Can wolves be returned to the wilderness of Texas?

by Rick LoBello, El Paso Zoo Education Curator

Less than 200 yards from my office I am often reminded of one of the most important missing links in the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. An apex predator often thought of as a symbol of wilderness, the Mexican wolf or lobo (Canis lupus baileyi), has been systematically eradicated from the landscape. Because of conflicts with the ranching industry wolves that historically were living in harmony with the natural environment were no match for wolf hunters and trappers until they no longer remained.

In the minds of many people here in Texas and other states, its ok for wolves to live in Zoos, but not ok for wolves to live in the wild where they survived for thousands of years before the coming of the European settler. It’s also important that we not blame the extinction of the wolf in Texas solely on the ranching industry. Everyone who eats meat is contributing in a small way by supporting agricultural practices that are not always managed in the best interest of the ecosystem, something that few of us think about.

Prior to moving to El Paso I was active in wolf restoration efforts in Texas during the 1990s when the Mexican Wolf Coalition of Texas with the support of state and national environmental groups tried to convince government officials to bring back the wolf to the Big Bend area. Big Bend National Park and adjacent state park and wildlife management lands were established to protect the natural environment and livestock ranching on those lands were no longer present. To many the idea of bringing back the wolf to these large protected areas made a lot of sense and efforts were already underway to return the wolf to national parks like Yellowstone National Park. With the endorsement of political leaders like the Governor Richardson of Texas, the proposal gained a lot of media attention. In the end stakeholders were not fully engaged in supporting the effort and interest in helping wolves return to the Big Bend turned to other areas of the country like Arizona and New Mexico.

Prior to the war against the wolf that started in the 1800s and continues to this day, wolves once roamed a large area of West Texas including the Davis Mountains region and the Big Bend region. Unlike the Mexican black bear that was able to naturally reinhabit Big Bend National Park from the adjacent mountains in Mexico after being extirpated during the early 1900s, wolf extermination efforts on both sides of the border resulted in the extinction of the wolf about the same time it was declared endangered on March 11, 1967. The last two wolves known in Texas were killed 50 years ago in 1970 when one was shot on the Cathedral Mountain Ranch south of Alpine and another trapped on the Joe Neal Brown Ranch located at the point where Brewster, Pecos, and Terrell counties meet. Fortunately for the wolf, a population of perhaps less than a hundred wolves remained in northern Mexico.

Today thanks to conservation agencies in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, wolves in the region are increasing and the combined wild population is estimated at around 200 animals. Here in Texas many believe that suitable habitat remains on both private and public lands. Unfortunately, the State of Texas and the US Fish and Wildlife Service do not have plans to reintroduce wolves to Texas and there have been no measurable efforts to gain stakeholder support or to work on a restoration plan to return them to the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. Wildlife officials often quote a Texas Parks and Wildlife Code which states that no one can release a wolf in the State which makes it illegal for anyone to release wolves into the wild, but there is no indication that the code was enacted to prevent wildlife officials from undertaking such a conservation effort in the future.

Potential wolf habitat in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.

Hope for the future – new Texas land buyers are committed to protecting the natural environment

On August 8, 1986 in a letter to Regional Director Michael Spear of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Executive Director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Charles Travis summarized his opposition to returning the wolf in Texas by saying “there is already a history of conflict between stockman and the federal government in both of these areas (Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Parks) concerning mountain lions that appear to range out of the park and kill stock on surrounding land. It is unlikely that Mexican wolves would be viewed any differently and these areas have limited suitability for that reason.”

Thirty-four years later are Travis’s arguments in opposing wolf restoration still valid? Perhaps not, many of the large landowners who opposed predators like wolves and mountain lions are no longer with us or have sold their land. A number of people are now buying up large parcels of land because they love the idea of owning large open spaces and want to help protect the environment. The King Land and Water real estate company refers to these lands as conservation real estate. On their website they describe large areas like this as “special lands for buyers committed to being good stewards of them. These properties frequently feature unique forms of flora and fauna, compelling live water resources, and, often, stunning, one-of-a-kind views.”

A growing number of people believe that wolves are not as polarizing to landowners in West Texas as they were 50 years ago. Former Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Andrew Samson stated that he agreed that “the character of private landownership has fundamentally changed and that chances are good that some of the new landowners would have a different perspective on wolf conservation” than was the case years ago.

