Myths and Facts about Wild Horses and Burros

Burro - Photo by Rylee Isitt

Article from: https://awionline.org/content/myths-and-facts-about-wild-horses-and-burros

Myth: There are too many wild horses and burros on public lands and their numbers must be reduced.

Fact: The opposite is true—there are too few wild horses and burros on our public lands, and unless their numbers grow, the survival of these special animals is in jeopardy. During the 1800’s, it is estimated that there were more than two million wild horses and burros roaming the West. These animals, along with countless wildlife species ranging from bison to wolves to prairie dogs, were the victims of ghastly extermination efforts, primarily to make way for private domestic livestock grazing. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 wild horses and burros remaining on millions of acres of our Western public lands. Tragically, the interests of these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” are being forfeited for those of the livestock industry and other commercial operations.

Many wild horse and burro herds are being managed at such dangerously low numbers that their long-term health and genetic viability are seriously imperiled. In 1999, the federal government sponsored a wild horse and burro population viability forum in which several leading scientific experts including Drs. Gus Cothran, Francis Singer and John Gross, participated. One of the main issues discussed was that smaller, isolated populations of fewer than 200 animals are particularly vulnerable to the loss of genetic diversity when the number of animals participating in breeding falls below a minimum needed level. This scenario sets the stage for a host of biological problems associated with inbreeding including reduced reproduction and foal survival, reduced adult fitness and physical deformities. Only about one quarter of the herds under active management have a population objective of greater than 150 animals, much less 200. Numerous herds are being managed at levels between 40 to 70 animals and some even fewer. Either geographical or artificial barriers isolate many of these herds. Rather than address this grave problem by increasing population targets for these animals, the agencies charged with their protection, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (FS), have decided to further reduce wild horse and burro numbers by half to a shocking 22,000 wild horses and 2,700 wild burros.

Myth: Wild horses and burros must be rounded up to save them from dying of starvation or thirst.

Fact: While the BLM argues that wild horses and burros are being rounded up for their own good to keep them from dying of starvation or dehydration in areas affected by fire and drought throughout the West, animal advocates have frequently found that herd areas stricken by so-called “emergency conditions” weren’t nearly as bad off as the BLM claimed. Not only were wild horses and burros doing just fine, but livestock often remained in the same areas or were returned to the areas in short order. Of course, once the wild horses and burros are gone, they are gone for good—moving in the direction of achieving the overall objective of drastically reducing populations as quickly as possible. By attempting to justify extra removals as “emergencies,” the BLM is able to tap into emergency funds from other programs and go over and above their allocated budgets to meet this goal.

Tragically, many wild horse and burro herds suffer needlessly due to the fact that they have been unable to roam freely throughout their entire herd areas because of fences and other impediments that have been constructed to accommodate livestock. Hence, they are unable to access forage and water to which they are legally entitled. Wild horses and burros have survived droughts and fires in the past and will survive them in the future, just as do other wild animals, if they are treated as wild animals and left alone.

Myth: Wild horses and burros are destructive to the environment and must be removed in order to protect ecosystem health.

Fact: Wild horses and burros, like any wildlife species, have an impact on the environment, but due to their natural behavior, their impact is minimal. In fact, wild horses and burros play a beneficial ecological role, for example, by dispersing seeds through elimination, thereby helping to reseed the landscape. They also blaze trails during heavy snowfall and break ice at watering holes, helping weaker animals to survive during harsh winter months. Wild horses and burros can also serve as food for predator species such as mountain lions.

That said, if BLM and FS officials would have the public believe that they are genuinely concerned about ecosystem health, then they must refrain from conducting business as usual—viz., turning a blind eye to the indisputably overriding cause of habitat degradation: livestock grazing and public encroachment. For years, the agencies have permitted extremely high levels of livestock use on public lands, resulting in soil erosion, water contamination and depletion, as well as deterioration of vegetation. While wild horses and burros may be blamed for these problems, the agencies’ own data indicate otherwise. Little has changed since the release of the 1990 US General Accounting Office Report, Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program, which concluded  “… the primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic (primarily cattle and sheep) livestock.” Unlike cattle who tend to congregate and settle in riparian areas, wild horses and burros are highly mobile, typically visiting watering areas for only short periods of time.  To make matters worse, livestock are concentrated in grazing allotments at artificially high densities during the critical growing season when vegetation is extremely vulnerable to permanent damage. This overgrazing sets the stage for habitat degradation that may not be immediately apparent, but can cumulatively cause massive vegetation die-off.

