Conservation in the Big Bend Border Region

by James Cash

  • The Big Bend region of the Chihuahuan Desert is home to more than 3 million acres of protected lands that span the U.S. / Mexico border.
  • Conservationists on both sides of the border work together to conserve and protect the region’s wildlife and wildlands through wildlife reintroductions, invasive species control, fire management, and more.
  • Grassroots efforts are underway to secure an international designation for the region, such as an international park or a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve.
  • For the most part, national politics on either side of the border don’t affect the collaborations that take place in this remote region. However, there is concern that President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall would have negative impacts on wildlife and wildlife conservation efforts.
  • Above – A desert bighorn sheep photographed just north of Big Bend National Park. Photo courtesy of Ben Masters.

The Rio Grande, or the Río Bravo as it’s known in Mexico, serves as the boundary marker for the border between Mexico and Texas, which makes up over half of the roughly 2000 mile (3200 km) long U.S. / Mexico border. As the river flows towards the Gulf of Mexico it makes a dramatic change in direction as it traverses the Chihuahuan Desert, hence the region’s name: Big Bend.

The Big Bend region is one of the most beautiful and harsh landscapes in North America, with desert grass and shrublands punctuated by “sky island” mountain forest habitats. The region hosts a diverse array of plants and animals, including iconic species such as American black bears (Ursus americanus), desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis mexicana), American pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and mountain lions (Puma concolor). Ben Masters, a well-known wildlife film maker and photographer, has described the Chihuahuan Desert as home to “landscapes and an array of life that rivals Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Serengeti.”

Big Bend is home to a large network of protected areas on either side of the international border, totaling over 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares). On the U.S. side there is the Big Bend National Park (BBNP), Texas’s Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and Big Bend Ranch State Park. These properties are mirrored by three “Flora and Fauna Protection Areas” on the Mexican side of the border: the Cañon de Santa Elena, Ocampo, and Maderas del Carmen. Additionally, both countries have designated long stretches of the river itself as a protected area; the United States’ Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and Mexico’s Rio Bravo del Norte National Monument, which overlap each other.

mapMap of the primary parks and protected areas along the border in the Big Bend region. The boundaries of the Rio Grande Wild & Scenic River and Rio Bravo del Norte National Monument are not marked.

Dr. Louis Harveson, Director of the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI) at Sul Ross University, explained that “American and Mexican citizens know the Rio Grande is a political border, but wildlife do not.  To them, the Rio Grande is merely a water source within their home range, surrounded by riparian habitat.  Wildlife use this binational transboundary area like you and I use the roadway between our grocery store and post office.”

International Collaborations 

The conservationists of the region have long recognized the importance of collaborating with one another and have worked together on a myriad of issues, including invasive species management, wildland fire management, and wildlife population restoration projects.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Russell Martin said that “Collaboration between the two countries is key to the ecological health of the region. Many of the conservation challenges that we face, such as invasive species, can only be addressed through collaborative efforts on both sides of the river.”

Martin identified several cross-border collaborations that TPWD is involved with, including “the periodic co-hosting of a binational wildlife workshop for wildlife managers from both sides of the border, participating as a core team member in a landscape conservation design planning process facilitated by the Desert LCC, initiating and funding a Transboundary Conservation Program through Sul Ross State University, and several smaller collaborative habitat and wildlife management projects with neighboring landowners on both sides of the river.”

bullsnakeA gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) in TPWD’s Black Gap WMA. Photo credit: James Cash

Another example of an effective collaboration on the border is the Los Diablos firefighters. This firefighting crew is composed of Mexican citizens living in small rural villages and ranches across the river from the BBNP. They receive training and equipment from the National Park Service (NPS) in the U.S. and work collaboratively with the NPS on prescribed burns and wildfires in the national park and elsewhere.

One of the Los Diablos firefighters’ current projects involves teaming up with the World Wildlife Fund, ProFauna, NPS, Rio Grande Scientific Support Services, and Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) to use prescribed fire to restore riverside habitat that is invaded by non-native giant cane (Arundo donax). The Los Diablos program saves the NPS the expense of transporting U.S. fire crews to this remote region, provides a crew who can respond in a timely manner during emergency situations, and serves as a source of income and opportunity for the Mexican firefighters.

