A large area of forest lies burned in the Gila National Forest on June 15, 2012. The Whitewater-Baldy fire, a blaze that has charred more than 453 square miles of the forest and its famed Gila Wilderness, is the largest in the state’s history.
KC Shelden/ U.S. Forest Service
Lobo Week, March 23-30, 2015, marks the 17th anniversary of the Mexican gray wolf’s return to the wild. However, this wolf subspecies’ tortuous recovery journey actually began over 40 years ago, when the 1973 Endangered Species Act inspired Americans to build an ark. One of the first creatures we welcomed onto our ark was the gray wolf. But arks and best-laid plans sometimes don’t work as intended.
In 1977, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) contracted Roy McBride to capture wild Mexican wolves in Mexico to begin a breeding program for this nearly extinct subspecies of gray wolf. Ironically, McBride, who for years had lethally trapped wolves, now applied his considerable skills to wolf conservation. In three years he caught five animals. Just in the nick of time, too, because by the early 1980s the Mexican gray wolf had gone completely extinct in the wild.
In 1990, USFWS hired David Parsons to lead the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. Parsons augmented McBride’s five wolves with two certified pure Mexican gray wolves from captive populations in New Mexico and Mexico. The USFWS then designated the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area, which straddled Arizona and New Mexico, where these wolves would be released. It totaled 7,000 square miles of national forest lands and contained a primary recovery area nested within a broader secondary recovery area.
Due to politics and resistance, it would take a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity to spur the 1998 USFWS release of eleven captive-bred Mexican wolves into the Blue Range. Since then, an influx of captive-bred wolves has bolstered this population. Today fifty licensed centers breed wolves for this federal program. Top facilities include the Wolf Conservation Center in New York, the California Wolf Center, and the Turner Endangered Species Fund’s Ladder Ranch in New Mexico.
By 2014, only 83 Mexican gray wolves survived in the wild. This population struggled due to poaching and legal killing by the federal government for livestock depredation. Conservation biologist Paul Paquet and others concluded that it faced a very uncertain future without key management reforms.
Other recovery tools include the 2015 USFWS Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Rule. It increases ten-fold the area where wolves can be released and raises the recovery goal to 300-325 individuals. Yet experts call this insufficient. In the meantime, el lobo continues to face an uncertain future.
Educating the public and bringing awareness to the situation with scientific information will likely be the most important way in supporting the future preservation of the Mexican gray wolf in the wild.
“We are very excited to announce the inaugural designation of an IDA Dark Sky Place on Forest Service land, and hope to strengthen our ties with this important public land management agency,” said IDA Executive Director J. Scott Feierabend.
International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are public or private lands possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights. Their dark nighttime conditions are specifically protected for their scientific, natural, educational or cultural value, and are often located in some of the most remote and undeveloped parts of the world. Sanctuary designations are made by IDA to increase awareness of these fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation.
The new International Dark Sky Sanctuary is a 3.5 acre (1.42 hectare) site in the Gila National Forest of western New Mexico, U.S. Located between the Gila Wilderness and the Blue Range Primitive Area, the Cosmic Campground is situated in an exceptionally dark part of the lower 48 U.S. states. It features a basic infrastructure to support campers and offers a 360-degree, unobstructed view night sky.
The nearest significant source of electric light to the site is more than 40 miles (m) away and across the border of neighboring Arizona. Coupled with ready accessibility by road and typically clear, dry weather conditions at moderate altitude, the Campground could become a new mecca for amateur astronomers and casual stargazers seeking a one-of-a-kind experience under the stars.
“The Cosmic Campground, a peaceful, natural night sky place is ideal as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, the United States, and the Earth,” explained Ann Grauer of Friends of the Cosmic Campground. “We are honored to help preserve and protect this small, dark place for present and future generations to connect with their inherent fascination and attraction to our night sky.”
There is no permanent, artificial lighting installed at the Cosmic Campground, and the Forest Service’s plans do not call for any such lighting in the future. Rather, the Campground is to be maintained in a state that allows visitors to experience nighttime conditions close to those before the introduction of electric lighting in the late nineteenth century. At the same time, visitors can access modern conveniences, such as wi-fi network connectivity via a cell tower located 15 miles to the south of the Cosmic Campground.
Officials see the potential for the Cosmic Campground’s new IDA status to yield a positive economic benefit for western New Mexico. Tourists who come for the extremely remote character of the nearby Gila Wilderness may well find that the Campground extends the sense of the area’s primitive quality past sunset.
New Mexico’s unique landscape is characterized by north-south mountain ranges that are part of the Southern Rockies and the southerly flow of the Rio Grande. To the east toward Texas are high plains. To the west toward Arizona are the San Juan Basin, Plains of San Augustin, and the dramatic Mogollon Rim and rugged Gila Wilderness. The southern boundary is part of a broader region across southern Arizona to West Texas described as “Islands in the Sky” for high north-south maintain ranges separated by stretches of Sonoran and Chihuahuan desert. The quick transitions of the landscape, from mountains to rivers to deserts, contribute to New Mexico’s mystique as the “Land of Enchantment”.
Wildfire shatters record for largest in New Mexico
MSNBC.com:A wildfire burning in the Gila National Forest is now the largest blaze on record in New Mexico, a fire incident spokesman says. Two lightning-sparked fires merged last week to form the giant blaze, which has grown to more than 170,000 acres.
Photo: Smoke from the Whitewater-Baldy Fire is seen on Tuesday, May 29, 2012, in the Gila National Forest, New Mexico. (Andrea Martinez / Gila National Forest via msnbc.com)