Myth: Wild horses and burros are an exotic or a feral species and must be removed to protect native wildlife.

Fact: Not so. The paleontological record shows that the cradle of equine evolution occurred in North America, beginning more than 60 million years ago. Conventional theories postulate that horses introduced by the Spanish more than 500 years ago were a different species than those horses who existed in North America prior to their mysterious disappearance approximately 10,000 years ago. However, mitochondrial DNA analysis of fossil remains indicates that E. caballus, the “modern” horse, is genetically identical to E. lambei, the most recent equine species to evolve in North America more than 1.7 million years ago. Hence, it can plausibly be argued that the Spanish actually “reintroduced” a native species, one which evolved on this continent and which has adapted and flourished both biologically and ecologically since its reintroduction. Interestingly, some scientists question the theory that all horses became extinct 10,000 years ago. They are only now beginning to analyze fossil remains that may eventually support this hypothesis.  

Moreover, simply because horses were domesticated before being released is biologically inconsequential.  Observing horses in the wild demonstrates just how quickly domesticated behavioral and morphological traits fall off. According to Dr. Patricia Fazio, “The key element in describing an animal as a native species is (1) where it originated; and (2) whether or not it co-evolved with its habitat.” By virtue of their evolutionary history, biology and behavior, these animals are native wildlife. In addition, the 1971 WFHBA rightfully recognized them as an “integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”

Myth: Ranchers depend upon livestock grazing for their livelihood and wild horses and burros are creating an undue hardship on their operations.

Fact: While some small family ranchers do depend upon livestock for their primary source of income, the top grazing permits on our public lands in terms of numbers of livestock are held by corporate interests including the Hilton Family Trust, Anheuser-Busch, Inc., Nevada First Corp., and Metropolitan Life Co. In 1992, the General Accounting Office reported that just 16 percent of the approximately 20,000 public lands grazing permittees controlled more than 76.2 percent of forage available on BLM lands and most of these were either very wealthy individuals or big corporations. These wealthy corporate interests are much more concerned with paper stock than livestock, and with preserving their tax write-offs than a way of life.  For the most part, removing wild horses and burros translates into just one more form of corporate welfare. 

Studies indicate that most ranchers are choosing to diversify their sources of income. Today, less than 3% of our nation’s beef is produced on public rangelands. Ranching on both public and private lands accounts for less than 0.5% of all income by Western residents. In 1994, the Department of the Interior concluded that the elimination of all public lands grazing would result in the loss of only 0.1% of the West’s total employment.  Changing times and demographics, not a small number of wild horses and burros, are responsible for the decline of the ranching industry’s importance in the West. The time has come to help wild horses and burros and to assist ranchers who want to voluntarily transition from a profession that is taking its toll on their pocketbooks.

Myth: Without the federal grazing program assistance, ranchers would be unable to carry on a cherished family tradition and way of life.

Fact: Small family ranchers, just as small family farmers, have far more to fear from corporate interests than they do from responsible federal lands management policy. In fact, about 70% of cattle producers in the West own all the land they operate and do not rely on public lands grazing whatsoever. It can reasonably be argued that those ranchers who benefit from ridiculously cheap public lands grazing fees and other government subsidies associated with federal grazing permits have a distinct advantage over those who do not. Many of these ranchers who now fancy themselves as modern day “cattle barons” are millionaires and billionaires who made their fortunes in other businesses—e.g., Texas oilman, Oscar Wyatt, Jr. former chairman of Coastal Corp., the late McDonald’s French fries supplier John Simplot, and Mary Hewlett Jaffe, daughter of William Hewlett of Hewlett-Packard fame. The top 10 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control a striking 65 percent of all livestock on BLM lands and 49 percent on FS lands. The bottom 50 percent of public lands grazing permit holders control just 7 percent of livestock on BLM lands and 3 percent on FS lands.

