Ranch Diaries: How to coexist with wild animals

When your livelihood depends on the boundaries you set with the natural world.

 

Ranch Diaries is an hcn.org series highlighting the experiences of Laura Jean Schneider, who gives us a peek into daily life during the first year of Triangle P Cattle Company, a new LLC in southcentral New Mexico. Installments are every other Tuesday.

Sam told me yesterday that the spine of a rattlesnake I killed and hauled to the old dump down by the arroyo has been picked bare and clean, bleached white by the sun. In one month, it went from a four-foot long snake to a string of bones. And I'm the one responsible.

In her book Landscapes of the New West, Krista Comer writes, "humans have always altered nature in order to survive." She believes, "nature is not 'natural' at all," since it's constantly being shaped by both humans and animals. Sam and I are confronted with this idea daily, and must often choose whose rights, territory, and boundaries will take priority as we navigate our current ecosystem. In the case of two large spiders hiding in the wind-tattered fabric of our porch awning, we're happy to share fly season with these ambitious arachnids. At dusk they spin webs spanning several feet, anchoring their strong strands from the canopy, wrapping up beetles, flies, and other airborne insects with efficiency.

  • Evidence of domestic livestock from times past.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Sandhill cranes fly over.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • A brave meadowlark in winter.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • A fossil in a nearby arroyo.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The Triangle P cattle and these wild horses get along harmoniously.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • The tail end of a badger, digging away from Sam.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • This thistle is a weed to us, a haven to this tiny beetle.

    Laura Jean Schneider
  • Coconut thinks she's a human, not an elk, after being raised by people.

    Laura Jean Schneider

Ditto with the sluggish and enormous bull snake I almost stepped on some afternoons ago, who was making his or her way across the sunny driveway. We like bull snakes: they help our two cats keep rodents out of our hay and grain storage. But the same predatory nature we desire in the cats doesn't discriminate. Perhaps loosened by the recent heavy rains, a barn swallow's nest on the east side of the old house collapsed last week. The young swallows were too small to fly on their own, and their parents circled and swooped, calling, frantic. Later, I found a spray of feathers and tiny wings in the soft mud.

A Bewick's wren has a nest in the old windmill tower next to the salt shed, and a curve-billed thrasher, with her striking yellow eyes, has just built a nest in a thicket of nearby cholla cactus. Two small white eggs sit abandoned in a nest tucked in a cholla plant twelve feet from our camper, eggs that didn't hatch with the rest of the brood of finches that grew to maturity beneath the protective spines of the cactus thorns. Under the neck of our parked horse trailer, a Say's phoebe has a nest, perhaps making meals from the active ant mound beneath it.

We're a part of this landscape now. We have settled in and brought our priorities along with us. When a rattlesnake's telltale buzz sounded from right underneath our camper a month ago, I knew I had to kill it. Yet I was sad to take the life of something more native to this landscape than I. For many years, this snake had thrived, and I cut its life short. But even in self-defense – for I, or one of our valuable working cattle dogs or ranch horses could have been fatally bitten – there's a cost to that trade, a sobering reminder that while we often meld peacefully with our surroundings, sometimes we butt up against the wild and are forced to make difficult, unsettling choices.