Jennette Jurado, a Park Ranger at Big Bend NP, said that “partnerships (like above) allow for restoration to happen on both sides of the Rio Grande. The river is one system, but managed by two countries. Work on one bank of the river only gets the job half done!”

rioThe Rio Grande flowing between Big Bend National Park and the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Area. This section of the river is also protected as the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River (US) and the Rio Bravo del Norte National Monument (Mexico). Photo credit: James Cash.

The conservation stakeholders in the region have entered into several multilateral agreements and partnerships over the years to help facilitate further collaborations. One of these is the Desert Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) mentioned by Russel Martin. Another is the Big Bend Conservation Cooperative (BBCC), a group of over 30 government, NGO, and private stakeholders (lead by the NPS, US Fish and Wildlife Service, TPWD, and US Geological Survey). Members of the BBCC work with partners in Mexico, such as CONANP, through the Big Bend- Río Bravo Initiative.

CEMEX, a Mexican cement company with operations all over the world, is an important conservation stakeholder in the region. CEMEX owns and protects the roughly 346,000 acre (140,300 ha) El Carmen property. El Carmen is located primarily within the Maderas del Carmen and Ocampo Flora and Fauna Protection Areas, with about 18,000 acres (7,300 ha) on the US side of the border, sandwiched between BBNP and Black Gap WMA. They actively participate in wildlife habitat and population restoration efforts, often partnering with TPWD, BRI, CONANP, and other conservation agencies and organizations on both sides of the border. Recent examples include reintroductions of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus).

prongAn American pronghorn behind a fence north of Big Bend National Park. Fences pose serious problems for pronghorn because they can’t jump them, which is why CEMEX removed 350 km of interior fencing on their El Carmen property. Photo credit: James Cash

Collaborations between the two countries doesn’t just benefit the wildlife of the region. The border crossing between Big Bend NP and the small town of Boquillas, Mexico was closed for much of the early 2000s, severely hampering the tourist-based economy of Boquillas. The Port of Entry was officially re-opened in 2013, much to the relief of the town’s residents. The NPS estimates that 14,000 visitors crossed the river on the small row-boat ferry in FY 2017.

An International Protected Area 

For years there have been proposals and discussions about taking these collaborations to the next level by creating an international designation that encompasses all of the protected areas in the region. The Greater Big Bend Coalition (GBBC) is a grass-roots organization heavily involved in advocating for such a designation, which could take the form of an international park, international Biosphere Reserve, or a binational natural area.

The GBBC lists many benefits of an international designation, including stronger cross-border partnerships and increased public awareness of the importance of conservation in the region.

The international park proposal dates back to 1934 and has since gained support from  government officials including past presidents of the US and Mexico, congressional representatives, NPS superintendents, and more. The international park concept has a precedent in the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S./ Canada border, which is made up of the United States’ Glacier National Park and Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park.

The GBBC states that an international park in Big Bend could be managed following the Waterton-Glacier model, whereby each of the protected areas that make up the international park are “managed and protected under their respective national legislative frameworks. Guiding principles would be established relating to natural and cultural resource management, visitor use and interpretation, science and research and relations with peoples living in the area, reflecting strong cooperation among the property managers. Management plans and their associated goals and objectives should be periodically reviewed and updated with all stakeholders.”

mountainlionMountain lions are an important top predator in the Big Bend region. This individual is at a wildlife rehabilitation center in San Antonio, Texas. Photo courtesy of Ben Masters.

However, establishing an international park is no simple task partly due to the structure of the protected areas in Mexico. These protected areas are not like national parks in the US; significant portions of them are occupied by communal properties known as ejidos, plus private landholdings such as the CEMEX property.

Billy Pat McKinney Jr., a longtime resident of the Big Bend region with experience working on conservation projects on both sides of the border, explained that the ejido communities have difficulty supporting themselves in the “hard desert country.” The ejidos “rely on candelilla wax, meat goats, and whatever opportunity throws their way” and must “depend heavily on government supplements to survive.”

