Back in Black
Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
With or without a stocking program, the black bear is returning to East Texas.
It’s usually little more than a footprint in moist soil or a dark blur darting across a dense green forest, leaves rustling and branches cracking in its wake. Some sightings are more specific: a mammal as big as a person, only heavier, that can stand up like a human and run like a deer. A few reports in recent years are quite detailed, like the one in February 2005, on Interstate 10, one-fourth of a mile west of the official Texas welcome center in Orange, when traffic screeched to a halt as a bear rambled around the highway median. Or the regular sightings at an RV park on the Louisiana side of Toledo Bend Reservoir. None should be too surprising — since the subject at hand pays less attention to state lines than people do.
All of them bear witness, as it were, to the obvious:
Black bear are coming back to East Texas.
“What we’re seeing here is a regional bear expansion,” Nathan Garner declares matter-of-factly. An affable bear of a fellow (more black bear than grizzly, actually), Garner is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s regional wildlife director for East Texas, overseeing a staff of 60 covering 57 counties. He also knows a few things about bears. His interest began as a child growing up in the Houston area and continued as a college student pursuing a biology degree at the University of Houston, then at the University of Montana, where he worked on a border grizzly project under Charles (Mr. Bear) Jonkel. His graduate studies at Virginia Tech included tracking 47 black bears around the Appalachian Mountains.
The black bear is afraid. By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.
He can tell you that black bear can actually be brown, red or even blond, stand 5 to 6 feet tall and weigh up to 400 pounds, that they’ll eat anything and that they are not aggressive towards humans. “Grizzlies will charge when trapped,” Garner says. “The black bear is afraid.” Unless you get between a mother and her cubs, that is. Black bear coexist with deer. “By nature, they’re less aggressive because they didn’t have to be aggressive to survive as a species. They survived by retreating or climbing.”
Garner will also tell you that Bud Bracken of Honey Island had 305 bear hides when he stopped hunting and that, while the last native Ursus americanus in the state may have been shot in Polk County almost 50 years ago, 47 verified sightings throughout the Pineywoods, the Big Thicket and along the Sabine River since 1977, as well as hundreds more anecdotal sightings, have been recorded since.
To prove how ripe East Texas is for the American black bear (Ursus americanus americanus) and its subspecies cousin, Ursus americanus luteolus, the Louisiana black bear that historically roamed East Texas, Garner takes me on a tour of a couple hundred miles’ worth of bear habitat in the central and southern Pineywoods.
Even as black bear were being hunted out of Texas, Garner explains, recovery programs in adjacent states were underway. Beginning in 1958, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission moved 254 bears into the Ouachita and Ozark mountains from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, the most successful restoration of a large carnivore population in the U.S. One hundred sixty-one black bear from Minnesota were moved into Louisiana between 1964 and 1967 to bolster the few hundred Louisiana black bear remaining. The ban on hunting bear in Texas in 1987, and regionally in 1992, when the Louisiana black bear was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act, further bolstered bear numbers to the point of expanding their range as close as a few miles north of the Red River in McCurtain County in southeast Oklahoma and along the Sulphur and Sabine rivers. A permanent black bear population is just a matter of time.
The bigger question is, Will Texans greet the bears with open arms or loaded ones?
Garner is responsible for coming up with the answer. He’s invested four years heading the committee that recently completed the East Texas Black Bear Conservation and Management Plan, 2005 2015. Now he’s spearheading the ETBB task force and still keeping options open for the most controversial element of the plan — relocating 30 females with cubs to sites in East Texas under TPWD oversight.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism.
As a biologist, Garner sees the obvious benefits in bringing back wildlife to its former native habitat. But as an administrator, he understands too well the wariness some humans have warming up to the idea. “How dare you put my child at risk?” one mother challenged him at a public meeting. For that reason, Garner makes clear that the relocation idea will move forward “only if there is strong support.” If public sentiment stands against TPWD helping to establish colonies, the project won’t happen.
But in one sense it doesn’t matter, because black bear are coming anyway.
