Nature Notes: In the Shadow of the Carmens: A Journey into the Mountains of Mexico

NPS photo/ Cookie Ballou ;The Carmen Mountains, seen from Big Bend National Park.

For visitors to Big Bend National Park, views of the Carmen Mountains of Mexico can be as memorable as those of Santa Elena Canyon or the Chisos Mountains. The high, striated cliffs above Boquillas Canyon are a favorite with photographers. With wooded summits farther south, the inaccessibility of the Carmen Mountains only heightens the attraction.

Few Americans have explored the Carmens. But in a recent book, a West Texas naturalist recounts a decade of discovery in an isolated range.

Bonnie McKinney has spent more than 30 years studying wildlife in the borderlands. In 2001, she became wildlife coordinator for a vast preserve in the Carmen Mountains. The land is owned by Cemex, the Mexican building-materials company.

McKinney’s book – In the Shadow of the Carmens – was published by Texas Tech University Press in 2012.

They’ve been known by many names – the Fronterizas, El Jardin. The limestone cliffs near the Rio Grande are often called Sierra del Carmen, and the forested summits to the south, Maderas del Carmen. But McKinney sees a single landscape – the Carmens.

“You go from the Rio Grande and the lower desert,” McKinney said. “You’ve got Boquillas Canyon and all of those wonders. Then you start climbing, and then you’re finally at 9,600 feet, and it’s like you’re in Ruidoso, New Mexico. You have fir. You have species of plants that are found nowhere else in the world.”

Part of what makes the Carmens so striking is the mingling of alpine and desert environments.

“Where else are you going to fine strawberries in a mountain, and dewberries and little apples?” McKinney said. “What’s really amazing is you’ll have a 65-foot-tall Southwestern white pine tree and a fire tree, and you’ve got a yucca growing right in the middle of that. Just incredible.”

McKinney’s work started with a comprehensive wildlife survey. Across the 400,000-acre preserve, she and her staff spent three weeks a month in the field.

“I had four biologists and myself, and that’s all we did – straight wildlife work, straight baseline inventory for the first two years,” she said. “Catching bats at night – there are 23 species of bats out there. We were out every day all day long. I’d go in and have dinner and go back out and net bats till 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.”

The researchers documented 300 bird species, 65 species of reptiles and amphibians and 91 species of mammals. McKinney tracked peregrine falcons to their cliffside eyries, and even photographed mountain lions.

Some of the most thrilling finds were the smallest. In 2003, McKinney’s crew trapped a Coahuila mole. This tiny creature, found only in these mountains, hadn’t been documented since 1951.

McKinney helped reintroduce native species that had disappeared – including pronghorn, elk and bighorn sheep. And there was one animal that really rebounded.

“The bear population has grown tremendously,” McKinney said. “There were bear there when we moved – there were bear there for sure. But the bear population now is huge. The most I’ve seen in one day is 17 bears. And that was pretty amazing.”

The Carmens have a lot in common with Texas’s mountains. But they’re much bigger and taller.

“For example, the Chisos – their pine-oak woodlands are gorgeous,” McKinney said. “There are like 10 square miles of pine-oak. In the Carmens there are 110 square miles, and there are 16 species of oaks.”

In the 1930s, West Texans and federal officials envisioned Big Bend as part of an international park.

While we’re not there yet, this Cemex land in Mexico is being conserved. In this wildest stretch of the Texas-Mexico border, more than 3 million acres are now set aside for conservation.

Despite her years in the mountains, McKinney said the Carmens retain their mystery.

“It’s amazing country – you never know from one day to the next what you’re going to see,” she said. “I lived there for 14 years and didn’t see half of it. There’s so many little niches and nooks and crannies in the mountains and little canyons. You could be out walking and go around the corner, and, it’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this was here.’”

For most Big Bend visitors, the Carmen Mountains, off in Mexico, remain a tantalizing vision. But McKinney’s work takes us closer.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.