Big Bend
Administrative History
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Redrawing the Boundaries of Science: 1937-1944

In the years between the first NPS surveys of southern Brewster County and the opening of Big Bend National Park, the park service devoted much time and money to drafting plans for natural and cultural resource management. The NPS and academicians would expand the database formed in the first months after congressional authorization, and work with the state of Texas to protect the land and its flora and fauna from exploitation. Throughout this period, the NPS faced the loss and restoration of the Civilian Conservation Corps and its camp in the Chisos Mountains, and the onset of the Second World War with its budget reductions and restrictions on travel. The park service also endeavored to fulfill the dream of an international park by means of further scientific research in the mountains of Mexico. Finally, the desire of Sul Ross State Teachers College to ally itself with the new national park took several turns, as President Howard Morelock pursued funding and facility development on his campus from the NPS and private agencies in the name of international peace and hemispheric cooperation.

One of the first studies available to NPS officials in the spring of 1937 was the full report of Ernest G. Marsh on his survey the preceding summer of the Sierra del Carmen and the Santa Rosa Mountains of Coahuila. Marsh told his superiors of his difficulties in gaining access to Mexico, as he had been told by the office of the Mexican consul in San Antonio "that other than my having to have the necessary collecting permits from the Mexican department of Caza, Pesca y Forestal for which negotiations were already underway," that he should have no problems. Then the University of Texas graduate student discovered that "the Mexican immigration officials in Piedras Negras insisted on making a very technical interpretation of my entrance, to cause me a prolonged delay." For eighteen days, Marsh "worked with the Mexican officials to have one question after another arise as we progressed." The student technician's every answer would be transmitted to Mexico City for an official ruling "before my permits were in order and my equipment bonded under the rules and regulations of Mexican law pertaining to the 'Transuente' passport issued to me." [1]

Heavy rains some 50 miles south of Piedras Negras slowed Marsh's travel substantially, requiring seventeen hours to reach the interior town of Muzquiz. From there he joined with local guides Victoriano and Fidel Villarreal to head north into the Sierra del Carmen. At the small village of Piedra Blanca the party left their automobile, and loaded their equipment onto pack mules for the remainder of the journey. "During the next month," Marsh would recall, "I experienced alternating sieges of good luck and misfortune." At times "I was truly fascinated with the wilderness of virgin nature that lay on every side," only "later to find myself damning my incompetence and fate." Yet Marsh managed to spend "long hours in the field," covering "quite thoroughly the canyons along the western sides of the northern Del Carmens." After a month in the field, "certain losses from the plant and bird collections made me think it better to return to Muzquiz and thence to Eagle Pass rather than to follow the original plans of passing at Boquillas." It took ten days to retrace his steps "over La Gacha, La Mariposa and the Canyons along the Santa Rosa Escarpment." From there Marsh had an uneventful drive to Piedras Negras, and returned home to Austin in late September. [2]

Marsh's report to the NPS included the most thorough set of color slides of northern Coahuila yet available to park service planners. The student technician took extensive notes of the flora and fauna in each picture, often remarking on their beauty and uniqueness. He also caught on film community life in Muzquiz and other villages that few Americans had ever seen. Marsh saved his most effusive comments for the fauna of the Sierra del Carmen, noting the abundance of the band-tailed pigeon, "appearing in great numbers with as many as one hundred birds flying together as they feed on the acorns and wild cherries growing in the arroy[o]s of the upper foot-hills." The Texas graduate student told his superiors that "this beautiful bird has evidently found its perfect habitat here in the northern Carmens." With an "abundant food supply," and "the absence of its most destructive enemy, man," the band-tailed pigeon flourished in the north (a condition that changed the further south Marsh observed the bird). He also saw at least four species of doves, five species of hawks, and had several sightings of the golden eagle. "The question often has been raised," wrote Marsh, "as to whether the Golden Eagle actually does kill young stock animals." The technician examined a report of seven young calves killed by eagles on La Mariposa Ranch. Marsh could not link the mutilations to the golden eagle, but he did report that "in the Del Carmen Mountains, I saw an eagle kill a large jackrabbit and fly several miles with it dangling from its claws." He surmised that "the occasions are few when [the eagle] finds it necessary to attack animals so large as calves, but when there comes the time, his great strength and courage can serve him well." [3]

