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Grizzly Bears

Restoring the Real Wild- Grizzly Bears in New Mexico, Past, Present and Future

By Stephen Capra

Perhaps no other animal better symbolizes true wilderness than Ursus arctos -the grizzly bear. From the time of Lewis and Clark, man has used muskets, rifles, roads, axes, traps, chain saws, fences and the bulldozer to tame the wilderness that was the bear’s home. For an animal that once called the Great Plains home, and was a symbol of a healthy func­tioning environment, man proved to be anything but a friend.

grizzl bear2The grizzly population today is but a ghost of its former self, hold­ing on to small isolated islands of land in the lower 48. It is often hated by ranching interests, feared by second home owners and increasingly the darling of OLN hunting shows. However, the griz­zly is loved by many who consider nature (and a functioning environ­ment) important to the health of our land, water and communi­ties. It is a humble, mostly solitary and beautiful creature that enjoys moments of fun and delight: sliding down a snowy hillside, watching a sunset from a high peak or wres­tling with young cubs. It is also a top predator of the food web, and thus an animal that strikes primor­dial fear into other wildlife and humans.

While the recent reintroduction of the Mexican wolf has created controversy and outrage in some southwest communities, it has also been welcomed by many more who understand the importance of wolves to maintaining the bal­ance needed for a healthy environ­ment. Wolves too have added an economic incentive for rural com­munities, as many people travel to see firsthand wolves in the wild. Wolves are also helping to put balance back into environments that have seen dramatic spikes in deer and elk populations (that in turn has impacted shrubs, native species and grasses). But any talk today of grizzly reintroduction in New Mexico is generally perceived as a radical pipe dream. It was not always this way.

The last Mexican grizzly killed in Mexico was in 1960. That bear was paraded through the streets of Chihuahua amidst large and curious crowds. In the late 1970’s many people still held out hope that the Mexican grizzly, the spe­cies that once called the Gila home, was still holding on in remote parts of the Sierra Madre and the Bar­rancas (on the west slope where the Rio Yaqui flows in Mexico). The thought that a small remnant pop­ulation might exist, lead some to believe there might still be a chance to reintroduce the Mexican grizzly to New Mexico.

Reading over old letters on the subject, I was stuck by the fol­lowing quote. “I am equally interested in seeing the Gila Wil­derness restored and it would be wonder­ful if the grizzly could be put back into the ecosystem.” That letter was signed by A Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold. Also, in that same time period, while not endorsing any specific proposal, both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service seemed far more open to the con­cept of grizzly reintroduction. The Forest Service even commissioned a study on the feasibility of such a reintroduction. The bottom line was that the reintroduction was not considered radical, but rather more mainstream by a large percentage of people living across the West in the seventies and early eighties.

Historically, the Mexican griz­zly was slightly smaller in stature than the Yellowstone or Alaskan brown bear. It once roamed in the Gila country and large parts of New Mexico until it was extirpated around 1921. Although the Mexican grizzly is considered to be extinct, some still hold out hope. But, realis­tically any reintroduction of grizzlies in New Mexico would require bears from Yellowstone National Park. Such action seems unlikely with the current Administration.

In one of her first acts as Inte­rior Secretary, Gail Norton chose to ignore strong local support for the reintroduction of the grizzly in the Selway-Bitteroot section of Idaho and Montana. For years, efforts had been made to put griz­zlies back on the ground. These rural communities were educated on the issue and the support was very strong even across party lines. But despite such support and the years of effort that went into the reintroduction, it was squashed by politics and one executive decision. Recently the Bush Administration has even pushed for the grizzly to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act in the Yellowstone region. By doing so the protec­tion for critical habitat would be removed and hunting of this great bear would once again begin in a limited manner. Interestingly, since the reintroduction of wolves in Yel­lowstone, populations of grizzly in the greater Yellowstone Ecosys­tem have increased to over 600 animals. Biologists believe that the wolf kills of elk and deer have left more carcasses on the ground allowing more food for the bears.

