Patagonia mountains, © Matt Clark

Not So Sunny in Patagonia

The U.S. Forest Service recently gave the green light to the “Sunnyside ”mineral exploratory drilling project — a plan to drill 18 bore holes at six sites in the Patagonia Mountains in hopes of finding silver ore and creating larger mines. Despite the project’s deceivingly cheerful name, this exploratory drilling could have major impacts on both the mountains and the species that depend on this diverse “sky island” habitat for survival. And if mines are ever developed in this sensitive area, the outlook would not be so sunny for wildlife and water quality.

Situated in Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, the Patagonia Mountains are home to dozens of species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including jaguars, ocelots, lesser long-nosed bats, Mexican spotted owls, and the just recently listed yellow-billed cuckoo. The narrow topography of Humboldt Canyon, where the drilling is planned, would magnify the noise of the project’s non-stop drilling, making for a very loud 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 6 month long headache. The noise produced by the drilling would reach 98 decibels, which is akin to riding a motorcycle or operating a chainsaw. Let’s take a closer look at the impact the project could have on some of the species in the area:

Jaguar & ocelotJaguar, © Gary Stolz/FWS

Almost completely eliminated from the United States, both the jaguar and ocelot are listed as endangered under the ESA. Unfortunately, the Sunnyside Project lies in the middle of the jaguar’s formally designated critical habitat, and in an area important for ocelot recovery. For felines like jaguars and ocelots, this area is a critical corridor, connecting habitat in Mexico to habitat in the U.S. and allowing the animals to travel between these areas. Between the noise that drilling will produce round-the-clock and the light required for drilling at night, these cats will be driven away from one of the few areas that gives them access to good habitat north of the border, and those few cats already here will be cut off from the rest of the population in Mexico.

Lesser long-nosed bat

The lesser long-nosed bat is another endangered animal with a lot to lose: The Patagonia Bat Cave, a roost for mother and baby bats, is only five miles from the mining project area. Lesser long-nosed bats can go in search for food up to 36 miles away from their roosts, and there are eight additional roosts within feeding range of the Sunnyside Project, putting many more bats at risk. In addition to the drilling noise and artificial nighttime lighting, the project will clear vegetation around the drill pads, including agaves, a primary food group for the lesser long-nosed bat.

Mexican spotted owl, ©Aaron MaizlishMexican spotted owl

The threatened Mexican spotted owl has the most to lose from the drilling. Five of the six drilling sites are within a “Protected Activity Center,” the most important part of the Mexican spotted owl’s designated critical habitat. At least one breeding pair is known to live there. With a noise level of 98 decibels (the owls are negatively impacted at 69 decibels) this pair will be driven out of their nesting area. One of the drilling sites is only one-tenth of a mile from the core nesting area, a distance of just two or three city blocks. With the noise of the drilling, the owls might just as well nest on a busy street corner in Washington, DC!

And just about anything that drinks water

The Sunnyside Project would also have a negative impact on the area’s water, which impacts not only wildlife, but humans too. The waters of Harshaw Creek and Alum Gulch originate in the Sunnyside Project area and provide a critical source of drinking water for residents of the Town of Patagonia and wildlife alike in the watershed. Earlier this fall, heavy rainfall in the Patagonia Mountains led to flooding, which swept debris and pollution from historic abandoned mines into the creeks, turning Patagonia’s water supply a nasty shade of orange from heavy metal pollution and acidic drainage from the mines. And the drilling wouldn’t stop at damaging the water quality – it would impact quantity as well. The drilling alone requires 12,500 gallons of water per day, which is just over 10% of the water usage for the entire town of Patagonia. Over the course of six months, the mining project would use enough water to fill over three Olympic swimming pools of 660,000 gallons each. With the 18 drill holes reaching depths of up to 6,500 feet, they’re bound to disrupt the area’s aquifer which is typically encountered at 1,000 feet, posing additional risk to the Town’s water supply.

It’s clear that when the Forest Service rubber-stamped their approval for the Sunnyside mining project, the agency turned a blind eye to the impacts that round-the-clock drilling will have on threatened and endangered species in the Patagonia Mountains, and the Town of Patagonia’s water supply.

Defenders has objected to the mining projects in the Patagonia Mountains every step of the way, and we’re now turning to a federal court to hold the agencies accountable for their unlawful approval of the Sunnyside Project. The area’s valuable wildlife habitat, water supply, and handful of threatened and endangered species deserve protection, not pollution.

Anne Russell Gregory is the Conservation Law Coordinator at Defenders of Wildlife

24 Responses to “Not So Sunny in Patagonia”

    • Kay O'Sullivan

      Why has man’s greed destroyed everything that is beautiful on this earth,it’s the 21st century,surely there are ways to live in harmony with nature.

  1. Heidy Breed

    We al have to take care of those animals! The have the right to live save!

    So do al the things you van do
    I wish you wisdom and hope you do well!