An international park could benefit the ejidos by encouraging tourism to the region and thus supporting small businesses such as craft and food sales, lodging, and guide services. However, McKinney is skeptical of how many of these benefits would materialize because most of the ejidos “do not live in or have access to areas conducive to tourism.” There “might be some opportunity in a national park type situation,” he says, “however the real national park type country belongs to private land owners and that will require access permission.” McKinney also claims that in Mexico there is “little interest” in—and in some cases opposition to—an international park. Even so, he added that it might one day be successful and that the benefits for the local people would depend on their ability to cash-in on tourism revenue.

cactusA prickly pear cactus in Big Bend NP, one of 16 Opuntia species in the region. Photo credit: James Cash

When asked about the international park concept, Park Ranger Jennette Jurado replied, “Private individuals are raising awareness of the proposal for an International Peace Park. At this time, Big Bend National Park and the bordering lands in Mexico are already protecting these places, and coordinating and cooperating in projects of mutual interest or concern—in essence, these protected areas already function like an international park, just without the title.”

Rick LoBello, Chair of the GBBC, said that, “Any proposal to promote international cooperation in support of conservation and ecotourism would involve both governments collaborating with each other.  If Mexico were to develop ecotourism the people in the ejidos would likely benefit the most with ecotourism jobs and more international attention regarding their wellbeing.  For example, if more people knew how they lived now in very low income communities more people would be able to help them with health care and education opportunities.”

Even if an international park did not significantly change how the land was managed, the name alone could be an ecotourism draw. As it is, not many people are aware of the protected lands in Mexico; sometimes they aren’t even shown on maps. Combining an international park designation with voluntary and well-publicized access agreements with land owners and local communities could increase the amount of tourists and tourism revenue flowing into the region. This in turn could allow the local communities to live more sustainably and self-reliantly, which ultimately benefits the entire ecosystem. It will be important to prioritize the needs and concerns of the local communities and land owners if the international park proposal moves ahead.

Dr. Harveson, the BRI Director, believes that the international park could be a win-win for everyone involved provided it is implemented with proper structure and funding, including financial assistance for local communities (i.e. ejidos), instead of simply serving as a photo-op for politicians.

The Greater Big Bend Coalition is also working on creating a Transboundary Biosphere Reserve by combining the Maderas del Carmen Biosphere Reserve in Mexico and the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve in the US.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are “special places for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity” according to the UNESCO website. UNESCO’s International Coordinating Council recommended creating the Transboundary Biosphere Reserve in their 2016 Periodic Review of the Big Bend Biosphere Reserve.

flycatcherA Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) photographed near Big Bend Ranch State Park. An international park could increase the amount of birding tourism on the Mexican side of the border, providing economic benefits for Mexican communities and land owners. Photo courtesy of Ben Masters.

Effects of National Politics 

Interviewees were asked whether they have seen or expect to see any changes to collaborations in the region under the new presidential administration.

Russel Martin replied that, “At this time, we [TPWD] have not experienced or been notified about any changes to collaborative projects in the region due to the change in Presidential administrations.”

“Since the new administration took office in January, Big Bend National Park has continued to partner with CONANP, WWF, and ProFauna for restoration efforts,” says Jennette Jurado, adding, “Beyond that, the National Park Service cannot engage in speculation or comment on pending legislation.”

Billy Pat McKinney replied, “I expect some changes but nothing major, the complications of operating in two countries normally boils down to local politics and local people.”

Rick LoBello brought up the proposed border wall, saying that it would “be a major setback for conservation of North American wildlands and our friendship with Mexico.”

During his campaign President Trump was very vocal about his support for an extensive border wall along the U.S./ Mexico border and he issued an Executive Order calling for its construction soon after being inaugurated. However, the fate of the wall is still unknown and there are many questions regarding how the wall would be funded and where it would go. In February 2017 it was reported that an internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo slated Big Bend for “phase two” construction, but the report did not specify a timeline for phase two and it is not clear whether the White House intends to follow the plans laid out in the memo if funding is secured.

The recently passed 2018 federal spending bill allocated $1.6 billion to wall funding, much less than Trump’s requested $18 billion. The funding will be spent on fence repair and construction near San Diego, CA and the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. A National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley previously slated to be crossed by the wall was protected in the bill, however other wildlife refuges in south Texas are at risk.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Congressman Will Hurd (whose district includes Big Bend), have made statements in opposition to a wall in Big Bend NP, further throwing the fate of the wall into question.