Ironically, the debate over griz­zly bears seems far more limited to the United States than the rest of the world. When we think of the grizzly ranging wild and free, images of Alaska and Yellowstone quickly come to mind. But the griz­zly has other refuges around the world and most of them in lands that have been actively grazed for perhaps thousands of years. Today small numbers of the bears can be found in the Italian Alps, Scandina­via, Siberia, Canada, Iran, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, in parts of Western Europe and Palestine. In Asia, the Himalayan Brown Bear (U. arctos isabellinus) is found in the foothills of the Himalayas. In Japan, the Higuma or Hokkaido brown bear (U. arctos yesoensis) is found on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Such a diversity of land­scapes and human environments speaks to the bear’s ability to co-exist and thrive in many different environments. In Siberia, the bears tend to stay in the forests, while in Europe they are more commonly found in mountain woodlands, and in the US the same bears tend to stay in areas of high alpine tundra.grizzly bear3

In 1997, as wolves were being prepared for release in the Gila, conservationists were also opening the door to grizzly reintroduction. The concept was to use the large roadless area that defines the Gila, Aldo Leopold and portions of the Blue Range Wilderness in Arizona. This, combined with the sparsely roaded areas that surround or con­nect these wild areas, creates more than 4 million acres with very low human population and tremendous habitat for grizzlies. Local ranchers led the charge against reintroduc­tion. Since they live and made their livelihood in this area, the idea of a 600-pound predator in their midst was not pleasing. So it was no surprise that the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau came out opposed to grizzly reintroduc­tion. By 1998, then Congressman Joe Skeen publicly opposed any thought of reintroduction, going so far as to have Jamie Rappaport, then Director of U.S. Fish and Wild­life, tell a U.S. House Budget hear­ing that the agency had no plans for reintroduction of the grizzly in the southwest.

Since that time, wolves have once again graced the Gila, though clearly those opposed to their rein­troduction have used bullets to try and stop their foothold in the southwest. For the grizzly such ignorance would likely be repli­cated. Reintroduction of the grizzly remains a complicated concept. Those living in the mostly rural affected communities would likely fight such an effort. And in their defense, it’s always easy to write about such concepts when you are living in an urban environment far away.

But from the standpoint of having a healthy, sustainable environment and from the position of truly loving wild country, wild lands that do not have grizzlies are frankly missing some of the spirit that makes them truly great. For generations the grizzly has been misunderstood and, as a result, mistreated. But no animal has been as revered in Native American or Western Ameri­can folklore as the grizzly. Today the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilder­ness Areas combine to protect over 760,000 acres of wilderness. But adjacent to those boundaries lies close to another one million com­pletely roadless acres.

When one looks at the Gila Coun­try, this vast beautiful stretch of land that Aldo Leopold proclaimed “the cream of creation”, it seems like a test of mans’ willingness to co-exist with wildlife and a chal­lenge to our comfort zone. It also is a litmus test of our growth and understanding of the value of wil­derness and wildlife and what these mean to the human spirit. From where I am sitting, the grizzly bear needs to come home.

I welcome your thoughts about grizzly reintroduction. Please e-mail your comments, pro or con, to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sabinoso wilderness bill passes House

Las Vegas Daily Optic

June 10, 2008

By Tom McDonald

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Monday that would set aside 17,638 acres of land about 40 miles east of Las Vegas as a wilderness area. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., authored the legislation, which passed the House unanimously as the Sabinoso Wilderness Act of 2008. Udall said he worked with a variety of groups “to make this a plan that everybody, from every part of the political spectrum, can support.”

The area is located northeast of Trujillo along the Canadian River in San Miguel County. Supporters of the bill say it’s home to a variety of wildlife, including several bird species, coyotes, mountain lions and gray foxes. The area is rich in canyon vistas, including the 1,000-foot tall Canyon Largo, and impressive rock formations — all part of a vibrant Great Plains ecosystem.

If passed into law, the act will designate the area as protected wilderness managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state of New Mexico. The land would be available for grazing, hunting and other recreational uses.

Plans for the wilderness area were developed by Udall in consultation with Bureau of Land Management officials and local landowners, according to Udall’s office.

Among the groups supporting the designation are the San Miguel County Commission, the Las Vegas San Miguel Economic Development Corporation, the state House of Representatives (through a resolution sponsored by Rep. Thomas Garcia), the Wagon Mound and Springer town councils, and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“It’s been a long time coming in getting public lands protected as wilderness areas in New Mexico,” Nathan Newcomer, media director for the Alliance, said Monday. “I think we’re starting to see more of it.”