Surprisingly, public reaction has been largely positive. Pollsters from Michigan State University surveyed 3,000 Texas households and 485 people who showed up at 10 town meetings that TPWD conducted around East Texas. The results were illuminating. The majority of those attending the public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive. The largest turnout was the 108 people who showed up in Kountze, in the heart of the Big Thicket. Meetings in Texarkana and Beaumont attracted the fewest. The greatest opposition was voiced by residents living near the Big Thicket preserves. Garner is not satisfied. “I want 75 percent,” he says.
A significant element of the East Texas bear plan is the mix of public and private stakeholders. Representatives from the Big Thicket Association, a landowners group from Newton County, the Texas Department of Transportation, Temple-Inland Corporation, the East Texas Beekeepers Association and the Alabama-Coushatta nation all had a seat at the table alongside various state, federal and NGO entities. The value of the partnership becomes evident when Garner veers south, then west of Lufkin to South Boggy Slough, where Don Dietz lives. Dietz is a biologist for Temple-Inland Corporation, the timber products giant that controls more than 1.2 million acres of East Texas woodlands, including South Boggy Slough.
Healthy black bear habitat translates into healthy forests, as far as Temple-Inland is concerned, Dietz explains, as we drive past clear-cut pine plantations, conservation forests of hardwoods that will never be touched and SMZs, the streamside management zones that provide critical riparian habitat for wildlife on the move, including black bear.
“We would not be for the bear if we thought it would negatively impact how we manage our timber,” Dietz states frankly. “Temple-Inland wants to make money off timber. As it is, biodiversity is in our best interest. We have seven bald eagle nests on T-I property in Texas.”
Dietz points out how selectively clear-cut land encourages growth of sedges, grasses and berries for bear to feed on in early spring. Pine plantations provide trees for denning and loafing. Mixed forests provide berries through summer. Hardwood bottoms in the SMZs provide downed woody debris full of grubs and other insects for bears to eat and drop the nuts to satisfy black bears’ dietary needs in the fall. If TPWD’s relocation program gets the green light, Temple-Inland has committed to hosting release sites in several locations, according to Dietz. Bear in the woods are good for the land and good for business. “They’re coming,” Dietz says. “I had dinner with a guy two weeks ago in San Augustine County who’s seen a bear twice in the past few weeks.”
“That’s 20,000 acres of the best black bear habitat in East Texas,” Garner says as he drives away. “That habitat offers bears everything they need. The Neches River corridor is the keystone. When I drive through the country, I think bear will do better on managed lands because they’re managed for diversity.”
Somewhere around the Angelina National Forest, he turns from the main highway and promptly gets lost on a network of unmarked back roads surrounded by forests and woodlands. “There’s groceries and cover in there,” Garner says, squinting into an impenetrable thicket. “It’s the roads that present the problem,” he says, changing direction again, “because roads bring people.”
The majority of those attending public meetings supported the return of black bear to East Texas, and 70 percent of the written comments by mail were positive.
Many roads also lead to hunting club cabins tucked in the backwoods, which is one asset Garner hopes to tap into. Hunters get back in the deepest woods, so they’re likelier to ID bears. Their cabins are also destined to be bear magnets if the clubs don’t take measures to properly store and dispose of garbage. Communicating with hunting clubs now will save a lot of hassles in the future, Garner believes.
The nuisance factor looms large. Black bear may be shy and prone to run, but they adapt quickly to humans. Garbage cans, raiding of deer feeders, bee hives and stock pens are all potential problems. As omnivores, black bear have been known to occasionally dine on small animals, be they wildlife, livestock or house pets. If measures aren’t taken to keep garbage lids secure, pet food out of reach, wildlife feeders monitored and so forth, bad stuff can happen.
What seems relegated to the past is human hostility towards bears. Some folks are still inclined to regard them as pests and vermin that should be eradicated, such as realtor Fuzzy Harmon, who told the Lone Star Eagle weekly of Marshall, “It makes about as much sense to spend money on bears as it does to stock Lake O’The Pines with piranha.” (For the record, piranhas are not native to East Texas; black bear are.) But Harmon’s sentiment is clearly in the minority.
