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Room to Roam

The El Carmen initiative aims to preserve a one-of-a-kind ecosystem in Mexico and enhance wildlife corridors on both sides of the border.

By Bonnie Reynolds McKinney

Across the Rio Grande from the Big Bend of western Texas in Coahuila, Mexico, lies a towering giant of a mountain called the Maderas del Carmen.

This huge sky island is surrounded by desert lowlands on both the eastern and western side, and stretches from the south in Mexico north to the Rio Grande, entering Texas on the western boundary of Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and the eastern boundary of Big Bend National Park. The Maderas del Carmen has long been regarded as one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the Chihuahan Desert. For decades, scientists have visited the area, discovered new species, marveled at the flora and fauna, and dreamed of ways to protect this ecosystem. Plans were made for an international park when Big Bend National Park was established in 1944. Scientists from the newly formed national park journeyed to the Carmens and reported on the richness of flora and fauna, richer even than the Big Bend.

Like many ecosystems in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, the Maderas del Carmen was exploited for its natural riches for many years. Mining, timber operations, overgrazing by domestic livestock, subsistence hunting to the point of extirpation for several species, and harvesting of native plants contributed to the degradation of habitats and a decline in native wildlife populations.

In 1994, the Mexican government formally declared the Maderas del Carmen a “Protected Area.” However, management was severely hampered within the 514,000-acre area because it included privately owned ranches or ejidos (communal properties). Traditional land use continued on many of the lands designated as protected areas.

In 2000, Cemex, a global cement company, recognized the importance of the conservation of this area and began purchasing lands within the protected area and along the adjacent boundary. This was the beginning of Proyecto El Carmen and a long-term commitment of resources from a private corporation with the ultimate goal of restoration of habitat and native wildlife to the Maderas del Carmen.

The El Carmen Project had a challenging mission: the conservation of a large tract of contiguous land that crossed the international boundary into the United States. The area had large corridors on both the east and west side of the mountain that were ecologically important for wildlife movement to adjacent mountain ranges in Mexico as well as corridors for wildlife and birds moving from Mexico to Texas and vice versa.

The area can basically be divided into two distinct parts — the northern portion, composed of limestone, and the southern portion, which is igneous. The highest peak rises more than 9,600 feet. High mountain meadows, towering peaks, fir forests, humid canyons, park-like oak woodlands, sotol-yucca grasslands and desert lowlands all contribute to the rich diversity. American basswood and dogwood trees grow alongside prickly pear cactus and yucca in the deciduous woodlands. Agaves cling precariously to sheer rock inclines, and small succulents and ferns line the natural rock gardens along mountain streams.

Rare, endemic, threatened and endangered species find their particular niches here in this mountain. From a management and restoration perspective, this level of biodiversity meant that it was important to conduct a baseline inventory of flora and fauna. All species are important, so one species or group of species is not the main focus. Management decisions must be carefully considered to ensure that one action to help or enhance a habitat or a species is not detrimental to another species.

The first step was to compile historical records, providing a foundation for the baseline work. During the past four years, the biological staff at El Carmen has documented a total of 79 species of mammals, 80 species of reptiles and amphibians, more than 400 species of plants, and more than 250 species of birds.

Several species of mammals are limited in their range, rare or endemic. These include the Coahuila mole, which was recently documented for only the second time since Rollin Baker collected the first specimen in 1951 at El Club. The Miller’s shrew, another little-known species, is found in the higher elevations of pine, oak and fir. The cliff chipmunk has a limited distribution in Coahuila. Eastern fox squirrels were not documented in earlier scientific surveys, but this species is currently abundant in the pine-oak woodland, which indicates range expansion from the southeast. Large mammals are well represented — mountain lion, coyote, black bear, bobcat and a host of smaller mammals, as well as 20 species of bats.

More than 16 species of oaks have been described for the area, and several species of cactus reach the northern limit of their range here. One species of agave, Agave portrerana, is found only in the Maderas del Carmen; the next closest population is located in the state of Chihuahua.

Birdlife is diversified; notable birds for the area include the solitary eagle, northern goshawk, colima warbler, brown-throated wren, Audubon’s oriole and eight species of owls. Butterflies are also well represented, with over 130 species documented.

Habitat restoration is a priority at El Carmen. One of the first steps was to remove domestic livestock to allow the regeneration of native vegetation. Interior fences were removed to allow freedom of movement for wildlife. Earthen tanks were cleaned and native plant growth encouraged in these areas. Water sources were developed and existing troughs were modified so that wildlife and birds could utilize water sources safely.

Native wildlife restoration is a work in progress. After many years of overhunting, many populations seriously declined and three species were extirpated from the area: the desert bighorn sheep, Mexican lobo and pronghorn. Both mule deer and Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer populations suffered drastic declines. Supplementing these herds will help to build viable populations as well as provide genetic diversity within this sky island complex.

In 2000 and 2001, Cemex, in collaboration with Agrupacion Sierra Madre, Unidos Para La Conservación, various other Mexican agencies and Texas Parks and Wildlife, began restoration efforts for the desert bighorn. The initial stage started with the construction of a 12,300-acre brood facility located at Los Pilares in the lower desert elevation. This brood facility is located in typical bighorn habitat with high ridges, caves, rockpiles and ample desert vegetation; all encircled by an eight-foot-high predator-proof fence. A total of 48 desert bighorns were captured in Sonora, Mexico, and released in the facility at El Carmen during 2000 and 2001.

Currently over 125 desert bighorns inhabit the brood facility, which means the population has more than doubled, and more than half the sheep were born in Coahuila. The bighorns are monitored by radio telemetry and direct observation. The brood facility will furnish desert bighorns for wild releases into historic habitat in the Maderas del Carmen and in the future to other areas of adjacent historic habitat.

On July 14, 2004, a historic moment occurred in Coahuila when 11 desert bighorns captured at the Yaqui Reserve in Sonora, Mexico, were released into the wild in the Maderas del Carmen. For the first time in 50 years, desert big-horns once again roamed the high desert peaks of northern Coahuila. Two releases in 2004 and 2005 brought the number of wild bighorns to around 34 animals. Future releases from the reserve at Pilares will supplement these numbers to build a viable population.

In years to come, the desert bighorns in Maderas del Carmen and West Texas bighorns from Black Gap Wildlife Management Area will mix through movement in the corridors that link the two countries. This will foster genetic diversity in both herds of bighorns, and cooperative work between Texas and Mexico will continue to ensure that the desert bighorn remains an integral part of the region’s flora and fauna.

Another high-profile species, the black bear, was extirpated in western Texas by the 1950s. Occasionally a bear was sighted along the border with Coahuila, but for the most part, the bear was no longer present in the Texas landscape.

Bear numbers also drastically declined in Mexico, but remnant populations remained in a few isolated mountain ranges in northern Coahuila, particularly the Maderas del Carmen and Serranías del Burro. From these populations in Coahuila, the black bear began a slow recovery process. Through dispersal, again in the important corridors from Coahuila to West Texas, the black bear reappeared on the West Texas landscape in the late 1980s, mainly in Big Bend National Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area.

Seldom does a wildlife species recolonize historic habitat without the intervention of man in the form of reintroductions, but the black bear began recolonizing historic habitat in West Texas on its own. In 1998, West Texas saw black bear research begin in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and Big Bend National Park. Utilizing radio collars, researchers tracked black bears moving from Texas to Coahuila. DNA analysis revealed that the West Texas bears were definitely from Coahuila.

In 2003, a long-term study of black bears began at El Carmen. This project focuses on the dispersal corridors bears are using and the development of management strategies for the protection of these areas to allow safe travel into adjacent Mexican mountains and across the Rio Grande into Texas. Radio-collared black bears are tracked with telemetry and their movements mapped. Other parameters of black bear ecology such as reproduction, diet, home range, density, survival and mortality are also studied. Educational materials for coexisting with black bears have been developed, and Cemex published the first field guide for managing black bears in Mexico. Biologists work closely with Texas Parks and Wildlife and Big Bend National Park to coordinate bear movement on an international scale.

