By Andrew Stuart
The low deserts of the Big Bend near the Rio Grande are the most forbidding of West Texas landscapes.
They’re at the lowest elevations in the Chihuahuan Desert, with the driest – and hottest – weather. Summer temperatures can top 120 degrees.
But this harsh terrain sustains remarkable biodiversity. Beyond the eastern boundary of Big Bend National Park, conservation groups are restoring a piece of this low-desert country – the El Carmen Land and Conservation project.
Cuenca Los Ojos is an Arizona nonprofit dedicated to biodiversity on the border. Cemex is a Mexican multinational firm, with operations in more than 50 countries. It’s known for building materials, but it also funds conservation projects.
In 2006, Cuenca Los Ojos and Cemex purchased the historic Adams Ranch. The property is called the El Carmen Land and Conservation project. It rises from the river to the towering cliffs of the Carmen Mountains. The national park is to the west and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area is to the east.
It’s a stark and stunning place that stretches more than 20,000 acres. And when it comes to wildlife in West Texas, it has an even larger importance. Bonnie McKinney is the wildlife manager there.
“We knew how strategic it was, because of the dispersal corridors between Texas and Mexico and because of the contiguous lands,” McKinney said. “And this made this property all contiguous as far as conservation and wildlife – and in the future it’s going to be more and more important.”
In Texas’ Big Bend and adjacent areas in Mexico, more than 3 million acres are set aside for conservation. The ECLC property adds to that tapestry.
Wildlife has long used this land to travel between mountains. It’s practically a “bear highway,” McKinney said. And in Mexico and Texas, the eastern front of the Carmen Mountains is part of a major flyway for migratory birds.
“This piece of property sits right in the middle of it,” she said. “So protecting this we’re protecting songbird habitat, game bird habitat. We have the tanks, the water developments – it’s a stopping place, an oasis, a resting grounds for ducks and shorebirds. It’s amazing – you’re sitting here, and you see sandhill cranes flying overhead and honking, and geese, Canada geese, and ospreys.”
One of the challenges is reliable water for wildlife. The ECLC partners with hunting groups and Texas Parks and Wildlife to installs rainwater catchments. And they’re repairing old dams on the property from its days as a cattle ranch.
“By rebuilding all those old dams and berms, we can keep that moisture behind each one of those berms and checkerboard the water coming down the valley,” McKinney said. “It provides little mini-habitats there, especially for our quail and doves and songbirds.”
ECLC is also reintroducing native species to the property. Mule deer had nearly vanished here. Beginning in 2008, McKinney and her staff moved 61 does – donated by Trans-Pecos ranchers – to the Carmen property.
One standout success has been the reintroduction of Gambel’s quail. These graceful birds prefer riparian or riverside habitat – which, in the Big Bend, means the Rio Grande. The ECLC property is at the eastern end of the Gambel’s historic range.
In winter 2013-2014, McKinney and parks and wildlife staff trapped more than 200 Gambel’s upstream of Presidio, and released them at the ECLC land. In their new home, the birds have flourished.
The Carmen land can also contribute to one of the region’s most ambitious wildlife projects – the restoration of bighorn sheep. Bighorns have been reintroduced in ranges on both sides of the river. Biologists hope to see these isolated populations connect. Why? Because it adds to genetic diversity. The Carmen property could become a corridor for this.
McKinney says the ECLC is useful for showing what’s possible in the low desert.
“If we don’t keep these contiguous lands intact, our wildlife is the one that’s going to lose in the long run,” she said. “I would hate to think my granddaughter, who’s 3 years old, wouldn’t have the opportunity to see a peregrine falcon on the river, or a black bear, or a mule deer for that matter.”
The larger vision of ECLC – to safeguard habitat in the wildest stretch of the Texas borderlands.