“The recovery of a wolf population, if it occurs, would be definite evidence of the restoration of Big Bend National Park to conditions as they were before the appearance of Europeans and cattle.” Roland H. Wauer, 1980. Naturalist’s Big Bend. Texas A & M University Press.

So what is the big problem?

Then what is the big problem with bringing the wolf back to Texas today?  There are large areas of habitat on public and private lands for sure, but in places like Austin, Texas where the headquarters of Texas Parks and Wildlife is located, there simply is not the political will.   Just the other day a respected government official told me that there is support among many biologists in Texas, but if anyone ever tries to bring up the subject they would get shot.   Is hatred for the wolf really that intense in Texas? In some circles yes, but in reality there are thousands of Texans living across the state who support conserving the environment and all its parts, including wolves.

So how do we get State and Federal government officials to come to the table to start a conversation on the subject with all the stakeholders?   Wolves are being returned to the wild in Mexico and could someday cross the border into Texas like black bears have for years. If that were to happen wolves would be protected by the Endangered Species Act and then the state of Texas would have little to say about it.

Last year the US Fish and Wildlife Service solicited comments from the general public on a Notice of Intent to prepare a supplement to an environmental impact statement for the Mexican wolf.   I took the opportunity to outline what I think would be good next steps for a possible wolf reintroduction program in Texas and stated the following:

I have been advocating for the reintroduction of the wolf to Texas since 1978 when my friend Roy McBride invited me to his ranch to see one of the wild wolves he caught in Mexico for the captive breeding program. You may have seen a video of that day on YouTube. The 8mm footage was included in two documentaries on the Mexican wolf, “The Gray Area: Wolves of the Southwest” and the “Right to be Wild”.

I am a member of the Sierra Club in El Paso where we have gathered with the support of the El Paso Zoo over 20,000 hard copies of letters sent to Texas Parks and Wildlife Executive Director Carter Smith and each of the ten TPWD Commissioners asking that they support a plan to return the wolf to Texas. They have disrespected the people of our City by not responding to any of our communications.

We hope that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will help us convince Texas to support putting Texas back on the conservation radar screen for a wolf reintroduction project. Areas believed to have sufficient prey base to support a small population of wolves, pending a comprehensive reintroduction study, include Guadalupe Mountains National Park and surrounding National Forest and BLM lands, protected lands in the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park areas.

Many of these areas are currently under tremendous ecological pressure from exotic species like feral hogs and aoudads. Bringing back the wolf to Texas could help control these species much more economically than methods like helicopter hunts currently being used by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Wolves can also be controlled to stay away from livestock areas using satellite tracking.

The Next Step for Wolves in Texas

The next step for the wolf in Texas is to assemble a team of biologists to survey habitat in West Texas that can support wolves. During this survey the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife should meet with stakeholders who raise livestock near these areas to help identify livestock safe zones. Livestock safe zones are land areas where wolves will not be allowed to live. Buffer zones will be identified as wolf management zones where wolves may roam, but if they stay in these areas and do not move back to wolf reserves, they would be removed from the wild. After meeting with stakeholders and identifying potential habitat, the USFW and TPWD should assemble a team of satellite tracking experts to put together a plan to monitor and control wolves with satellite collars that can inject wolves with tranquilizers if they move away from reintroduction areas.

Let’s hope for the sake of wilderness and the future of humanity that the wolf will be given the chance to reclaim its rightful role in the Chihuahuan Desert.

The reintroduction of the wolf will be a polarizing issue in West Texas for years to come.  But in the years since wolves vanished, some of the best wolf habitat in Brewster and Jeff Davis Counties has evolved into something quite different: many large areas of the rugged desert mountain island country are now more dependent on tourism than on ranching.  The value of wolves to Texas may not just be ecological in nature; it could have a huge economic impact.   Ask the people connected to wolf ecotourism in Yellowstone where visitors who come to Yellowstone to see wolves contribute roughly $35.5 million annually to the regional economy.  Imagine the return of the “Grand Opera of Texas” to the dark skies of Texas. Imagine the return of the gray wolf.

Mexican wolf pack.

Photo credits:
Top , Rick LoBello
Third from top, Chad Horwedel, Wikimedia Creative Common
Bottom, Don Burkett

Can we bring back the prairie dog to El Paso?

Black-tailed prairie dog by Josh More

Unfortunately prairie dogs in North America have declined by 95%. Two species, the Mexican prairie dog and the Utah prairie dog are endangered, yet prairie dogs are still being poisoned and colonies destroyed. Sometime within the past 50 years they were eradicated from El Paso County. Is there anyway we can change that and bring them back? Perhaps, over the past few months I have talked to a number of people in El Paso who are interested in helping to make that happen.  

Today there are some small black-tailed prairie dog towns near the outskirts of the county in parts of West Texas and Southern New Mexico. According to recent reports on iNaturalist prairie dogs may still survive on private lands near Cornudas, Texas along the highway to Carlsbad Caverns.   About five years ago I was able to document prairie dogs surviving in very small numbers on Otero Mesa in New Mexico about twenty miles north of Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site.  There are also other areas in West Texas where they are found on private ranches including an area protected by the Nature Conservancy north of Marathon, Texas.  Unfortunately it is very difficult to find prairie dogs near El Paso so any effort to help bring them back would be a big plus for our community and could help boost ecotourism. 

There was a time when you could see prairie dogs within the city limits of El Paso.  Now that most of the area has been developed are there any places with good habitat where they could be reintroduced?    To help answer that question I am in touch with several researchers who have conducted studies on prairie dog restoration efforts at the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. El Paso’s Urban Biologist working for Texas Parks and Wildlife is also interested in helping as well are others who are involved in habitat restoration and conservation efforts in our area. 

The current vision for the project is to identify an area of at least 15 acres with potential prairie dog habitat and then to seek funding to relocate prairie dogs from other areas of Texas.    If we are successful we will be able to help bring back an important part of our natural heritage while enhancing our quality of life and El Paso’s natural biodiversity. 

If you would like to help feel free to contact me using our contact form.

Rick LoBello
Education Curator
El Paso Zoo


How a big dream for the US and Mexico could help both countries

Learn about what can happen next and how the proposal could impact major problems both countries are facing with climate change, the border wall, conservation of rare and endangered species, immigration, the economy and US Mexico relations. To join the public meeting click this Zoom link on November 19 at 4pm Mountain Time. Sponsored by the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition, advocating for conservation education in the northern Chihuahuan Desert Region since 2004.

Meeting ID: 856 1772 6222 Passcode: CDEC2020
One tap mobile
+13462487799,,85617726222# US (Houston)
+12532158782,,85617726222# US (Tacoma)

On October 24, 1944 in a letter to His Excellency General Manual Avila Camacho, President of the United Mexican States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend (referring to the establishment of Big Bend National Park) will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.” Today most people who support the proposal talk about a transboundary protected area since Mexico does not have national parks like we have in the United States.

Today the proposal is still just a thought with no serious plans by either government to complete Roosevelt’s dream for both countries. El Paso Zoo Education Curator Rick LoBello has been advocating for the project since 1988 when he was invited by the then Governor of Coahuila Mexico to visit the Mexican side of the proposed park region on an expedition with National Park and Texas Parks and Wildlife officials. In 1997 he enlisted the support of Rotary International and a year later hundreds of Rotarians from the US and Mexico gathered at Chamizal National Memorial for an international meeting where they dedicated their efforts to see the project though completion. Unfortunately Rotary was not successful in keeping the project on the international radar screen and we are where we are today.

At a meeting in Juarez in 1999 LoBello was encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and later in a letter via National Park Service Inter-Mountain Regional Director John Cook to continue advocacy efforts and to develop the political and diplomatic consensus that is required to establish the transboundary protected area. To see a historical timeline on the effort from 1932-2019 click here.

Chihuahuan Desert Virtual Fiesta Recap

When the El Paso Zoo reopens be sure to visit the new Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit.

The 16th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Virtual Fiesta on September 19 was a great success. Special thanks to Heather Rivera and Sarah Murphy for all of their efforts in bringing everyone together on short notice and for some very informative programming.

We hope to see you next year when we will host our 17th annual event. Be sure to follow this blog with your email address to stay informed.

