June 25, 2003 :
1. The Largest Prairie-Dog Town On Earth
On March 16, the fam and I set out from Montreal for Chihuahua to see the world’s largest extant prairie-dog town. Its 150,000 residents live on roughly 90,000 acres of shortgrass prairie there. Technically, this is a complex, made up of many interconnected towns, which are in turn made up of coteries, or family groups. In the vernacular of the American West even a huge complex like this is still known as a “dog-town.” Most of the complex is subterranean– a maze of tunnels that are also frequented and dwelt in by dozens of other animal species. “They got subways, delis—everything,” Conn Nugent, the executive director of the J.M.Kaplan Fund, which is supporting the effort to return Janos Prairie, where the 150k perritos are, to its natural state, and thus preserve the complex, hyped as he briefed me on this, the fourth and last of the fund’s transborder collaboration projects that have been the subject of Dispatches. “We’ve just reintroduced their primordial foe, the black-footed ferret.”
From Chihuahua we were heading up to the southeastern corner of Arizona, to visit some ranchers who are trying to get conservation easements for their large tracts so they won’t be subdivided into the forty-acre “ranchettes” that are encroaching on them. I was looking forward to introducing the boys to the wonders of Southwestern desert. But it was a distressing time, as the attack on Iraq began two days into the trip. The mood of the country, whose pulse we were able to take during what would turn out to be an epic, three-week- and more than six-thousand-miles-long road trip, was subdued and tinged with sadness and foreboding, like the commuters waiting outside Penn Station on the afternoon of 9/11 described in Dispatch #1. We are a family that loves to travel, that feels most alive when we are moving in new physical and cultural landscapes, encountering new people, animals, and plants, orchestrating the unpredictable. We believe in travel as a broadening experience. There is a proverb in Rwandese, my wife’s native tongue : the more you travel, the more you see.” A blended Luso-Slavic-Watusi American family of seven, we feel more as if we belong to the world that to any one country or nation-state. But our passports are American, and the State Department already had 59 countries on is travel advisory list. How many more was this “war that is not called for,” as one of my brothers-in-law” called it, going to add ?
Just getting in the car and driving south out of the winter, which Montreal was still in the grip of, before, was cathartic. The boys are keen-eyed naturalists, and not a deer or a wild turkey in the abandoned farmland we zipped through escaped their notice as we headed down the middle of New York State into Pennsylvania. The snow ended on the second day, in northern Virginia. Suddenly we were in glorious, radiant spring, and it got warmer and more full of birdsong as we continued south. In Tennessee, we stopped to see Robert Klein, a musician and songwriter I was in a band with thirty years ago. We hadn’t seen each other since l975. He and his wife B.J. live with lots of dogs in a holler (hollow), a narrow defile in the karst limestone Cumberland hill country an hour and a half east of Nashville. We stayed up late talking and playing tunes for each other and listening to old tapes of our band, which was called The Immigrants. Robert played a great version of Reverend Gary Davis’s “Twelve Gates to the City,” an old spiritual that Rev Davis, who was my guitar teacher and guru (see the profile of him in the “Music From Many Lands” section) made one of his signature songs, but that I had never learned from him and was finally trying to get down. It was a well-known number in the folk scene of the early sixties. Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Dave von Ronk, the Weavers, and the Wayfarers all recorded versions of it. Josh White does a closely-related song called “My Father was a Husbandman” on his l933 record, “The Christian Singer.” Two musicians in our quartier in Montreal, Kate McGarrigle and Andrew Cowan, play it beautifully, and in Taos the novelist John Nichols played us a mean version of it that he got directly from the Master. Allan Evanson, who has put out a new cd of Davis, including him delivering a Holy Ghost-filled sermon in a storefront church in Harlem, has got it down exactly, note for note, with every tricky cascading pull-off. I am thinking of doing a musical Dispatch and/or CD called “Twelve Versions of Twelve Gates to the City,” starting with several by the Reverend at various stages of his life and proceeding to the renditions by his students and others, and analyzing the differences, the way each person hears it a little differently and put in his or her own personal touches.
Crossing Texas, we passed through Midland, President Bush’s hometown. The landscape was singularly unappealing, dead flat scrubby mesquite desert. Every hundred yards a seesawing pump was sucking up oil. You could see how the attitude that all nature is good for, is its resources, especially oil, might have developed in such an environment.
The much-maligned and persecuted prairie-dog is an unsung victim of the same ruthless transplanted Western European mindset. Its decimation is not as well-known as that of the bison and the nomadic Plains Indian cultures, but it can even be seen a genocide, an interspecific genocide rather than an intraspecific one, but nevertheless a coordinated, all-out effort to exterminate all the members of another group, in this case a genus of ground squirrel rather than a culture, tribe, ethnic or religous group. The naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that there were five billion prairie dogs on the North American prairies in the early 1900s. One complex in the Texas panhandle spread over an area a hundred miles by two hundred and was estimated to have four hundred million residents ! This would make it by far the largest community of mammals in the history of life on earth. But since then 98% of the population has been exterminated, and the poisoning and recreational blasting away at prairie dogs continues. The prairie-dog is the varmint par excellence. Since l909 The Fish and Wild Service and its predecessor, the U.S. Biological Survey, has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the extermination campaign. A hundred million acres of Western rangeland were poisoned between l916 and 1920, and between l985 and l988 nearly the same area (97,558 acres) was poisoned by the U.S. Forest Service in the twelve national grasslands it manages on the Great Plains. Each prairie dog costs about three dollars to kill.
But recently a more enlightened attitude toward this beguiling, beneficial, and very social rodent has taken hold in wildlife-management circles. The North American plains, which once extended in a vast almost uninterrupted carpet from central Canada to central Mexico, from Alberta to Queretaro, was the world’s most biodiverse grasslands ecosystem, but most of it has been converted to farmland or ranches, cities, suburbs, and sprwal, and only fragments of it remain. Belatedly, the prairie dog has been recognized as one of the keystone species of the North American prairie ecosystem, to which dozens of other species are indebted for their survival, and its numbers are so reduced that the ones we were going to see (black-tails, one of the five species of Cynomys), have been under consideration for the last two years for emergency listing as an endangered species. (These things evidently take time.)
As we drove into Mexico at El Paso, I chuckled at my friend Steve Smith’s reminiscences of the border town. Steve, who is sixty-two now, belongs to one of the old clans in our mountain valley in the Adirondacks. A Dispatch should be done without delay on the old mountain culture of the Adirondacks, which is going fast without being properly documented. “I was in El Paso when I was nineteen,” Steve told me as we were setting out on our trip. “I liked it so much I would have stayed, but my mother got sick and I had to come back. The other side of the border was nothin’ but tramps and whores. The deeper you got into the country you got, the prettier the girls were, and the more expensive. I could give you a few numbers, but I guess they’d be old.”