“We’re never going to change those folks,” Garner admits. “There are people against this who are antigovernment and still mad about the Big Thicket,” portions of which were declared a national wildlife refuge, he acknowledges. “But I didn’t walk away from any town meeting discouraged.”
Garner’s patience with such concerns and fears, warranted or not, reflects one blueprint he’s followed while articulating Texas policy, the Black Bear Conservation Committee plan initiated in 1990 to promote the recovery of the Louisiana black bear. The Baton Rouge-based BBCC, whose members include Garner, Dietz, TPWD’s Ricky Maxey and several other East Texans, oversees the successful bear recovery programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma, while raising public awareness and putting in place a plan for dealing with bears that cause damage, in concert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Fish & Game Commission.
In Jasper, at the TPWD offices, Garner hands me off to district wildlife biologist Gary Calkins. Calkins knows the southern hot zone of potential bear habitat along the Sabine and Neches river corridors well enough to fret about the area’s future.
“Bottomland hardwood forest is the most diverse ecosystem in East Texas,” he says. “It’s home to 500 vertebrates and 1,150 plant species, but 75 percent of these forests have been lost since settlement.” More loss, he fears, is just around the corner. While Temple-Inland remains a dominant presence, Calkins has observed other large timber companies such as International Paper and Louisiana Pacific selling off tracts to forest investment companies (among them, Harvard University) more interested in short-term profit than long-term conservation plans. “Some are pretty good stewards,” Calkins allows. “But others have no interest in biodiversity. They want to cut and get out. The northern part of East Texas has already gone through these growing pains. Here in the southern end, we had it made for awhile.” But with the short-term profit mentality moving in, he says, “all of it is at risk.”
Perception issues are less worrisome. He’s heard the comment, “My kids are going to be at the bus stop and the bears are going to eat them,” a dozen times.
“I try to explain that I’m more concerned about the neighbor’s dog running loose that’s going to hurt their kids.”
While cruising through a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground on the western shores of Lake B.A. Steinhagen between Jasper and Woodville, Garner surveys trashcans and camp sites that may have to be retrofitted. He breaks into a “Hey, Yogi” voice, assuming the cartoon character Boo Boo Bear spying a “pic-a-nic basket.” Garner is trying to emphasize the need for humans to dissuade bear.
Having had close-up encounters with black bear in Minnesota, in the Mexican state of Coahuila and at many zoos, I have been persuaded by Garner’s tour that East Texas is primo bear habitat, as long as the people of East Texas let it be. But I am also impatient enough to hope public support will materialize for a restocking program that will bring them back sooner rather than later.
- See A Bear?
- Call TPWD. One of the bear plan’s goals is to resolve human-bear conflicts. If you see a bear, or have a bear problem, call your TPWD game warden or wildlife biologist or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at (800) 792-1112 or at regional offices in Tyler (903) 566-1626, San Antonio (830) 569-8700, Kerrville (830) 896-2500 and Alpine (432) 837-2051
- Don’t feed the bears. Period.
- What if a bear approaches?
- Don’t panic, don’t shoot and don’t approach. Don’t run, either, says the TPWD Black Bears in Texas brochure. Back away slowly, with arms overhead to increase the size of your appearance, talk firmly and in a low pitched voice. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is not preparing to attack. It’s trying to see, hear and smell you. If a bear is in a tree, leave it alone. It’s afraid. And NEVER approach a bear cub.
Westside Bears: an Unlikely Success Story
In the late 1980s, black bears from the northern state of Coahuila, Mexico, began migrating across the Rio Grande into the Trans-Pecos region, returning to a home range that had been unoccupied for nearly 50 years. The recolonization movement was a natural process, surprising many wildlife experts.
“If you look at all of Texas, the eastern two-thirds of the state had the best habitat, precipitation, vegetation and ecological system for bears,” says David Holdermann, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department endangered resources specialist who lives in Alpine. “The Trans-Pecos, ironically, has one of the lesser natural carry capacities to support bears.”
But the black bears (Ursus americanus) continued to migrate — driven perhaps by scarcity of food, drought or some natural instinct that told them there were richer resources, remote mountains and sparse human population to the north.
