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

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:

To get involved with The Nature Conservancy of 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:

To follow Shannon’s horseback stories and more, visit 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 or text at 011 52 656 214 4109.

Post navigation

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

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

–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 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

Photos by Morgan Williams Smith

Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta Update. Education partners welcome.

Whiptail lizard at Franklin Mountains State Park by Rick LoBello

17th Annual Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta September 25-26, 2021

Updated June 11, 2021

Once again it’s going to be a very different Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta this year. Day One will be at the El Paso Zoo on Saturday, September 25, 2021 and Day Two will be at Franklin Mountains State Park, Tom Mays Unit on the west side of El Paso off of Loop 375.

For more information on the Fiesta in 2021 contact Committee Chair Dora Hernandez at To participate as education partner – Participation Application link: 

If you missed the 2020 Virtual Fiesta you can watch some of the presentations here.

To see highlights from past fiestas here are some videos you can watch.

Harris Hawk Presentation
Trans Pecos Ratsnake Presentation
Fiesta Highlights from 2015
Fiesta Highlights from 2011

El Paso’s water woes

Put a bucket in your shower and capture some otherwise lost water for your garden!

by Marshall Carter

The El Paso Water Utility is urging us to “water less, reports the El Paso Inc in a cover story this weekend (April 18-24).  That is apparently the first acknowledgment in the English media of the coming water woes and the proposed remedy in El Paso.  Irrigation water will not be available until May 28, and even that will not be a full delivery.

El Diario by contrast has reported that the irrigation situation and the totally dry Rio Grande, nearly to Albuquerque, has resulted in stringent watering restrictions in Las Cruces (just 40 miles up the riverbed) and Albuquerque.  And in Chihuahua state, public meetings are being convened to discuss the drought and what to do.  Farmers are desperate.  The US owes Mexico water under the nearly century-old treaty, but it’s hard to deliver what you don’t have.

Rio Grande near Canutillo.

Sadly, if not surprisingly, there is essentially no discussion of options other than reduced watering in El Chuco.  But let’s reflect on what we may need to consider if the drought is not just a “short-term” problem.

First, the irrigation water is used for some 2000 farms in El Paso County, with some 20,000 acres of pecan groves (most of which are quite young).  Some of the farming is for local-origin crops, such as chiles; but much is dedicated to crops such as cotton and alfalfa.  Both use high levels of water, and cotton is heavily subsidized by taxpayers (giving it an unfair advantage over cotton produced in places that cannot afford such subsidies).  Pecans are of course delicious, and are highly sought after on the international market – but again, the manner of their cultivation here uses substantial amounts of water – and worse, all this water is still delivered in open irrigation ditches (many other societies In arid climates have learned to cover these canals, and even to cover them with solar panels).    As the grip of the drought gets tighter, somewhere down the road there surely must be some conversation…and some creative policy-making…to reduce the water impact of our farms and groves.

Pecan orchard

Second, another factor in water use here is the number of people who need water for their homes and businesses.  This is a mountain desert and will never be able to supply generous quantities of water to ever-expanding development.  The power of the developers has led to a cityscape well over twenty miles wide and there appears to be no interest in any discussion as to when or where the sprawl should stop.  How many people can live in this desert?  (The sprawl has other consequence; for example, as it grows, the ability of the public transportation system to provide frequent and convenient service declines.)

Third, resort to the saline underground water via the desal plant is not a permanent solution.  Eventually all that water will be gone…and that aquifer is shared by Mexico! (The El Paso Times current water news reports that a company is planning to obtain minerals from the brine at the desal plant, and the remaining water will be treated and sold to the city’s water utility.  How much water or how long this process might last remains unknown.)

As we watch the skies for rainclouds, it’s important to consider that this may not be just a bad year! (One friend says the dumbest thing he bought last year was a rain gauge.)  City and County leaders should be joining with environmental groups to have honest discussions about where we are and where we may be going – and what we can do to mitigate the effects of this drought.

Meantime, put a bucket in your shower and capture some otherwise lost water for your garden!

Three Hills area of West El Paso

Water bucket by Michael, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Pecan trees by Angi English, Wikimedia Creative Commons