In Juarez, on the Mexican side, we had a three-hour lunch with Rurik List, a biologist with the National University in Mexico City’s Instituto de Ecologia, who had just spent two weeks at the institute’s research station in Janos. I was intrigued by Rurik’s name, being descended from a contemporary of Rurik, the Viking who became the father of Russia, but Rurik was completely Mexican. Rurik said his father, who was interested in Russia and Viking culture, had given it to him.
“Our family has a penchant for unusual names,” Rurik told me, “and I am the only
Rurik I have ever met.” In an effort to connect with his onomastic identify, he had read the Icelandic sagas and visited the important Viking sites in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, and he dreamed of some day tracing the Vikings’ westward voyages to Greenland and Newfoundland.”
Rurik is coordinating the research and conservation effort for Janos Prairie, where the prairie-dog complex is. The Kaplan fund is giving the institute two hundred thousand dollars over three years to do science and develop relations with the locals, which includes paying them to not exercise their rights as member of the ejido, or communally-owned pasture and farmland, and to refrain from grazing their cattle in the complex. The dogs here (which are of course not dogs at all, but rodents that bark somewhat like dogs when alarmed), Rurik told me, are the arizonensis subspecies of the black-tailed prairie dog, Cynomys ludovicanus, which doesn’t exist any more in Arizona, due to the nearly total success of the eradication campaign; only a few individuals have been reported there since l932. The Mexicans call prairie dogs perritos llaneros, the French voyageurs called them petit chiens. Sobriquets like “the dunce of the prairie” attest to the low esteem in which they were held by the European settlers. Prairie dogs are smaller and less chunky than groundhogs (another genus in the squirrel family, also known as woodchucks and marmots, although in some places, such as Manitoba, prairie dogs are called marmots), almost fifteen inches in length, yellowish-buff in color, and weigh up to three pounds. Some people call them gophers, a generic term that includes pocket gophers, Richardson’s ground squirrel, and the thirteen-lined squirrel, but these ground squirrels are also not in the same genus. Dog-towns once took up 40 million acres of the North American prairie. Now they only occupy six hundred thousand acres. The biggest complex in the States spreads over a mere fourteen thousand acres. Several other complexes not far from the megalopolis in Janos, and altogether forty-five other towns in this part of northwestern Chihuahua. There is also a herd of a hundred and ten of the original, native bison, and the only breeding population of pronghorn antelopes in Mexico (there are only three hundred antelopes in the country). To the west, in the Sahuaripa- El Coyote area of bordering Sonora, there is a good-sized population of jaguars; in the last ten years the local campesinos have shot 42 of them. Killing a jaguar enhances their machismo, but the jaguars are also taking a significant toll of their calves. A few have wandered up into Arizona, which is sixty miles north. The Mesa de las Guacamayas, also west of Janos Prairie, has the northernmost breeding population of the guacamaya, or thick-billed parrot, the only exclusively mountain-dwelling parrot in Mexico, which is extinct in the U.S.. Ferruginous hawks, which are threatened in the U.S., and the largest population of Mexico golden eagles, the endangered national bird (sixteen at once have been spotted), overwinter here (the former heading north with the spring, the latter south), as do two percent of the mountain plovers in North America. 71 bird species are associated with the Janos complex. 22 are grassland specialists. All kinds of animals live in the burrows that the prairie-dogs excavate, including pygmy owls, short-horned lizards, Great Plains narrow-mouth frogs, salamanders, crickets, beetles, and many other insect species, black-widow spiders, mice, moles, toads, tortoises, rabbits, skunks, weasels, ringtails, and four kinds of rattlesnake. The relationship they have with their landlord is commensal. There is a nice live exhibit in the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson—you can see some dogs playing their tunnels through the glass– with an interpretive sign explaining how this works. Commensal is one party benefiting while the other is not harmed, as opposed to parasitic, which harms the host, or mutual, in which both parties get something out of the arrangement. Other animals live in their holes, in other words, but the dogs are not much affected by their presence.
Coyotes, badgers, kit foxes, and (in other colonies) swift foxes prey on them. In 2001 the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, was reintroduced to the Janos complex, which has enough dogs to support a ferret population of six hundred. The ferret, Mustela negripes, is a solitary animal and needs to eat a dog every four or five days, and is so completely dependent, specialized in preying on prairie-dogs, that it can’t live without them. It is what is known as an “obligate.” In l929 Seton described the ferret as “a robber baron securely established in the village of his peasantry… [who] lives like a mouse in a cheese, for the hapless Prairie Dogs are its favorite food.” But as their prey were exterminated by the millions, the ferrets, too, began to disappear. They were also ravaged by sylvatic plague and other exotic diseases. By the mid-seventies the ferret was on the brink of extinction, but in l981 a small group was discovered on a ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Four years later canine distemper and sylvatic plague had wiped out all but eighteen ferrets in this group, and they were trapped and transferred to the National Ferret Breeding Center in Sybille, Wyoming. Were it not for this captive-breeding facility, one in Toronto, and a third on one of Ted Turner’s ranches, Mustela negripes might have gone extinct. Only five hundred individuals exist. In l995 I thought I saw one as I was driving through the golden grassland east of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos mountains, but this was not possible, a ferret expert assured me. It must have been a masked or bridled weasel, a color phase of the long-tailed weasel, which has a black mask and looks a lot like a black-footed ferret, but doesn’t have the total dependence on prairie dogs, although it is happy to prey on them whenever the opportunity arises, and isn’t endangered. Two years ago, 161 captive-bred ferrets from Sybille were released in the Janos complex, and Rurik said that several American ferret biologists were at the research station, trying to ascertain how they were doing. In six of the seven places where they were reintroduced in the U.S., they did not survive, mainly because of plague, but also because the towns were too small to support them. Each ferret requires 100-150 acres of dog-town. The only U.S. population that is still going, because it doesn’t have plague, is in the Comata Basin of South Dakota. The Janos complex is also plague-free, so everyone has high hopes for the ones that have been set free here.
Why has the prairie-dog been so persecuted ? I asked Rurik. “Because they are perceived to compete with cattle for grass,” he explained. “But the latest studies suggest that the cattle actually prefer to graze in dog towns, because the perritos keep down the mesquite, which obstructs their view of predators, so more grass grows in the towns, and they clip the grass so that it has a higher nutritional payload. This preference was probably true also of the bison, which had a close symbiosis with prairie dogs. Another myth is that cows and horses break their legs in their holes. A study was done that concluded that basically it never happens.” Conn Nugent, however, who has read voraciously on the desert Southwest, is not so sure about this. He points out that in Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor’s memoirs of childhood in the forties on a ranch on the Arizona-New Mexico border that was loaded with prairie dogs, she says the holes were a real hazard. Several cowboys got badly hurt when their horses stepped into one and threw them. The one thing about prairie dogs that does give legitimate pause is that many towns in the U.S. have bubonic plague, which in the early l900’s spread from infected rat fleas in San Francisco into wild ecosystems as far east as the 103rd meridion. This is not the dogs’ fault, of course, but nonetheless it is not a good idea to venture into a dog-town these days unless you are sure that it is not plague-ridden. Plague is easily cured by antibiotics, if you get it in time, but this is not a disease you want to mess with. When bubonic plague infects wild animals, it is known as sylvatic plague.
