Restoring the Grizzly to the Southwest: Aldo Leopold’s Escudilla, Revisited

Escudilla Mountain seen from my campsite dominating the horizon. Photo George Wuerthner.

Life in Arizona was bounded underfoot by grama grass, overhead by the sky, and on the horizon by Escudilla.” So begins Aldo Leopold’s memorable essay Escudilla in Sand County Almanac, where he describes the killing of Bigfoot, one of the last grizzly bears in Arizona.

Escudilla was a mountain that one could see from almost any quarter in northern Arizona, and what made it special was the big bear. Leopold wrote of how whenever anyone rode up on Escudilla, they often encountered the tracks of Bigfoot and they always thought of the bear.

Then one day, a government trapper came to the area, seeking to slay dragons and predators to make the country safe for cows. Unfortunately, Bigfoot occasionally killed a cow, so Bigfoot became his target. Finally, after a month’s effort, he killed the grizzly.

Leopold admitted at the time, no one questioned the policy of killing predators and making the world safe for cattle. However, upon reflection on the loss of the bear and how it symbolized a narrow view of the land’s values, he later wrote, “It was only after we pondered these things that we began to wonder who wrote the rules of progress.”

Leopold ends his eloquent essay with the final sentence. “Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it, you no longer think of the bear. It’s only a mountain now.”

I first discovered Leopold’s writing during my sophomore year of college at the University of Montana. I was enrolled in a unique program known as the Round River Experiment, named after another of Leopold’s marvelous essays. Round River was an attempt to blend science and humanities into one program, and not surprisingly, Leopold’s book was mandatory reading.

Numerous essays in Sand County resonated with me, including Thinking Like A Mountain, and the Land Ethic, among others. Still, his writing about Escudilla struck a chord with me. And I always wanted to see the mountain patrolled by Bigfoot up close, a sort of journey to Mecca, if you will.

It has taken decades, but this past March, I finally climbed through snow-covered the aspen and spruce forests and up through beautiful meadows of gramma grass to the top of the 10,912-foot mountain, now adorned by a fire lookout tower. The summit  and slopes of Escudilla are within the tiny 5158-acre Escudilla Wilderness.

The entire time, Leopold’s essay echoed in my head, especially the phrase that Escudilla was only a mountain now that the grizzly was gone. It with a sense of remorse to traverse the beautiful gramma grass meadows knowing the bear was no longer a resident of the mountain or for that matter all of the Southwest.

But not all is lost. When Leopold was riding the ranges of northern Arizona in the 1920s, Merriam’s elk, a subspecies, had been extirpated. In 1913, 83 elk from Yellowstone National Park were transplanted to the state. And since that time, elk numbers have grown, especially in the Blue River country, which Escudilla towers over.

I was excited to find elk tracks all over the mountain as I ascended, and I kept stopping to glass the forest glades for a sign of the animal. Unfortunately, I did not see any live animals, but like finding Bigfoot’s track delighted and excited Leopold, I too was pleased to find elk sign all over the mountain.

In addition to looking for elk, I hoped to spot a Mexican wolf. Unfortunately, Mexican wolves were extirpated from Arizona like the grizzly and the elk. However, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the wolf’s howl is again ringing through the canyons and rimrock of northern Arizona and adjacent parts of New Mexico. A wolf pack roams Escudilla today. So I anxiously stopped at every muddy spot looking for tracks of a wolf.

I did not see a wolf, but I was delighted to know they might be there.

But during my entire hike, I kept thinking about the grizzly bear, or I should say lack thereof. I tried to imagine how differently Escudilla would “feel” if there were grizzlies in the Gila/Blue River wildlands.

Escudilla is part of a much larger remote wildlands complex. Immediately to the south of Escudilla is the Blue Range Primitive Area and Blue Range Wilderness. To the Southwest are the 558,000-acre Gila Wilderness and Aldo Leopold Wilderness. And to the west are several large Indian reservations that might be amenable to the restoration of the bear, the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache reservations. The White Mountain tribe has been receptive to wolf restoration, but the San Carlos is not. But that doesn’t mean they would feel the same way about grizzlies.

WildEarth Guardians have begun promoting the Greater Gila Ecosystem concept that would include Escudilla Mountain. The Greater Gila has the most significant block of remote wildlands in the Southwest.

The dark green areas are designated wilderness, lighter green are roadless lands. Map WildEarth Guardians.

Recently grizzly bear biologists David Mattson and Troy Merrill completed a study (Modeling restoration areas for grizzly bears in the Southwest) on the potential for grizzly bear restoration.

Map of original range of grizzly bears in the Southwest and Mexico. (From Mattson and Merrill)

They concluded that three areas were remote enough, productive enough, and secure enough to provide the restoration of the grizzly bear. Escudilla Mountain falls within a reserve they named the Mogollon area of northern Arizona and New Mexico, which they estimated could sustain up to 620 grizzlies. Two other sites, the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo areas, could provide potential habitat for another 425 and 281 bears, respectively.

Their study concluded: “The Mogollon Complex holds the greatest promise of any for restoring grizzly bears to the Southwest. It is the largest Complex and, when Protection Areas are included, has a low edge to area ratio. It also encompasses some of the most remote and productive areas in the Southwest.”

Restoring grizzlies to northern Arizona and New Mexico is not any more far-fetched than restoring Mexican wolves or even elk. Admittedly there are numerous obstacles, including the likely resistance from local ranchers and residents. After all, many of the residents of this part of Arizona-New Mexico still have values more common in the last century than today.

Indeed, the nearby community of Reserve, in Catron County, New Mexico, is cynically called Reverse by my friend Dave Foremen because he says the political and frontier attitudes found in Reserve are like going “back” in time. He did not mean it as a compliment. Indeed, Mattson and Merrill specifically address Catron County residents’ attitudes and concerns as one of the significant obstacles that would have to be overcome to restore grizzlies successfully.

Unfortunately for wolves, elk, and even perhaps the restoration of grizzly bears, a recent study of Escudilla Mountain found that cattle were still the most abundant large mammal. Given the federal government’s continued support of predator control, even on public lands, to benefit the cattle industry, it may be some time before we see grizzlies back on Escudilla. However, voluntary grazing permit buyouts could help to reduce these conflicts.

Later that day, after returning from my hike, I drove north and camped for the evening at Lyman State Park. I stroll up a ridge behind my campsite to find a way off in the distance, the summit of Escudilla clearly visible on the horizon just as in Leopold’s day.

My hope is that we will understand progress is about preserving the ecological integrity of the landscape. We need to finish the job of restoring of the environmental integrity of Escudilla Mountain that we have begun with the return of elk and Mexican wolves. And that reestablishing grizzlies, wolves, and other predator is an act of healing the land from past abuses.

I look forward to the day when I or perhaps my kids will see Escudilla on the horizon and think again of grizzlies, not long gone but a vital component of the wild landscape.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy