Big Bend National Park Superintendent to speak at CDEC Annual Meeting on January 12

The Chisos Mountains from Tornillo Flat in Big Bend National Park, Texas NPS Photo by Erik Walker

The virtual Annual Meeting of the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC) will take place at 6:30pm MT on Wednesday, January 12, 2022. The meeting will include installation of new Board Members and all members of the CDEC group on Facebook and other interested individuals are invited to attend on Zoom. To register for the meeting and receive a Zoom invitation and link fill out the form below.

The guest speaker this year will be Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Big Bend National Park and Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in west Texas since September 2018. Mr. Krumenaker will speak on the Superintendent’s Perspective on Big Bend National Park: Wilderness, Infrastructure, the Border, and Other Issues. (MORE ON MEETING BELOW)

Registration. Deadline to register is January 11, 2022

Rick LoBello, CDEC co-founder and Chair, Board of Directors and Education Curator at the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

The annual meeting will include an annual report on the activities of the organization presented by Rick LoBello and a welcome and induction of new board members.

Guest Speaker will be Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Big Bend National Park and Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River.

Prior to Big Bend, Bob Krumenaker served for 16 years as the superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior coast.  He has been with the NPS for more than 39 years. Other assignments have included Deputy Superintendent at Valley Forge National Historical Park (PA), Chief of Natural Resources in NPS regional offices in Santa Fe (NM) and Philadelphia (PA), and Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources at Shenandoah (VA) and Natural Resource Specialist at Isle Royale (MI) National Parks. Bob has also served in an extended assignment as the Acting Superintendent at Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks in Florida. He is a graduate of the Department of the Interior Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program.

Bob has a BS from Brown and a masters from Yale, both in environmental science, a somewhat unconventional academic background for a park superintendent. During his college and grad school days in the east, Bob worked multiple temporary assignments in national parks in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.  Bob first canoed the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in 1982, and then secured his first NPS career assignment at Big Thicket National Preserve, in east Texas.  In some ways, returning to Big Bend was like coming full circle in his NPS career.

As a biologist-turned-superintendent, Bob has been responsible for coordination and development of natural resource programs and policy within the NPS at park, regional, and national levels at various times in his career.  As a collateral assignment, Bob was the staff coordinator of the NPS Natural Resource Initiative in 1998-99 which resulted in significant and long-lasting increases to natural resources programs and staffing in the agency which remain in place today.

Bob also served as the president of the George Wright Society, an organization (www.georgewrightsociety.org) dedicated to the protection, preservation, and management of natural and cultural resources of national parks and protected areas around the world.  Well before he was an officer, Bob received that organization’s 1995 Natural Resource Management Award “in recognition of his demonstrated leadership in natural resource management” within the National Park Service. 

Bob was recognized in 2008 as the NPS Midwest Region Superintendent of the Year for Natural Resources, and in 2011 received the Lake Superior Binational Forum Environmental Stewardship Award, both for his climate change work.  He was named a charter member of the NPS Climate Change Response Steering Committee in 2009.



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

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

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.

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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Bringing the prairie dog back to El Paso

Hello, I am Jacob Croft, a scientist trained in biology working with the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition. Over the past year I have been working on a project to bring back the black-tailed prairie dog to the El Paso region. Over the past 4 months I have been in contact with many different local, state, and federal organizations trying to find ways to bring back prairie dogs. This has always led to the conversation of why, why the prairie dog, why El Paso and why should we do it now. This is a question that has multiple answers, and therefore it should be important to all of us living in the region. Let us begin with the reason why they are gone and the reason why we should bring them back. First off, we, the human species are the reason why they are gone. In the early 1800s and early 1900s there were three major colonies living in our area. Unfortunately a nation-wide propaganda campaign about needing to poison the prairie dogs or hunt them to give cattle more range to room resulted in mass poisonings throughout the US. During this campaign prairie dogs were extirpated from our region and across 98% of the country.

Jacob Croft holding a dove while volunteering with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

This leads to the next question. If we removed them there could not have been too much of an impact. Not so, we are clearly seeing today that the prairie dog throughout the US is a keystone species. A keystone species is one where other organisms depend on it for key resources in their ecosystem. In fact, prairie dogs have over 100 other species in the ecosystem that depend on them. Prairie dogs affect plant behaviors and modifications of terrain and old burrows provides homes for other species. They also are an important food source for many apex predators like raptors and endangered black-footed ferrets.