Because public lands grazing allotments require ownership of private base property and wealthy individuals and corporations own more private property (i.e., base property), they wind up with more federal grazing allotments. Hence, these wealthy operations benefit from numerous taxpayer subsidies, while small family operations struggle to make ends meet. These “cattle barons” and corporations are increasingly buying out small ranching operations—acres at a time. With rising operating costs and mounting debts, most small family ranchers are looking for work outside the ranch and a way out of ranching. 

Some ranchers have expressed an interest in a proposal that would provide for their needs as they transition into other lines of work. If a rancher voluntarily relinquishes his/her federal grazing permit, the government would compensate the permittee $175 per animal unit month (the amount of forage necessary to graze one cow and calf for one month). Not only would such an arrangement help ranchers and be a huge cost savings to taxpayers (see last myth), but it would also allow forage to be reallocated to wildlife including wild horses and burros. 

Myth: Removed horses and burros are adopted to loving homes through the government’s “Adopt a Horse or Burro Program.”

Fact: While the BLM has an obligation to ensure that the persons adopting wild horses and burros are “qualified” adopters, many people do not fully understand the responsibility and commitment that are required to care for an adopted animal, thus setting the stage for failed adoptions. Rigorous screening of potential adopters, education and monitoring are critical to the success of any adoption. Sadly, the BLM has failed in all of these areas. In 1997, the Associated Press uncovered enormous and egregious abuse within the adoption program, including the revelation that many individuals were adopting large numbers of wild horses only to turn around and make sizable profits by selling them for slaughter. To make matters worse, The New York Times reported on a Justice Department investigation that revealed that BLM had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on this issue, and that in fact many employees were well aware that adopters intended to sell horses for slaughter after receiving title. Only after being sued by wild horse advocates did the BLM agree to adopt measures to stem the tide of horses going to slaughter, but even then, countless horses fell through the cracks. 

Of immediate concern is an amendment to the WFHBA that was slipped into the Interior Appropriations bill in the last Congressional session, requiring horses 10 years-of-age or older or those who have not been adopted after three attempts to be sold at auction without limitation. Such “sale authority” will open the floodgates of wild horses being sold to slaughter for profit. More than 8,000 wild horses may immediately wind up on the dinner plates in fancy overseas restaurants, and countless more will follow unless legislation is swiftly enacted to repeal this ill-conceived amendment. HR 1018, introduced by Congressman Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Congressman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) in the House of Representatives, passed the House on July 17, 2009 to restore the slaughter prohibition for wild horses and burros. H.R. 503, the Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, reintroduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) and in the Senate by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and veterinarian and Senator John Ensign (R-NV) as S. 727 will ensure that no horse meets this appalling fate. 

The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and its legislative history make it clear that Congress, with overwhelming public support, intended for wild horses and burros to be protected in the wild, and removed only when necessary, and if removed, guaranteed humane treatment. They were never to be sold for slaughter.   

Myth: With thousands of wild horses and burros awaiting adoption, the program is too costly and the only solution is to either sell or destroy “excess” animals who haven’t been adopted or are deemed “unadoptable.”

Fact: In 2001, the BLM adopted a reckless strategy to reduce the numbers of wild horses and burros on public lands by more than half by the year 2005, without any environmental review whatsoever. Up to that point in time, adoptions had kept pace with removals. Increased removals resulted in a backlog of animals awaiting adoption. Many animals were automatically shipped to long-term holding facilities and never even put up for adoption. With more than 20,000 animals languishing in holding facilities, costs for the inflated number of removals and the animals’ care have mounted—all directly attributable to BLM’s own misguided strategy.  BLM’s FY 2005 budget for administering the program was $39 million.

However, if the BLM were genuinely interested in fiscal responsibility, the agency would provide the public with a detailed analysis of the full costs of administering its livestock grazing program. A recent analysis of the budget records concluded that the net direct loss (calculated as the Congressional Appropriations for the program less fee receipts to the Treasury) of the livestock program was at least $72 million for the BLM and $52 million for the FS; the full costs are likely to be three to four times these amounts. However, with the multiple taxpayer subsidies ranchers receive ranging from below-market-value grazing fees to fire and weed control to predator and “pest” control to range improvements, to price supports, to the regular removal of wild horses and burros, etc., it is certain that the agency loses hundreds of millions of dollars each year.   Removing livestock instead of wild horses and burros would indeed be the most fiscally responsible action the agency could take.

