Dispatch #13: June 25, 2003 : Prairie Dogs and Conservation Easements on the Chihuahua-Arizona Border

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         Coyotes, badgers, kit foxes, and (in other colonies) swift foxes prey on them.  In 2001 the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, was reintroduced to the Janos complex, which has enough dogs to support a ferret population of six hundred. The ferret, Mustela negripes,  is a solitary animal and needs to eat a dog every four or five days, and is so completely dependent, specialized in preying on prairie-dogs, that it can’t live without them. It is what is known as an “obligate.”   In l929 Seton described the ferret as “a robber baron securely established in the village of his peasantry… [who] lives like a mouse in a cheese, for the hapless Prairie Dogs are its favorite food.” But as their prey were exterminated by the millions, the ferrets, too, began to disappear. They were also ravaged by sylvatic plague and other exotic diseases. By the mid-seventies the ferret was on the brink of extinction, but in l981 a small group was discovered on a ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Four years later canine distemper and sylvatic plague had wiped out all but eighteen ferrets in this group, and they were trapped and transferred to the National Ferret Breeding Center in Sybille, Wyoming. Were it not for this captive-breeding facility, one in Toronto, and a third  on one of Ted Turner’s ranches, Mustela negripes might have gone extinct. Only five hundred individuals exist. In l995 I thought I saw one as I was driving through the golden grassland east of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos mountains, but this was not possible, a ferret expert assured me. It must have been a masked or bridled weasel, a color phase of the long-tailed weasel,  which has a black mask and looks a lot like a black-footed ferret, but doesn’t have the total dependence on prairie dogs, although it is happy to prey on them whenever the opportunity arises,  and isn’t endangered.  Two years ago, 161 captive-bred ferrets from  Sybille  were released in the Janos complex, and Rurik said that   several American ferret biologists were at the research station, trying to ascertain how they were doing. In six of the seven places where they were reintroduced in the U.S., they did not survive, mainly because of plague, but also because the towns were too small to support them. Each ferret requires 100-150 acres of dog-town. The only U.S. population that is still going, because it doesn’t have plague, is in the Comata Basin of South Dakota.  The Janos complex is also plague-free, so everyone has high hopes for the ones that have been set free here. 

      Why has the prairie-dog been so persecuted ? I asked Rurik. “Because they are perceived to compete with cattle for grass,” he explained. “But the latest studies suggest that the cattle actually prefer to graze in dog towns, because the perritos keep down the mesquite, which obstructs their view of predators, so more grass grows in the towns, and they clip the grass so that it has a higher nutritional payload. This preference was probably true also of the bison, which had a close symbiosis with prairie dogs. Another myth is that cows and horses break their legs in their holes. A study was  done that concluded that basically it never happens.” Conn Nugent, however, who has read voraciously on the desert Southwest,  is not so sure about this. He points out that in Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor’s memoirs of childhood in the forties on a ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border that was loaded with prairie dogs, she says the holes were a real hazard. Several cowboys got badly hurt when their horses stepped into one and threw them. The one  thing about prairie dogs that does give legitimate pause is that many towns in the U.S. have bubonic plague, which in the early l900’s  spread from infected rat fleas in San Francisco into wild ecosystems as far east as the 103rd meridion. This is not the dogs’ fault, of course, but nonetheless it is not a good idea to venture into a dog-town these days unless you are sure that it is not plague-ridden. Plague is easily cured by antibiotics, if you get it in time, but this is not a disease you want to mess with. When bubonic plague infects wild animals, it is known as sylvatic plague. 
 
 
 
 

       Rurik said that the goal was to make  Janos Prairie a biosphere reserve, like the oyamel forest of Michoacan where hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies overwinter (see the Vanity Fair piece in Past Dispatches : Butterflies),  but that was going to take years of fund-raising, paperwork, and negotiation. “There are lots of guidelines and steps,”  he explained. Rurik will probably do a lot of it, but his immediate boss at the Instituto de Ecologia, Gerardo Seballos, will  also be involved, and the legal issues will be handled by Alberto Szekely, a respected environmental lawyer and ambassador sans portfolio in Mexico City. “The grasslands biome covers most of the earth, but now it is the most reduced and the least protected, so the grassland species are endangered, particularly ones associated with prairie dogs,” Rurik went on. “This complex is the best hope for the survival of  the prairie-dog ecosystem and its species. Janos Prairie is the only extensive wild habitat left for them. It was saved because the Mexican government didn’t give the campesinos money to poison the perritos, and few  of them  have money to buy the poison, so they have simply learned to live with the perritos, although some gasing does go on. So it is worth the effort to restore and protect this prairie. Maybe we’ll even bring back the Mexican wolf (a subspecies of grey extinct in the U.S. and highly endangered in Mexico). Who knows ?”