Another reason to bring the prairie dog back is how they impact soil and ground water enrichment. Our desert soils are not forgiving to many plants and are often dry. So how does a prairie dog burrowing into the ground help nutrients? It’s pretty simple, they bring food into their homes to store, they defecate in these burrows and when they eventually die in the burrows, the nutrient enrichment cycle continues. The introduction of all these materials helps to provide nutrients for plants helping to increase the richness of plant communities for generations to come.

Prairie dogs also provide deep burrows which helps ground water penetrate deeper into the ground rather than having rainwater get lost through evaporation in the topsoil.

Now I know that that was a lot to take in, so let us look at what we have done thus far to bring back prairie dogs!

The first thing was to get the project idea on the radar screen of El Paso. I had moved here in December of 2020 and knew I wanted to work in the field of conservation. This quest eventually led me to the zoo and to meet my mentor and fellow Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition member Rick LoBello. Through his guidance and advice I found the passion to take on this big project and that led me to learning about prairie dogs and become an expert on them. While my education in college had given me a good understanding of how ecosystems work, I had to learn specifically what the prairie dogs like, what vegetation needs they have, what soil requirements they have as well as how they interact with each other. This led to reading many papers about prairie dogs and getting in contact with other organizations like the Prairie Dog Coalition and the Humane Society, both of which are based out of Boulder, Colorado. We have a Humane Society in El Paso, but this one in Colorado, has a special individual, Dr. Lindsey Krank, who has been working with prairie dogs for years and has run successful translocation programs.  Through her mentorship I was able to get a good idea of how to complete a translocation, what budget would roughly be needed and how to get in contact with people who have completed successful programs in desert environments. This was all positive information I have gained and helped me get the ball rolling. I have also been meeting with other people in the El Paso region who have provided great insight and led me to begin seeking a prairie dog reintroduction site. After combing through many papers about prairie dog towns in Texas and historical towns in El Paso, I have found that there has been records of them on the north side and west side of the Franklin Mountains. These locations where historic prairie dog towns had been are now altered by man made structures making the areas less probable for returning prairie dogs. Visiting these locations did on the other hand give me ideas on where to look for similar habitats.

The most successful conversations I have had come from meetings with the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico and new talks with Ft. Bliss representatives about the use of Castner Range. One thing is for certain, this is a process that will not happen overnight, but is one that could only bring benefits to the community of El Paso and all the native species that call this place home.

Prairie dog at the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens.

For more information Contact Us

Photos
Top: Brian Garrett, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Others: Courtesy Jacob Croft

Discover the joy of volunteering

A growing number of people are volunteering with the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC). Most are serving on the board of directors, but there are also opportunities to volunteer for specific tasks. Here are a variety of ways you can get involved in support of our mission in educating people about the fascinating Chihuahuan Desert. For more information Contact Us.

–Plan and launch a CDEC Conservation Fund fundraiser 

–Lead a guest blog program at chihuahuandesert.org


–Plan and coordinate an interactive program at the El Paso Zoo and Botanical Gardens for our nature club 

–Plan and coordinate a social media campaign for one month or more 

–Plan and coordinate a photo contest 


–Collaborate with the Zoo by helping to promote the wild about art program

–Help to plan a nature bookshop run by volunteers at the Zoo 

–Coordinate the next Chihuahuan Desert Conference 

–Coordinate a Chihuahuan Desert Conference Network 

For more information Contact Us.

Nature conservation effort underway in Juarez

Ray Aguilar exploring the Samalayuca Dune Fields area south of Juarez.

by Rick LoBello

Earlier this year after reading a number of Facebook posts on the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition group page, I met Ray Aguilar and  his friend Nestor Acosta from Juarez on Zoom.   Ray and his friends are working to protect the Sierra de Juarez mountain range and other desert mountain areas in northern Chihuahua, Mexico.  

