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

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1. The  Largest  Prairie-Dog Town On Earth

       On March 16, the fam and I set out from Montreal for Chihuahua to see the world’s largest extant prairie-dog town. Its 150,000 residents live on roughly 90,000  acres of  shortgrass prairie there. Technically, this is a complex, made up of many interconnected towns, which are in turn made up of coteries, or family groups. In the vernacular of the  American West even a huge complex like this is still known as a “dog-town.” Most of the complex is subterranean--  a  maze of  tunnels that are also frequented and dwelt in by dozens of other animal species. “They got subways, delis—everything,” Conn Nugent, the executive director of the J.M.Kaplan Fund, which is supporting the effort  to return Janos Prairie, where the 150k perritos are,  to its natural state, and thus preserve the complex, hyped as he briefed me on this, the fourth and last of the fund’s transborder collaboration projects that have been the subject of Dispatches.  “We’ve just reintroduced their primordial foe, the black-footed ferret.” 

       From Chihuahua we  were heading up to the southeastern corner of Arizona, to visit some ranchers who are trying to get conservation easements for their large tracts so they won’t be subdivided into the forty-acre “ranchettes” that are encroaching on them.  I was looking forward to introducing the boys to the wonders of  Southwestern desert. But it was  a distressing time, as the attack on Iraq began two days into the trip.  The mood of the country, whose pulse we were able to take during what would turn out to be an epic, three-week- and more than six-thousand-miles-long road trip, was subdued and tinged with sadness and foreboding, like the commuters waiting outside Penn Station on the afternoon of 9/11 described in Dispatch #1. We are a family that loves to travel, that feels most alive when we are moving in new physical and cultural landscapes, encountering new people, animals, and plants, orchestrating the unpredictable. We believe in travel as a broadening experience. There is a proverb in Rwandese, my wife’s native tongue :  the more you travel, the more you see.” A blended Luso-Slavic-Watusi American family of seven, we feel more as if we belong to the world that to any one country or nation-state. But our passports are American,  and the State Department already had 59 countries on is travel advisory list. How many more was this “war that is not called for,” as one of my brothers-in-law” called it,  going to add ? 

        Just getting in the car and driving south out of the winter, which Montreal was still in the grip of, before, was cathartic. The boys are keen-eyed naturalists, and not a deer or a wild turkey in the abandoned farmland we zipped through escaped their notice as we headed down the middle of New York State into Pennsylvania. The snow ended on the second day, in northern Virginia. Suddenly  we were in glorious, radiant spring, and it got warmer and more full of birdsong as we continued south. In Tennessee, we stopped to see Robert Klein, a musician and songwriter I was in a band with thirty years ago. We hadn’t seen each other since l975. He and his wife B.J. live with lots of dogs in a holler (hollow), a narrow defile in the karst limestone Cumberland hill country  an hour and a half east of Nashville. We stayed up late talking and playing tunes for each other  and listening to old tapes of our band, which was called The Immigrants.  Robert played a great version of Reverend Gary Davis’s “Twelve Gates to the City,” an old spiritual that Rev Davis, who was my guitar teacher and guru (see the profile of him in the “Music From Many Lands” section) made one of his signature songs, but that I had never learned from him and was finally trying to get down. It was a well-known number in the folk scene of the early sixties. Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Dave von Ronk, the Weavers, and the Wayfarers all recorded versions of it. Josh White does a closely-related song called “My Father was a Husbandman” on his l933 record, “The Christian Singer.”  Two musicians in  our quartier in Montreal, Kate McGarrigle and Andrew Cowan, play it beautifully, and in Taos the novelist John Nichols played us a mean version of it  that he got directly from the Master. Allan Evanson, who has put out a new cd of Davis, including him delivering a Holy Ghost-filled sermon in a storefront church in Harlem, has got it down exactly, note for note, with every tricky cascading pull-off.  I am thinking of doing a musical Dispatch and/or  CD called “Twelve Versions of Twelve Gates to the City,” starting with several by the Reverend at various stages of his life and proceeding to the renditions by his students and others, and analyzing the differences, the way each person hears it a little differently and put in his or her own personal touches. 

      Crossing Texas, we passed through Midland, President Bush’s hometown. The landscape was singularly unappealing, dead flat scrubby mesquite desert. Every hundred yards a seesawing pump was  sucking up oil. You could see how the attitude that all nature is good for,   is its resources, especially oil,   might have developed in such an environment. 

       The much-maligned and persecuted prairie-dog is an unsung victim of the same ruthless transplanted Western European mindset.  Its decimation is not as well-known as that of the bison and the nomadic Plains Indian cultures, but it can even be seen a genocide, an interspecific genocide rather than an intraspecific one, but nevertheless a coordinated, all-out effort to exterminate all the members of another group, in this case a genus of ground squirrel  rather than a culture, tribe, ethnic or religous group.  The  naturalist  Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that there were five billion prairie dogs on the North American prairies in the early 1900s.  One complex in the Texas panhandle  spread over an area a hundred miles by two hundred and was estimated to have four hundred million residents ! This would make it by far the largest community of mammals in the history of  life on earth. But since then 98% of the population has been exterminated, and the poisoning and recreational blasting away at prairie dogs continues. The prairie-dog is the varmint par excellence. Since l909  The Fish and Wild Service and its predecessor, the U.S. Biological Survey, has contributed  hundreds of millions of dollars to the extermination campaign. A hundred million acres of Western rangeland were poisoned between l916 and 1920, and between l985 and l988 nearly the same area (97,558 acres) was poisoned by the U.S. Forest Service in the twelve national grasslands  it manages on the Great Plains. Each prairie dog costs about three dollars to kill. 