    Thank you

  2. Constance Pennington

    We need to find ways to stop the destruction of forests, waterways, and land that our wildlife lives on. There ARE ways to work WITH instead of against….but then you have to be innovative and CARE. Defenders of Wildlife is trying to help.and always do. Listen to them.

  3. Rebecca Keaton

    The Patagonia Mountains are home to many endangered species. It is public land and should NOT be mined.

  4. Lori Burton

    What is it with you people? Your job is to protect wildlife and natural resources, not allow mining companies to scare it away or pollute it! Protect the endangered animals, their habitats and what is left of the clean water in your area. Quit worrying about energy and protect the few beautiful spots left in our country. Our ancestors should be able to visit these wildlife areas and experience them the way do. They shouldn’t have to go to zoos to see wildlife or worst case scenario read, about them because they no longer exist.

  5. lorraine lahue

    stop ruining every natural place you can get you hands on these animals were here first this is their homes you people keep taring down natures beautiful places you are taking away from us humans as well, making it impossible to enjoy as we were meant to by God. you are causing all these animals to dye off.

  6. Ankea Kkoutas

    The area’s valuable wildlife habitat, water supply, and handful of threatened and endangered species deserve protection, not pollution. STOP!!!

  7. Mary-Blanche Koromzay

    Protect this animal habitat. The animals have a right to the place Nature has provided for them. Protect their place as you would your own home.

  8. Karn Hall

    I was fortunate to visit Patagonia on a bird watching trip last year. It is like nowhere else on the planet. It’s so beautiful, and much of the wildlife there is not found anywhere else. I really hope the mining project does not go forward. It will ruin everything.

  9. kim b

    Shame on the us forest service!!!!! Do the right thing ….. Dont let them drill,,you must not destroy the habitat of the endangered jaguars & oceolots !!! SAY NO TO THE DRILLING !!!! 24/7 of drilling thatwould be tortue for those poor animals. Step up to the plate & do your job, which is to protect not destroy. Or you should all be flired !!!

  10. madeleine hamilton

    of what value is silver to those who inhabit earth? we need fewer mines and more wildlife.

  11. greg

    the USFS and USFW those people don’t really care about wildlife,all they really care about is money , just look at their record. But I am glad there is some one holding them accountable, to stop this and other things. Let them mine in their own back yard, see how they would like that ?? thank you Defenders for your work.
    Sue the HELL!! out of them.
    greg cleary

  12. Carmel Gagne

    My god what is this world coming to, humans are destroying everything that is wild and natural for the sake of money. When all these beautiful creatures are gone that’s it, they’re gone forever, no amount of money will bring them back, I think it’s high time the human race wakes up and sees what is truly important on this earth.

  13. Sheila

    its always all about money! I don’t understand people, why are they so narrow sighted, can’t they think about the lives of these many beautiful animals that stand to be driven from their habitat by the awful noise of drilling? thank heaven for people like you who do all they can to fight for them!!!

  14. lana

    Everything about this project is wrong. it should be shelved and forgotten. THe wildlife is the treasure in this region. Forget destroying the lands, aniimals, and poisoning the water — leave wild things to be wild. Abandon this destructive project. As someone else said, “do the right thing,”

  15. Kristin

    Now what if by some weird set of circumstances we (us humans) were the endangered species threatened by some other more threatening species (if one can even be imagined) that was intent on destroying the already limited and shrunken habitat we inhabit having been pushed to the brink of extinction? Would we care more than we do about the fact that drilling stupid silver mines will further endanger the existence of these wonderful four footed, winged, and feathered creatures? What gives us the right to do as we please with nature if it means we will gain an extra buck or two? The U.S. Forestry Service – some many years ago – used to be about conservation and preservation, but I guess that’s now been turned into devastation and destruction. Thank goodness for Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations dedicated to being a voice for flora and fauna.

  16. Dave

    It shames me to say that many of the most ruthless and rapacious mining companies operating in Latin America are Canadian

  17. Denise

    How can the United States continue to fund such dangerous projects (these companies do not even have to disclose what chemicals are forced into the earth let alone be held accountable for the tremendous loss of water and long term damage the drilling causes)??!!! Please keep fighting the good fight to save these beautiful valuable habitats.

  18. anita jennings

    The US Forest Service has never been a conservation agency. The ESA has never impacted their decision making process. I consider the agency to be the enemy of all wilderness areas, of all animals and birds and essentially of the taxpayers who value the land. We pay the salaries of the agency personnel and we own the land.

  19. Maggie Smith

    The Forest Service here in Arizona has a bad habit of turning over sensitive land to any mining or development company that shows up in this state. Are these decisions based on best use of the land or are they caving in to higher-up pressure from greed-heads? I propose that the only long-term way to fight this ongoing land grab problem is to promote incentives for environmentally friendly energy and building materials. Also I propose promoting cheap or free birth control for those who want it and emphasizing how import it is to control the sprawl of human population for those who will hear the message. We are at the top of the food chain. If the bottom fails, where does that leave humans?

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