“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children.”
— Native American Proverb
As a community member studied the first two panels erected across from the Spic & Span, he asked, where are the animals? Where are the bison, deer and elk? Be assured that the animals will be represented and are as much a part of our history as the people who depended on them for survival.
Pedro Vial, a French trapper, blazed a road from Santa Fe to St. Louis in 1792. He returned to New Mexico the following summer. Almost three decades later, William Becknell would travel a similar route — what came to be known as the Santa Fe Trail.
After Mexico won its independence from Spain, the people of El Norte opened trade (legally) with the United States. During this period, beaver and river otter pelts were in high demand.
Many Norteños, along with French trappers began hunting beaver to meet the high demand in the east. The Mexican government realized the negative impact to the environment caused by overtrapping. In 1838, the departmental junta of Chihuahua declared a six-year moratorium on trapping both beaver and river otter. This act is recognized as one of the first conservation measures in North America.
After the Mexican-American War, the river otter and the beaver had no protection. By 1890, the beaver and otter were “practically extinct.” The market for pelts dropped dramatically by the 1950s; thereafter beavers were given a new start. However, the river otter never recovered.
The bison were the main means of survival for the plains natives. It is widely known how the natives used every part of this majestic animal. In 1850, there were an estimated 13 million bison on the plains.
The beaver trade was driven by the market. The wholesale slaughter of bison was driven by acquisition of land and racism. One army officer said, “Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” Gen. Philip Sheridan stated, “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.”
The bison were also a nuisance to the railroad. Train operators would intentionally slow down the train so passengers could target practice on the bison herds. From 1872 to 1875, over 9 million bison were slaughtered, after the 1880s only a few hundred were left.
The Lobo (Mexican grey wolf) was the keystone species of El Norte. The wolf culled the bison, deer and elk herds. They systematically took out the weak; this kept the herds healthy.
In 1911, Aldo Leopold (ecologist, forester) was transferred to the Carson National forest. His assignment was to kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions. The objective was to protect the herds of the many cattle ranchers in area.
When Leopold shot what was believed to be the last Lobo he recalled, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
This event was the turning point for Leopold. He began to rethink the importance of the predator in the New Mexico wilderness. He maintained that wildlife management should be through restoration and diversity.
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Another place that believes in restoration of our land and diversity in our wilderness is the Wind River Ranch near Watrous. The Wind River Ranch has been working diligently to reintroduce the bison, prairie dog and beaver. The bison have been provided by the Picuris Pueblo and Jicarilla Apache. They are also restoring the land that was destroyed by the overgrazing of cattle ranchers.
Currently, the Wind River Ranch has presented Awakening Spirits: Wolves in the Southern Rockies. This publication makes a riveting case for the reintroduction of wolves, and the failures, successes, and attitudes surrounding the issue.
We have had a disturbing and reckless past. However, with the work of Aldo Leopold and the Wind River Ranch (Dr. Brian Miller and new director Teresa Eaker Grey), there is hope for the wild animals of El Norte.
Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.