Public Gem in the Private Backcountry
“Had the scenery not been so spectacular, I’d have kept my eyes glued to the ground, for there were tracks everywhere in the shallow snow and thawing ground…”
As we walked in fresh snow toward Sonora’s highest point, Sierra del Flores (over 8,000’), the park rangers noted that the big tracks to our left, melting out but still discernible, were “weyas des ojos” – bear tracks, in snow, in mid-winter, in Las Islas de Azul, the Sky Islands. I was impressed. Being from a home region where bears seldom step out of their dens between December and March, I was quite excited by the bowl-sized prints, so we back-tracked the bear up to around 7,000 feet elevation, in oak-pine forest. Nearly as enticing were the turkey, rabbit, fox, deer, ringtail, coati, bobcat, and puma tracks we saw that day, assuring us that though the Madrean Archipelago woods seem quiet in winter, the animals are still there and active ( though bears do go into semi-hibernation for much for the winer in their mountainous habitats in Mexico — mom cubs pictured sleeping left.)
Northern Sonora’s biggest block of protected public land, the Ajos Bavispe Reserve, is also one of its wildest places. Here biologists and park rangers have seen or photographed all of the above species plus two male jaguars in recent years and ocelots. The black bear in Mexico is considered a priority species, imperiled in much of its native range, but in the Ajos Mountains it appears to be thriving, as do almost all native species except the Mexican wolf, Lobo.
Mario Cirett of the government land protection agency, CONANP, and his team of rangers keep watchful eyes on this complex reserve. Ajos Bavispe Reserve is complex not just for its amazing biological richness – encompassing Chihuahuan grasslands, Sonoran Desert, Madrean oak-pine forest, hardwood riparian forest, and up high mixed conifer/hardwood forest (including one of the southern-most outposts for douglas firs). It is complex also for being a mix of public lands in several different units and surrounding private lands, on which CONANP works with landowners to favor wildlife-friendly practices. Its protection is complex in that it faces challenges from cows, drugs, and the wall.
Rangers Rosy, Fernando, and Manuel took me on a jarring but incredibly scenic tour of the Ajos unit of the reserve, partly by pick-up truck on the roughest road I’ve ever seen driven, partly by hiking. The truck seemed more hindrance than help to me (we could have walked faster!), but the rangers periodically patrol by vehicle, and biologists use the few rough roads for access to their research sites. Ridinghotgun in the truck, my job was to jump out every time we came to a tree across or boulder in the road, and move it out of the way.
We all felt relieved to reach our starting point for a delightful meander through oak-pine, aspen, and fir forests near the summits of Sierra del Flores and Pallone. Had the scenery not been so spectacular, I’d have kept my eyes glued to the ground, for there were tracks everywhere in the shallow snow and thawing ground.
Back at camp, the rangers shared stories of their adventures in guarding this biological gem. In drug-running country, you don’t name names, I’m realizing, lest you put good people in danger. Suffice to say here, the rangers have learned the hard way: they must focus on protecting the wildlife, and leave the war on drugs, whatever its merits or demerits (I demerits) to others. In the larger landscape, overgrazing by cattle is perhaps the biggest threat to biological diversity; but in close second and gaining rapidly is the dreaded wall – the border fence cutting wildlife in Mexico off from wildlife in the United States. When I asked these brave and fiercely dedicated park rangers what people of the US might do to help conserve wildlife of the Madrean Archipelago, they said: protect your side of our shared region, and get rid of that crazy wall.
For the Wild,
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