Holdermann says his best guess is that there are now around 80 black bear in the Trans-Pecos, primarily in the southern sections of Brewster, Terrell and Val Verde counties — some of the state’s most remote, inaccessible terrain.
Of that figure, the breeding population probably numbers around 30 to 40 bears, says Holdermann. Extensive state and federally funded research in the past decade has focused on determining the extent of recolonization, including monitoring bears’ movements through radio collaring, habitat analysis and field studies of bear sightings and bear depredations.
A biological key driving the bear recolonization process is the philopatric factor, which means a female black bear will allow her female offspring to remain on her home range. However, male offspring are forced to disperse outside the mother’s home range.
“Because of this pattern,” says Holdermann, “males will range farther outward, searching for a new home range with mates. Consequently, what we see is a slow, incremental expansion by females into new areas. Males are generally finding everything they need to expand except suitable females.” Male black bears may range over a 100-square-mile area.
The resident breeding black bear population is believed to occupy an area covering the Chisos Mountains in the center of Big Bend National Park, the Dead Horse Mountains and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (near the eastern edge of the park), the Del Norte Mountains (south of Alpine), the Davis Mountains (near Fort Davis) and the Guadalupe Mountains (south of the New Mexico border). Bear sightings, usually involving males, have also occurred in other areas of West Texas, but far less frequently.
The primary black bear breeding habitat in the Trans-Pecos is the Chisos Mountains.
Raymond Skiles Jr., the chief wildlife biologist in Big Bend National Park, estimates the current number of female black bears in the park to be around 15. The figure is down from a peak female population of around 30 bears in 2000, although Skiles believes the number is now increasing again.
“We had a precipitous decline starting around 2000 2001, following a failure in the food supply because of drought conditions,” says Skiles.
Even though black bears appear to be in a new recolonizing phase, he warns, “The population isn’t safe and secure here. We don’t know now how many bears are breeding females. It’s a very tenuous existence. We need a couple of good years to get that breeding population back up.”
Since 1987, Skiles has devoted a large portion of his time to studying black bears and devising programs and methods to lessen the chance of conflict between bears and park visitors.
“We’ve had to go through an immense change to adapt to the bears,” he says. Changes include an extensive public education program, the creation of bear-proof trash containers and food-storage lockers for campers, bear-proof landfill operations for waste disposal and the development of a bear management and research team. The work has paid off: no major incidents involving bear-human encounters have occurred in the park.
TPWD wildlife specialist Holdermann recalls an example of male bear migration that occurred in Alpine in June 2003, when a young, mature black bear was found wandering in the downtown area. Holderman received an emergency call at his home about 1 a.m. He loaded a dart rifle with Telazol, an immobilizing chemical that interrupts an animal’s nerve transmission system.
“We darted it in one shot and it took five minutes to be immobilized and drop from the tree,” he recalled. Nicknamed the “Courthouse Bear,” it was fitted with a radio collar and transported and released in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area — all within five hours. In a few months, the bear had migrated 75 miles north to the Del Norte Mountains, about 15 miles south of Alpine, where it remained until radio contact was lost earlier this year.
Public opinion on bear recolonization is narrowly divided, according to a recent TPWD-sponsored survey. A questionnaire mailed to 1,100 landowners in nine Trans-Pecos counties who own at least one section of land received a 42 percent return response. Black bear recolonization was not favored by 46 percent, favored by 40 percent and not answered by 14 percent.
Holderman notes that the TPWD approach to the recolonization process is not proactive. The recolonization has occurred naturally. The state’s primary role has been to monitor the process, gather research data, attempt to minimize threats of bear-human contact and educate the public.
The migration of black bears into a former habitat is viewed as a positive indicator for the ecosystem by black bear advocates, who see long-term benefits in increased eco-tourism and the return of a sense of “wildness” to the region.
Private landowners are an important part of any natural recolonization process, Holdermann notes, since 96 percent of the bears’ range is on private property.
“Once we’ve fully characterized how landowners feel about the black bear population, at that point we need to step back and ask what it means to the future of the bear population,” he says.
