Cattle Grazing America’s Most Endangered River

It is late June and hot. My partner and I sort through our gear and pack for around 6 days worth of supplies. I am looking forward to returning to the wilderness for some long awaited backpacking. I cannot wait to get out there, to be on the water, to hear and smell those familiar mountains and to be on that river. With anticipation, and a bit tiredness from the drive and heat, we geared up and took our first steps into the river. It is still hot, and we hadn’t backpacked for several months, but it’s not too bad. Not bad at all. I, for one, am happy to be walking away from civilization again.

We take our time exploring the intricacies of the route and enjoy some swimming along the way as we meander downstream. Because of the lengthy drive, heat and our casualness in departing at any specific time, we were off to a late afternoon start when we stepped off. We knew we wouldn’t get far the first day because of this and of course, seemingly, just around every bend is something beautiful that tempts us to lingers just a bit longer to experience. Another great swimming hole! And just like that, the packs drop to the ground, our clothes come off and we go in. We aren’t getting very far. But that has never been the point. We are enjoying ourselves out here on this lovely, life-giving river. This isn’t a route I’ve explored much in this wilderness, usually we take to another fork of the river, so it’s newness is exciting. We are on the main fork and don’t know what to expect. After a short, hardly half-a-day of hiking, we are ready to stop for the night. And though very tired, I feel at home again.

Historically, the Gila River was an impressive 649-mile tributary of the Colorado River that flowed from New Mexico and through the entire state of Arizona, east to west. Sourced in southwestern New Mexico, the Gila River flows from the western Continental Divide in the Black Range mountains, then maintains it’s flow through the Gila National Forest and onward into Arizona where it’s flow has been interrupted by the Coolidge Dam and several large irrigation diversions. Ultimately the Gila River empties into the Colorado River in Yuma. Because of the many man-made dams and diversions, in many parts of Arizona the river disappears, despairingly into hardly a trickle. However, the upper Gila River within New Mexico remains free-flowing, un-dammed. Which is why this river is so special. It is New Mexico’s last remaining, free-flowing river. And has been recently named the most endangered river in the United States by American Rivers.

What makes this river so incredibly special to me, is not only that it is our last remaining free-flowing river in New Mexico, but also that the source of this river springs from the nation’s first-ever designated wilderness: the Gila Wilderness. So alas, I try my very best to act as an ecological stewardess and protector of the wilderness, at any chance I get. And oh, how I would have loved to be able to backpack this river’s historical route in its free-flowing entirety. But I cannot, so I do my best and appreciate its beauty within the here and now.

The next day we continue the same, hiking our miles slowly, in fact hardly keeping track at all. And of course, we take multiple swimming breaks to alleviate the dry, June heat. As we made our way into the heart of the Gila we found bear, elk, bobcat and cougar tracks along the river. I am in heaven again. Knowing that I am surrounded by wild-life always brings me such serenity. It is where I am in that so-called “heart-space”. We choose our campsite for the night just above the rivers edge tucked into giant Ponderosas. My partner disappears back towards the river to get some water while I finish setting up camp and at a moments glance I catch him excitedly running back while waving me to follow him. He tells me of a very large bull elk at the river. Unfortunately, the elusive animal disappears by the time I reach the bank. No matter, still so happy to know they are there.

That night, we both were awakened by the call of a Mexican Spotted Owl above us somewhere in the trees. Hoo…Hoo-hoo. Hooooo…! “Yes! A Mexican Spotted Owl!” (me) “How beautiful.” (my partner). The Mexican Spotted Owl is a critically threatened species that requires old-growth forests in order to thrive. Unfortunately, Mexican Spotted Owls are experiencing a trend of decreasing population and are poor adaptors to the onslaught of changes that have occurred throughout our forests. They have been in constant direct conflict with loggers, cattle-grazers and developers for many decades. I am relieved, and honored, to hear of their presence as we sleep.

The next day carries on much the same way as before. Yet, there is something different about today. As we continue down-stream, the canyon begins to open, then close and open again. It is still so stunningly beautiful though, I am not taking as many photos as usual. Sometimes, photos just don’t do nature the justice it really deserves. And I am just wanting to take in the journey. But something is not right. The air even seems different. Drier. Less crisp, somehow. And I begin to get a bit sneezy: strange.

We stop at a nice swimming hole for a break, snack and swim before continuing onward. Around the next couple of bends we begin to see very large areas of collapsed banks and large depressions along the banks and trails, five by four feet or-so and about a foot deep. I began to believe the worst, hoping it wasn’t so. Around one particular bend we hear, rather suddenly, a large animal scamper about and catch motion of blackness running away into the thick vegetation.

I was right: “Cows!!!” The changes we sensed in air and in the general area was then revealed to us. Disgusted by this discovery, our spirits were damped. We hardly wanted to continue onward this route. How can this be allowed!? We wondered aloud. This isn’t right! This wilderness was, IS special. As are all wilderness areas in our eyes. Yet, it was allowed to be destroyed in this way, by cattle grazing rights. We bared witness to the destruction, right before our very eyes. As we continued hesitantly, I pulled out my camera and began documenting the damage. One of the longest standing disagreements of public land use: cattle grazing was happening in its full glory right here. In this wilderness area, home to the threatened Mexican Spotted Owl and home to the endangered Mexican Gray wolf. This is not the first time we’ve experienced this in our many backcountry experiences. Our frustrations time and time again, only grow stronger with regards to public land use. And this time, especially, it hits us at our core.

We began to see more cows which deflated us even further. That night we set up camp in a less than ideal location and decided that we’d head back upstream in the morning. Below are some photos of the destruction we saw as well as an explanation for the large depressions we kept discovering. They are in facts dirt wallows cows create by kicking up dirt over top of their backs. Very damaging to the rivers watershed. These impacts were enormous. And yet, they are allowed to continue. According to law, it is up to public land agencies prevent such overuse, abuse and destruction to the ecosystems that make up our nations public lands. Sadly, it has become the norm for these agencies to be a part of such poor land management. Ironically, I am as angry bull as I write this.

I’ve experienced this type of destruction in multiple wildernesses throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. And I always fail to understand how we can allow our public lands to be abused in this way. OUR LANDS. YOUR LAND! And here it was happening on American’s most endangered river! New Mexico’s last free-flowing river.

You can read about the laws that pertain to public grazing here. And although the Wilderness Act may have not come to fruition without a compromise of grazing rights, it is a practice that in my opinion as an ecologist, must change. It was incredible to see what such pristine wilderness can quickly turn into when grazing is allowed. To help get cattle grazing off of our public lands click: here.

Nevertheless, our route back upstream we camped another night and was fortunate to watch a bull elk climb up a mountain side as well as other wildlife. That was nice.

Here is a video of the cattle destruction we watched from across the river:

And here are some more photos:

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