The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society (the IBA) is located in a broad semi-desert grassland in Southeastern Arizona. It is a 13 square mile sanctuary from which livestock has been excluded since 1968. It encompasses a mix of habitats including semi-desert uplands, oak savannahs, oak woodlands cut by small ephemeral creeks, with riparian habitat. The Research Ranch is in part, privately owned by the National Audubon Society. There is also BLM and Forest Service land within the Research Ranch.

Ornithological Summary

The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch is 8000 acres of contiguous grassland that has remained ungrazed for 35 years. It is part of the last remaining viable short-grass prairie between Texas and the Pacific coast. It supports 22 species of conservation concern; the majority of which are grassland obligate species.

Grasslands have been designated priority habitat by the Arizona Partners in Flight (APIF) Conservation Plan and of the six species listed by APIF as Priority species for Desert Grasslands, this IBA contains four species (Botteri's Sparrow-breeding, Baird's Sparrow-wintering, Cassin's Sparrow-breeding, and Grasshopper Sparrow-resident, regarding the other priority species, the Aplomado Falcon needs elevated nesting platforms-tall Yucca, and the Rufous-winged Sparrow prefers a partial shrub canopy, and occurs primarily below 1000 m). Other grassland species of special conservation status include Montezuma Quail (resident), Black-chinned Sparrow (wintering), Brewer's Sparrow (wintering), and Sprague's Pipit (fall migrant)-all of which are Audubon WatchList species for Arizona (10 total for this IBA), and Sage Sparrow (wintering), Eastern Bluebird (resident), Burrowing Owl (resident)-all APIF Priority species, and Northern Harrier (wintering) a USFWS Bird of Conservation Concern (within BCR 16). Other grassland obligate species are abundant on the research ranch, i.e., breeding: Horned Lark and Eastern Meadowlark, and wintering: Vesper Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow.

An important aspect of the research ranch is that it is a large, protected grassland within a larger ecosystem that is being converted to ranchettes and sub-divisions. Many species thrive in the ungrazed habitat the research ranch protects.

Other non-grassland species of special conservation status include Band-tailed Pigeon (fall migrant), Willow Flycatcher (summer visitor), Lucy's Warbler (breeding), Virginia's Warbler (breeding) (all AZ WatchList), Yellow-billed Cuckoo (summer visitor), Black-throated Gray Warbler (breeding), Cordilleran Flycatcher (breeding), Gray Flycatcher (breeding), and MacGillivray's Warbler (fall migrant) (all APIF Priority species).

Conservation Issues

A major threat to this Madrean grassland IBA is the invasion of exotic grass species (Lehman and Boer lovegrasses, Johnson grass and Bermuda), which has resulted in a change in grassland composition and thus habitat quality for native bird populations and other wildlife species. These grasses were brought by human settlers, and have spread by cattle, wind and water. Although there has been no grazing by domestic herbivores on the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch for 35 years, the changes on the surrounding habitat in the Sonoita valley is likely to have reduced overall populations of native grassland dependent species. Invasive grasses removal is being addressed on the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch by Audubon staff through intensive species-specific efforts, so as to protect native species. One project underway is transplantation of sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) into areas where Bermuda grass dominates the riparian floodplain.

A second major threat to this IBA is the alteration of the natural fire regime by past and current fire suppression management decisions. Encroaching and rapidly expanding human inhabitation of the Sonoita valley with homes and other development throughout this once vast grassland community has required fire suppression decisions based on human safety concerns and private property protection. This has reduced range-wide fires and has resulted in shrub encroachment, which has reduced open-range grassland habitat, and altered the soil dynamics (i.e., the enrichment of soils following fires, resulting in an increase in available nutrients for plants). fire ecology needs are being addressed through a controlled burns program.

"Island biogeographic" influences to bird populations within the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch are also likely to increase with increasing development, such as decreased dispersal capabilities of resident bird populations into and from the IBA. Lastly, human impacts to the habitats are a threat, e.g., illegal hunting and/or off-road vehicle trespass. Fence repair as well as posting and patrolling the area are steps being taken to address this issue.


Management guidelines for the various properties that comprise the Research Ranch are outlined in MOU's or MOA's between NAS and the entity that holds title to the property. The Forest Service portion is designated a Research Natural Area and BLM property is non-recreational, with all roads designated administrative only.

Note - all of Appelton-Whittell Research Ranch except the Forest Service portion is part of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.


The habitats present on the Appeleton-Whittell Research Ranch include mesas and gentle slopes that support short and mid-height grasses (Bouteloua gracilis, B, hirsuita, B. curtipendula, B. eriopoda, Bothriochloa barbinodis, Leptochloa dubia, Digitaria califorinica, Aristida spp., Eragrostis intermedia, and others), as well as small woody shrubs such as Rhus trilobata, Mimosa dysocarpa, M. aculeaticarpa var. biuncifera and Baccharis pterinoides. Oak woodlands of Emory (Quercus emoryi), Mexican Blue (Quercus oblongifolia), and Arizona white oaks (Quercus arizonica) interspersed with grasses occupy much of the southern half of the ranch. There are also steep gravely areas supporting Mexican pinyon pine (Pinus cembroides), manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens), and cliff-rose (Purshia stansburiana). Floodplains along broad, flat river drainages support extensive stands of sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) and herbaceous vegetation and riparian areas along drainages support walnut (Juglans major), cottonwood (Populus fremontii), ash (Fraxinus velutina), sycamore (Platanus wrightii), and willow (Salix sp.). Post, O'Donnell, and Turkey creeks flow intermittently in the winter and monsoon seasons. The human constructed Post and spring-fed Finley and Telles tanks hold water all year.

Other Flora and Fauna:
The grasslands, oak savannas and riparian corridors of Appeleton-Whittell Research Ranch provide a wide range of habitat for many other species of plant and animal. More than 550 species of plant, 40 species of grasshopper, 100 species of butterfly/moth and many other taxa have been identified on the Sanctuary. Several listed species or species of special concern can be found on Appeleton-Whittell Research Ranch including Mexican Garter Snake, Desert Pupfish, Huachuca Water Umbel, Chiricahuan leopard frog, and the Lesser long-nosed bat. At least eight pronghorn were born on Appeleton-Whittell Research Ranch in the spring of 2003.

Land Use

Land use is primarily conservation and research, with limited hunting on National Forest Service land.

Research/Conservation Projects:

The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch has hosted numerous research projects, such as:
Response of winter birds to drought and short-duration grazing in southeastern Arizona, Subdivision versus ranching: Effects of livestock grazing and exurban development on the biodiversity of a southwestern grassland/savanna; Response of rodents, birds, and vegetation to the Ryan Fire; Effects of human activity and habitat conditions on Mearn's quail populations; Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship at Post Canyon Dam; Ecology of wintering grassland sparrows; Mexican Jays and Northern Flickers: A mixed-species flock in the oak savanna of southern Arizona; The Botteri's Sparrow: an avian habitat specialist colonizing an alien grassland in southeastern Arizona; Wintering habitat use by priority grassland birds; Effects of the Ryan Wildfire on wintering grassland birds in the Sonoita Valley, Arizona; Habitat, movements and roost characteristics of Montezuma quail in southeastern Arizona; Ecological aspects of torpor use and winter dormancy by Common Poorwill.

Protected Areas:
Management guidelines for the various properties that comprise the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch are outlined in MOUs or MOAs between National Audubon Society and the entity that holds title to the property. The Forest Service portion is designated a Research Natural Area and BLM property is non-recreational, with all roads designated administrative only.

Note - all of Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch except the F.S. portion is part of the Las Cienegas NCA.

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