“The negative attitude toward black bears reflects a strong pattern that has grown from the frontier experience — it generally extends to all large predators. It’s a legitimate point for people to be concerned about property. The development of a successful bear strategy will have to include those private property interests, as well as the creation of a viable black bear habitat.”
[see also Big
Bend Field Notes]
Desolate Majesty: Preserving beauty without borders
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Texas and Mexico, the Big Bend region is high in biodiversity and low
in footprints. It’s a place so untamed that if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or sting, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack
You know you have arrived in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert when
it feels as if you have fallen off the edge of the Earth and into the
rabbit hole. Nothing is as it appears. Moths are the size of hummingbirds.
Are those twin pillars of black igneous rock (a landmark known as Mule
Ear Peaks) ten miles (16 kilometers) away or fifty (80 kilometers)? Visibility
reaches more than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) on a clear day, and
since there are few roads or buildings to use as milestones, distance
is difficult to judge. A jackrabbit runs so fast across the hardpan that
its hind legs stretch ahead of its front ones, like in a cartoon. A black
bear rambles through high desert canyons, picking its way through the
yucca and prickly pear, oblivious to the fact that it seems out of place
in this landscape. But that’s OK. No one is around to notice.
Legend says that after God created the rest of the world, he dumped the
leftovers into this giant sandbox. The devil is supposed to be sealed
up in a cave on the south bank of the Río Bravo del Norte (known
on the U.S. side as the Rio Grande), except when he escapes on a swing
hung between nearby mountains. This is a place where water runs uphill,
where rainbows have to wait for rain. The line between myth and reality
blurs. Stare long enough at the Chisos Mountains or the Sierra del Carmen,
the two mountain ranges, known as sky islands, that anchor the territory,
and they levitate above the plain. And you haven’t had a drop of tequila.
But you are under the influence of something stronger. Try inhaling the
scent of creosote bushes after it rains and not feel light-headed. It
is a powerful aphrodisiac. Walk across 80 miles (130 kilometers) of low
and high desert, as I have, and an appreciation develops for what others
might dismiss as a moonscape. Without trees or shrubs to get in the way,
the view is unobstructed: 500 million years of geologic turmoil and erosion
is laid bare over miles of fine sand, gravel, rocky rubble, spongy bentonite,
lava spewed from volcanic eruptions.
The vast Chihuahuan Desert has long been known as El Despoblado, the land
of no people. The name remains accurate today: The wildlife population
still exceeds the human one. But in this part of the desert, on both sides
of the border between Texas and Mexico, another name is taking hold: El
CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor, a label only a conservationist
could love. It is two and a half million acres (one million hectares)
of one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world–the
largest block of protected land in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The idea of preserving this place started with a dream. In the 1930s advocates
in both Texas and Mexico wanted to create an international peace park.
That idea never took off, but what is emerging in its place is far larger
and more ambitious. On most maps, the megacorridor is blank space, the
only mark a squiggly line for the river that doubles as an international
boundary. It is dominated by six separate chunks of protected land that
hang off the Rio Grande like clothes whipping around a clothesline. On
the Mexico side, it includes the Cañón de Santa Elena in the
state of Chihuahua and the Maderas del Carmen in the state of Coahuila.
On the Texas side, two state protected areas flank Big Bend, a U.S. national
park named for the sharp curve where the Rio Grande’s southeasterly flow
takes an abrupt turn to the north, like a car swerving to avoid an armadillo.
The sixth piece is a ribbon of land on the U.S. side of the river itself.
From the air, the region is distinguished by huge cracks, crags, wrinkles,
and crevices, apparently devoid of life. On the ground, it is no more
welcoming. The temperature can reach over a hundred degrees (38ºC)
on a summer day and sink below freezing on a winter night. The wind can
blow 50 miles (80 kilometers) an hour for days on end. We are talking
rough country. Civilization is far away, no matter what direction you
came from. The remoteness is intimidating. Bad things happen. That can
mean a rattlesnake bite, a scorpion sting, a stealth hit by an assassin
bug. You might get stabbed by a spiny tip when you stumble into a low
lechuguilla cactus, or scraped by the branches of a catclaw, or impaled
by a horse crippler cactus. As locals say, if something doesn’t bite,
stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Beneath their armor, some plants possess valuable food or medicine. Take
the sotol, a succulent with swordlike leaves and serrated edges, which
proliferates on the high Chihuahuan Desert. Its bulbs, when baked underground
for 48 hours as the ancients did, taste like steamed artichoke. The same
bulbs, properly fermented into moonshine, pack a wallop similar to tequila.