Mammals of all types abounded in the Sierra del Carmen as Marsh and his guides hiked the canyons and mesas. One of the most commonly sighted creatures was the opossum, which local residents referred to as the "chicken hunter." The student technician also marveled at the number and variety of bats in the Sierra del Carmen. "The little Canyon Bat," he reported, "is very abundant throughout the Western Hills," and Marsh considered it "a rare sight to see with the aid of a long range light after nightfall the thousands that feed over the Western Hills tank." Black bears proliferated in northern Coahuila, but they also faced the hazard of hunters. Until 1932, wrote Marsh, American hunters killed several bears annually on the Jardin Ranch. That year "the owner of the north Carmen country, an official in the Mexican Diplomatic Corps, began to refuse permission to hunting parties." As a result, "only three bear are reported as having been taken since by residents who have stock on parts of the range." Marsh contended that "the heaviest drain on the bear in the northern Del Carmens over a fifteen year period" came from "hunting activities of members of the American Club, located across the mountains from the Jardin Ranch." In recent years, however, "impassable roads" had rendered the club "inactive." Thus Marsh could report in 1937 that "in general, the present status of the bear in the Del Carmen and Santa Rosa Mountains is excellent." Mexico had placed "no rigid rules of enforced preservation" on hunting bears, but Marsh believed that the animal faced "little danger of depletion." Instead, "under such ideals of habitat as are furnished by the inaccessible rocky canyon country and a bountiful food supply of acorns, madrona berries, wild cherries, and persimmons as well as small mammals," wrote Marsh, "there is every evidence of significant increases." [4]

The NPS technician could not say the same about smaller animals such as the raccoon. "I saw no sign of this intelligent little fur bearer north of the Rosita Ranch," reported Marsh, as "the last raccoon taken from the northern Del Carmens was caught by a trap in 1930." Further south towards Muzquiz, Marsh learned of sightings of raccoons, but "the status of the raccoon could be improved." The technician believed that "in those regions where he is adapted to live," the raccoon "is persecuted continuously by an abundance of dogs and men." The striped animal "is forced to take refuge in the mountains and live in discord to his preference." Marsh contended that "it is reasonable to believe that after seeing the region that raccoons were once quite common around Muzquiz and in the lowland valleys as far north as Piedra Blanca." He told the NPS that "with some enforced protection," the raccoon could be restored to the Sierra del Carmen. [5]

More surprising to Marsh was the presence of small fur-bearing animals like the mink and spotted skunk. The NPS technician caught some 30 specimens of the long-tailed Texas skunk, which he "found abundant throughout the Del Carmens and Santa Rosa Mountains." Marsh also had trapped a Mexican Badger, but could not locate the Arizona Gray Fox. Coyotes were quite common in the Sierra del Carmen, said Marsh, and "hardly a night goes by without the 'music' of this desert hunter." He most often spotted coyotes that were "small and buffy-white shading to black." Yet Marsh also recognized a larger coyote with longer and lighter hair. The student technician found "astonishing the number of coyotes which can be brought together by dragging the viscera of a butchered cow over several miles of cattle trails." Marsh recalled that "among my pleasantest experiences have been the times that I lay hidden on the leeward side of frequented trails and watched the coyote bands pass in the moonlight." He counted as many as twenty animals traveling together, and also remarked that "even though the coyote lives in such abundance to the region, it is seldom condemned as a predator." Marsh learned that "occasionally it is accused of killing goats or sheep," and in such cases "a few animals are trapped each year," in one case by "two dogs trained as killers that had the reputation of having betrayed many a coyote into his death." [6]

