May 24, 2023 | By:

A Conservation Star Deep in the Heart

Looking North from North Franklin Peak

Looking North from North Franklin Peak © Jon Rezendes

To outsiders, the city of El Paso, Texas likely conjures images of migrant crises, narcotraficantes, and many other polarizing tropes of a majority-Hispanic blue border city in a red state. The truth is that the historic outpost along the Spanish Camino Real is actually a burgeoning conservation hub and shining example of human beings coexisting with nature in an urban setting.

El Paso’s story starts at its heart: the Franklin Mountains of the Trans-Pecos. Technically among the most northern extent of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the Franklin Mountains typify the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem and fall within the domain of the eponymous State Park that preserves its acreage for recreational hiking and biking. Without pressure from hunting or motorized vehicles, wildlife flourishes within the park’s borders and represents a significant core habitat in an area highly impacted by ranching, mining and extraction, military usage, and the urban sprawl that has plagued the Mountain West for a century or more. One need only take a short trip north or east out of the city to see the unsettling coppice dune “Chia Pet” monoculture Tularosa Basin, once short-grass bison prairie, left in the wake of over a century of irresponsible overgrazing and manifest destiny.

To combat encroachment, El Pasoans recently scored a major conservation victory with the formalization of Castner Range National Monument, a unique subset of the eastern Franklins once used for military training that will continue to be managed by the Army until all unexploded ordnance has been properly neutralized. In a ceremony that typifies the multicultural unification and joyous vibrancy of the city, Pueblo dancers, mariachi bands, and a US Army color guard alike marked the occasion in their own traditions. Those additional seven-thousand acres of bajadas and lomas, arroyos and jornadas secure just that much more space for the region’s apex predator and most elusive El Paso resident: the mountain lion.

Slopes of Castner Range

Slopes of Castner Range © Jon Rezendes

Cities like Los Angeles receive much more attention for their coexistence with large carnivores, but El Pasoans have been doing it just as long and without nearly the fanfare. Dozens of lions have been documented both in the park and within city limits over the last few decades, one famously strolling through downtown looking for water during the peak of summer drought while another snuck into the El Paso Zoo (precariously situated near an octopus interstate exchange and the international border), perhaps using runoff canals that drain to the rio. While other cats in Texas face relentless and unregulated persecution, lions in El Paso patrol the sierra without fear of human reprisal in a land abundant with mule deer and javelina. Unlike neighbors in California or Colorado, there has never been a documented modern attack by mountain lions on El Pasoans, likely a result of the relative prey abundance and unfettered flow to nearby Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, New Mexico.

The reintroduction of the desert bighorn sheep is also under consideration in 2023, restoring an iconic animal plagued by overhunting and foreign diseases introduced by invasive species like the aoudad, an African sheep-goat turned loose in West Texas to supplement flagging ranchers’ profits with trophy hunting. Safe from these invaders in the Franklins, El Paso could become a critical population for supplementing the endangered species across the desert Southwest.

These successes would not be possible without the decades-long and vigilant efforts of nonprofits like the Frontera Land Alliance and Castner Range Forever, whose tireless lobbying by titanic champions like the late legend, Judy Ackerman, pushed the National Monument designation over the finish line after years of delays and numerous threats to the range’s dramatic wilderness. Frontera also manages thousands more acres of re-naturalized and protected lands throughout the city in an effort to foster awareness. Another nonprofit, the Green Hope Project, brings conservation education to local youth through art and even raised enough money to fund internationally renowned Portuguese mural artist Bordalo II to adorn an edifice near downtown’s San Jacinto Plaza with a technicolor mountain lion made entirely of discarded waste.

Mule Deer Buck

Mule Deer Buck © Jon Rezendes

Government agencies also deserve their fair share of credit in preserving El Paso’s impacted wild spaces. The El Paso Water Department worked hand-in-hand with the Friends of the Rio Bosque to restore over three-hundred-fifty acres of wetland adjacent to the Rio Grande. While one can’t escape the looming border wall that dominates the landscape and kills corridors, the use of nature-based solutions to restore habitat and return water to the aquifer has garnered strong results, including acting as a thriving breeding ground for burrowing owls and critical stopover point for migratory birds and waterfowl.

Only education will sustain these gains. The University of Texas at El Paso’s recent reaffirmation as a “very-high research Carnegie R1 status” institution has brought an influx of funding and staff to the school’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. Millions of dollars of active research is occurring right now, studying everything from urban wildlife (like the ubiquitous rattlesnakes or those sneaky lions) to desert soils and biocrusts.

Perhaps most importantly, many of the people running these nonprofits, conducting this academic research, or operating these elected and unelected government posts are locals: Mexican-American women and men taking charge of their destinies and prioritizing their home and its well-being. Access to wilderness in an urban setting creates lifelong admirers of the natural world and conservation advocates who can imagine a future where billions of sentient apes can live alongside the rest of the creatures we left behind, so long as we give them the space.

Yucca, Castner Range, and North Franklin

Yucca, Castner Range, and North Franklin © Jon Rezendes

As Dave Foreman so sagely educated us, true rewilding takes three critical c’s: cores, corridors, and carnivores. With a protected heart, connectivity to federal land, and lions in the hills, El Paso just might be the rewilding success story the United States needs to inspire us to embrace our wilderness, look away from our screens from time to time, and admire the natural wonder of the places we call home.

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11 months ago

Thank you! As a mountain lion advocate, your was an uplifting article.
May we all coexist!

11 months ago

Keep up all your good work and excellent writing. We all need to hear good news in these challenging times. Compassion in Action!!

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