How conservation works south of the border

  • A sidewinder rattler traverses the dunes of El Pinacate.

    Patricio Robles Gil/Minden Pictures
  • Snowy egret, a Colorado River Delta dweller.

    Ted Lee Eubanks
  • Looking at tracks on the Rancho El Aribabi.

    Raechel Running
  • Rancho Los Fresnos is a 10,000-acre project of Naturalia and The Nature Conservancy.

    Wild Sonora
  • Valer Austin in the restored grassland of one of the Cuenca los Ojos ranches.

    Bill Steen
  • Jaguar on the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

    Northern Jaguar Project
  • Bison on the range in Chihuahua.

    Fernando del Real, cc via Flickr
  • Cascada de Basaseachic, Mexico's second-tallest waterfall, is among many dramatic features of the Copper Canyon region.

    Patrick Alexander, cc via Flickr
  • A Mexican gray wolf, one of five released last October in Mexico’s Sierra San Luis. Within a few weeks, all but one had been killed with poison.

    Jordi Mendoza /CONANP Archive

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(5) Valer and Josiah Austin -- an Arizona couple with roots in New York city, Maryland and Texas -- have been doing personal conservation efforts along the border for more than 30 years. They began by buying the 13,000-acre El Coronado Ranch, a degraded gem in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona, in 1981. Over time, they established a foundation called Cuenca los Ojos to reach across the border and take over management of five ranches in Sonora and Chihuahua, with the primary goals of restoring biodiversity and improving water management in the desert. The foundation, with some grants from agencies and other support, now manages more than 100,000 acres in the border region, and its ranches help form habitat connectivity with other large conservation ranches in nearby Arizona and New Mexico that are run by the Austins and the Malpai Borderland Group.

The Austins led a campaign to build more than 30,000 small rock dams -- called trincheras and gabions -- on the ranches' hillsides and along washes. Thus, they slow runoff from the infrequent rainstorms and help restore native grasses, wetlands and stream flows. They also work with researchers and agencies in both countries to restore and preserve rare native fish, along with habitat for a cornucopia of other wildlife including ocelots, coatimundi and ringtail cats. They say that anyone can do this kind of restoration on a fairly small scale: "I'm an old lady with no training, and if I can make a difference, anybody can do it -- anybody with good will can go out and do something," says Valer Austin, now in her 70s. " (For audio and video, here is a separate podcast and a video.) Valer Austin discussed her efforts with writer Tony Davis:

Q. How did your restoration work get started?

A. It was an accident. My husband grew up on a farm in Maryland and had a natural feel for this kind of work, but I grew up in New York City. I never thought about rain or erosion or that sort of thing. Most of my education in the environment has been in observation of the land and the way nature works. When we came to El Coronado, the ranch was really quite degraded. There wasn't a lot of grass. I remember looking around and saying, "What do to the cattle eat? Do they eat rocks?" One day we noticed that a road was washing out. We put in loose rock structures along the road and after awhile, dirt accumulated and we noticed that below the road it was always wet and grass was starting to come in. That was the first one. ... (Years later) we learned this is an ancient practice. At Casas Grandes (communities dating back a thousand years that are now archaeological sites in Chihuahua), people had rock dams and planted corn behind them, where it would be damper. ... We decided to do it on a large scale.

Q. How had the land gotten so degraded?

A. Around the turn of the 20th century, for mining copper and silver, people cut down trees to get wood to shore up the tunnels and maybe for the process of smelting. The tree cover went and the grasses came in. Then they put in more cattle and sheep, and eventually the grasses dried up, and when the rain came, it created gullies (instead of natural wetlands).

Q. How did you get into Mexico?

A. Wendell Minckley -- a fish biologist at Arizona State University -- led us to buy the Ojos Caliente ranch just across the border in the 1990s, because it included a prime stretch of Cajon Bonito, a stream containing eight native fish species. Five or six years later we began managing the neighboring San Bernardino Ranch in Sonora, where most of the wetlands had dried up and the gullies were 35 feet deep. Minckley (who died in 2001) trained us to analyze how we can improve things. We started building true gabions, with the wire baskets (supporting handmade rock walls), to raise up the streambed, so water would flow up over the sides and recreate a cienega (desert wetland). Now there's vegetation in the streambed, and that vegetation slows the water down more ... so nature starts healing itself. We've been working with the San Bernardino for 12 years and the cienega has grown from 4 percent to 20 percent of its original size. It's a sponge that feeds the Rio Yaqui system. That's in one of the driest regions in North America in one of the driest times.

Q. Have you kept cattle on your ranches or taken them off?

A. Some of our ranches have cattle, some don't. I do believe there are some places it is better not to have cattle. Sometimes it's just too dry. In some cases, grasses respond well to grazing every other year. Every grass has its different personality, so you manage your ranch according to the personality of the grasses.

Q. What's important about this region?

A. With the Sierra Madres (in Mexico) joining with the Rockies, and the Chihuahuan Desert joining with the Sonoran Desert, you have an extraordinary diversity of species. ... We realized that restoring the wetlands would have a huge impact on the future. Environmental conditions are going to change with global warming. If this work can be replicated in other dry regions, we have a hope.

(6) The more than 50,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve is another joint venture of Mexican and U.S. groups, run by Naturalia and the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project. They've created the reserve by buying four ranches since 2003. It includes deep canyons and a good stretch of Río Aros -- habitat for fish and turtles, neotropical river otters, the southernmost nesting bald eagles in North America, and, of course, jaguars. Remote cameras have documented that up to 12 jaguars live in the reserve -- the northernmost breeding population -- and it's a likely source of the jaguars that occasionally wander into Arizona. Because ranchers have been known to kill jaguars to protect their cattle, the Northern Jaguar Project has also installed cameras on nearby ranches, and provided those ranchers with an incentive: Every time a camera photographs a jaguar on a ranch, the group pays the rancher 5,000 pesos. Photos documenting cougars, ocelots and bobcats on the ranches earn smaller payments. Also, with the help of Raul Valdez, an ecology professor at New Mexico State University, in 2003, 11 ranchers near the reserve banded together to form an UMA that sells trophy deer hunts; the earnings -- more than $20,000 per year -- more than compensate for cattle lost to predators. Thus the ranchers have an incentive to maintain deer herds, and the pressure for killing predators has eased, Valdez reports. Defenders of Wildlife's Tucson office is also involved; as part of a broader jaguar ecological study, Defenders is collaborating with Mexican biologist Carlos López González on a project in which scat-sniffing dogs will course the Sonoran landscape starting as soon as this summer, searching for jaguars and jaguar corridors.

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A Mexican rancher struggles to shift from cattle to conservation
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