Marsh spoke at length also about the Mexican gray wolf, known as the lobo. Santo Domingo to the east of the mountains, wrote Marsh, "reports 200 cattle killed in 1934 and 1935 by ravaging bands of lobo." The NPS technician learned from local ranchers that "over the last fifteen years, the number of domestic stock pastured in northern Coahuila has more than doubled." Yet "reports of a wolf caught by trap are rare, principally because the wolf is a wary creature and the average Mexican trapper has not learned to match his wits." Another species of predator that Marsh noted was the Mexican cougar (sometimes called a mountain lion). "The accounts of the lion are many," wrote Marsh, "though he is seldom seen alive." He also observed that "a number of hides are found used as rugs in every hacienda." Local hunters attributed to the cougar the "killing of young horses and deer." A "Mr. Pauly of the Encantada [Ranch]" told Marsh that "a lion [had] killed three colts in his remuda on four consecutive nights in 1935," with one of the horses "found dead forty miles from the site of the killing the night previous." Marsh reported "no wholesale persecution of the lion over the region," yet "once a killer lion makes his appearance, he is pursued at once." [7]

Based on his extensive fieldwork, Marsh surmised in the spring of 1937 that "wildlife research in the Sierra del Carmen be made continuous from this study as a cooperative program between the Department of Parks in Mexico and the National Park Service." His travels through the frontier of Coahuila indicated that "such a program would be welcomed and beneficial to the Mexican department." In addition, joint studies "would stimulate a very desirous spirit of cooperation between the corresponding departments in the two nations." Finally, wrote Marsh, this collaboration "would facilitate in time, money, and results the rehabilitation of the Big Bend Park area." He noted that NPS officials like William McDougall, Maynard Johnson, and James Stevenson had called for "the making of certain ecological studies in order to determine the original status of plants and animals over the land area." Marsh also thought it wise to "observe the relation of one species with another toward the end of rehabilitation of the depleted wildlife." This latter initiative would "accomplish an understanding of the physical environment most conducive to a favorable propagation and distribution of native plant and animal species." [8]

Marsh had evidence of this because of the stark contrasts between the ecology of the Big Bend area and northern Mexico. "Subjected for many years to the adverse influence of man and livestock," wrote Marsh, the future NPS site "has been sorely used." Even "such environmental conditions as could be generated on experimental plots for ecological study could not be of the most desirable character." Marsh believed that "once a maladjustment is stimulated, even though the cause is in time removed, the original set-up cannot be established except over long periods of years." The NPS could not afford the luxury of such lengthy studies, as "the need of results is for the immediate future in order that a directional influence can be placed upon phases of the Big Bend wildlife to accomplish a timely restoration." [9]

Given this scenario, the NPS technician viewed the Sierra del Carmen as "structurally and biologically, a region essentially identical to that of the Texas Big Bend and the Chisos Mountains." He conceded that "the Del Carmen Mountains and the surrounding plains for a number of years have been subjected to the influence of man." Yet he considered this "to such a lesser degree, that excepting certain localities, words [such] as overgrazing and depletion are not needed in descriptive phrases." He noted that "certain large areas in the mountains and on the plains have been free of livestock for twenty years and longer, while more extensive tracts have seen little detrimental effect from the few live stock that they have held." This condition had occurred with "little enforcing of game laws by officials in northern Coahuila." One reason was because "upon those large ranches that hold the bits of concentrated population, the ranch owner takes great pride in the game upon his property, and under such conditions of abundance as exist, comparatively little hunting is encouraged." Marsh found this "reflected into the unrestricted areas free from molestation," where "the wildlife responds positively." Journeying out from Muzquiz, "the most impressive feature is the apparent abundance of wildlife and the congeniality it holds for its progeny." Marsh then concluded that "for a true understanding of an original, unmolested environment, and for a less expensive, more satisfactory program," Mexican and American park planners should select portions of the Sierra del Carmen to be "studied extensively, the results of which will be applicable immediately to the corresponding areas in the Texas Big Bend." [10]

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Last Updated: 03-Mar-2003