Rurik said that the goal was to make Janos Prairie a biosphere reserve, like the oyamel forest of Michoacan where hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies overwinter (see the Vanity Fair piece in Past Dispatches : Butterflies), but that was going to take years of fund-raising, paperwork, and negotiation. “There are lots of guidelines and steps,” he explained. Rurik will probably do a lot of it, but his immediate boss at the Instituto de Ecologia, Gerardo Seballos, will also be involved, and the legal issues will be handled by Alberto Szekely, a respected environmental lawyer and ambassador sans portfolio in Mexico City. “The grasslands biome covers most of the earth, but now it is the most reduced and the least protected, so the grassland species are endangered, particularly ones associated with prairie dogs,” Rurik went on. “This complex is the best hope for the survival of the prairie-dog ecosystem and its species. Janos Prairie is the only extensive wild habitat left for them. It was saved because the Mexican government didn’t give the campesinos money to poison the perritos, and few of them have money to buy the poison, so they have simply learned to live with the perritos, although some gasing does go on. So it is worth the effort to restore and protect this prairie. Maybe we’ll even bring back the Mexican wolf (a subspecies of grey extinct in the U.S. and highly endangered in Mexico). Who knows ?”
Rurik headed for the airport to catch his plane back to Mexico City, and we drove west for several hours to the town of Janos, checked into its one motel, and headed out to the research station, which is in the ejido, or Mexican revolutionary commune, of Buenos Aires, ten miles out of town on the way out to Janos Prairie. Much of the ejido is taken up by the vast orderly farms of German Mennonites who came down from Manitoba (see Dispatch #8) early in the twentieth century. Power only reached it two years ago. Some of the more traditional, Luddite Mennonites, who still drove around in horse and buggies and refused to pollute their existence even with radios, wanted nothing to do with the encroaching modernity and had decamped for the Yucatan, but the more progressive ones had stayed and had already installed central-pivot irrigation systems, which need power, in their fields. This was not good because they were depleting the water table, and Chihuahua was already in the fifth year of a terrible drought.
At the station we found Jesus Pacheco, a junor colleague of Rurik who is studying the small mammals and reptiles and amphibians on Janos Prairie, two students from Mexico City named Alejandra and Holanda, and four ferret biologists from the U.S., among them Mike Lockhart, who is Fish and Wildlife’s black-footed-ferret recovery coordinator, , and Travis Liveri, who works for Prairie Wildlife Research, a private conservation group based in Wall, South Dakota. The sun was going down, and they were all going to the prairie to spotlight-count ferrets. So far, only fifteen of the ones that had been introduced were accounted for. They were going to be at it all night. It was slow, tedious work. Jesus proposed meeting with him and going out to see prairie the following afternoon.
Next morning we explored the desert around town. A little south of it, on the road to Casas Grandes, a large complex that reached its zenith before the arrival of the conquistadores, was a rocky hillock, a twenty-foot high pile of slabs on the desert floor with petroglyphs etched into them by one of the nomadic groups that roamed the Chihuahuan Desert for several thousand years. Nearby was a cottonwood bosque where Geronimo’s family was killed by Mexican soldiers. Janos Prairie, which we got to at noon, is gloriously set amid separate little mountain ranges that stagger north to the U.S. border, and to the south consolidate into the Sierra Madre Occidental. This is classic basin and range country, as celebrated by John MacPhee. Each range is a “sky island” isolated from the next by low desert flats and rich in endemic life forms. Janos Prairie has been called the Serengeti of North America (although it is missing the vast herds of horned ruminants, the bison and pronghorn antelope that once roamed it) Its shortgrass was seriously overgrazed. We could see a few dozen head of cattle in the distance, on the other size of an arroyo, being herded by two vaqueiros. They were going to have to go if the prairie is to be restored. There are 350 ejiditarios, each of whom is entitled to graze twenty cows on ejido commonland. But many have gone to the States; the area is losing population, so we are talking about 200 or so cows at most, each of which is worth $200-300. The ejiditarios will have to be compensated for them, which will cost $40,000 to $60,000 a year or more, but probably less, because the bad years, when drought reduces the number of cows that make it to market, will have to be factored in. Most of the ejiditarios have not been informed of the plan to move their cows off the prairie, but Jesus thought they were not going to have a problem with it, because they would have a steady, guaranteed income, without having to work, whether there was a drought that year and the cows died or not, and having the reserve would open the door to alternative modes of production for them, would provide incentives to make wooden spoons and other artesania and would create jobs in ecotourism. “Once the birdwatchers hear about this place they will come flocking,” Jesus predicted. “There will have to be an interpretive center of the prairie ecosystem, and rangers will be needed to patrol the reserve. I observed that the creation the monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacan has done little for the local campesinos. The income from ecotourism goes mainly to guides and other personnel from companies in Mexico City. Little of it trickles down to the local economy. And the peak birding months at Janos are in winter, which can get pretty nippy, so I don’t see birdwatchers coming in droves. I’m not sure how promising Janos Prairie is an an ecotourism destination. Jesus said these were all good points. He was, meek, and brimming with calor humano, and reminded Rosette of a lot of people in Africa.
The local campesinos, Jesus told me, still gas the burrows when they can afford the aluminum phosphate gas and sometimes, being unable to read the English on the instruction label, gas themselves in the process. “They are killing the perritos because of ignorance, to promote the gas. The dogs have to keep the vegetation low so they can see, and the cows eat mesquite pods and spread the seeds in their paddies and the dogs are counteracting this trend of the grassland turning into mesquite desertscrub by suppressing the growth of mesquite, which they do by girdling the bushes around their bases. They cows prefer to graze in dog towns because the grass is more nutritious. The dogs keep bringing up new soil from their burrows and fertilizing the grass. They are a keystone species like bees, elephants, or bison. Two of the five species of prairie dog are found in Mexico. The other one is the Mexican prairie dog, which is endemic to a small area where Cohahuila, Nuevo Leon, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi meet. They produce only two to four pups a year and congregate in coteries of relatives. There are around eight dogs in a family unit, which is headed by an adult male and two or three mates.” So the Mormons in nearby Colonia Juarez and Colonia Dublan aren’t the only polygamists in Chihahua, I joked. (These verdant communities were founded by dissident Saints who refused to give up their additional wives after the Woodruff Manifesto of l898 banned plural marriage. George Romney grew up in Colonia Juarez. I pay a visit to these communities in my last book, Legends of the American Desert.)
