Will a watched refuge ever revive?

Buenos Aires managers see slow progress, but ranchers are champing at the bit

  • LOST SAVANNA: Refuge planner Bonnie Swarbrick walks through a field of healthy - but non-native - Lehmann lovegrass

    Xavier Gallegos
  • REVIVED: The masked bobwhite quail had disappeared altogether from Arizona; now it's being reintroduced

    Xavier Gallegos
 

BUENOS AIRES NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Ariz. - When settlers rode into Arizona's Altar Valley in the mid-19th century, it is said that a sea of grass tickled their horses' bellies. They described a valley teeming with antelope and occasionally visited by wolves, bears and jaguars.

But by century's end, much of the valley had been scraped clean of vegetation by overgrazing, droughts and erosion. Much of the wildlife had vanished, too.

Visit the valley today and you'll admire another grassland undulating in the breeze. You might even spot a reintroduced pronghorn.

But the knee-high plant that surrounds you - Lehmann lovegrass - is an overseas visitor that has worn out its welcome. The South African grass flourished after federal officials helped ranchers sow it in the 1970s. It helped stem erosion, but also crowded out much of the valley's native vegetation. The grass is now seen as an obstacle in bringing the masked bobwhite quail back from the brink of extinction.

Since 1985, when much of the Altar Valley became the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, federal officials have kicked off cattle and reintroduced native species. They've torched about one-fifth of the refuge's 115,900 acres every year in an effort to mimic natural conditions and spur native plant growth.

But the valley's revival has been slow and, at times, frustrating. Critics call it an ugly example of the federal government dumping cash into a dead-end project, while refuge backers argue that in the unforgiving Sonoran Desert, habitat restoration and species recovery are bound to proceed at a glacial pace.

"It took 100 years to screw the area up," says refuge manager Wayne Shifflett, "so you can't expect it to come back overnight."

Ranchers want to return

The native plants are simply not coming back, according to Guy McPherson, a professor of renewable natural resources at the University of Arizona. McPherson and Erika Geiger recently released a study which argues that removing cows and reintroducing fires have done nothing to turn the tide against the Lehmann lovegrass.

"The take-home message is that the management techniques people have attempted don't appear to be working," McPherson says.

Some ranchers in the area opposed the refuge's creation from the start, and they say McPherson and Geiger's findings prove that that Buenos Aires' management is misguided. The chances of eliminating Lehmann lovegrass "are as good as getting you, me and everyone else who's not a Native American to go back to Europe," says rancher Sue Chilton, a new appointee to the state's Game and Fish Commission. She argues that returning cattle to the refuge in early spring could help control lovegrass because the plant turns green earlier than the natives.

But refuge officials and environmentalists say Buenos Aires refuge - home to nine endangered plants, birds and animals - should remain cattle-free, because grazing has altered nearly all other grasslands in the Southwest.

Herbicides and disking the soil might knock out the lovegrass, but they would damage natural habitat or be prohibitively expensive. And Shifflett points out that native plants have proliferated following fires, while two other invasive species, burroweed and snakeweed, have been reduced by 90 percent in some areas.

"It's so dramatic you'd have to be brain-dead not to see the difference," he says, dismissing the University of Arizona study as "skewed."

Arizona State University biologist Robert Ohmart agrees that the refuge is recovering and urges patience.

"Current wisdom is that it takes about 1,000 years for an inch of soil to form in these arid desert grasslands," he says.

A lesson in conservation

Refuge managers admit, however, that restoration has been hard-fought and slow-going.

Case in point is the 15-year old recovery program for the masked bobwhite quail, which was attacked in an NBC News "Fleecing of America" segment. The program has been derided as an expensive feeding program for hawks and coyotes. Critics believe the reintroduction is doomed because the refuge lies at the far northern edge of the bird's historic range.

While refuge officials admit that 95 percent of the birds are dead a year after they're released, they maintain the recovery program is steadily improving. Estimates of the refuge's quail population are a subject of debate, and staff estimates vary from 75 to 250 breeding pairs, says Fish and Wildlife Service's Sally Gall.

Changes in release protocols since 1995 have boosted the quail's chances. Birds are kept longer in pens that mimic natural conditions and are turned loose with older masked bobwhites which serve as "foster parents."

Thirty-seven quail captured in northern Mexico were introduced last summer, and they're believed to be faring better than the birds bred in captivity. Shifflett says he hopes to one day import 100 Mexican birds annually.

Officials also remind skeptics that low survival rates are the norm in the tough task of species reintroduction. Quail, for instance, have a mortality rate of 80 percent per year even in the best of conditions.

With those odds in mind, Buenos Aires' experience should be read as a cautionary tale about the price of biodiversity, says Bob Beatson, head of the Arizona Conservation Voters Fund, which helps restore native plants on the refuge,

"To me, the message is once you drive something almost to extinction, you pay hell getting it back," he says.

The author is a reporter for the Tucson Citizen.

You can contact ...

  • Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Wayne Shifflett, P.O. Box 109, Sasabe, AZ 85633 (520/823-4251), r2rw_barafws.gov;
  • Arizona Game and Fish, 2221 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85203-4399 (602/942-3000), www.gf.state.az.us.

Copyright 2000 HCN and Mitch Tobin