There is always the chance you’ll die of thirst. The You Can Die possibilities
are endless, which keeps some visitors–350,000 a year to Big Bend National
Park–from coming back. Those who do return are left to ponder the remarkable
grit of the hardy few who have managed to survive in this spare, unforgiving
environment. Not to mention the roadrunners and kangaroo rats, so adapted
to the arid climate they don’t even need to drink.
Contradictions come naturally here. The landscape is 90 percent desert
yet erupts into cliffs 1,500 feet (460 meters) high and mountains above
8,900 feet (2,700 meters). These skyscrapers are home to penthouse residents
such as bigtooth maples, quaking aspens, and Douglas firs. They soak up
water snagged from the clouds–up to 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain
a year–while their neighbors on the desert floor must make do with less
than 10 inches (25 centimeters). When it does rain, mostly during the
summer “monsoons” from July through September, spindly ocotillos sprout
leaves and spew flaming red shoots from the tips of their woody spines.
Stalks of yucca burst with huge bouquets of tough, creamy white blossoms
as big as ladling spoons. The candelabras that emerge from the heart of
agaves sag heavily with radiant yellow blooms. This whole lot of nothing
is full of life.
As tough as it looks, the Chihuahuan Desert is a fragile place. Few humans
have stepped here, but footprints fall heavily in the desert. Since the
1800s, the region has been mined, logged, hunted, and overgrazed. Now
it is being allowed to heal its wounds, helped along by governments, corporations,
and individuals on both sides of the border. In 1944, Big Bend National
Park was established, and a joint park with Mexico was envisioned. But
it wasn’t until 1994 that the Mexican government designated more than
a million acres (405,000 hectares) as the Cañón de Santa Elena
and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Areas. In 1999,
a cement company arrived on the scene, not to pave paradise but to preserve
it. Cemex, the Mexican cementmaker with operations in 50 countries, has
purchased hundreds of thousands of acres along the border to set aside
This is a different model of conservation. Mexico lacks the funds to purchase
land for parks or wildlife habitat, a situation becoming increasingly
common in the United States. So on the Mexico side of the corridor, much
of the protected land is privately owned. Mining has been allowed to continue.
Rather than removing the 5,000 ranchers and farmers living within the
protected areas, as U.S. national parks historically have done, conservationists
are teaching them why it’s in their interest to protect the land. The
goal is to give residents a sense of stewardship that national parks do
not. “You have to understand, the concept of wilderness doesn’t presently
exist in Mexico,” says Patricio Robles Gil, an environmentalist and architect
of the partnership with Cemex. “In Spanish, we don’t have a word for wilderness.
This is all new, but it could be the model beyond a national park.”
After a long day working in the desert, a group of conservationists gathers
for a dinner of steaks and tortillas at the Cemex reserve’s main lodge.
There is talk of the future. Already, a couple of adjacent areas are being
proposed to join the two protected areas on the Mexican side. They discuss
reintroducing the grizzly bear, the Mexican gray wolf, and bison–all
believed to have been native to the area. Anywhere else, such talk would
be dismissed as a fairy tale. In the Transboundary Megacorridor, such
dreams seem possible.
And why not? The desert bighorn sheep has been reestablished, as has the
pronghorn antelope. Decades ago, only a few remaining black bears could
be found tucked away in the isolated mountain ranges of Coahuila. A group
of Mexican ranchers decided to quit hunting bears and start protecting
them instead. Now you see black bears on the Texas side of the river again.
Wildlife pays no attention to international boundaries.