       But recently a more enlightened attitude toward this beguiling, beneficial, and very social rodent has taken hold in wildlife-management circles. The North American plains, which once extended in a vast almost uninterrupted carpet from central Canada to central Mexico, from Alberta to Queretaro,  was the world’s most biodiverse grasslands ecosystem, but most of it has been converted to farmland or ranches, cities, suburbs, and sprwal, and  only fragments of it remain. Belatedly, the prairie dog has been recognized as one of the keystone species of the North American prairie ecosystem,  to which dozens of other species are indebted for their survival,  and its numbers are so reduced that the ones we were going to see (black-tails, one of the five species of Cynomys), have been under consideration for the last two years for emergency listing as an endangered species. (These things evidently take time.)

            As we drove into Mexico at El Paso, I chuckled at my friend Steve Smith’s reminiscences of the border town. Steve, who is sixty-two now, belongs to one of the old clans in our mountain valley in the Adirondacks. A Dispatch should be done without delay on the old mountain culture of the Adirondacks, which is going fast without being properly documented.   “I was in El Paso when I was nineteen,” Steve told me as we were setting out on our trip. “I liked it so much I would have stayed,  but my mother got sick and I had to come back. The other side of the border was nothin’ but tramps and whores. The deeper  you got into the country you got, the prettier the girls were, and the more expensive. I could give you a few numbers, but I guess they’d be old.”

       In Juarez, on the Mexican side, we had a three-hour lunch with Rurik List, a biologist with the  Federal University in Mexico City’s Instituto de Ecologia, who had just  spent two weeks at the institute’s research station in Janos. I was intrigued by Rurik’s name, being descended from a contemporary of Rurik, the Viking who became the father of Russia, but Rurik was completely Mexican, one of the new breed of technocratic, middle-class biologos and didn’t know who Rurik was or why he had been given the name, except that it must have come from the German immigrants on his paternal line.  Rurik  is coordinating the research and conservation effort for Janos Prairie, where the prairie-dog complex is. The Kaplan fund is giving the institute two hundred thousand dollars over three years to do science and develop relations with the locals, which includes paying them   to not exercise their rights as member of the ejido, or communally-owned pasture and farmland, and to refrain from grazing their cattle in the complex.  The dogs here (which are of course not dogs at all, but rodents that bark somewhat like dogs when alarmed), Rurik told me, are the arizonensis subspecies of the black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys  ludovicanus,  which doesn’t exist any more in Arizona, due to the nearly total success of the eradication campaign; only a few individuals have been reported there since l932. The Mexicans call prairie dogs perritos llaneros, the French voyageurs called them petit chiens. Sobriquets like “the dunce of the prairie” attest to the low esteem in which they were held by the European settlers. Prairie dogs are smaller and less chunky than groundhogs (another genus in the squirrel family, also known as woodchucks and marmots, although in some places, such as Manitoba, prairie dogs are called marmots), almost fifteen inches in length,  yellowish-buff in color, and weigh up to three pounds. Some people call them gophers, a generic term that includes pocket gophers,  Richardson’s ground squirrel, and the thirteen-lined squirrel, but these ground squirrels are also not in the same genus.  Dog-towns once took up 40 million acres of the North American prairie. Now they only occupy six hundred thousand acres. The biggest complex in the States spreads over a mere fourteen thousand acres. Several other complexes not far from the megalopolis in Janos, and altogether forty-five other towns  in this part of northwestern Chihuahua. There is also a herd of a hundred and ten of the original, native bison, and the only breeding population of pronghorn antelopes in Mexico (there are only three hundred antelopes in the country). To the west, in the Sahuaripa- El Coyote area of  bordering Sonora, there is a good-sized population of jaguars; in the last ten years the local campesinos have shot 42 of them. Killing a jaguar enhances their machismo, but the jaguars are also taking a significant toll of their calves.  A few have wandered up into Arizona, which is sixty miles north. The Mesa de las Guacamayas, also west of Janos Prairie, has the northernmost breeding population of the guacamaya, or thick-billed parrot, the only exclusively mountain-dwelling parrot in Mexico, which is extinct in the U.S.. Ferruginous hawks, which are threatened in the U.S.,  and the largest population of  Mexico golden eagles, the endangered national bird (sixteen at once have been spotted), overwinter here (the former heading north with the spring, the latter south), as do two percent of the  mountain plovers in North America. 71 bird species are associated with the Janos complex. 22 are grassland specialists.  All kinds of animals live in the burrows that the prairie-dogs excavate, including pygmy owls, short-horned lizards,  Great Plains narrow-mouth frogs,  salamanders, crickets, beetles, and many other insect species, black-widow spiders, mice, moles, toads, tortoises, rabbits, skunks, weasels, ringtails,    and four kinds of rattlesnake.  The relationship they have with their landlord is commensal. There is a nice live exhibit   in the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson—you can see some dogs playing their tunnels through the glass--   with an interpretive sign explaining how this works. Commensal is one party benefiting while the other is not harmed, as opposed to  parasitic, which harms the host, or mutual, in which  both parties get something out of the arrangement. Other animals live in their holes, in other words, but the dogs are not much affected by their presence. 
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