Proyecto El Carmen sponsors several students each year, as well as university groups from both Mexico and the United States. El Carmen also works cooperatively with a host of conservation groups in both countries and helps landowners develop conservation agreements.

The View from Mexico

Thanks to cross-border cooperation, protected wildlife areas are slowly expanding in the Maderas del Carmen and Big Bend.

By Patricio Robles Gil

Seldom has the relationship between Mexico and the United States faced such a difficult and decisive moment in its history as today with the issues of immigration and national security along the border. I am aware of the complexity of these issues, but in my opinion, environmental issues have not been adequately considered in the debate. In particular, I am talking about the enormous costs to future generations if this political divide becomes a barrier to the natural world and an obstacle that prevents wildlife from freely roaming across the region.

Paradoxically, ranchers, conservation organizations and government agencies in the El Carmen-Big Bend corridor are collaborating more closely than ever to protect the natural resources of the area.

When Big Bend National Park was created 60 years ago, the idea of creating an international park that extended beyond the southern border was first discussed. At about the same time, the United States and Canada designated Waterton-Glacier Peace Park, the first transboundary park in the world, opening a new path for international cooperation. Probably inspired by this partnership with Canada, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho to create a park encompassing the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend and their counterpart mountains in Mexico, known as El Carmen.

While the vision of a true international park remains unrealized, much of the region is now protected from development to some degree. In 1994, Mexico designated two large reserves — classified as Flora and Fauna Protected Areas — along the southern boundary of the Big Bend. Cañon de Santa Elena in Chihuahua comprises 693,000 acres and Maderas del Carmen in Coahuila covers over 514,000 acres.

Texas also extended its protected areas on each side of Big Bend National Park. To the east, Black Gap Wildlife Management Area contains 103,000 acres, and to the west, Big Bend Ranch State Park encompasses 300,000 acres.

The complexity of Mexico’s land policies makes it enormously difficult to create and conserve protected areas. The majority of land in Mexico is private or communal property; only 20 percent of Mexico’s protected areas are government-owned. In some ways, these privately held, protected areas are similar to Texas properties governed by conservation easements.

For 30 years, Mexican ranchers in the state of Coahuila restored and protected habitat to the point that the black bear population recovered and sub-adult bears began dispersing into Texas in the 1980s as they searched for territory of their own. The small black bear population that survived the hunting pressures of the 1920s and 1930s in Coahuila and Texas found refuge in the most remote mountainous areas on the Mexican side. The return of this species after a 40-year absence is, in the words of Big Bend National Park biologist Raymond Skiles, “the most important event in the history of the park, only surpassed by its declaration.”

Recently, a new stakeholder has gone into action in the region, a corporate giant with a solid commitment to the environment. Cemex is not just a global cement company but a key player in the conservation initiative of the El Carmen-Big Bend region. With its strong economic interests in both Mexico and the United States, Cemex is a catalyst for conservation action in collaboration with nongovernmental agencies, government agencies, ranchers and local communities.

Cemex has acquired 40 percent of the land inside Maderas del Carmen reserve, in Coahuila, and the Adams Ranch in Texas — both for protection in perpetuity — to reverse land fragmentation. In October 2005, during the 8th World Wilderness Congress held in Anchorage, Alaska, Cemex announced its commitment to continue to expand protected areas in the northern end of Sierra del Carmen, a rugged and pris-tine terrain adjacent to Big Bend National Park.

Another recent milestone was the declaration of the Rio Bravo del Norte Natural Monument, which will set aside 625 miles of the southern shore of the Rio Grande.

Undoubtedly, we still face many challenges. But in this vast and remote wilderness, we can also find many opportunities to show that Texas and Mexico can be good neighbors and responsible stewards of the land and wildlife we all treasure.

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