Source: https://awionline.org/content/myths-and-facts-about-wild-horses-and-burros

Desert Beauty: Living Rock Cactus

Look closely at her secrets.  Buffers of creosote between thorny arms of mesquite and the spines of ocotillo.  Plants intertwine but like an iceberg, there is much more beneath the surface.  There is beauty here. 

In the fall, glimpses of fuscia mark my path.  Gone as quickly as they appear.  A flower appears from rock.  I kneel to look closer. 

A protected species, native only to the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend and northern Mexico, Ariocarpus fissuratus, also known as the Living Rock Cactus, is a cryptic little plant hiding in plain sight.  Stems typically flush to the ground and well camouflaged, blending with the surrounding mosaic in shape, color, and texture.  Shrinking in times of drought, kept alive by the unseen, yet substantial taproot.

Shying away from the world, in her quiet and unseen way.  I feel special to know her. 

Almost invisible, yet a few days each year she lifts her head up in all her beauty for me to see and blooms.  Growing slowly over decades to maturity.  Because of her rarity, she is coveted by collectors and transported by smugglers over thousands of miles.  Leaving the desert wanting for more.

She needs a hero.

Note:  The Chihuahuan is the largest desert in North America, extending from the southwestern United States into Central Mexico.  Threatened today by an ever-increasing human population, water misuse/management, overgrazing and a general lack of knowledge.

Considered at least partly a “rain shadow” desert, the Chihuahuan is impacted by the effects of mountain ranges on either side, blocking moisture from coastal storms.  Plants can take years to reach maturity here and replenishment is slow.  The living rock cactus takes eight to ten years to reach maturity and reproduce – and that’s if it makes it.  Many plants in the desert also serve the food chain, something scare already.

To learn more: https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/parks/big-bend-is-ground-zero-for-a-thriving-black-market-for-native-plants/

To get involved:

https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/chihuahuan-desert

https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/chihuahuan-desert/

Desert Treasure

Caballo Lake State Park, Caballo Mountains, New Mexico

The land here in southern New Mexico is harsh and gentle at the same time. You see this most clearly if you follow the Rio Grande north from Texas.

A ribbon of green snaking along the valley, flanked by desert mountains. Mountains which look soft from a distance – but in this we are fooled.

The Wild and Scenic Rio Grande

Caballo Lake State Park sits on a reservoir built in the 30’s, back when we decided to make this river our own. It is a popular park with a limited number of horse trails and nice covered pipe corrals. Most come here for the lake, but from across the river these mountains called me – Caballo (pronounced “ka-vhah-yoh”) – “horse” mountains.

Caballo Lake State Park

I scouted the route beforehand by truck, casing the joint you might say. Open range may be a thing of the past but here ranches and public land merge, and the views go on.

An old corral, loading chute and a long, lost horseshoe yield to weather and rock. I stop to say hello to the rancher.

Now, horse next to me… I stand outside the truck weaving my belt through its loops and holster. Looking across the mountains, sun warming my face. Breathing.

I travel down an old ranch road (a VERY old ranch road), thru valleys and across dry creek beds. It’s rained here recently and looking down I see fresh cat tracks on the trail. I am glad to have trusted my gut – I did not bring the dog along this time.

Riding without the distraction of others allows my mind to wander. Thoughts surface which otherwise might not. Sometimes self-doubt creeps in. I apologize to myself.

Caballo Mountain Trail, Bureau of Land Management

And in this, I learn from nature – who has no self-doubt. Nobody taught her to question. She isn’t focused on meeting expectations, on success or failure. She is only concerned with the journey… this is why I love her. This is what makes me want to be with her.

Many explore Caballo Mountains, searching for hidden Spanish treasure. But I think they are missing the point of this desert in New Mexico. For there is much more than just buried gold to chase here. These mountains give unto us, they make us better with their dignity and that is the real find.

As the Little Prince says, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly…” And so my heart sees, my journey becomes more clear. I reflect, I grow and come out better – more authentic. Every. Single. Time.

To find this and other NM State Parks allowing horseback riding: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/horsebackriding.html

The Return: Great news for the Bolson Tortoise

The Turner Endangered Species Fund with the help from partners including the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens recently made conservation history by releasing captive-born Bolson Tortoises in the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands of New Mexico.