“This is the month that the pups, newborn and fourteen-month-old yearlings, are emerging from their dens,” Jesus continued. “Soon the yearlings will be weaned and will go off on their own, establishing new burrows up to five kilometers away. The survival rate of the pups is 50%, high for a rodent. Many yearlings are killed by female prairie dogs as they disperse. Infanticide is a major cause of mortality in some colonies.
“The burrow is usually fifteen meters long and five meters deep and has many entrances, tunnels, and chambers. Black-tail colonies have ten to a hundred burrow entrances per acre. Each coterie occupies about half an acre. Here there are four to ten dogs per hectare (2.8 acres), but in the U.S.dog towns there are fifteen; the American ones are denser because they are smaller [are the dogs adapting to the shrinking amount of land that is available for them ?] Members of the same coterie open their mouths and ‘kiss’ when they meet each other. The males are aggressive, fighting with males from neighboring coteries and raiding each other’s harems . But they cooperate in sounding the alarm if a predator is spotted. A town is a continuum of burrows within 150 meters from each other. All of eastern Wyoming, from Fort Laramie to the Power River Basin, was one big black-tail colony. Fort Laramie was where the first black-tail was found. The perritos are diurnal, with two peaks of activity—8 to 10 a.m. and 5-7 p.m., while the jurón, the ferret, is nocturnal.
We saw some painted lady butterflies which at this time of year emerge by the hundreds of thousands in the desert Southwest. Little is known about their migratory patterns. I remember going for a drive in the desert around Albuquerque in the spring of l992, and smushing hundreds of them on my windshield and grill.
Jesus didn’t know about the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, Euphydryas edithi, which a study by Dr. Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas finds has been pushed north out of Mexico, probably by global warming. There must have been some of these small, intricately mottled butterflies in Janos; if so, they disappeared before they could even be studied, or their existence verified—the fate of all too many local populations of species. We looked at a banner-tailed kangaroo rat burrow, a soft dome of unearthed soil on the desert floor punctuated with holes. They are the largest species of kangaroo rat, and their mounds were as ubiquitous as the prairie-dog burrows, which had a single entrance hole in the center, like the crater of a volcano. Most of the burrows were raised mounds, five to fifty per acre, but some were recessed in the desert floor. It was still too cold for the snakes to come out, the boys were dismayed to learn, but in the summer Jesus usually sees eight or so rattlers a day. The most common ones are western rattlesnake, black-tailed, Mojave, and western diamondback. No dogs were in evidence. They were all underground, avoiding the heat of the day. Chollo cactuses were in yellow flower. The earth around the burrows was bare, denuded of grass, except for a few clumps here and there that had been clipped to stubble. Overgrazing, Jesus said.
Jesus is doing his Ph.D. on the territory of the introduced ferrets and their impact on the town. The ferret will live in a burrow for three or four days and will eat all the dogs it can, then go on to the next. It spends its entire life in a fifteen-square-kilometer territory. Almost all the 161 captive-bred ferrets were released not on ejido land, but on the adjacent Cuervo Ranch, which belongs to some Americans named Jeffers who came down from Cloudcroft, New Mexico, in the twenties. We drove up to the ranch, which was not overgrazed like the ejido. The shortgrass was lush and golden, like wheat.
Billo Jeffers (his name is William Claxton, but everybody calls him Billo), a lean, laconic cowboy in his thirties, with a range-weathered face and thick, callused hands– the real deal– was just pulling out in his pickup. The boys got out and chased a pet roadrunner around the house. Billo told them to lay off the bird. He was a little wary so to break the ice I asked he why he didn’t raise bison and he said, “Cuz they don’t respect fences. Paw don’t want publicity that we’re cooperating with the effort to reintroduce wildlife. He don’t want people to start coming to see the animals.” We found his father, Jayme Jeffers, in the garage behind the house, working on a tractor. “We let the ferrets be released to keep down the prairie dogs,” he told us, “but they don’t seem to be doing much good. I don’t like prairie dogs on account of they eat more grass than cattle do and don’t produce.” The Jeffers run 1200 head on what’s left of the 40,000 hectares that Jayme’s father and uncle leased in the twenties, bought in the forties, and later sold off more than two thirds of. “We ship steers to the states, that’s what keeps us rolling,” explained Jayme. “But we don’t have the rains we used to have.” The perennial complaint of farmers and ranchers in the arid midcontinent. “We used to get a foot of snow, but this winter there was none in the flats. Last week clouds that had a lot of moisture went by, but we didn’t get a drop. It’s been much drier the last 15 years and it’s getting worse and worse. Prairie dogs have always been here, but before, when we used to get rain, there was more grass, it used to be lusher and the carrying capacity for cattle was greater, so the cattle and the prairie dogs got along. We used to raise 200 calves, now only we only raise 100. My dad wanted to kill the prairie dogs all out. He got rid of most of ‘em, but that was a long time ago, and now they’re back. It’s too expensive and too much work to get rid of ‘em, so we just live with ‘em. We’re 200 years behind the States in our way of life here. If the cattlemen get along with the ferrets and the ferrets with the prairie dogs and everything stays in balance, I guess it’d work out allright.” I asked Jayme what he thought about the plan for a biosphere reserve. It was the first he heard of it.
We left the Jeffers and went to take a look at the prairie dogs on their ranch. I asked Jesus if the ranch would be appropriated for the reserve, and he said, “We could appropriate private ranches, but not the ejido land. But we are searching less aggressive ways.” It was getting late in the day, and the prairie dogs were out, on their second shift of diurnal, above-ground activity. Like all members of the squirrel family, they had hyperactive metabolisms. They were nervous and vigilant and acted as if they could use a course of Ridalin, but they had to be because if they let down their guard for a second, they could be divebombed by a bird of prey. They were lighter, bleached khaki—the color of American desert uniform– and stood out against the redder, darker, recently excavated earth around their burrows. An accipiter with a white tail and wingbards was hanging in the air overhead, waiting for an opportunity to dive. Several of the dogs gave the quiet alarm, flattening themselves prone and flicking their tails. Then a gravid female sounded the red alert, standing erect and throwing back her head and barking with such vehemence that her feet actually left the ground, then she assumed a defensive crouch. Every dog in sight stood galvanized to the aerial threat. We looked out over the grassland, where dozens of frenzied prairie dogs were pirouetting around their holes paranoically in the last hour of daylight. Some were vocalizing. Twelve distinct calls have been identified.
That evening we went to see Aide Acosta, the commisario ejidal, the commissioner of the ejido of Casa de Janos, where most of the complex is. Acosta looks out for the interests of 196 ejiditarios. “Almost all of them know of the plan to compensate them and are in agreement because they don’t have to work and will have a guaranteed income,” he told us. What will they do if they stop being cowboys ? I asked. “They will go back to agriculture and cultivate their campos. Most of the young adults have left for the States and the cowboy way of life is already dying here, as it is in your country. The attitude toward dogs in the ejido is not positive. They are still being gased. If it was a different animal like maranos (peccaries or javelinas), that could be eaten, although perritos are not bad. [Navajos eat them and several have died of plague.] It is hard for some to understand why this good pasture should be saved for perritos. But it has been much drier the last fifteen years and this is making cattle-raising an increasingly marginal proposition, so it will not be a problem giving it up. Plus there are other pastures in the ejido, sitios where there are no perritos that the cows can be put on. If I stop raising cattle I personally will not feel bad at all. I won’t feel the loss if I never ride horse again. I won’t miss it. Cattle is still more important for us than farming. We could move the cows up into the sierra but then we would have puma problems, also trouble with the narcotrafficantes, who grow mota and amapola (marijuana and opium poppy) up in the back canyons.” Acosta had a completely different mentality, a completely different way of looking at the situation, from the Mexico City biologos and the gringo scientists. I was reminded of B.Traven’s story about the American tourist who meets a campesino weaving a beautiful little straw basket and asks how much do you want ? 5 pesos, the campesino tells him. The American has chocolate factory back home, and he starts thinking, if I put the chocolate in these nice little baskets, I could get a lot more for it. How much do you want for 25,000 baskets ? he asks the campesino, who tells him I need to think about that, come back tomorrow. The next day he tells the gringo, each basket will cost five hundred pesos. The gringo is flabbergasted. He thought he could get the campesino down to two pesos a basket because it was such a big order, but the campesino explains that it is going to take a lot of time and effort to find the straw for all those baskets, and even more to make them.
I’m still writing the book on my wife’s family and have been reading up on cattlekeeping cultures; her people kept cows for generations. In a chapter of his book, Coming of Age in the Pleistocene, called “The Cowboy Alternative,” the late Paul Shepard writes : “The long shadow thrown over the earth’s ecology is that of a man on a horse, the domestic animal which, more than any other consolidated centralized power, energized the worldwide debacle of the skinning of the earth, the creation of modern warfare, and the ideological disassociation from the earthbound realm.” The horse evolved in North America, but became extinct there during the Pleistocene, but not before some of them crossed the frozen Behring Strait into Asia and Europe and proliferated there. It returned to North America after a ten-thousand-year-long absence, arriving with the conquistadors, and cattle soon followed, and the vaquero/cowboy culture evolved, which certainly did a number on the North American plains, althoug not as much as agriculture. The plains were ideal for farming, once the technology for accessing their groundwater was developed, because they were flat, the soil was good, and there were no trees or stones to clear. Cattle were run where it was too dry and rocky—which is most of the West. But now pasture that conserves at least some of the original prairie ecosystem looks pretty good, compared to paving urbanizing suburbanizing what’s left of the plains and covering it with sprawl or turning it into rows of lettuce or orange groves, and the cowboys, we were soon to find, who are an endangered species themselves, have become the closest thing to custodians of the remaining open prairie. Some of them have formed a pragmatic alliance with the conservationists, like the rubber-tappers of the Amazon, to save their way of life and their habitat.
2. The Malpais Cowboys
We drove north, ascending into jagged mountains of pink granite coated with green lichen that had a spectacular view of desert floor, to Aguas Prietas, and then entered the U.S. at Douglas. Everything was suddenly much bigger and richer on the American side, four-lane highways without potholes, plied by huge spanking new pickups with extended cabs and SUVs. The American good life that the resources and cheap labor of the rest of the world are doing so much to make possible. Ten-year-old kids in sweatshops in Pakistan stitching together soccer balls and others in Vietnam assembling Nike sneakers, being exposed to the carcinogenic fumes of tuolomene in the glue, so that kids in America’s ‘burbs can play soccer. Miners of coltan in Congo (see Dispatch #2) roasting and eating the world’s last wild gorillas and okapis, so that we can have our cellphones, laptops, and ballistic weapons. Every missile and shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket in the U.S. arsenal is tipped with this rare, heat-resistant metal, which enhances its penetrance and destructiveness. A shitload of coltan was being rained down on Iraq at that very moment. One of the Tucson papers had a six-page spread, with pictures and stats including cost, of all the different missiles and other rocket-propelled weapons of mass destruction that were being used in Operation Free Iraq. The Tomahawk
was the most expensive, six hundred grand a pop. 400 of them would be fired on Iraq. Most of these weapons were developed, tested, and manufactured in and around Tucson, so the local attitude about the war was very positive, at least among those who were employed by the weapons industry. They were proud of their work, completely behind our boys over there. West of Fort Huachuca, where a lot of this weaponry, and the planes and drones that drop or fire them is tested, is a beautiful mountain area called Canelo, Cinnamon Hills, that seems more like northern California than southern Arizona, rises out of the sagebrush desert, cool with golden grass studded with pinyon and pine, and huge cottonwoods along perennial streams. We spent the night with a lovely couple, Bill and Athena Steen, who run workshops on traditional hay-bale adobe construction, and the following morning drove through Patagonia and up to Tucson, where we visited with the singer Linda Rondstat, one of the Southest’s most famous citizens whom I had long wanted to meet. We had many mutual friends, among them Bernard Fontana, the anthropologist of record for the O’odam (formerly Papago) Indians of the Sonoran Desert, who lives on the reservation, near the San Xavier del Bac mission in South Tucson, whose restoration he has been devoting himself to since his retirement (and which by the way is in urgent need of funds; this is probably the most historically and architecturally significant structure in the entire Southwest, and an extremely worthy cause for the J.M. Kaplan fund to take on). Linda’s son and the boys were soon fast buddies and she invited us to spend the night. We accepted, and stayed up late into the night talking about such things the West African clave, or five-beat measure, which Linda explained is superimposed on the four-beat European measure and is present in Cuban santeria, Brazilian macumba, candomble, and samba, the voodoo or African possession cults that were secretly kept up by slaves in the American south, and is the basis of blues and rock ‘n roll. You can hear it clearly in the music of Bo Diddley.
