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Mogollon Meandering: Scouting Connections from Grand Canyon to Gila

This is the first part in a four-part series about John Davis’ trek around the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.

“Two of the hunters eventually approached me, as I read quietly by solar lamp (figuring, no one will fire at a light), and they were perfectly friendly, but the experience made me empathize with ducks and deer in rifle season…”

In TrekWest, we followed the Mogollon Plateau and Rim much of the way between the Gila wildlands complex in southwest New Mexico and the Grand Canyon wildlands complex in northern Arizona. So important is this wildlife corridor that after the trek, Wildlands Network and partners placed it on our list of Top 20 wildlife connections in the Western Wildway. The Mogollon link is used by wide-ranging animals like cougar, Mexican wolf (Lobo), black bear, elk, and pronghorn.

After the second annual PaseoWild ended in late September, 2015, and with my Canyon-gifted scrapes and bruises quickly vanishing, I had a few spare days before going to Denver to speak about the Western Wildway at a Rocky Mountain Wild event. So I decided to hike part of the Mogollon wildlife corridor south and east of Flagstaff. Given the short free period, I chose to hike the Arizona Trail south from Flag, figuring the walk would be a scenic and efficient, though not entirely wild, way to see more of the National Forest land that comprises much of the Mogollon Plateau.

As Grand Canyon Wildlands Council and Wildlands Network and kindred groups have shown in other publications, better protection of the highlands linking the Gila and Grand Canyon wildland cores is essential for wide-ranging animals; and in a climate-chaos century, may also be critical for plants and other less mobile species that need to shift ranges upward and northward with warming climate. The Mogollon Plateau is also a main way Mexican wolve—now restricted to a recovery area in the Gila, Blue, and White Mountains that was expanded, but north only up to Interstate 40—can regain old strongholds northward and once recovered and expanding eventually enrich their genes with those of occasional Rocky Mountain wolves to form healthier populations. These healthier and more widespread predator populations, in turn, would mean healthier plant communities, less susceptible to over-browsing by elk and mule deer; and the ungulates themselves would be kept stronger and fitter by the ample presence of top carnivores. Presently, the Mogollon Plateau, like much of the West, suffers from over-browsing and grazing impacts; and to worsen matters, this is done more by exotic cows than by elk, though elk numbers are plentiful enough to support native predators.

My conservation mentor Dave Foreman, of The Rewilding Institute and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, knows this part of the larger Western Wildway intimately (and much of the rest), and has proposed that we build support for new and expanded Wilderness Areas and other protected cores in part through piecing together a Lobo Mogollon Rim National Scenic Trail, running perhaps a thousand miles from the Gila National Forest through Kaibab National Forest and beyond, and tying in with other through-trails, particularly the Arizona Trail. Dave also suggests we explore the possibility of a mountain bike trail running the same distance but on lands less wild, which trail could largely be on Forest Service roads (of which there are far too many).

Dave Parsons, another Rewilding mentor and friend, was my guide in the Gila backcountry during TrekWest. As I told earlier in TrekWest blogs, Dave and I enjoyed a glorious hike through the Gila, replete with sights of old-growth ponderosa pine forest, two bobcats, fresh tracks of cougar and lobo, peregrine falcons, quail, many elk and turkeys, and wild waters of two forks of the Gila River—one of the Southwest’s great waterways, but threatened by a proposed dam downstream, as well as by ongoing degradation from livestock grazing in many areas. I enjoyed equally wonderful outings on the other end of the regional wildway, in and around Grand Canyon, and in between; but there is so much more to see!

So, on October 1, I set out from Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail with my typical overloaded pack, soon wondering under my aching shoulders why I’d bothered to carry a tent, rain gear and enough maps to get me to Mexico. The Arizona Trail really is a gift to the people of the sunny state, as long footpaths generally are to their neighbors. Literally walking out the front door of the home of my friend and TrekWest filmer Ed George, near Buffalo (urban) Park, I was in Coconino National Forest an hour later. Flagstaff is another city that disproves the common criticism that wildlands conservation benefits only the elite. (My five-day backpacking trip, right out of the city, cost about $50—and I eat a lot!)

The National Forest land I walked has suffered much from logging, inappropriate livestock grazing, and fire suppression, and consequent invasion by exotic species, but it is still scenic and provides permeable habitat for wide-ranging species. Tracks on the trail of cougar and several coyotes confirmed that carnivores do still hunt these forests and grasslands. Views from dry creek bottoms of Kaibab Limestone outcrops above and Coconino Sandstone cliffs, next layer down, punctuated the high flat mesa tops. Marshall and Anderson Mesas offered glimpses of once and future savannas stretching back toward the San Francisco Peaks north of Flag: broad flat grasslands (unfortunately now partly comprised of exotic species) peppered with junipers and pine trees, supporting big herds of reintroduced elk, translocated pronghorn, and flocks of ducks on seasonal ponds.

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