Mexican stonerollers were found on Rancho San Bernardino less than one-mile from the U.S. border, explaining why this species is regularly documented on San Bernardino Refuge during annual fish surveys.  Several large pools exist in the Silver Creek section of the watershed, which may provide suitable habitat for Yaqui chub, Yaqui suckers, and Yaqui catfish in the future as the water table rises and stream sections become more permanent. 

The partners involved not only share this expansive landscape, but they have a shared vision for the restoration and protections of its natural resources.  This landscape vision shared by single entities has resulted in the completion of many cross-boundary research projects, including research done on bees, fish, ciénegas, and fire treatment.  Coordination between partners has provided depth in the expertise and planning, as well as funding applied to earth moving equipment to restore silt-laden wetlands, labor to repair gabions, and opportunities to apply prescribed fire to remove woody vegetation and enhance wetlands and native grasslands. 

A Growing Effort
These same cooperative efforts have been expanded and enhanced on both sides of the international border, and additional properties are now being protected and/or managed as part of the bigger landscape.  The Cajon Bonito Ranch in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora and the Guadalupe Canyon Ranch in New Mexico and Arizona are dedicated to maintaining a variety of conservation values.  Over several years, the landowners have restored these properties and made improvements to the watershed and rangelands, both to enhance livestock production and to help generate ecosystem health.  Their efforts at ecosystem repair by headwater erosion control are well known and recognized by conservationists. 

These properties provide a critical role in maintaining a sanctuary for multiple plant and wildlife species of special concern, and partners are helping facilitate both wetland and grassland habitat restoration across these more distant portions of the landscape.  This maintains the integrity of the habitat across the border, which is important for wildlife migration and dispersal.