Next morning we drove back through Bisbee, which has become a little too cute, like Sedona, to Douglas and headed east into the very dry desert of the San Bernardino Valley. This was Geronimo country. Due to the Apache threat, it was one of the last parts of the country to be settled by the white man. We stopped at the entrance to the Malpai Ranch to photograph some lovely lavendar prickly pears, and Warner Glenn, its owner, pulled up in his pick-up. He was the most fabulous cowboy I’ve ever seen, right out of central casting, a tall drink of water maybe six-five and very lanky and long-legged, about sixty, a sweet, shy, gentle man in his late fifties, I guess, not the macho type at all but thoroughly imbued with the cowboy ethos. “Those are regular prickly pears, not the purple Santa Cruz variety of prickly-pear,” Warner explained. “They’ve turned purple because of the drought. Most people think they’re beautiful, but to us they mean stress.” We followed him up the driveway, which was maybe half a mile long, to the house, where his wife Wendy came out and greeted us. The house was full of cowboy and Indian artifacts and memorabilia. Wendy unlocked the door to a little museum she has in the back. “This was a major trading area in pre-Columbian times because of the water,” she told us. (There’s a big lake that was full of migrating waterbirds across the road from the ranch.) “The Salado Indians lived here, but all their villages were sacked by the Spaniards and the Portuguese.” She showed me some scorched shards that she’d picked up on the ranch. “Some botanists from the St. Louis Botanical Garden identified the remains of twelve kind of corn, walnuts, and beans in their burnt villages.” The Glenns own four thousand acres and lease another eleven thousand from the state. They pay a $24 a year grazing fee per animal unit, which is a mother with her baby or a bull or one yearling [of either sex?]. It takes fifty acres to support an animal unit. “People say we’re welfare ranchers, but they don’t stop to think what we have to do to make this work. Now it’s more like a hundred acres per unit. We’re in the fifth year of a drought. We’ll have to feed the cattle hay pretty soon if there continues to be no rain. We didn’t get the rain that Tucson and Phoenix just got.” She showed us a fossilized horse tooth, one of the endemic horses that became extinct in the Pleistocene, that she’d also picked up on one of her prowls of the ranch.
The Glenns supplement their income from ranching by taking hunters out to shoot mountain lions. They charge $3500 for a ten-day trip. If the hunter shoots his lion before the ten days are up, the trip is over. If he doesn’t get one, the Glenns are not responsible, but there are a lot of lions up in the mountains, and the Glenns hunt with hounds, so the hunters are rarely disappointed. “The lions are doing real well, now that there’s no more trapping and no bounty on ‘em. Our deer herd is going real fast,” Warner explained. The Glenns run the trips 120 days of the year and are booked four years ahead. A hunter from Ohio had just left, having shot his lion in three days. It was on one of these trips a couple of years ago that the dogs cornered a jaguar—the first confirmed appearance of Felix onca in the U.S. since l900– and Warner was able to take pictures of it. There have been several other sightings of jaguar coming up probably from the El Coyote/Saguaripe area of Sonora. Not many people are aware that the jaguar has arrived, even if they are only transient cats. Lots of animals are moving north : Edith’s checkerspot, the killer bees, the mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever and malaria. Mexican golden eagles are nesting on a mountain on the ranch. “If we didn’t hunt with hounds, nobody would have known about the jaguar,” Wendy argued in defense of her operation. Peter Crenshaw, who took over the jaguar study in Brazil’s Pantanal do MatoGrosso from George Schaller who left in disgust after his radio-collared cats were shot (see Dispatch #9), is studying their movements around here.
Wendy is a Paul. Her great-grandfather came from Germany and they lived west of Douglas. He was a tailor and mined limestone for the copper smelters of Bisbee and married the daughter of a judge in Tombstone. Warner was born and raised on a ranch in Chiricahua, to the north, which is still in the family and has a serious lion problem. Warner’s mom had been losing a lot of calves. After they got married, Warner and Wendy first lived on the ranch of Texas John Slaughter, down the road a ways, back toward Douglas. Slaughter was an outlaw who became a lawman and killed quite a few people,” Wendy told me. “Disney had a television series on him. They had a good-looking tall guy playing him, but he was actually a tiny man, only 5’6”.” In l969 the Glenns bought the Malpai Ranch and put a trailer on it.
The boys, who had been poking around the house, came running excitedly. They had found a rattlesnake in the stone wall. We rushed to the spot. It was a western diamondback maybe three feet long that had just emerged from hibernation and was still a little sluggish. We could see its tongue flicking and its barred tail, like a racoon tail. Wendy showed us photos of some much larger western diamondbacks she had found hibernating in one of the display cases of her museum and had blown away with a shotgun. There were also Massassauga and Mojave rattlers on the ranch, milk, black, and king snakes, red racers, coach-whips and puff adders, and a collared lizard that changes color to blend with the malpai, the volcanic lava badlands that crops out in parts of the valley and in others is covered with grass. Who would have guessed that such a hot, dry, rocky desert supports such a rich array of reptiles and amphibians ?
Wendy took us for a drive. I was hoping a herd of pronghorn would appear for the boys, and it did. Eleven of them, with a big male and a subadult. “The pronghorn is not a true antelope,” if I may quote from Legends of the American Desert, “but the last representative of its own unique family, the Antilocarpids. Until the Pleistocene extinction ten thousand years ago, there were thirteen genera of Antilocarpids. Pronghorns once ranged from southern Canada to the plateaus of Mexico and from the Mississippi to the Gulf Coast. Performing epic migrations across the entire West, they probably exceeded the buffalo in numbers. The prime wild game, the prize trophy for ‘dudes’ (as the cowboys called eastern or European city boys, like Teddy Roosevelt, Lord Dunraven, and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia), by l902 their numbers had shrunk in fifty years from an estimated thirty or forty million to twenty thousand.” The bucks’ snouts were masked with black, and their tawny necks had horizontal white ruptive bands. This was a particularly successful male and his large harem. The other young males in the vicinity were abroad in bachelor herds. Pronghorns are by far the fast animals in North America, capable of burst of 70 miles and hour, and leaps of fourteen, even twenty-six feet. When they are at rest, pronghorns get down on their knees and sit sphinx-like in a circle, each facing a different direction, scanning its field of view for danger, like a covered wagon train forming a protective ring. But these pronghorns were on the move. “Pronghorns were reintroduced in the valley thirty years ago,” Wendy told us. “The first few years coyotes took their babies. The rest got smarter.” Wolves were the pronghorns’ most important predator, but they have been even more decimated. The last two wolves in the valley were seen twenty-five years ago.
A lot of illegal aliens pass through the ranch, Wendy said. Some have big bundles of marijuana on their backs. Wendy came upon one woman who was giving birth, and another who had stripped down to only a bra and panties. In the latter stages of desert thirst, the contact of clothing on your skin becomes unbearable. Many are abandoned by their coyotes, who have cellphones and tell them Phoenix is just over the hill and tell them they’re going ahead to arrange transport and split with the half of their ten-thousand-dollar fee that their victims have to pay up front. Fifty percent of the illegals aren’t Mexicans. They are known as OTM’s, Other Than Mexican. Chinese, Salvadorans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Indians, Philipinos, Iranians. The smart OTM’s buy fake Mexican passports so they will be deported back to Mexico and not be detained.
