Protecting the Greater Gila Ecosystem


The Mogollon Mountains of the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico is the heart of the Greater Gila Ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner


I have spent most of my adult life living within, exploring, learning about, and trying to protect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is one of the premier wildlands in the nation and deserves the national and even international attention bestowed upon it.

Yet, there is another biological treasure equally deserving of national attention, the ten-million-acre Greater Gila Ecosystem. WildEarth Guardians based in Santa Fe, is leading the campaign to protect this region.

I’ve had the pleasure of exploring the edges of this land. Some of my fondest memories of these wildlands is encountering an elk herd near Whitewater Park in the Gila Wilderness and seeing wolf tracks in the Blue Range Wilderness.

Ponderosa pine in Gila Wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

The Ecosystem includes the Gila Wilderness of western New Mexico and the nearby Blue Range area of eastern Arizona and other outlying wildlands. The 640-mile-long Gila River, along its tributaries, the Mimbres and the San Francisco River, form the connecting piece of this landscape. The Gila is the last undammed significant stream in the Southwest.

Communities surrounding the Greater Gila Ecosystem include Silver City, Los Pinos, Mimbres, Glenwood, and Reserve (which my friend Dave Foreman calls “Reverse” because it is like going back in time–the cultural attitudes resemble those of the 1800s).

The Blue Range Wilderness Area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

The protected landscapes include the 558,065-acre Gila Wilderness north of Silver City, New Mexico. Other protected lands include the 202,016-acre Aldo Leopold Wilderness, which straddles the Black Range and the Blue Range Wilderness, and the 29,304-acre   Blue Range Primitive Area.  Two smaller wilderness areas, the Apache Kid Wilderness and Withington Wilderness, are located along the eastern fringe of the Ecosystem. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located along the Gila River headwaters north of Silver City.

Map of the Greater Gila Ecosystem. Dark green is designated wilderness, lighter green are roadless areas. Map by WildEarth Guardians. 

The Gila Wilderness plays a significant role in the conservation movement. Aldo Leopold, the author of a Sand County Almanac and the first professor of a Wildlife Biology program in the nation, was a Forest Service ranger in Arizona and New Mexico. One of his most famous essays is Thinking Like A Mountain, about when he killed a wolf and watched it die. It changed his view of predators and led to his eventual career as a wildlife advocate.

Aldo Leopold, working as a ranger for the Forest Service in the Southwest, convinced his superiors to set aside the Gila region as the nation’s first wilderness area. 

However, while the Forest Service still employed him, he convinced his superiors that protecting the wildland values of the Gila area was worthy of the agency’s mandate. As a result, the Gila Wilderness Area was created in 1924 by administrative decree. Later, the Gila Wilderness became the first wilderness to be designated by Lyndon Johnson when he signed the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Much of the Ecosystem is within the 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest, the largest national forest in the southwestern region.

The Gila Box National Riparian Conservation Area near Safford, AZ. Photo George Wuerthner

However, there are other federal lands of interest, such as the BLM’s Gila Box National Riparian Conservation Area of Safford, Arizona, which contains a canyon with outstanding riparian vegetation.

Geology often controls its vegetation. The Greater Gila Ecosystem is located on the boundary of the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field. It straddles the boundaries between the Basin and Range, southern Rio Grande rift, and Mogollon Slope. The Mogollon Mountains form an arc across the wilderness. The tallest peak within this range, Whitewater Baldy at 10,895 ft (3,321 m), is in the northwest part of the Gila Wilderness, along with several other summits more than 10,000 ft (3,048 m) high.

The Ecosystem is one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the United States where components of the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, northern termination of the Sierra Madres with Representative elements of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. This meeting of the ecosystems is one of the reasons the area has such diverse biodiversity.

The Greater Gila Ecosystem includes the Blue Range, Mogollon Mountains, Black Range and several other mountain ranges. Photo George Wuerthner

Much of the lower elevations consists of pinyon-juniper woodlands with grasslands, which grade into ponderosa pine, and at higher elevations, Douglas fir, blue spruce, Gambel oak, and aspen. The Gila Wilderness includes mesquite, Southwest white pine (also endangered due to blister rust) Apache pine and is the northern-most home of the Chihuahua pine. Riparian species include Fremont’s cottonwood, Arizona sycamore, alder, and willow.

A large old-growth Fremont cottonwood tree along the Gila River. Such “historic” relicts are increasingly scarce since livestock consume the regenerating saplings. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Greater Gila is home to the most diverse assemblages of birds and mammals in the Southwest. The region is home to 100 native mammal species, 95 of which are amazingly still extant in the area and 200 species of breeding bird species.

The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, has been reintroduced into the wild of the Greater Gila Ecosystem, but significant recovery has been thwarted by continuous killing of the wolves by both poachers and the federal government (in response to livestock losses). Photo George Wuerthner

It is home to numerous endangered species, including the Mexican wolf, Gila trout, loach minnow, Chiricahua leopard frog, Gila woodpecker, and Southwestern willow flycatcher as well as black bear, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and javelina.

The Gila has been the focus of conservation efforts for many of New Mexico’s most imperiled taxa; the Mexican spotted owl, the Mexican gray wolf, the Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican garter snake, Gila trout, headwater chub, loach minnow, and spikedace.