Newcomer said New Mexico is the birthplace of wilderness protection; the Gila Wilderness Area north of Silver City was the first designated area after the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed into law. Such designations protect areas by making development off limits while opening the land to the public, “which truly contributes to quality of life,” Newcomer said.

Udall touted the Sabinoso area’s environment and its history.

“Sabinoso is more than an incredibly beautiful patch of land,” Udall said in a news release announcing the bill’s passage. “It is a thriving ecosystem and a piece of New Mexico history. Visitors to the area will find horses, wild turkeys and other birds most people never get a chance to see. They will also find homesteads that go back generations and pristine wilderness that still looks like it did when settlers first came to this part of North America.”

Udall is pushing for passage in the Senate “as quickly as possible,” according to the release.

Working to Keep Sabinoso Wild

Albuquerque Journal

Monday, July 7, 2008
By Raam Wong
Journal Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The absence of the Sabinoso wildlands in eastern San Miguel County from most road maps is perhaps fitting given the forlornness of its hulking mesas and dry streambeds during these long, dusty days of summer.

It exists near where the high-desert plains along N.M. 104 east of Las Vegas abruptly sink and form sandstone canyons more than 1,000 feet deep.

Ranchers once called this place home, as evidenced by abandoned homesteads still filled with items like a rickety rocking chair and a yellowing copy of “Casper, the Friendly Ghost.”

Largely untrammeled by man, the Sabinoso is now close to being kept that way by the federal government. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation designating 17,638 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management as a federally protected wilderness. The bill must now be taken up in the Senate and signed by the president.

“Sabinoso is a pretty spectacular area,” said Nathan Newcomer of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, which has been lobbying to protect Sabinoso for about three years. Newcomer said the area is one of New Mexico’s last intact Great Plains ecosystems.

A wilderness designation would put Sabinoso off-limits to the kind of energy development, off-road vehicles and other activities seen across so much of the West, while offering solitude to outdoors enthusiasts who trek in by horseback or foot.

Former New Mexico senator Clinton P. Anderson was a driving force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act, which aimed to protect areas where the natural world is unhindered and “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Four federal agencies manage more than 105 million acres of wilderness, or nearly 5 percent of the United States, according to the Wilderness Society.

In the 1970s, BLM began identifying holdings that might be suitable for the wilderness designation. For years Sabinoso has been one such “wilderness study area.” This year’s legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe, would move Sabinoso from limbo to wilderness for perpetuity.

“Sabinoso is more than an incredibly beautiful patch of land — it is a thriving ecosystem and a piece of New Mexico history,” Udall said in a recent statement. “Visitors to the area will find horses, wild turkeys and other birds most people never get a chance to see. They will also find homesteads that go back generations and pristine wilderness that still looks like it did when settlers first came to this part of North America.”

The House passed Udall’s legislation unanimously last month. A spokesman for Rep. Steve Pearce, a southern New Mexico Republican and Udall’s opponent for the Senate, said Pearce “did not object to the bill.”

Wild West

Bounded by private ranches, the Sabinoso study area about 40 miles east of Las Vegas is essentially unreachable by the public. Getting even close to the area requires a long, bumpy ride over private two-track roads, through several gates and past cattle that frequently block the way.

The dirt road stretches for several miles before a turn-of-the-last-century homestead with a metal roof and broken glass windows marks about as far as you can go on four wheels. It’s another couple miles or so on horseback or foot to reach the proposed wilderness.
“Having a wilderness area doesn’t mean people have to (be able to) get here,” said BLM’s Taos field manager, Sam DesGeorges, who saddled up a few government horses last week for a tour up Sabinoso’s canyons. Still, BLM is presently looking at a few locations where it could establish a right-of-way and trail head.

The tour followed a faint, stony trail that might have been used for mineral exploration some time ago. It’s pretty much the only sign of modernity for miles around.

Federal land need not be entirely pristine or untouched to qualify for a wilderness designation. Rather, the law defines wilderness as an undeveloped area “retaining its primeval character and influence” and which “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

The designation would grandfather in the grazing rights of 12 permittees who hold leases to graze up to 1,700 head of cattle each year. But wilderness would bar any other development, such as oil and gas exploration, as well as motorized vehicles.

BLM could build some trails, but DesGeorges said the public might prefer to experience the area the way he did, through exploration.