Very few people are aware of the biodiversity of the Sierra de Juarez overlooking the city which according to Ray is very vulnerable to urbanization.  The mountain range is located within the same Rio Grande Valley as the Franklin Mountains in El Paso and the Organ Mountains in Las Cruces.  Unfortunately, expanding developments in the city combined with the impact of the border wall are a major impediment to wildlife corridors that historically connected the mountain ranges.

Spadefoot toad.

For the most part the Sierra de Juarez has been abandoned by the Mexican government and today people drop their trash around the area, illegally remove plants and animals that are often sold, drive off road vehicles all over while companies destroy natural resources as they develop the area and use the mountains as one giant dumping ground. 

Sierra de Juarez

Ray and his group called Defensa De La Sierra de Cuidad Juarez hope to change all that.   He often posts pictures of the area’s biodiversity and helps to call attention to other conservation issues threatening the desert mountain region in the Samalayuca Dune Fields area and the Sierra Presidio.

Defensa De La Sierra de Cuidad Juarez wants to distribute as much information as possible on why this region is important to the area while encouraging the government to take all necessary steps to stop the uncontrolled destruction of wildlife habitat.  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.

Ray Aguilar
Spadefoot Toad – Jasper Nance, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Cover and bottom – Simon Foot, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Sierra de Juarez overlooking the US Mexico border and the city of Juarez in the background and El Paso.

Desert Bighorn Sheep Update

These rare specters are still surviving, perhaps even thriving, since their release in 2018 into the lowlands of the Sacramento Mountains near Alamogordo, New Mexico (90 miles north of El Paso). Forty desert bighorn sheep were released by the New Mexico Game and Fish to reintroduce this native species back into its original habitat. Since then, there have been several additional adults and juveniles seen in the Alamogordo herd, many without collars or markings, indicating recruitment or a growing population in the area. I recently spotted a population of about 12 individuals on US Highway 82 between mile markers 3 and 5 headed to Cloudcroft, NM. Competition and disease from other sheep species as well as over-hunting contributed to the accelerated loss of this unique indigenous species in the area.

The males have large curved horns that can be over three feet long, weigh over 30 pounds with a base circumference of a foot. These horns are used for defense both against predators and for mating-privileges with females. The females’ horns do not curve and are also used in defense and foraging. Their stocky bodies are covered with a tan to a light coffee-colored fur, accentuated with a distinct white rump. When observing the Alamogordo population, I noticed their coloration blended them into the landscape with remarkable precision, but that white hind patch made them easier to locate. My thanks goes out to one of our local game warden that alerted me to their rare presence at this location.

Their unique hooves’ construction provides the elasticity and buoyancy to scale the side of cliffs that seem to have no footholds at all, at least from a human perspective. They seem to defy gravity in their graceful ascents up sheer cliff faces without even a second thought of the possibility of falling. I can see how this adaptation has given them the advantage to avoid their natural predators such as mountain lions and coyotes. Having spent many years in the harsh heat of the desert during the summers conducting my own research on turtles, I can’t help but think that this ability to scale mountains may also help with their access to water, shade, cooler elevations and deft navigation of the harsh terrain. Other adaptations to their desert environment include being able to get some of their water from plants and enduring short stints of dehydration.

The U.S. populations had been declining and even were extirpated or locally extinct in areas from Texas to Utah until the 1960’s when conservation measures such as captive breeding programs and translocations helped bring the populations back into existence. In Texas reintroduction efforts were also made in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area. The numbers have been restored enough that limited hunting licenses are now offered. The money raised from these tags go back into conservation efforts specifically for the desert bighorn sheep.

Most individuals are released with GPS tracking collars, so wildlife biologists are able to determine their movements, herd behaviors and survival rates. Scientists also study population trends using visual counts using binoculars or aerial surveys by helicopter. Other types of data are collected from tracks, scat or droppings, and identifying areas where animals bed-down. Genetic information is collected from either capturing the animals and collecting blood samples or can be extracted from the scat, hair or carcasses. This article is dedicated to three Texas Parks and Wildlife Department employees who lost their life in a 2020 helicopter accident while contributing to these conservation efforts. I personally thank you, Dr. Bob, for sharing your expertise when the wildlife needed your help. You have left a lasting legacy.

Article by Dr. Jen Smith
Jsmith77@nmsu.edu

Photos by Morgan Williams Smith
morgan.dee.williams@gmail.com