All of the YouTube programs will stay linked to this website and hopefully some of the Zoom programs will be added at a later date.

Return the Wolf to Texas by Rick LoBello, Texas Wolf Pack. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Brief overview of the water quality in the Rio Grande Basin by Leslie Grijalva, USIBWC. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Birding with the El Paso Trans-Pecos Audubon Society by El Paso/ Trans-Pecos Audubon Society. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Environmental stewardship and restoration at Rio Bosque by John Sproul, UTEP. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.


Video en español sobre desierto / naturaleza de la Semana de la Conservación Latinaironmental by Maryflor Garcia, Frontera Land Alliance. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Restoring Native Agaves of the Chihuahuan Desert for Endangered Pollinating Bats by Dr. Kristen Lear, Endangered Species Interventions Specialist, Bat Conservation International. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Virtual Tour of the New Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit at the El Paso Zoo by Sarah Murphy, El Paso Zoo. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Wool Spinning Demonstration by LuAnn Kilday, Farm and Ranch Museum. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.

Frontera Land Alliance Video Snapshot – Sotol. by Maryflor Garcia, Frontera Land Alliance. If you have questions for our speaker you can contact us here.




Nature Club needs volunteers

REGISTER AS A MEMBER BY LIKING US HERE – NATURE CLUB ON FACEBOOK

The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Club is a collaborative effort between the Zoo, local parks and the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition. The goal is simple, to help people connect with our desert and to encourage people to get outside and enjoy nature.

Last year we signed up hundreds of members at the Zoo when our team and volunteers invited Zoo guests to join while they played our Conservation Game.

Members can help us make the club both educational and fun by helping with social media posts, writing creative content focused on youth and more. Presently we are looking for adult leaders to help us expand the club and create more interactive educational opportunities. If you would like to help contact us and to set up a meeting to discuss how you can be involved.

DID YOU KNOW THAT THE EL PASO ZOO HAS A NEW CHIHUAHUAN DESERT EXHIBIT?

El Paso is located within the biggest and most diverse desert in North America, the Chihuahuan Desert. The Chihuahuan Desert covers more than 200,000 square miles and is home to thousands of different species of plants and animals.

The El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens is home to animals and plants from around the world including Africa, Asia and North and South America. The Chihuahuan Desert experience in the North America area of the Zoo highlights the wildlife and plants of the eco-region where the City of El Paso is located.  The exhibit has an arroyo helping people to better understand one of the desert’s important naturally occurring environmental features plus an exciting flash flood.   There is also a new Lobo Vista classroom with viewing windows looking into endangered Mexican wolf and Thick-billed Parrot exhibits where Education Specialists and Zoo Keepers present engaging programs for our guests and school groups. There are also new exhibits for prairie dogs, desert birds, bolson tortoises, jaguars and endangered peninsular pronghorns.  The ranch house exhibit is home to smaller animals of the desert that have moved inside.  Just outside the house we have a new exhibit for coatis, also called coatimundis. Coatis are very rare in the northern Chihuahuan Desert and are the only carnivore in the Western Hemisphere that lives in large family groups.

16th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Virtual Fiesta planned for September 19

Save the date – Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta – September 19, 2020

It’s going to be a very different Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta this year. If you have been following the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition you can already see what we have changed. Originally we were planning a two day event at the Zoo and at Franklin Mountains State Park. This year we are going to host a fiesta, but in an abundance of caution because of the threat of Covid-19 we will have a VIRTUAL FIESTA.

The plan will be to schedule a variety of presentations on Facebook, Zoom and YouTube. These presentations will focus on all kinds of fun and educational topics including wildlife and plants of the Chihuahuan Desert, geology, history and more. We are looking for presenters now and need to finalize the virtual programming schedule by September 1. If you are interested in being a presenter you can contact the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition for more information.

At this time the El Paso Zoo is still closed. Franklin Mountains State Park is open. On September 19 you may visit the park on your own, but there will be no activities at the park like we have had in the past. Park Entrance fees will be in effect. To learn more about the park visit their website.

As we get closer to the day of the event on September 19 follow this blog by entering your email address on the lower right or join our FaceBook Group to keep up with more details on the event and other Chihuahuan Desert news.

Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta Videos

Desert Walk Podcast

Short walk in the desert with Rick LoBello in the Westside Community Park, El Paso, Texas. If you want to keep up with all of our news including news about the 15th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Virtual Fiesta please follow this blog with your email address.
Eagle’s claw cactus
Creosote bush
Texas earless lizard

Snakes awake


The Western coachwhip is one of the few diurnal snakes in our area, most snakes are nocturnal and rarely seen.

By Rick LoBello

It’s almost Memorial Day, it’s getting hotter and many snakes are starting are coming out of their underground burrows where they have been brumating (hibernating) during the cooler winter months. Snakes are cold blooded animals and can not tolerate extreme cold or heat. As they begin to wake up they are hungry and seeking warm air. They really can’t function when its cold and if they get caught out in cold weather they can die.

People in our city sometimes will find a snake in their yard or when hiking, but overall if you stay on hiking trails you could hike all your life and never see one. The main reason why snakes are rarely seen is because most are nocturnal. Some snakes at this time of year will warm up out in the sun for part of the day making them vulnerable to predators like hawks. Its at this time that you might get lucky and see one. 

While most snakes are nocturnal there are some that are largely diurnal because of their interest in catching lizards and other animals active during the day. They include gopher snakes (bullsnakes) and coachwhips. Like any snake rattlesnakes can come out during the day, but your chances of running into one are very slim. Don’t be overly concerned by signs in parks warning you to watch out for snakes. Yes there is a possibility that you might have an encounter with one, especially if you are walking around at night during the summer when most snakes are active.

If you are worried about seeing a snake or getting bit by one, the best way to avoid encountering a snake is by staying on trails and avoiding dense vegetation or putting your hands or feet in places where you can’t see what may be hiding. If you should see a snake, especially a rattlesnake, don’t disturb it any way. Snakes will defend themselves and can bite. 

Snakes are beneficial to humans in many ways including how they eat rats and mice that may come around the home, the same rodents who have ticks bearing lyme disease.

Did you know that biologists have identified 32 species of snakes in El Paso-Juarez Border Region? UTEP posted a checklist on their website in 2000 which is very helpful when trying to identify any reptile or amphibian you might find in your backyard or out on a trail in our area.

EL PASO-JUAREZ BORDER REGION SNAKE LIST

Family Colubridae: Common Harmless Snakes
Arizona elegans–Glossy Snake
Diadophis punctatus–Ringneck Snake
Elaphe guttata–Corn Snake
Elaphe subocularis–Trans-Pecos Rat Snake
Gyalopion canum–Chihuahuan Hook-nosed Snake
Heterodon nasicus–Western Hognose Snake
Hypsiglena torquata–Night Snake
Lampropeltis alterna–Gray-banded Kingsnake
Lampropeltis getulus–Common Kingsnake
Lampropeltis triangulum–Milk Snake
Masticophis flagellum–Coachwhip
Masticophis taeniatus–Striped Whipsnake
Pituophis melanoleucus–Gopher Snake
Rhinocheilus lecontei–Long-nosed Snake
Salvadora deserticola–Big Bend Patch-nosed Snake
Salvadora grahamiae–Graham Patch-nosed Snake
Sonora semiannulata–Ground Snake
Tantilla hobartsmithi–Southwestern Black-headed Snake
Tantilla nigriceps–Plains Black-headed Snake
Thamnophis cyrtopsis–Black-necked Garter Snake
Thamnophis marcianus–Checkered Garter Snake
Thamnophis sirtalis–Common Garter Snake
Trimorphodon biscutatus–Lyre Snake

Family Leptotyphlopidae: Blind Snakes
Leptotyphlops dulcis–Texas Blind Snake
Leptotyphlops humilis–Western Blind Snake

Family Viperidae: Vipers
Crotalus atrox–Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Crotalus lepidus--Rock Rattlesnake
Crotalus molossus–Black-tailed Rattlesnake
Crotalus scutulatus–Mohave Rattlesnake
Crotalus viridis–Prairie Rattlesnake
Sistrurus catenatus–Massasauga

Source: 

Checklist of Amphibians and Reptiles
of the El Paso-Juarez Border Region, 2000
Carl S. Lieb, R. G. Webb, and J. D. Johnson
Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum,
University of Texas at El Paso