To its true believers, the megacorridor is the whole world boiled down
to its essence. It is “pure raw,” says a conservationist who has fallen
under its spell, one of the last places on the North American continent
where wild trumps humanity, and one of the only spots where wilderness
is actually expanding instead of contracting. At a time when most of the
Earth’s stories focus on what is being lost, that is a contradiction worth
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Bend Field Notes
Big Bend Field Notes
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The author jumps over a watery passage in the Chihuahuan Desert. Two and a half million acres (one million hectares) of this desert straddle the Texas-Mexico border in a block of protected land known as El CarmenBig Bend Transboundary Megacorridor. The area is one of the most biologically diverse desert regions in the world, so Patoski had to watch his step. As the locals say, if something doesn’t bite, stick, or jab, it’s probably a rock.
Photograph by Jack W. Dykinga
While researching this story, I joined five other people and walked across the bend in the Big Bend, a six-day, 80-mile (130 kilometers) hike. That may have been the most physically difficult trek I’ve ever attempted. It was certainly the first time I’d ever done extended overnight backpacking. My lower back ached for weeks afterward.
Eight months later, I’d forgotten the pain and–for the first time ever–soloed in a canoe through 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the lower canyons of the Rio Grande. The lower back acted up for a while after that, too, but in a good way. Both experiences underscored the efforts one endures in search of the kind of solitude many seek but few ever realize, regardless of lower back pain.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes; it’ll change.” That old homily about Texas weather popped into my head after I dodged the bullet that photographer Jack Dykinga and Mexican environmentalist Patricio Robles Gil took.
After spending a couple days in Big Bend National Park, plotting and planning our adventures and camping out near Old Ore Road, I headed back to civilization while Jack and Patricio prepared to paddle Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons, two of the three major canyons on the Rio Grande within the boundaries of the national park.
When I left them on a Saturday morning, the skies were clear, and the temperatures had already climbed to around 70 degrees (20°C). It looked like it was going to be a warm and sunny early spring day. But I hadn’t driven more than an hour when the winds started whipping up out of the north and dust kicked up on the horizon. By the time I reached Fort Stockton, about 120 miles (190 kilometers) north of the park, the temperature had dropped to the upper 40s.
I talked to Jack a week later to ask about his trip through the canyons. “It was the trip from hell,” he said wearily. Once the winds began to blow, they didn’t quit for a week, with some gusts exceeding 65 miles (105 kilometers) an hour. More than once, their canoe was blown away from their campsite. Jack’s sniffles turned into a full-blown case of the flu, and he passed it on to Patricio. I waited until he was finally done with his complaints. “Welcome to the Big Bend,” I replied.
The Cemex preserve in the Sierra Del Carmen, is 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Boquillas Crossing on the Rio Grande, as the crow flies. Driving there on rough dirt roads used to take a little more than two hours, once you paid a boatman two dollars to row you across to Mexico in his dinged-up Mexican johnboat. It was a funky way to travel, made more adventurous knowing there was no customs or immigration on the Mexican or the U.S. side (although U.S. Border Patrol highway checkpoints and Mexican military stops manned by bored uniformed teenagers toting automatic weapons loomed farther in the interior). This was too middle-of-nowhere to justify permanent posts. Then September 11, 2001, happened, and everything about the Borderlands changed–including traditional means of crossing the river.
A drive between those same two points now takes at least ten hours. Heightened border security put an end to the freelance ferry tradition. In the past, almost all ferry passengers were tourists from Big Bend National Park bound for Boquillas del Carmen, a primitive village of 300 about a mile from the river, whose residents largely supported themselves selling food, drink, quartz, overnight accommodations, walking sticks, quilts, and trinkets to the visitors. Now the village is slowly depopulating; half of the people have already left.
In the high country of the sierra, I found another Boquillas resident, David, one of the boatmen who used to row visitors across the Rio. These days, he tends to a tricked-out log cabin lodge the Cemex corporation has built overlooking a dammed-up stretch of a clear-running creek. He’s glad to have a job, he said. On weekends, he can go home to Boquillas. It could be worse, David added. Other locals who still call Boquillas home work in Musquiz, another 50 miles (80 kilometers) distant, and many there return home but once a month.