Six canyons stained buff, red and tan offer ideal terrain for hikers, horseback riders, photographers, geologists and hunters.< 

A diversity of habitats, from the heavy woodlands up high to the willows and cottonwoods along the rivers down below, support a variety of birds like the red-tailed hawk and wildlife including mule deer and bobcats.

But on a scorching July morning last week, the only signs of life were deer and bear scat along the trail and a couple of rabbits hunkered beneath shady rocks. And when the locusts fell silent and the wind rustling the ponderosa momentarily paused, a stillness took over where you could almost hear yourself sweat.

A 6,150-foot-high mesa bisects the land, and the ride up is a steep, rocky, bushwhacking affair up a trail thick with juniper and pinon. Lagartija Creek was bone dry on one side of the mesa, while on the other, a stream coursing through the 1,000-foot-deep Cañon Largo trickled toward the Canadian River.

Newcomer, of the Wilderness Alliance, said a broad alliance of ranchers, environmental groups and local and state lawmakers support protecting Sabinoso.

“Wilderness,” he said, “is something all New Mexicans have a stake in.”

23 Wild Lobos Left in New Mexico

mecian gray wolf2 300x187

Today’s news of a 12% decline in the wild population of Mexican wolves is a big disappointment but, frankly, not a surprise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its cooperating state and federal agencies stopped managing for the conservation of endangered lobos four years ago, and the population has declined in three of those four years. The stated objective for 2007 was a 10% population increase, thus the Fish and Wildlife Service fell 22% short of their goal, leaving only 52 of these critically endangered animals in the wild. Of even greater concern is that the number of breeding pairs declined from seven at the end of 2006 to only four at the end of 2007. When breeding pairs are routinely destroyed or broken apart it is hard to grow a population. Indeed, only nine new pups were added to the population, and two of those have died already in 2008.

The Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, 4.4 million acres of remote public lands teeming with elk and deer, was identified by wildlife biologists as the best place for the first reintroduction of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf. The objective for this initial recovery effort was to establish a viable, self-sustaining, wild population of at least 100 lobos by the end of 2006, eight years after the first releases.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should issue an immediate moratorium on any further killing and removal of wolves until the population rebounds to at least 100 wolves, as recommended by the American Society of Mammalogists.

Ignoring science and bowing to pressure from special interests, the Bush administration, and politicians, the Fish and Wildlife Service has abandoned its legal obligation to protect, conserve, and recover the Mexican gray wolf—the most endangered mammal in North America. Rather, conflicts (whether real or induced) are routinely resolved by killing or permanently removing wolves, risking the second extinction of this rare, ecologically important carnivore.

None of this is the fault of the lobos whose only interest is to survive and prosper in the remaining wild lands of the Southwest. The wolves have shown their ability make a living in their native habitat. They eat mostly elk and deer, consistently breed and reproduce in the wild, and very few die of causes other than those inflicted by humans.

Scientific research has shown that wolves and other large carnivores improve the biological diversity and overall health of the landscapes where they live. Following the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, young willows and cottonwoods, formerly devoured by unwary elk, have returned to stream banks, beavers have returned, and songbirds are more numerous. A variety of scavengers including eagles, ravens, weasels, and foxes are flourishing from the free lunch left for them by wolves.

Southwest residents broadly support the wolf recovery effort and want to see lobos thrive in the wild once again.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal and moral obligation to protect and conserve endangered lobos and restore them to viable populations within their former range. But their continued authorization of excessive killing and removal of wolves is having the opposite result.

It’s like hiring a contractor to remodel your home and, instead, they tear it down. You would be outraged; and the American public should be outraged at the continued use of tax dollars by our public agencies to destroy endangered Mexican wolves.

Conflicts do arise between wolf recovery and other uses on our public lands, especially livestock grazing. The Fish and Wildlife Service has a proper role in seeking to minimize conflicts, but not at the expense of the conservation of endangered lobos. Wolves have a right to exist and are legally entitled to at least equal status on public lands.

It is wrong policy to give domestic livestock higher priority than endangered wolves on our public lands. Solutions will require abandoning the tools of the past—shooting and trapping—and adopting more innovative management practices and new policies that reflect modern ethics and public sentiment favoring the conservation of wild wolves.

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