A Pristine Sky Island Ecosystem
Recently we had the pleasure of taking some students to the Sierra del Carmen conservation area in northern Mexico. The "del Carmen" as it is locally known, is a sky island ecosystem located just over the border (i.e. across the canyons of the Rio Grande River) from Big Bend National Park in Texas. While similar in ecology to Chisos range in Big Bend, the del Carmen mountains are roughly 3 times the area of the Chisos and are also higher, rising to almost 9,000 ft. above sea level. Hence, the forest is grander and thicker than the Chisos and holds a much higher density of black bears, mountain lions, and other medium sized mammals than does its cousin to the north (black bears actually resettled Big Bend in the 1980's from individuals in the del Carmen, who swam across the Rio Grande looking for new habitat).
The del Carmen is a private reserve managed by the large multi-national conglomerate CEMEX, who purchased the land from private landowners beginning in 2000. CEMEX now owns or manages approximately 400 sq. miles of habitat, ranging from dry grasslands and desert arroyos in the lowlands, to oak and pinyon pine forests at mid-elevations, all the way up to towering douglas firs and aspen groves near the mountain tops. These lands used to be heavily grazed and logged, but when CEMEX took over they began to restore the lower country with native grasses and ceased logging operations in the high mountains. They also reintroduced native species to the area, and today in addition to bears and cougars the preserve contains sizable populations of mule deer, carmen white tailed deer (subspecies of white tailed similar to the Coues deer), pronghorn antelope, Rocky Mountain elk, collared peccary, and desert bighorn sheep. The latter have been raised in a 10,000 acre breeding enclosure, and are still today being regularly released as free ranging animals into the open areas of the preserve. CEMEX's dedicated efforts have led to a dramatic reversal of fortune for the del Carmen, restoring this vast wilderness area to its former glory.
A Student Group's Experience
Because the del Carmen is privately held and functions as a set-aside to restore native habitat, it is not open for public visitation and access is only granted to small groups through a few select operators like Naturalist Ventures. Some of these groups are students from universities or preparatory schools, whose purpose is to study real-world conservation strategies, learn about animal sign and behaviors, and identify rare plant communities.
This is precisely what the students from Pace Academy in Atlanta, Georgia came out to do this past spring. During their four days at the preserve, they learned to recognize a variety of animal tracks and sign, including making plaster casts of individuals species. Their first day was spent exploring the desert canyons and arroyos at the base of the mountains and examining tracks and scat in the dusty road and along
dry washes. Numerous black bear, white tailed deer, gray fox, and elk tracks were documented, along with many other smaller species including a variety of birds and reptiles.
The group proceeded up into the cooler mountains to spend the next two days, hiking through lush forest and finding animal tracks and sign all along the old logging trails. Being unaccustomed to human presence, animals who live there roam freely throughout the mountains and are not wary of staying out of areas regularly frequented by people. In addition to finding many tracks
(including a mountain lion trail), the
students were taught how to recognize 1) bear bite marks and mountain lion scratches on trees, 2) scat from bears, mountain lions (including scrapes), deer, elk, bobcats, and foxes, and 3) other sign including predation events (elk carcass) and bird pellets.
On the last day the group took a tour of the bighorn sheep enclosure where they got a glimpse of a small herd of rams and ewes along desert bluffs, including several lambs. On the desert floor, many tracks were visible in the dusty soil including bighorns, mule deer, collared peccaries, black-tailed jackrabbits (sighted along the road), coyotes, and gray foxes. The enclosure has a high, electrified fence around it in order to keep out predators like mountain lions and black bears, though coyotes occasionally sneak in through depressions and drainages. The students departed by taking the ferry back across the Rio Grande at the quaint little Mexican village of Boquillas (across from Big Bend National Park), where they spent time exploring the colorful streets displaying crafts from local artisans, adding a cultural splash to their outdoor adventure before returning to home.
Visiting the del Carmen
The del Carmen is a magical place visited by very few, and If you would like to see its rugged beauty and learn first hand about the amazing flora and fauna that inhabit it, please drop us an inquiry at email@example.com, or call +1 (512) 763-0764. We can also conduct tracking workshops and Cybertracker Conservation certifications in addition to bird language classes, so let us know what interests you as the del Carmen never fails to inspire!