     Rurik  headed for the airport to catch his plane back to Mexico City, and we drove west for several hours to the town of Janos, checked into its one motel, and headed out to the research station, which is in the ejido, or Mexican revolutionary commune, of Buenos Aires, ten miles out of town on the way out to  Janos Prairie. Much of the ejido is taken up by the vast orderly farms of German Mennonites who came down from Manitoba (see Dispatch #8) early in the twentieth century. Power only reached it two years ago. Some of the more traditional,  Luddite Mennonites, who still drove around in horse and buggies and refused to pollute their existence even with radios, wanted nothing to do with the encroaching modernity and had decamped for the Yucatan, but the more progressive ones had stayed and had already installed central-pivot irrigation systems, which need power, in their fields. This was not good because they were depleting the water table, and Chihuahua was already in the fifth year of a terrible drought.

       At the station we found Jesus Pacheco, a junor colleague of Rurik who is studying the small mammals and reptiles and amphibians on  Janos Prairie, two students from Mexico City named Alejandra and Holanda, and four ferret biologists from the U.S., among them Mike Lockhart, who is Fish and Wildlife’s black-footed-ferret recovery coordinator, , and Travis Liveri, who works for Prairie Wildlife Research, a private conservation group based in Wall, South Dakota. The sun was going down, and they were all going to the prairie to spotlight-count ferrets. So far, only fifteen of the ones that had been introduced were accounted for. They were going to be at it all night. It was slow, tedious work. Jesus proposed meeting with him and going out to see prairie the following afternoon. 

    Next morning we explored the desert around town. A little south of it, on the road to Casas Grandes, a large complex that reached its zenith before the arrival of the conquistadores,  was a rocky hillock, a twenty-foot high pile of slabs on the desert floor with petroglyphs etched into them by one of the  nomadic groups that roamed the Chihuahuan Desert for several thousand years.   Nearby was a cottonwood bosque where Geronimo’s family was killed by Mexican soldiers. Janos Prairie, which we got to at noon, is gloriously set amid  separate little mountain ranges that stagger north to the U.S. border, and to the south consolidate into the Sierra Madre Occidental. This is classic basin and range country, as celebrated by John MacPhee. Each range is a “sky island” isolated from the next by low desert flats and rich in endemic life forms.  Janos Prairie has been called the Serengeti of North America (although it is missing the vast herds of horned ruminants, the bison and pronghorn antelope that once roamed it)  Its shortgrass  was seriously overgrazed. We could see a few dozen head of cattle in the distance, on the other size of an arroyo,  being herded by two vaqueiros. They were going to have to go if the prairie is to be restored. There are 350 ejiditarios,  each of whom is entitled to graze twenty cows on ejido commonland. But many have gone to the States; the area is losing population, so we are talking about 200 or so cows at most, each of which is worth $200-300. The ejiditarios will have to be compensated for them, which will cost $40,000 to $60,000 a year or more, but probably less, because the bad years, when drought reduces the number of cows that make it to market, will have to be factored in. Most of the ejiditarios have not been informed of the plan to move their cows off the prairie, but Jesus thought they were not going to have a problem with it, because they would have a steady, guaranteed income, without having to work, whether there was a drought that year and the cows died or not, and having the reserve would open the door to alternative modes of production for them, would provide incentives to make wooden spoons and other artesania and would create jobs in ecotourism. “Once the birdwatchers hear about this place they will come flocking,” Jesus predicted. “There will have to be an interpretive center of the prairie ecosystem, and rangers will be needed to patrol the reserve.  I observed that the creation the monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacan has done little for the local campesinos. The income from ecotourism goes mainly to guides and other personnel from companies in Mexico City. Little of it trickles down to the local economy. And the peak birding months at Janos are in winter, which can get pretty nippy, so I don’t see birdwatchers coming in droves. I’m not sure how promising Janos Prairie is an an ecotourism destination. Jesus said these were all good points. He was, meek, and brimming with calor humano, and reminded Rosette of a lot of people in Africa. 

     The local campesinos, Jesus told me, still gas the burrows when they can afford the aluminum phosphate gas and sometimes, being unable to read the English on the instruction label, gas themselves in the process. “They are killing the perritos because of ignorance, to promote the gas.  The dogs have to keep the vegetation low so they can see, and the cows eat mesquite pods and spread the seeds in their paddies and the dogs are counteracting this trend of the grassland turning into mesquite desertscrub by suppressing the growth of mesquite, which they do by girdling the bushes around their bases. They cows prefer to graze in dog towns because the grass is more nutritious. The dogs keep bringing up new soil from their burrows and fertilizing the grass. They are a keystone species like bees, elephants, or bison. Two of the five species of prairie dog are found in Mexico. The other one is the Mexican prairie dog, which is endemic to a small area where Cohahuila, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi meet. They produce only two to four pups a year and congregate in coteries of relatives. There are around eight dogs in a family unit, which is headed by an adult male and two or three mates.” So  the Mormons in  nearby  Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan aren’t the only polygamists in Chihahua, I joked. (These verdant communities were founded by dissident Saints who refused to give up their additional wives after the Woodruff Manifesto of l898 banned plural marriage. George Romney grew up in Colonia Juarez. I pay a visit to these communities in my last book, Legends of the American Desert.) 
 
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