The wall would have many negative environmental impacts if it is constructed. Species such as black bear and bighorn sheep have been documented crossing the border, which is important for maintaining genetic diversity (and thus population health) among populations on both sides of the river (Onorator et al. 2004, McKinney and Villalobos 2005). A wall would isolate these populations, eventually leading to loss of genetic diversity and increased risk of local extinction. The river itself is an important water source that would be cut off from wildlife on the U.S. side. Several organizations have published articles and videos detailing these impacts, including the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, Vox, and Mongabay. Border security alternatives to a wall, such as electronic surveillance, have many fewer environmental impacts than a physical wall.

Trump told reporters in July 2017 that “you don’t need 2,000 miles of wall because you have a lot of natural barriers” and recent reports are that the administration is advocating for physical barriers on about 1000 miles of the border (about 650 miles of fencing have already been installed by previous administrations). However, Big Bend has not specifically been mentioned and the possibility of a wall in at least some parts of the region still looms. If a wall bypasses the most extreme natural barriers, such as steep canyons, but blocks the river access points, then the negative effects on wildlife could be the same as a continuous barrier.

Mckinney communicated that he does not believe that the wall is as significant a threat as some claim, but he did say that it would affect regional conservation, “as did the thousands of miles of paved roads, farms, cities, dams, electric systems, wind farms, etc.”

The types of human land uses McKinney referenced have fragmented wildlife habitat across the globe. The Big Bend region is relatively devoid of such barriers—all the more reason to be concerned about the possibility of a wall being built that would cut off the existing wildlife corridors.

Dr. Harveson said that “the wall could definitely have negative impacts for both wildlife and wildlife conservation collaborations,” and that the wall stands a good chance of being built. “I believe that people should be aware of and engaged in conversations about the potential problems it may cause. The border wall issue isn’t a partisan issue.  There should be bi-partisan concern about understanding the impacts of a proposed wall,” he added.
chisos“Sky island” mountain habitats, such as Big Bend National Park’s Chisos Mountains, are generally cooler and more forested than the surrounding desert. Corridors between these sky islands would be cut off by a border wall, which would restrict important gene flow among populations of black bear and other wildlife species. Photo courtesy of Hannah Gerke.

Future Conservation Collaborations 

When asked about the best way to foster successful conservation projects on both sides of border, Russell Martin responded, “Open and frequent communication is key to fostering successful, collaborative conservation on both sides of the river in the Big Bend region.”

McKinney said, “Basically it is a simple recipe, less talk more action (government on both sides talk it to death), stable funding source (seems like the funds do not reach the field), real and practical projects that make significant differences to habitat on large scales to both sides of the border, running consecutively.”

“The best way would be for US and Mexico to create strong binding partnerships,” said Rick LoBello.

“There are phenomenal conservation efforts across the world.  But all too often they end at jurisdictional boundaries.  We, as a society, must get past this two-dimensional mindset and start looking at ecosystems as a whole, regardless of political boundaries,” said Dr. Harveson. “Conservation of transboundary areas is a challenge we must overcome.”

Jennette Jurado said that “Using existing models and success stories, we plan to continue to build relationships with people working to protect the other side of our shared river, shared canyons, and shared greater Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem.”

There are many examples of cross-border conservation collaborations in the region—too many to fully discuss in this article. These collaborations are the work of biologists, managers, and land owners who recognize the importance of sharing information and resources in order to effectively and efficiently meet conservation objectives in the beautiful wildlands of the Big Bend border region. Promoting future collaborations will ensure the continued protection of this unique ecosystem.

The U.S. Department of the Interior and Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas did not respond to emailed questions for this article.

 

References 

McKinney, B.R. and J.D. Villalobos. 2005. Desert bighorn sheep reintroduction in Maderas del Carmen, Coahuila, México. 2005 BighornCouncil Transactions. 48: 46-49

Onorato, D.P., E.C. Hellgren, R.A. Van Den Bussche, and D.L. Doan-Crider. 2004. Phylogeographic Patterns within a Metapopulation of Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in the American Southwest. Journal of Mammology. 85(1): 140-147

 

 

 

 

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