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A Yankee Notebook

December 15, 2014


RESERVA BIOLOGICA EL UNO, CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO – Just before bedtime I opened the big, solid front door and stepped out onto the porch of the ranch house where we’re staying. I wanted a look at the stars before the moon came up. In the dim light from the foyer behind me, the black welcome mat outside on the porch leaped up in front of me. It gave me – as the doorknob says to Alice in Wonderland – quite a turn. But it was only one of the resident dogs, who’d settled down on the mat for the night. Intrigued, apparently, to see what I was up to, he followed me out into the yard, where I’m sure he wondered what I was looking at above me.

Away from the house lights, the Milky Way stretched across most of the sky, the brightest I’d seen it since a night a few years ago in Baxter Park, Maine. Orion, Polaris, and the Pleiades were right where they were supposed to be. But I was after Canopus, low on the southern horizon and almost as bright as Sirius. You can see it only when you’re south of central Texas. There it was, hanging like a giant landing light above the desert grassland. The night was soundless, except for the little movements of the dog beside me in the dark. All very peaceful-seeming.

That appearance is quite deceiving. A lot’s been going on out on these grasslands for a long time. Clovis arrow points speak of human habitation here for over 12,000 years. Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, it was Apache country; in later years, even while armies marched and battled over it, the Apaches still considered it theirs and fought fiercely for it. Bison roamed freely across what would eventually become the border of the United States, now guarded almost like a war zone. Later, it was cattle country, but supported small subsistence farms, as well. Pancho Villa (there’s a village named for him nearby) operated out of Chihuahua, and Robin Hood-like outlaw that he was, is still rarely spoken of here without some passion, positive or negative.

In recent years, drug cartels have battled each other –and the largely ineffectual government – for control of drug production enclaves and untroubled transport routes to the border with their largest customer, the United States, and an increasingly lucrative market in western Canada. In a dark, hulking mountain range that rises like the gates of Mordor just to the south of this prairie, the cartels are acknowledged to hold sway. A recent war between two of them made life perilous in the little towns near here; two executed narcos were once found just beyond the ranch’s northern fence. One of the naturalists here has seen their small planes pass, flying low in the valleys, on their way north. And while avoiding seedy pubs and bars anywhere is generally a good idea for most of us, it’s an especially good one here. There’s a brooding background music to the idyl of this prairie.

The music seems muted here on the biologic reserve, about three hours’ drive southwest of the roar of El Paso’s constant traffic. (The videographer of our crew ducked into a huge Walmart to pick up a few dozen AAA batteries, returned some time later, and declared the Saturday-night, pre-Christmas crush “crazy.”) After we passed through Janos, a town recovering its ambiance somewhat since the recent victory of one cartel over another, the road turned to dusty dirt, and we soon entered the steel gates of the reserve. The house of the former owner of the 45,000-acre estancia Rancho El Uno serves now as the headquarters of the current owner, The Nature Conservancy. A couple of bunkhouses serve as dorms for visiting students, who traverse the reserve in trucks and buses to study the effects of the Conservancy’s stewardship of a former cattle operation that had degraded the land to a near-worthless condition.

The crew and I are here to document the efforts of biologists to reverse the steep downward population trends of grassland birds. Species like the meadowlark and bobolink are approaching the endangered category, mainly, it appears, because of altered habitat. Farmers in the North – we visited Montana and Ontario last summer - are currently harvesting three cuttings of hay, instead of the traditional two; and that first early cutting wipes out the nestlings before they’re fledged. When the survivors migrate south for the winter, they’re often greeted by cultivated cropland where once they sheltered and fed in the prairie grass. Around the reserve here, the biggest threat to the prairie seems to be a growing Mennonite community that converts it to cotton and corn fields, often in violation of environmental regulations. (Corruption in Mexico is endemic. Honest people grow cynical, and the cynical grow rich.) I couldn’t help but notice the glee of the biologists when they mentioned that several Mennonite drug smugglers had recently been busted at the border with a shipment of farm machinery, bound for Canadian Mennonite partners, loaded with illegal drugs.

The reserve is an attempt to demonstrate that sustainable use of grasslands yields far more long-term profits than exploitative agriculture that extirpates native species and, by extensive irrigation, exhausts and ultimately pollutes the ancient aquifer. Arvind Panjabi, a cheerful, bearded wildlife biologist with degrees from UVM and Louisiana State, is the International Director of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Fort Collins, Colorado. He’s been our guide here as we’ve filmed researchers and graduate students mist-netting, banding, and tracking Baird’s sparrows, to whom habitat fragmentation is particularly destructive. It’s clear he considers the demonstration to adults of the results of good stewardship, and the education of kids who’ll be the next to inherit this land, to be the keys to the ailing ecosystem’s survival.

But our visit hasn’t been all gloom and bad omens. Last evening Arvind and his colleagues held a barbecue, over mesquite coals in a masonry altar in the courtyard, of carne asada, thin-sliced, marinated steak, with scallions, baked potatoes, and plenty of beer, under the bright glow of a waning moon in the star-filled sky. Even academic warriors need a break now and then.

Photo by Willem lange