Monday, May 30, 2016

Wildlife and Wilderness

May 23, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, Bighorn sheep and the Desert antelope could be found in and around the Superstition Mountain region. The Desert Bighorn sheep were recently reintroduced to the wilderness, but the Desert antelope are now extinct. It is not difficult to visualize giant rams bounding up and down the rugged cliff faces of Superstition Mountain and Desert antelope running in the flatlands south and west of the mountain.

The native Bighorn sheep became extinct in the 1930s with the last Bighorns being poached near Apache Springs (Hieroglyphic Springs). The last Desert antelope were reportedly killed in the area around 1903. The old stage coaches running from Goldfield to Florence between 1893-1898 report large herds of antelopes on the desert plains southeast of Superstition Mountain in the early spring of each year.
Desert Bighorn on the northern edge of the Superstition
Wilderness Area c. 2014.
Photo by Tom Kollenborn, © 2014.

These two species were driven from their natural habitat by three major causes. First there was uncontrolled hunting. This was prior to regulations involving wildlife. This led to the decimation of local populations of Bighorn Sheep and Desert Antelope.  The introduction of domesticated animals prior to the turn of the 20th Century destroyed many of the natural ecosystems. Then there was the encroachment of civilization or urbanization. Meat hunters decimated the remaining animal populations with long-range modern firearms and what they didn’t destroy, was futher decimated by overgrazing.

As urbanization marched eastward from Phoenix and urban thrill poachers added to the final kill. The Superstition Wilderness Area was filled with Jackrabbits, Coyotes, Bobcats, Desert Mule deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Lions, Black Bear, Red-Tailed Hawks, Harris Hawks and a variety of other animals shortly after the turn of the 20th century.

It was the middle of 1920s when game and range management practices arrived in the desert east of Mesa. The survival of some species appeared to be possible in the early 1930s. The poaching and hunting of wild animals was controlled somewhat during the ‘30s and ‘40s. The impact of game management didn’t really take hold in the region until after World War II. The implementation of game and range management techniques helped to provide sufficient browse for wildlife and domesticated stock.

Controlled hunting of the Desert Mule deer, Whitetail deer and Peccary insured a future for game hunting in the Superstition Wilderness Area and Central Arizona. Conflicts arose between wildlife managers and the grazing of domesticated livestock. Over the following years many of these conflicts were resolved. Without game and range management the future of wildlife in the wilderness was dismal at best.

The Peccary (Javelina) is common to the Sonoran Desert uplands where Prickly Pear cactus can be found in abundance. The Peccary, weighing between 35-45 pounds is one of the most sought after game animals in the region. Each February thousands of hunters take to the field in search of these small elusive animals. The Tortilla Ranch area is an excellent area to spot Peccary.

The remaining large mammals of the Superstition Wilderness are the Black bear and the Mountain lion. The Mountain lion ranges throughout the wilderness, but is primarily found in the eastern half of the region and is rarely seen by humans. The Mountain lion numbers have been reduced considerably during the past three decades. However, during the past decade it appears the Mountain lion is making a comeback in the area. The last Mexican Jaguar (El Tigre) was killed near the Reavis Ranch around 1913. The Black bear creates a considerable amount of controversy when a count is mentioned.  Some claim the Black bear is extinct from the entire Superstition Wilderness region.  However, several sightings have been made as recent as 2008. Keith Ferland, my neighbor, and I spotted a Black bear in the lower pasture of the old Reavis Ranch in October of 2000. Hunters and trackers have reported bear signs and sightings in the Reavis Ranch valley quite often in recent years. The number of hikers and horseman who travel the trails of the Superstition Wilderness certainly impact the population of these two animals. Their numbers appear to have stabilized. Cattlemen have always tried to decimate the lion population because they prey on young cattle and game.

The Coyote was one animal that continued to survive despite the sophisticated efforts by man to eradicate it. The animal has adapted well to its environment whether it’s in the city or the wilderness.  Its numbers continue to increase as man encroaches upon it range.

The Coyote was God’s dog to some Native Americans. The cattlemen consider the Coyote a ruthless killer of young calves and sheep, and to the environmentalist he is salvation from plague-infested rodents which man has never been able to control. So in any event the Coyote has numerous friends and enemies. There are many pros and cons about their future control. The total eradication of Coyotes endanger the human population to some degree.

The Coyotes’ lonely call still rings through the canyons and from the high ridges of the Superstition Mountains on a moonlight night announcing a change on this dynamic planet’s motion. Man’s constant seduction of his natural environment could someday lead to his own demise on this planet.

The future of wildlife hunting and the preservation of the Superstition Wilderness Area may come into conflict. The wilderness may someday become a wildlife preserve. The massive urban growth to the west is a threat to the environment of the wilderness and has created a dramatic impact on the future of the Superstition Wilderness. Planners and managers are trying to address these future problems today.

The Superstition Wilderness with its archaeological treasure trove, trail system, isolation, tranquility and its wildlife lies threatened in the path of this urban onslaught. No other American wilderness area lies in such a position. Thousands of valley residents seeking recreational use of the land will cause severe damage unless we implement education, strict regulations and laws to control the use of the area.  The public land belongs to all of us and no special interest group should control its use. Most developers and a lot of politicians prefer irrigated golf course as open space in Arizona today instead of wilderness.

The wildlife and beauty of this wilderness is extremely important to future of our beautiful state. The preservation of wildlife is also part of this formula as well as the many archeological sites in the Superstition Wilderness Area.