An owl fly-by prompts a second look at an Arizona mine

Wildlife managers revisit the impact of an expanding mining operation.

 

Last October, two field researchers were surveying waterways in southern Arizona’s Patagonia Mountains, when one of them glanced into a tree and said, “Uh-oh.” They saw a Mexican spotted owl, a federally threatened species, near the property where Arizona Mining Inc. has had as many as 15 drilling rigs running since 2007, chasing silver, lead, zinc and manganese. “That’s not what we were supposed to find,” says Karina Hilliard, one of the contractors, “because that’s more red tape.”

Mexican spotted owl fledglings.
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests

As they hiked away, the owl flew overhead — close enough that Hilliard felt the breeze from its wings.

Arizona Mining Inc. has been drilling to map mineral veins, the first stage in an underground mine that could produce for up to 50 years. As it ramps up production around 2020, it’s expected to need federal permits to expand. But with the owl sighting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is “leaning in” to see how the operation has grown — and what threats it might pose to local wildlife —since the agency last thoroughly examined it. Depending on what it finds, future mine expansion could be impeded.

The Mexican spotted owls were in a gulch less than a mile north of the company’s drilling rigs and tailings piles. The owls, which roost in mature trees in mountains and canyons in the Four Corners region, are considered an indicator species for overall forest health. In Patagonia, home to a biodiversity unparalleled in the Lower 48, the owl has become a flashpoint in a town already divided over whether to try to resurrect the mining industry, or embrace a new identity as an outdoor recreation and bird-watching destination.

Where spotted owls have been found within the mining claims near Patagonia, Arizona.
Courtesy of Patagonia Area Resource Alliance

Arizona Mining, Fish and Wildlife and local birders have known for decades that Mexican spotted owls roosted in the Patagonia canyons. Two years ago, however, the agency determined that exploratory drilling posed no danger to threatened and endangered species, partly because it had no evidence that owls were nesting near the site. The mine’s contractor reported breeding in proximity in 2016, and the service confirms they received documentation of a juvenile in the area months later. 

Don Taylor, Arizona Mining’s chief operating officer, says the company will be a responsible neighbor. The property was mined from the 1880s until the 1960s, and exploratory drilling has gone on since the 1970s. A 2018 technical report from Arizona Mining lists half a dozen endangered, threatened or sensitive species, including the owl, ocelot, jaguar, Sonoran tiger salamander, and yellow-billed cuckoo, living adjacent to or in portions of the mining operation.

In 2016, Defenders of Wildlife asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Mexican spotted owls and yellow-billed cuckoos from the disturbance and habitat loss the mine could cause. At the time, Fish and Wildlife Arizona field supervisor Steven Spangle said the agency would not investigate the operation because it lacked sufficient evidence that owls and cuckoos would be harmed by exploratory drilling. Two years ago, however, the company was merely drilling alongside roads, says Jason Douglas, an agency biologist. Since then, its operation has grown. Recent images from its website show massive tailings storage facilities that dwarf the dump trucks and backhoes used to fill them. And October’s sighting has given Defenders new leverage to assert “longstanding concerns” with the lights, noise and human activity’s effects on owls. The group recently wrote a letter urging Fish and Wildlife to ask the company to cease activities that could harm owls until it obtains a permit.

mine-landscape-jpg
Red Mountain looms over Arizona Mining Inc.'s drilling operation.
Lucas Waldron

The mine operates on private, patented claims. If Fish and Wildlife determines its operations do indeed threaten owls and other endangered species, Arizona Mining would be invited to complete voluntary applications that could include measures to reduce harm to the species. The company plans to expand its tailings piles, potentially reaching onto national forest lands in about a decade. That move would necessitate a federal environmental review and further consideration of possible impacts on endangered species.

Mexican spotted owl numbers decline alongside the loss of mature pine forests to clear-cutting and wildfires. Only a couple breeding areas remain in the Patagonia Mountains, says Nick Beauregard, who has worked for the nonprofit Bird Conservancy of the Rockies as an owl watcher, and one of them is within half a mile of Arizona Mining’s property. 

“If you destroy habitat for one pair of spotted owls in the Patagonias, you’ve basically destroyed habitat for half of the spotted owls in the Patagonias,” Beauregard says. Three years ago, he recalls seeing one drill pad. “Since then, it’s become full-on industrial. … To think how that might be for a neighboring owl to have lights and noise in the drainage next door — it’s hard to think that wouldn’t be some disturbance.”

Elizabeth Miller is a freelance journalist who covers public lands and wildlife management from New Mexico.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • 1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected]ainrealty.com, www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...