- Year In Review
As an environmental historian, University of New Mexico Associate Professor of History Sam Truett traveled to the borderlands recently to look at nature. He discovered people – and the unintended consequences of their interactions with the land and its other inhabitants.
As an environmental historian, University of New Mexico Associate Professor of History Sam Truett traveled to the borderlands recently to look at nature. He discovered people – and the unintended consequences of their interactions with the land and its other inhabitants
“When we looked at the migratory patterns of animals we discovered that humans followed the same courses,” Truett said. Human and non-human spaces intersect, but often tell different stories, he said. “We looked at the grass and saw animal paths leading in multiple directions. But human paths tend to point north,” he said.
Truett’s work began in May 2007 with a group of 16 graduate students and professors from UNM, NMSU, University of Arizona and ASU. With seed money from these institutions, they spent eight days on the border. Their success encouraged them to share what they learned, so they sought and recently received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a summer institute where teachers from four-year and community colleges can get into the field and bring lessons back to the classroom.
“One goal is to take humanists to the border to learn about environmental history in dialogue with land managers and scientists,” Truett said. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the work, their 2007 group included historians, geographers, anthropologists, resource managers and a photographer.
The group visited Ted Turner’s ranches in southern New Mexico. Coincidentally, the ranches’ wildlife biologist is Truett’s father, Joe Truett, who has worked for the Turner Endangered Species Fund since the late 1990s. He travels regularly between the Armendaris and the Ladder Ranches, both located near Truth or Consequences.
Turner uses his ranches not only to raise bison, including one of the last groups of pure-bred bison, but also to restore plant and animal species. “’Restoration’ has different meanings for different people, but many imagine a ‘pre-human’ time, before people changed things,” Sam Truett said. At the Armendaris they learned about how grasslands respond to removal of livestock, and they saw efforts to reintroduce the Aplomado Falcon. “We learned that falcon populations declined when livestock declined and prairie dogs were eradicated,” Truett said. “We don’t know what caused what, but it raises intriguing questions. Should we restore these animals, too? What’s natural, what’s desirable, and why?”
Another species introduced at the Armendaris Ranch is the Bolson Tortoise. From the Bolsón de Mapimí, in northern Mexico. “Experts feared that the tortoises would be killed off in Mexico, so they brought a few north to Arizona in the 1970s. These and their offspring were relocated to the Armendaris a few years ago. Although their current home lies hundreds of miles to the south, they ranged north into this region during the late Pleistocene,” Truett said.
Truett said that in addition to watching the falcons and tortoises adapt to human efforts to set the clock back, they saw elk coming down from their historic range in higher elevations to graze in alfalfa fields on the Ladder Ranch. “It made us ask, ‘What kind of environment do we want, and how do we restore it in a world that has become profoundly humanized? Why do we favor certain landscapes and species over others and what does this say about us?” he said.
Truett said that in the early twentieth century, after the wolf and grizzly declined as threats to livestock in the Southwest, the U.S. Government stepped up efforts to eradicate the black-tailed prairie dog because it invaded crop fields and competed with cattle for grass. Prairie dogs were eradicated on the Armendaris and Ladder ranches by mid-century, but in the 1990s, they were reintroduced.
“This raises new dilemmas,” Truett said. “Some see the prairie dog as an animal weed that has no place in a healthy landscape.” Look at a prairie dog colony, and you will see a heavily grazed space.
Prairie dogs trim vegetation to see predators, but biologists have found that they can’t keep up with the quickly-growing grass by themselves. They need large herbivores or people to help by grazing, burning, or mowing the grass. “They had a symbiotic relationship with grazers like cattle, so their range was tied to the same ranching landscapes that people felt they threatened,” Truett said.
There were other surprises as well. “Prairie dogs maintain lips at the entries to their burrows that keep the rainwater from flooding them. When they were eradicated, these animal engineering systems fell apart, and tunnels filled with water and collapsed. This led to gullying, which lowers the water table and degrades the range for livestock. “People killed prairie dogs in favor of cattle, but this had unintended consequences,” Truett said.
So, the group returned to the question about restoration of land. They wondered how long it would take for the landscape to return to its “natural” state. “Some told us it would take thousands of years, and in other places, we saw people trying to achieve results in their lifetime. Either way, you can’t pull people out of the equation,” Truett said. Especially in the borderlands.
They visited ranches on both sides of the border. On the Mexican side, at Rancho los Fresnos, Naturalia and the Nature Conservancy are trying to “rewild” the land while acknowledging the human factor. The Mexicans see repairing fences that migrants have cut as an unavoidable fact of life. Ranchers on both sides have to pick up trash left by border crossers. “On the Mexican side, we saw a backpack on one of the migrant trails stuffed with trash and left at the side of the path. It was as if the migrant didn’t want to be disrespectful to the rancher, but also could not carry the load across the desert,” Truett said. “You see on the Mexican side ‘a live and let live’ attitude, even though these landowners face the same traffic problems that U.S. ranchers do.”
Ranchers on the U.S. side of the border can create conservation easements, a non-taxed land area if they don’t run cattle on it. But such areas also are impacted by the human factor. The U.S. ranchers they met often turned the conversation from nature to people, describing a climate of fear that cuts multiple ways. “One showed us the border fence, lying flat on the ground. Then he showed us his new fence, built by the Minutemen. He said that Mexicans believe that if they cut a Minuteman’s fence, vigilantes kill them,” Truett said. Below the ranch, the border patrol drags the road running along the border so they can see the tracks of migrants. On this road the group saw the sun-baked carcass of a bobcat, struck by a vehicle as it was crossing the border.
The animosity the U.S. ranchers feel toward the undocumented border crossers is not extended to their Mexican ranching counterparts. “Both groups disdain the federal governments on both sides of the border. Both see government as meddlesome and yet ignorant of life and livelihood on the border,” Truett said.
On the last day, Truett and his group encountered a group of immigrants lost in the desert. They asked for food, water, and a phone call to the Migra. After days of hard travel, miles from the nearest paved road, they chose to return to Mexico. “Our own journey ended unexpectedly as well,” Truett said. “We came to the borderlands looking for nature, and we found ourselves thinking about people instead.”