According to Wendy, eight of the 9/11 terrorists came into the U.S. through Cochise County and did air training in Tucson. The illegals steer clear of the house but they leave plastic bags in the desert that the cattle eat and they leave gates open so the Glenns have been getting humped calves, from the zebu who come in from a neighboring ranch and mate with their Hereford bulls. Other ranchers along the border have formed vigilante groups with names like American Border Patrol and Ranch Rescue, whose members dress in fatigues and bushwack illegals on their ranches with semi-automatic rifles. Poor people from developing countries trying to attain the American dream continue to suffocate in railroad boxcars and the boxes of tractor trails, women are raped, some are even being murdered by traffickers in body parts, who harvest their organs and sell them to the transplant market. Others are sacrificed in grisly Santeria ceremonies. The U.S. Mexico border is one of the places where la différence, as I call it (see The Ideology and Biases of the Dispatches), the Great Disparity, is most glaringly on display.
“All these hills would normally be orange with California poppies and yellow with bladderpod mustard,” Wendy said. “It’s pitiful. If we had an inch or two of rain this whole country would come out. But we’ve only had five inches in the last five years. We should have gotten twelve to twenty-two.”
In another wing of the Glenns’ house are the well-appointed offices of the Malpai Group, an organization of ranchers that is trying to get the ranchers of the southeastern Arizona and over the New Mexico border to sell their development right to conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy, so they or their heirs won’t succumb to the financial temptation to sell their land to developers. 40-acre ranchettes are encroaching on this pristine corner of the Southwest from every direction. The development rights are worth $100 an acre, and land with development right goes for $200-250 an acre. The Kaplan Fund is giving the group a $500,000 challenge grant over two years, contingent on its raising three times as much. Particularly important is the centrally situated 35,000-acre Krentz Ranch, whose development rights are worth $1.4 million. Over the border is the 500-square-mile Grey Ranch, in the next valley to the east, just over the New Mexico border, which the Nature Conservancy sold to the Animus Foundation for $18 million minus the $5 million development rights, or $13 million. Animus is chaired by Drum Haldey, a poet and Budweiser heir. Easements have been obtained for 13 ranches, with two pending, Bill McDonald, the Malpai Group’s executive director, told us when we returned from our tour of the ranch. Bill related the history of the organization : “The thing that pulled us together was the common threat to our existence, not only from subdivisions, but from the fire-prevention regulations of the state and federal agencies which control a lot of the land around here. After Geronomino surrendered, a lot of people came and did what they did everywhere else. They used everything. There was an open-range policy, so the resources took a lot of abuse, from native grass haying and overgrazing to woodcutting and putting in a lot of roads without any effort to control erosion. But one of the most destructive things, besides reducing a lot of the fuel (by haying) was the agencies stopping burning, which compounded the problem. The culture of the time, the early twentieth century, at the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the state land departments, was that they didn’t want these fires. The fire thing is still going on. They are trying to control any fire. So there has been a big buildup of woody species the last eighty years, mesquite, acacia, prickly pear. At high elevations pinyon and juniper have increased dramatically with the lack of fire. We think that to preserve grasslands, you need fire every once in a while. Our group was funded in l991 and organized as a non-profit in l994. It was a spontaneous fire on the road to Douglas that got the whole thing started. The first prescribed burn was in l995. It went across the boundaries of a number of landowners and agencies. If we get a spontaneous fire, we make the decision what to do about it. Most of the fires we prefer to let burn. Most of this country really needs to burn. We don’t have the population or physical structures as inhibitors. The only problem is getting past the endangered species act. The Peloncillos Mountains, just to the east of here, between us and the Grey Ranch, are the habitat of the endangered ridgenose rattlesnake, and if the fire burns too hot, the habitat is destroyed. So prescribed burns have been on hold since l997. The Chiricahua leopard frog, we have determined, is not an issue, and we commissioned a two year survey of Mexican spotted owls that found none, so they aren’t either. But both greater and lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of agave, whose pollen production is negatively impacted by fire at a certain time of year. We paid the Rocky Mountain Station of Forest Research to study the problem, and it demonstrated that fire is not a factor in agave mortality. But there’s still the snake. We bringing a lot of science to bear on this issue, not just getting one opinion.”
What about reintroducing prairie dogs to keep down the mesquite ? I asked. “Some were– on the Gray Ranch, despite the local county ordinance, and we’re paying the McKinney Flats Experimental Ranch to study whether releasing more of them is a good idea.” What about hanta virus ? Hanta is contracted from mouse droppings and unlike plague is untreatable and is usually fatal. “It’s here. We’ve had two cases in Cochise County,” Bill said.
Wendy, who is the Malpai Group’s office manager, said that “a lot of people are trying to stop grazing and get people off the land altogether. The Center for Biodiversity in Tucson is fighting ranching constantly.” So she was grateful that at least some conservationists were willing to work with them.
Like the Glenns, Bill has deep roots in the area. His grandfather came from the Texas hill country in l907. Bill is the last of the five brothers who is still ranching. Thirty-three families are running cows on a million acres of Cochise County. Fifteen are like-minded. “It has to make sense financially,” explained Bill, who has no plans to subdivide but still hasn’t sold the development rights to his land. “You have to sell to someone who has a 510C3 (tax-exempt) status and is qualified to hold the easement and can assume the responsibility of protecting the land. We could donate our rights, but the average rancher is in debt or making a below-average income. Land prices have doubled since we started. The development value of the land is 52% of its total value, as of the most recent appraisal, and the agricultural value is 48%, so most of the ranchers have been getting mortgages. The first easements were traded for hay in l994, when there was a drought. We have one individual, Judy Keeler, who is a vocal opponent of what we’re trying to do. She’s on the Keller Ranch, north of Grey Ranch. She writes for the Paragon Foundation, screaming about private property rights. She thinks conservation easements are a scam to take private property away and give it to the Nature Conservancy or the government. She thinks we’re being bamboozled. The Krentz Ranch is still in the pot. Gault and Clump [two other ranchers] are sitting on the fence. They’re good people, but they have family issues. The father—there’s nobody else like him. He’s too old to change and believes everything from the center of the earth on his property belongs to him. We’re independent in some ways, but there is a cultural sphere that we have to operate in, and if you step out of it, you suffer. The independent ways have been good. You have to be self-reliant, but it’s killing us. It appears to me that there has to be changes, or our ranching is doomed. The demographics are changing. I got tired of the situation, just sitting there trying to hang on to what we had. Other ranching areas in the West are doing easements. We hold a couple of workshops and invite them and their partners. There’s the Valle Grande grasslands north of Santa Fe, the northern New Mexico Cattlemen’s Assolciation, who are long-time Hispanos who have been there for generations, before the U.S. was a country or New Mexico was a state. The Altar Valley, southwest of Tucson; the Buckeye Conservancy near Eureka, in northern California. They’re making terrific progress. The Diablo Trust near Flagstaff, two big ranches that predate us and are trying to involve the town of Flagstaff and are using some of our ideas. The Owyhe ? Borderland, in southern Idaho, on the Wyoming border. A group of ranchers on the Madison River, a high-rent district in Montana. There’s some stuff going on in West Texas, but Texas is 97 ½% privately owned. There’s none of the challenge of bringing in state or federal agencies. We can only assume that open space is going to become more and more valuable, and the time will come when our descendants won’t be able to afford selling easement, so a lot of ranchers are doing it now, to protect themselves against their kids or grandchildren selling the ranch. We’re getting some Masai over here this year from Kenya, to learn about their cattlekeeping practicers. I’m concerned they may try to Americanize what they’re doing. We’ve had people from Brazil, and have even made one Mongolian connection.”
