The Treasure of the Sierra del Carmen

A private company's effort to save wildlife-rich deserts and mountains on the Rio Grande gives Latin America its first designated wilderness

  • Michael W. Robbins
  • Feb 01, 2007

"I first started coming here when I was just six years old," says wildlife photographer and conservationist Patricio Robles Gil, speaking of a mountainous desert region called Sierra del Carmen, in the northern end of Mexico's Coahuila state. "Our family was invited every year to Serranías del Burro--a group of nearby mountains--by ranchers who were family friends. Through the years, I saw there something I had never seen in the rest of Mexico. There were no towns, no paved roads, no lights and very few people. It was very remote and quite wild. And it still is."

Inspired by the stark beauty of this arid region that abuts the Rio Grande, Robles Gil founded the Agrupación Sierra Madre in 1989, a now influential conservation group that has published a score of nature books while leading the charge to create, in Sierra del Carmen, Latin America's first officially designated wilderness area. "It needed protection," Robles Gil says. "There were threats of development, with plans to build roads, and for generation after generation the ranches were being fragmented. My main focus has been to work with endangered species and to protect large ecosystems." 

Sierra del Carmen is a rugged, 40-mile-long section in the northern end of the eastern Sierra Madre range. Much of it is a so-called "sky island," ridges and peaks rising more than 5,000 feet from the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. It is an area where ranches were vast, property lines vague, human settlements small and scattered and silver mining and logging largely unregulated and destructive. For a time in the 19th century, its deep, remote canyons were favored hiding places for Apache war parties and outlaws. Uncontrolled hunting in the 20th century wiped out several species locally, including desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer and black bear. Still, with distinct habitats ranging from desert upward through grasslands to pine-oak zones in the mountains, it has remained biologically rich, home to 79 mammal species, about 80 reptile and amphibian species, 259 bird species and more than 400 plant species. Recently, the private group Conservation International placed the pine-oak forest on its list of biodiversity hot spots, regions of high biological significance. Today, about 495,000 acres of Sierra del Carmen are in the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Area.

Wildlife Corridor 
Sierra del Carmen is the heart of what Robles Gil calls a "mega-corridor of biodiversity," several million acres of contiguous trans-border wildlife sanctuaries that include Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area--all in Texas--and Cañón de Santa Elena and the Maderas del Carmen protected area. Robles Gil says that his goal for Sierra del Carmen is "to eliminate the industrial human footprint" that came with ranching, mining and logging. A cooperative effort, El Carmen-Big Bend Conservation Corridor Initiative, has been launched by the U.S. and Mexican governments, private conservation groups and area ranchers to protect this corridor and allow wildlife to move freely within an intact ecosystem, Robles Gil says.

Protection for Sierra del Carmen got under way in the early 1990s, when CEMEX--a multinational corporation based in Monterrey, Mexico, that is the world's third largest cement manufacturer--went looking for a promising large-scale conservation project.

The search led company officials, who had long had an interest in conservation, to Robles Gil, who suggested they look at Sierra del Carmen. After they did so, they promptly asked Robles Gil to be their advisor for the design of a company project there. Meanwhile, the Mexican government in 1994 officially created the Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Area.

In Mexico, Robles Gil says, "there are no public lands and much less public money" than in the United States, so achieving any kind of habitat protection means working closely with private landowners. To increase protection for the Maderas del Carmen reserve, Robles Gil in 1999 prodded CEMEX to start buying up private lands that remained inside the reserve as well as areas outside, including large ranches, small holdings and even some communal private lands. CEMEX now owns about 300,000 acres of the Sierra del Carmen and controls another 60,000 acres through agreements with private owners. The Mexican government recently declared that 42,500 acres of these lands would be protected as wilderness, making them Latin America's first designated wilderness.

Restoring Wildlife 
Creating a true wildlife reserve in a place like Sierra del Carmen, scarred by past development, means "re-wilding," that is, removing industrial debris and reintroducing wild species that have long since disappeared from the area. Key among these species is the Mexican desert bighorn sheep. "I first saw bighorns in Baja, which is a similar habitat, with escarpments and desert," Robles Gil says. Clearly, the animals belong in Sierra del Carmen, too.

CEMEX joined with Agrupación Sierra Madre and another conservation group, Unidos Para La Conservación, to initiate a bighorn restoration project. The groups built an enclosed area in which wild sheep were held pending reintroduction. CEMEX then hired wildlife biologists Bonnie Reynolds McKinney and Billy Pat McKinney away from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to guide the reintroduction.

Desert bighorns prefer isolated regions, living well away from human activity in areas where desert shrub still survives. "They are a keystone species," Bonnie McKinney says, "barometers of how wild the habitat is." Hardy survivors, they can go as long as three days without water, and their complex nine-stage digestive system allows them to thrive on poor-quality forage that would not sustain many other animals.

"Desert bighorns were totally extirpated in this area by 1950, due to unregulated hunting and disease," Bonnie says. "There was a lot of local subsistence hunting during the 1930s and 1940s. And bighorns are very susceptible to diseases among the domestic sheep and goats that were here, especially diseases like blackleg and blue tongue." 

Today, at a brood facility called Los Pilares, in the foothills of Sierra del Carmen, some 40 miles south of the Rio Grande, the McKinneys and a dozen other researchers are building a herd of Mexican desert bighorns. The 12,500-acre facility is enclosed by high fences and is predator-free, allowing the herd to reach sustainable numbers--it now stands at about 100 animals.

Since 2004, 32 bighorn sheep--all of them radio-collared for monitoring--have been released from the enclosure into the protected wilds. The first lamb known to be born in the wild to a reintroduced ewe arrived in March 2005, one of five born that year.

Serving as a Model
The groundbreaking conservation effort in Sierra del Carmen has drawn the attention and support of the Mexican government, which created a new umbrella conservation organization, the National Commission for Protected Areas, to improve the management of natural habitats. The reserve also is being watched by the U.S. National Park Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, both with a keen interest in protecting the trans-border wilderness corridor.

The designation of land in Sierra del Carmen as an officially recognized wilderness area also has served as a model for the protection of other areas. "The recent designation by the Mexican government of 620 miles of the Rio Bravo as the equivalent of a Wild and Scenic River is a direct response to El Carmen-Big Bend Conservation Corridor Initiative," says Robles Gil, whose work has set in motion the development of a true conservation ethic in Mexico. "All of this is the fulfillment of a dream."

Michael W. Robbins is editor of Military History magazine.

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