Protecting the Chihuahuan

Geographical location:

Latin America/Caribbean > Central America > Mexico

North America > North America > USA / United States of America

At the Big Bend area, on the Rio Grande, WWF collaborates with protected areas on both sides of the Mexico-United States border to preserve this majestic landscape. Mexico.
© WWF Mexico / Jenny Zapata


The Chihuahuan is the largest desert in North America, stretching from the southwestern United States deep into the Central Mexican Highlands. The Rio Grande – known as the Río Bravo in Mexico – flows through it, providing a lifeline for animal and plant species. But the magnificent desert is threatened by an ever-increasing human population, water misuse and mismanagement and overgrazing by cattle and goats.

WWF is working on a number of projects in Chihuahuan, which focus on restoring river habitats, conserving grasslands and wetlands, stopping illegal wildlife trade and protecting large predators such as wolves.


The Chihuahuan desert’s vast expanses hold freshwater marvels. The Rio Grande - known as the Río Bravo in Mexico - is born in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows for 2,000 miles through 2 countries, 8 states, and the land of more than a dozen Native American nations. This great river is the lifeblood of the desert, maintaining vital ecological and biological processes as well providing livelihoods in both the United States (US) and Mexico.

The Rio Grande/Río Bravo and its primary tributary - the Río Conchos in Mexico - support many endemic species that have evolved to live in this desert environment. Found nowhere else on Earth, their future is tied to the health of this majestic river. About 13 million people also inhabit the Rio Grande/Río Bravo basin and depend upon it for electricity, agriculture and freshwater. Over the next 40 years, this human population is expected to double.

Economic expansion in the Mexico/US border region is drawing more people to the area, further increasing water demand on surface water from the river and groundwater in neighbouring wells. The resulting water diversions, dams, untreated sewage discharge and groundwater draining represent major threats to the Rio Grande/Río Bravo basin - almost 90% of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo’s waters irrigate 1 million acres of farmland. Another challenge to its freshwater and riparian ecosystems is the proliferation of invasive exotic fish and plant species.


1. Big Bend/El Gran Recodo Complex
By 2020, ecological processes - as defined in the Biological Assessment - that support the 30 aquatic and terrestrial representative community types and associated key species of Chihuahuan Desert are maintained or restored where needed.

2. Freshwater Ecosystems of Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin
By 2020, conditions of freshwater ecosystems in the Rio Grande/Río Bravo Basin are improved, measured through water allocation for environmental flows and an Index of Biotic Integrity (IBI) score of at least 70 in at least 10 reference sites.

3. Grasslands and Wetlands of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert
By 2015, key ecological processes and 80% of the 2006 extent of priority grasslands and associated wetlands maintained or restored to 2006 levels.

4. Rare Native Desert Plants and Vertebrates
By 2020, 75% of native desert cacti and other plants, and 75% of native vertebrate species, currently considered rare or endangered, based on the NOM-ECOL-059 and Endangered Species Act, have viable populations.

5. Large Predators
By 2020, wolves, jaguars and black bears have viable populations in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert.


The efficient management of water resources along the US and Mexican border is essential to fostering economic growth and maintaining the biodiversity of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. WWF’s Integrated River Basin Management experience in the Río Conchos will be leveraged for the middle Rio Grande/Río Bravo basin, focusing on ensuring sufficient water flows through the natural stream to meet environmental needs.

Activities in the Rio Grande will leverage best-practices from WWF’s Río Conchos integrated river basin management (IRBM) experience, and will focus on ensuring sufficient water flows through the river to meet environmental needs.


- Improved Rio Grande/Río Bravo’s flow through the promotion of water conservation strategies with cotton producers in New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District. With no impact on cotton yield, this private-sector collaboration reduced irrigation volume up to 30% and halved fuel and labour costs.

- Controlled salt cedar in sites in the US and Mexico, coordinating with 5 protected areas on both sides of the border and providing employment to local residents in the Big Bend region. Created a water trust on the Rio Grande to acquire water rights to improve ecosystem health between Fort Quitman and Amistad Reservoir, Texas.

- Secured an agreement between WWF and the Chihuahua state government to implement an integrated river basin management plan for the Río Conchos - the primary river in Chihuahua and the main Mexican tributary of the Rio Grande; the project involves 30 institutions.

- Conducted a restoration project with local communities in the Sierra Tarahumara; it included soil conservation activities across 346 acres, the construction of 119 check dams, and the reforestation of 230 acres with native pine trees.

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