Thirty years ago, I was very fortunate to join a team of scientists and National Park managers on a trip to the land of the bolson tortoise.   Up until earlier this year there was only one wild population of this  species at the Bolson Mapimi Biosphere Reserve in northern Mexico.  According to the IUCN Red List assessment bolson tortoises are critically endangered and only about 2,500 individuals remain in the wild at the intersection of the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila.  Ever since the species was first discovered in 1959 the fate of the largest tortoise in North America has hung in the balance.  

Fossil evidence documents a distribution throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, from Arizona to western Texas, as recently as the late Pleistocene. The likely cause of the current restricted range was predation by humans after the last Ice Age.

Adult bolson tortoise at the El Paso Zoo

When we met at the Bolson Mapimi everyone agreed that saving this relict species would involve restoring the species to its former habitat in the Chihuahuan Desert.  Such an effort would also have the added benefit of helping to restore desert habitat via a native, burrowing herbivore.   The El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens has been supporting this effort for over 20 years and most recently our medical staff worked with the Turner Endangered Species Fund and the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in assisting research scientists in determining the gender of baby tortoises, as part of a larger effort to breed bolson tortoises for eventual release into portions of their former range.

This project is very noteworthy for our Zoo.  The successful restoration of the bolson tortoise represents the first extinct Pleistocene species to be rewilded in the United States. Pleistocene rewilding is the advocacy of the reintroduction of extant Pleistocene megafauna, or the close ecological equivalents of extinct megafauna. Other species that have been proposed to be rewilded include tapirs, jaguars, camels and cheetahs.

Rick LoBello, Chair, Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition

A Different Kind of Beauty

Terlingua, Texas Backroads.  The Big Bend of Texas.  Chihuahuan Desert.

Standing tall in defiance through shades of red and black, rocks surround.  Watching my every move.  Silhouettes of Ocotillo stretch across the sky, thorns hidden in their softness. Riding Terlingua backroads, a yucca stands sentinel along the way.  Wind dips down from the mesa and I tip my hat to save it. 

As birds surf above, a fly buzzes in my ear. The sounds of my horse relax me.  The steady clip clop of his feet, the saddle creaking.  Shifting clouds bring a reprieve from the heat. 

These roads are traveled but unknown.  I am reminded how much there is still to learn, even as of yesterday.

Ambitious and complex, this desert does not mold itself to fit in.  Sometimes dry and brittle, sometimes full and lush.  Sensitive, yet hardened.  A mismatch of misfits, one shape colliding into the next.  Yet undeniably attractive.

Full of resilience and persistence, the plants, animals, and people here survive.  The desert breeds appreciation coupled with authenticity.

I am beautiful here.

We are beautiful here.

Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta UPDATE

Saturday at the Zoo,
Sunday at the Park

Every year the Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta celebrates the natural wonders of the mountainous desert in our big backyard while encouraging people to explore and discover parks and other protected areas. The seventeenth annual Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta is coming up and for the first time will be held as a two-day event. Day one of the educational and discovery celebration will be held at the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens on Saturday, September 25th from 10:30am to 3:00pm. As you walk through the new Chihuahuan Desert exhibit the Zoo’s education partners will have discovery tables featuring local organizations and conservation programs. On day two on Sunday, September 26th there will be scheduled nature hikes presented by park staff, volunteers and local experts between 9:00am and 3pm at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park.

The original event sponsored by the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC) in partnership with Franklin Mountains State Park and the City Parks Department began in 2005 and has been growing in popularity throughout the years. In 2020 it was hosted virtually because of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Everyone is looking forward to having the event live again and with an extra day of activities.

Participants can expect animal encounter presentations, educational booths and entertainment at the zoo followed the next day by guided hikes at the Tom Mays unit of the Franklin Mountain State Park. Activities at the zoo will be included as part of the regular entrance fee. Fee information can be found at: http://www.elpasozoo.org.  In order to participate in the guided hikes at the State Park an entrance permit of $5.00 per adult 13 years of age and older is required. You can purchase the permit the day of at the Tom Mays Visitor Center (2900 Tom Mays Park Access Rd) or reserve your permit in advance at texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com. Some of the planned activities are listed below.