These Malpai cowboys are poster boys for American gumption, grit, and get-up-and-go, I reflected. Their way of life was threatened, and they had organized and were meeting the problem head-on, interacting with all kinds of people. They took the bull by the horn. And how refreshing and encouraging it was to meet true-blue, mainstream Americans who weren’t culturebound and geographically challenged. Kudos to the Kaplan Fund for backing them.
Late in the afternoon we drove up over the Peloncillos Mountains and descended into the Gray Ranch in time to see its magnificent grassland, higher and lusher than the San Bernardino Valley, bathed by a glorious sunset. We checked into a motel in Lordsville, and the next morning, I had to e-mail the latest draft of the Rwanda book to my agent, so we stopped at the public library in Deming, but wouldn’t let me use their phone to make the local call connecting my to my server, Microsoft, so I went back to this very friendly black dude who had given me directions to the library. Weel, as he was called, was in his sixties and had been sitting in front of his house, working on a half-pint bottle of whiskey and listening to Chuck Berry on his blaster, when we pulled up. What’s your hurry ? he asked. Why don’t you stop and have a beer ? I’ll barbecue us some ribs. And where’s this beautiful sister from ?” he asked of Rosette. Rwanda, I said. “Dangerous,” Weel said appreciatively. So we returned to Weel and he let me use his phone and we hung out for a few hours, before continuing up to Truth and Consequences, where we stopped at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. I was hoping there would be some sandhill cranes fueling up for the next leg of their journey north, and there were. If you have the chance to see a sandhill crane, you should always take it. We reached Albuquerque where we stayed with our friends Paul and Carla Robinson. Paul is the executive director of the Southwest Research and Information Center, which advocates for traditional people—native Americans and Hispanos mostly, but also Buryat Mongol on Siberia’s Lake Baikal– whose environment is being trashed by big mining companies. Next day we drove up to Ribeira to see other friends, the sculptor and Hispano water-rights activist Nicasio Romero and his wife, the painter Jane Stein. They live in a beautiful little valley called El Ancon, the Elbow, right on the Pecos River, because it smacks into a mesa and takes a sharp bend there. Next day we drove through Taos and visited with John Nichols, who had been taking pictures of mountain goats high up in the Sangre de Cristos, and made Farmington by nightfall. Next day Rosette and the boys went out on horses into the Canyon de Chelly. I was coming down with a cold and stayed at the motel. Zachary, the eight-year-old, was running a fever but insisted on going, and I didn’t want him to miss the experience, so I let him. The next day we tried to get to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon but got stuck in snow on a Forest Service road. I had to walk out three miles to get a towtruck. When I came back Zachary’s throat was really swollen. Strep, I thought, and we took him to the little hospital in Kanab, Utah. The doctor noticed a rash of little red spots on the back of his left hand—petechia, they’re called. They are the result of burst corpuscles. The doctor was alarmed, and summoned an epidemiologist, one of only three in the state, whom the little hospital was fortunate to have on its staff . These petechia are raising a lot of red flags, the epidemiologist, who was from Indian, said. They could be from a lot of things : meningitis, plague, rocky-mountain spotted fever, dengue fever, malaria, leukemia, tularemia, ehrlichiosis (another tick-borne disease), or it could just be influenza, or parvovirus, which is usually not serious. But we don’t have intensive care here and we can’t take any chances, so Zachary is going to have to be air-lifted to Salt Lake City immediately. Rosette, who was freaking out, flew up with him; everyone in the plane was wearing a face mask. I drove up with the two other boys and met them at the hospital in the morning, by which time Zachary had fully recovered. They discharged him the next day, and five days later we learned that it was, thank god, just an unusual presentation of parvovirus, which he could have picked up in Montreal or in Janos, from a mangy dog he played with. While our drama was playing out to its happy ending, the SARS virus had just burst upon the scene. People who had just been in Asia were succumbing in Toronto. There are so many things out there, with the unprecented mobility and mixing of the world’s people, that can get you these days.
We visited with my oldest boy, Andre, the designer and manager of this Web site, who is living in Park City, working on commission for a one-man web design company, but the commissions weren’t coming with enough regularity, so he was fixing up old Toyota Land Cruisers and selling them over the Internet; he had a grant proposal out to convert one to run on recycled grease from MacDonald’s.
The next day we headed east and made Roosevelt, Utah, by nightfall. This was where the young, geeky, ashthmatic Teddy Roosevelt toughened himself among the cowboys and became the bully president who inaugurated the age of American imperial capitalism whose decadent finale we are now living through, and may be for quite a few years before an equitable redistribution of the world’s resources and opportunities is finally achieved, if it ever is. The vacant lot next to the hotel was one big dog-town, riddled with mounds of freshly excavated soil. We continued east to Jessen, the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, where a vast dog complex that went on for miles began. These were white-tailed prairie dogs, whose colonies aren’t as dense as black-tails’. The cop who pulled me over and gave me a ticket for doing eighty as soon as I crossed into Moffatt County, Colorado, told me that this was one of the places where black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced, but the complex is battling plague. We began to see pronghorns among the dog burrows– more pronghorns than I had ever seen, several hundred in all. We spent the night in Laramie and swung down into northwestern Nebraska, which was an amazing daliesque desert with miniature mesas, ten or twenty feet across, and bonsai Grand Canyons only three feet across. This is a landscape I’d like to come back to and take a closer look at at the earliest opportunity– another Dispatch for the roster.
Two months later there was a bizarre codex to the prairie dog’s saga of victimization and vilification. Some dogs in a pet store in Wisconsin were bitten by a Gambian rat, which transmitted monkeypox to them, and they were sold to several people, whom they bit and infected. The four cases grew to fifty-four in a few days. Another epidemic is on the loose. Monkeypox isn’t as serious as smallpox, which had a thirty percent fatality rate before it was eradicated. Its fatality rate is one to ten percent. But the federal government is taking this new outbreak very seriously, and has banned the capture and sale of prairie dogs. A guy walking his dog on our street in Montreal said, “Prairie dogs should be on the prairies,” and I said, “And Gambian rats should be in the Gambia.” David Crawford, of a Boulder-based non-profit called Animal Defense, which advocates for animal freedom, reports that last year ten thousand prairie dogs were shipped out of Texas to pet stores. “But they’re too aggressive to make good pets,” he told the AP. “You’re doing something that it in total disregard for the natural order of things, bringing these animals out of their communities and putting them in artificial environments. It isn’t surprising to me that nature had this little surprise waiting.”