Of Sparrows and Sodbusters

Western and Mexican conservationists race against time to save grasslands -- and the species that depend on them

  • Grasshopper sparrow.

    John VanOrman
  • Mist netting for sparrows in the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico.

    Sujata Gupta
  • Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory's Arvind Panjabi with a sparrow.

    Sujata Gupta
  • A Mennonite farmer plows grasslands near Janos, Chihuahua, in northern Mexico.

    Ted Wood
  • Technicians scan for birds.

    Denis Perez/RMBO
  • RMBO's Erin Strasser and a Mennonite woman release a grasshopper sparrow.

    Sujata Gupta
 

High on the Mexican Plateau on a stormy March day, fierce winds blow across the vast, flat Chihuahuan Desert grasslands and the distant peaks of the Sierra Madre. A group of scientists from U.S. and Mexican NGOs and universities unfurls a long net for catching birds and stakes it into the ground. A grasshopper sparrow tagged with a transmitter is around here somewhere, and we aim to catch it.

The bird, nicknamed Frequency 227, blends into the dust-brown backdrop. It and the other 13 Baird's and grasshopper sparrows on our list are the color of mud and sand, flecked with white, orange and yellow. They evolved with this vast grassland -- which once stretched from the northern and central states of Mexico into southern New Mexico, Texas and Arizona -- foraging each winter in grass grazed by bison, and hiding from predators in taller grass. Come spring, they flew to Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Canada to breed. Ninety percent of the approximately 29 grassland bird species breeding in the Western Great Plains -- including these sparrows -- winter in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Since the 1960s, however, grassland bird populations have plummeted, some species by as much as 85 percent -- the sharpest decline of any group of North American birds. Researchers have long assumed they were most vulnerable while reproducing, so they've focused on the expansion of agriculture, urbanization, energy development and other factors destroying habitat in the birds' northerly haunts. But Arvind Panjabi, my guide and the international program director at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Fort Collins, Colo., wants to know: What if the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands are equally critical?

In an earlier study of vesper sparrows here, near the northern Chihuahua town of Janos, Panjabi found that only a quarter to a half survived the winter. Those that lived spent more time around tall grass, which is increasingly rare due to over-grazing and drought. At the lower end of that mortality range, sustaining the population would require each vesper pair to raise eight chicks per year, rather than their typical three to four, Panjabi says. And that's excluding predation and die-offs in other seasons.

So besides tracking the survival rates of the sparrows we're after today, Panjabi is trying to identify the features -- tall grass, hills -- most important to their survival, to make conservation efforts more effective.

Work like Panjabi's is increasingly urgent. Pronghorn, kit fox, badger, mule deer, prairie dogs, Aplomado falcons and golden eagles also rely on these arid grasslands, which have been decimated over the last two decades by drought, overgrazing and sodbusting. When I visit, the roadsides are lined with the bones of starved cows.

Many struggling ranchers have been selling their land to farmers. In central and northern Chihuahua, those are mostly Mexican Mennonites, themselves so pinched by drought and desperate for new land as their wells dry up and their population swells that they have been known to buy ranches for two to three times their value. Once plowed, however, the habitat is nearly useless to wildlife, the grasses' deep roots gone and crucial plant biodiversity permanently lost.

Worse, grassland conversion appears to be escalating in the flat expanses where most birds live. A survey of satellite images of Valles Centrales, a Massachusetts-sized area southeast of Janos, showed that farmers converted over 170,000 acres -- more than 60 percent -- of its flat grasslands between 2006 and 2011, and almost 35 percent of all its grasslands. At current rates, flat grasslands will disappear from Valles Centrales by 2025.

In hopes of saving some of what's left, U.S. and Mexican conservationists are trying to help ranchers stay on their land and steward it better through more sustainable grazing practices. But the biggest challenge is reaching the more insular, and influential, Mennonite community. Still, when I talk to Panjabi at El Uno, a 46,000-acre Nature Conservancy-owned ranch near Janos, he's optimistic. "The story is not over," says the bearded 42-year-old mandolin player one night over a dinner of refried beans and menudo, a soup made with beef stomach. "There are still a lot of grasslands."

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...