Saturday, September 25 – Presentations at the Zoo Wildlife Amphitheater

Leptonycteris yerbabuenae by J Scott Altenbach

10:30 – 10:45 am – Welcome
11:00 – 11:30 am – El Paso Parks and Recreation- Desert Zumba
12:00 – 12:30 pm – Bat Conservation International Presentation
1:30 – 2:00 pm – Wild Encounters by the El Paso Zoo
2:30 – 3:00 pm – Frontera Land Alliance Presentation

Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit Discovery booths at the Zoo

Bat Conservation International
Bureau of Land Management-Las Cruces District Office
Chamizal National Memorial
Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition
Mexican wolf education by Nancy Bain
Dirt y Girls Compost
Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition
Friends of the Rio Bosque Wetlands
Frontera Land Alliance
Texas Lobo Coalition
Texas Parks and Wildlife
United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement
UTEP Center for Environmental Resource Management
And more….

Sunday, September 26, Chihuahuan Desert Discovery Hikes at Tom Mays Park

Franklin Mountains State Park Superintendent, Dr. Cesar Mendez, leading a nature hike.

In order to participate in events at Franklin Mountains State Park, an entrance permit of $5.00 per adult 13 years of age and older is required. You can purchase this the day of at the Tom Mays Visitor Center (2900 Tom Mays Park Access Rd) or reserve your permit in advance at texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com

9:00 AM – Nature Walk Trail (Easy, 45 min) – Birds
9:00 AM – West Cottonwood Spring (scenic) Trail (Moderate, 2.5 hrs) – Geology
10:00 AM – Upper Sunset Trail (Easy-Moderate, 2 hrs) Hiking Tips/Safety, Trail Etiquette
11:00 AM – Aztec Caves Trail (Easy to Moderate, 1.5 hrs) Recreation, hiking safety, trail etiquette
12:00 PM – Agave Loop Trail (Easy to Moderate, 1.5 hrs) Water and Aquatic Organisms in the Franklins
1:00 PM – Nature Walk Trail (Easy, 45 min) – Bats
1:15 PM – Nature Walk Trail (Easy, 45 min) – Birds
2:00 PM – Prospect Mine Trail (Limited Capacity) (Easy to Moderate, 1 hr) (Limited Capacity) History of the Mine

Discovery Hike Topics may include: Birds, Geology, Outdoor Recreation Opportunities and Safety, Trail Etiquette, Bats, Natural History and more.

For more information – chihuahuandesert.org or 915-212-2823

Photos
Top – Franklin Mountains State Park






Biosphere Region and Reinhabitation

In the 1970s, a counterculture group called Planet Drum Foundation was formed in California to discuss ideas about people in connection to the planet.

They pursued research and produced educative information on the relationships between human culture and the natural processes of the planetary biosphere. Today when confronting environmental crisis and conservation, we use terms like climate pollution and biodiversity lossreconciliation, and social and community innovations that follow the general thread of their work. In the 1970s, these ecologists conceptualized the term bioregion.

The Biosphere Reserve term and concept came from UNESCO in the late 1960s and similarly expressed notions of humans in relation to their environment. These concepts were attached to UNESCO’s preservation and protection efforts and formalized (also in the mid-1970s) through the establishment of the Man and Biosphere (MAB) program.

Suppose you’re only sort of familiar with the term Biosphere Reserve. In that case, you might wonder if it implies a fortress model of conservation: walled off, enclosed, gated, or perhaps even an enclosed domed structure.

Maybe because of those perceptions, combined with evolving conservation approaches, we now refer to these learning spaces as Biosphere Regions. This term reflects the core zone of protection, transitional zones, and gateway communities. We can trace the institutional programming history of the UNESCO program through documents, research, and archives. For those familiar with Big Bend, it’s interesting to reflect on the changing terminology in parallel with the historical outlaw culture and counterculture that incubated here in the high desert, alongside scientists and park employees.

Recently, exploring hard-to-reach abandoned mines in the area, my group noticed artifacts and discarded material from the mining operations. And from the 1970s: newspapers, semi-completed small-scale building projects, and personal items. In the 1970s, many people came to the desert to get away from something or get back to the land, where they might have encountered abandoned mines. These encounters are an opportunity to examine another term, reinhabitation. A word also put forth by members of the same group that familiarized the word bioregion. In 1987 they explained,

Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming … aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it.

Simply stated it involves becoming fully alive in and with a place. It involves applying membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be it’s exploiter.