Since the first humans colonized the region, we have been degrading the Ecosystem. Beginning with tribal people who even with limited technology and low populations had significant impacts on the Ecosystem. For example, the Paleo Indians may have helped to exterminate Ice Age mammals.

Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. Photo George Wuerthner

There are competing theories about why the Pre-Pueblo people abandoned their cliff dwellings, but one idea is they overcut forests and destroyed valley bottoms by removing native vegetation and planting corn and other crops. These changes in vegetation and hydrology, exacerbated by a major drought during the Medieval Warm Spell, led to greater violence and starvation (including evidence for cannibalism)  forced them to relocate near permanent water sources.

The Greater Gila Ecosystem includes the Blue Range on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Navajo moved south from Canada over a number of centuries and the tribe colonized the Southwest sometime around the late 1500s or about the time the first Spanish expeditions were exploring the region. The Navajo were continuously at war with their neighbors including the Ute, Pueblo people, and Apache. Their ability to travel long distances to steal, kill and terrorize other tribal people was facilitated by the cultural appropriation of the horse stolen from the Spanish. These other tribes, in turn, often attacked the Navajo. In addition to horses, the Navajo also had sheep and cattle stolen from Spanish and later American settlers. This livestock contributed to the overgrazing of the Southwest.

However, Indian impacts tended to be localized and restricted by their smaller populations and limited technology. The really big ecological degradation arrived when Euro Americans’ settled in the Southwest in the 1600s, followed later by American fur trappers, miners, settlers, miners, and loggers, all equipped with their technological advances including metal axes, rifles, the wheel, and many other innovations that accelerated the ecological decline of the region.

Kit Carson was among the fur trappers who based out of Taos, NM and led a number of expeditions across the region to trap beaver pelts. 

American fur trappers operated out of Taos, New Mexico. Beaver trapping removed these rodents from streams where their small dams created wetlands and permitted the soaking of riparian soils. The sponge effect of riparian areas releases water during the drier parts of the year. Beaver dams also slowed the erosive force of the numerous summer thunderstorms that are characteristic of the Southwest. We’ll never know how much the loss of beaver impacted the region’s waterways, but this was likely a significant influence that is yet to be reversed.

The introduction of domestic livestock into the Southwest was the single greatest source for environmental degradation. Removing livestock would go a long way towards healing the wounds inflicted on the Greater Gila Ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner

Livestock grazing is by far the biggest threat to the Ecosystem.  Some 90% of the region’s public lands and private lands are grazed. As a result, Mexican wolves are regularly killed (not to mention coyotes, cougars, and black bears), rivers are dewatered, grasslands are often grazed to dirt, and waterways suffer pollution from livestock waste which are all outgrowths of livestock production. Most public lands, including wilderness areas and nearly all private lands, are available for livestock grazing. The one prominent exception is Ted Turner’s 156,000-acre Ladder Ranch which lies on the eastern edge of the Ecosystem where domestic livestock were removed, and bison now roam the landscape.

Arroya cutting as a consequence of the destruction of riparian habitat, soil compaction and other damage resulting from livestock production. Photo George Wuerthner

Permit buyout works like this. A rancher agrees to retire the public lands grazing permit associated with the ranch for a predetermined and agreed upon payment. Typically, the funds for such retirement come from private sources. One of the essential elements of a grazing permit retirement is that the federal agencies managing the land honor the agreement and terminate all grazing on the allotment. Permit buyouts can benefit ranchers by enabling them to retire, buy other private lands for livestock production or pass on a substantial endowment to their heirs.

In the arid Southwest, cattle are attracted to riparian areas with water and green vegetation, damaging watersheds. Photo George Wuerthner 

Now we have a chance to “heal” the land and pay our dues to the planet by removing livestock from the area. Livestock grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right, though many federal land management agencies defer to ranchers’ interests in managing these public lands. One of the best ways to remove livestock is by Grazing Permit Buyouts. WildEarth Guardians is leading the charge on permit buyout efforts and is very organized in its approach to buyouts, focusing on allotments in roadless areas and wilderness.

In addition, allowing natural wildfires to continue to invigorate the landscape is critical. The Gila National Forest has had one of the more progressive policies towards wildfire in the country. As a result, several large blazes have rejuvenated the landscape in recent years, including the Whitewater Baldy complex. These blazes are resetting the ecological “clock” and can continue to provide a diversity of habitats in the region.

The Gila Wilderness is one of the strongholds for the endangered Mexican wolf. Photo George Wuerthner 

Other ways to restore the ecological integrity of the Greater Gila Ecosystem would include greater protections for the Mexican wolf, the designation of the Gila River under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the establishment of more designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. In particular, the Blue Range Primitive Area in Arizona and its surrounding roadless lands should be protected as formal wilderness.

Wilderness designation represents restraint and a recognition that other species depend on the Earth and is philosophically one of the best ways to mend the tattered elements of the Gila Ecosystem.

Since the first people arrived in the Southwest thousands of years ago, human activity has contributed to the degradation of the Greater Gila Ecosystem. Though somewhat worse for wear, there are enough remnants of the natural landscape that we can, with care and diligence,  cobble together a large functioning ecosystem.  However, we must practice restraint and humility to ensure that the Greater Gila can persist into the future, hopefully in better condition than how we inherited it.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner