Chuck Darwin, Eat Your Heart Out

The Chiricahua Mountains are as rugged and diverse as the Galápagos but have one big advantage: They're right here at home.

   

David Hardy stops and says calmly, "There he is." I look at a spot I've already looked at twice, and there, indeed, he is—a very large black-tailed rattlesnake, coiled in perfect camouflage less than three feet from our boots. A miniature radio transmitter implanted in the snake's body has led us right to him, and yet the handsome olive and chestnut pattern on his back enables him to disappear into the leaf litter like a Marine sniper. Fortunately, like all rattlesnakes, this one's only aim is to escape detection, so he continues to lie immobile next to the faint wood-rat trail along which his next meal is likely to come. We step gingerly aside, and Hardy, a retired anesthesiologist whose avocation is studying rattlesnakes, takes notes on location, time, and temperature.
This snake is one of 41 that Hardy has radio-tagged over the last 11 years, and those 41 snakes are but a fraction of the thousands of animals lugging around some sort of ID within the Chiricahua Mountains, a range of 9,000-foot peaks tucked into the southeastern corner of Arizona. Birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects—name a species, and someone is likely studying it. Researchers come from around the world, employing the latest technology in radio collars, radio implants, "passive integrated transmitter" tags, ear tags, even tiny bar codes cemented to butterfly wings and hummingbird leg bands that would be a snug fit around a pencil lead. A common sight from my backyard in Cave Creek Canyon is an intent scientist waving what appears to be a high-gain television antenna, probing for the signal from some wayward subject. An innocent visitor might think we were living in some sort of nefarious biological police state.

The reason for this intense scientific scrutiny is simple: The 1,000-square-mile Chiricahua Mountains represent an ecological crossroads of unparalleled diversity. Four major North American bio-regions converge here, two of them deserts (the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan) and two of them mountain chains (the Rockies and the Sierra Madre). The result is a biotic stew stunning in both numbers and contrast. Consider: Of the 700-odd species of birds that regularly occur in the United States, over half can be found in this area. Within a 20-mile drive from the base of the Chiricahuas to the top, you rise from cactus and thorn scrub to Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce—the equivalent of a trip from Mexico to Canada.
Bring Marlon Perkins along on that drive and it's doubtful he could narrate fast enough to describe its wild kingdom. Black bears and peregrine falcons rule the high country, while coyotes and roadrunners—sans explosive Acme apparatus—prowl the flats. Just east of the range, rancher and hunting guide Warner Glenn photographed a jaguar in 1996, and residents of Cave Creek Canyon have reported glimpses of jaguarundis—black, house-cat-size felines indigenous to tropical Mexico.
The United States blew its first chance to preserve these mountains more than 100 years ago. Cochise, the leader of the Chiricahua Apaches, for which the mountain range is named, negotiated a reservation that included the entire range, but after his death the treaty was summarily trashed, and Cochise's people were herded to distant reservations. Had the United States kept its bargain, it would have avoided the considerable trouble caused by a later Chiricahua leader named Geronimo.
Today the mountains are protected to varying degrees. There's a 12,160-acre national monument and an 87,700-acre wilderness area, while the rest is primarily Forest Service land. It's all still wild, however, and not a destination for the high-adrenaline outdoor-sports crowd. There's not a ski area within 200 miles, most of the rock is too crumbly for climbing, and anyone in a hang glider would probably be captured and radio-tagged by an overzealous grad student.
You'll be mostly on your own when you visit. There are few inns, fewer restaurants, and fewer gas stations still. Instead there are miles of uncrowded trails, offering some of the most diverse wildlife viewing anywhere in the world. Bring a good pair of binoculars and every field guide you can find—you'll need them all.

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