So what exactly do these terms mean in a practical sense if they have to be so generalized in order to invite consensus? Who owns the definition of these words? One loose way of thinking about this question is, you do. Because you are the biosphere. The definition is activated by your relationships with collaborators, connection to nature, and reconciliation practices.

bioregion has no administrative authority – it’s a framework for understanding natural systems. And biosphere regions are administered collaboratively. In the Big Bend region, that collaboration corresponds with people on both sides of the border and those operating with the agency of their national park, protected area, or indigenous community. UNESCO gives recognition; it does not govern. Our actions are our own and matter.–

References and Links
This post credits and responds to the ideas of contrast, histories, and definitions written about by Don Alexander, Vancouver Island University, in International Journal of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. I generously credit Alexander’s article, referenced below.

Biospherejournal. (2017, January 6). Bioregions vs. Biosphere Reserves – Alexander. International Journal of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from http://biospherejournal.org/vol1-1/bioregions-vs-biosphere-reserves-dr-alexander/.

CDEC – Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition. Connecting people to nature and advancing the vision of transboundary conservation in Big Bend.

Word for the Day: Sky Island

Sometimes I lock the gate. Sometimes I leave it locked. Protecting the space in which I see and hear myself most clearly. Validation coming only from within.  My thoughts an island. 

Madera Canyon Overlook

Not the only “island” in west Texas, however, there are others.  Three others in fact: the Guadalupe, Chisos, and Davis Mountains.  Each an isolated range with peaks between 7,500 and 9,000 feet.  Each an anomaly, creating a cooler, wetter, landscape surrounded by arid lowland Chihuahuan desert.   A remembrance of what things might have looked like in this region over 10,000 years ago.

With just over 33,000 acres, plus another 102,000 in protected easements, the Davis Mountain Preserve is home to many watersheds feeding the surrounding creeks.  It provides shelter for plants and animals that could not survive in the desert below.  A place of dark skies for bear and elk to traverse without human interference.  To live uninterrupted.  Safeguarded by those who care.

Conceived the early 1900’s and realized in the 50’s, The Nature Conservancy is active today in over 70 countries and territories.  In Texas alone, TNC has protected over 1 million acres of land and more than 200 miles of rivers and streams.  This includes the restoration of native grasslands, preservation of habitats and water supplies, even the addition of 67,000 acres into Big Bend National Park – not an easy task.

At the Davis Mountains Preserve, horseback riding the 1.5 miles of Madera Overlook trail is a bit like being in a Disney film.  Birds chirping, wind blowing, rustling leaves, sunlight dappling the ground.  We work our way through the trees and suddenly the forest opens to the most wonderful surprise. We come upon a view. 

Sitting on a perfect rock bench, the sounds of a creek bubbling, a single truck works its way down the old dirt road below. Mount Livermore in the distance.  Butterflies dance around us, I breathe it all in.

This is the good stuff.

From the overlook we make our way down, past the visitor center to the Tor Peak Equestrian trail, another 3.2 miles roundtrip.  Grasses sway in the breeze, an orchestra working in tandem.  Views of rolling hills, mountains playing peek-a-boo through the gaps.  My horse, Dex, climbs… jerking me forward with every step.

Midway, I break for lunch among pinecones and needles.  Moss covered rocks scattered about like speckled eggs of every shape and size.  Trees of alligator bark.  We are not the only wildlife here.  Two bucks watched from afar, I enjoy the unveiling of it all.

They don’t allow many people in this preserve.  Reservations are limited and required.  Gates typically locked. The animals feel safe here. 

I feel safe here.

Driving home, I think about how important it is that we protect these special places.  Those untarnished in the world around us, those needing polish, and those in us.  So easy to do for others, yet so difficult to do for ourselves.  Difficult even to accept sometimes. 

And I am reminded not to turn from this world.  To hold on with arms wide open and lean in.  Investing in myself, my peace of mind, and my surroundings.  My world.

Open by reservation only, the Davis Mountains Preserve boasts close to 30 miles of horse trails with peaks up to 8,300 feet and incredible views.  To support or get involved with The Nature Conservancy or Davis Mountains Preserve:  https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/davis-mountains-preserve/

To get involved with The Nature Conservancy of Texas: https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/texas/

Footprints in the Sand: Horseback Riding White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Blinding white in all directions.  Footprints erased by wind.  Every route the same.

Driving south from Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico the land greets us with open arms.  Ranges and ranches go on for miles.  I can breathe.  I can see. 

The chaos of Alamogordo gives way to White Sands National Park, sitting pristine at the northern end of the Chihuahuan desert in the Tularosa Basin.  Shining clean and bright, like the full moon against dark skies.

Once a lake, the Tularosa Basin is now home to 275 square miles (176,000 acres) of beautiful, white gypsum dunes in the form of a national park.  Gypsum draining from the surrounding mountains, nowhere else to go but into the basin.  Turning this ancient lake into fields of white over thousands of years. 

But gypsum is really a clear substance, only appearing white as the grains collide and reflect the sun.  The air and sun bake, and unlike sand on a beach – the ground here remains cool.  Conflict and abrasion come out clean and beautifully blinding.

There are no horse trails at White Sands, so keeping direction in mind and park road to the right, I ride this sweeping face.  Each dune looking like the last. Weaving my way out and back again.  Cell phone overheating in my pocket.  Polarized sunglasses glued to my face, threatening blindness with each slip and readjustment.

A seemingly endless stream of waves.  However, blank slate this is not. 

Once a lake the size of Rhode Island, the Tularosa Basin looked very different 12,000 years ago.  Lush, green landscapes flushed with life, including mammoths, giant sloths, ancient camels, dire wolves, and saber-toothed cats.  White Sands contains the largest collection of ice age fossilized footprints in the world, including the longest fossilized human trackway.

Spectral signs of the past.  Almost a mile of an out and return journey.  Disappearing then reappearing, as the landscape alters.  Hidden under layers of sand.  Unrevealed to the casual observer. 

Crossing this bleached ocean, I am reminded of my vulnerability… of what matters.  Drama has no place here.  The air can be dangerous, the sun merciless.  Death quick when water runs low and heat is high. 

But a different type of beauty lives among these dunes, a private affair between white sheets of gypsum and ancient lives.  A secret between the two. Unknown, but always present, just beneath the surface.

For information on day rides at White Sands National Park:  https://www.nps.gov/whsa/planyourvisit/horses-and-other-pack-animals.htm

https://www.nps.gov/whsa/learn/news/nr100920.htm

To follow Shannon’s horseback stories and more, visit http://www.confessionsofasaddletramp.com or find her on facebook @ConfessionsofaSaddleTramp

Defensa De La Sierra volunteer update

Defensa De La Sierra de Cuidad Juarez is a group in Juarez that wants to make a difference to stop the uncontrolled destruction of wildlife habitat in Mexico.   Earlier this year we told you about group leader Ray Aguilar who has provided this update.

by Ray Aguilar

Ciudad Juárez is a place that needs a lot of environmental attention and the current situation is very alarming.  Our group called the Defensa de la Sierra de Juárez (DSJZ) is committed to rescuing the Sierra de Juárez mountain range west of Ciudad Juárez where there are serious problems of contamination, irregular settlements, over exploitation of resources, illegal extraction of flora and fauna and displacement of wildlife.

DSJZ seeks to recover habitat for wildlife by helping to restore the habitat into a pleasant place.  We are currently working on a recovery project at the Mirador Hidalgo, located in the Periférico Camino Real in the Sierra de Juárez.  We believe that this area is a high priority place for people to get closer to the Sierra de Juárez and learn more about it.  Encouraging people to connect to nature can also help lower crime rates.  The areas we are working in can become places for recreation and leisure in support of sustainable tourism for Juárez and El Paso.

Recently two projects have been started in conjunction with organizations from the city such as Juárez Limpio AC, Colectivo Ciclista Fixiebeat, Aprendamos Ciencia, Rotaract Integra Juárez, Senderistas de Ciudad Juárez and the Ecology Directorate of the municipality of Juárez.  We have planted more than 30 native trees such as mesquite and Palo Verde.  We have also collected a large amount of litter.

We plan to continue these efforts in order to meet our goals and make people aware of how important the Sierra de Juárez is for the community of Juárez and El Paso.

A new website is in development and anyone who wants to help can contact the group by email at Sierradeciudadjuarez@gmail.com or text at 011 52 656 214 4109.

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