• Welcome to El Uno

    What does it take to restore a short-grass prairie in Mexico?
    By Jason Kersten
    Photographs by Dave Lauridsen
 

I

n Chihuahua, 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border,

Nélida Barajas was trying to restore the prairie to a 46,000-acre ranch. In the end, she brought back a whole lot more.

A few years ago, the word on the street in the small town of Janos, Mexico, was that the strangers who had bought the huge ranch to the west were narcotraficantes—drug traffickers. After all, the property was less than 60 miles from the U.S. border, and no farming or cattle grazing was taking place there. In this largely impoverished community, the only rational explanation was that the newcomers must have been doing something illegal to pay for their nice trucks and the big hacienda with the swimming pool in the courtyard. Sure, the property’s owners called themselves conservationists, but no one really believed them.

“Nobody knew what was happening there,” says Nélida Barajas, a Nature Conservancy scientist and the ranch manager at the time. Besides, the whole concept of conservation didn’t mean a lot to the neighbors who were busy just trying to eke out a living in the desert.

The Nature Conservancy wanted the cattle ranch for a couple of reasons. The property, nearly 46,000 acres, not only sat smack dab in the middle of the most intact grasslands in the Chihuahuan desert region, but also was right next door to the largest prairie dog colony in North America. The Conservancy had been looking for ways to protect both, and when Rancho El Uno went up for sale in 2005, even though the land was battered, severely overgrazed and in need of restoration, the organization saw its chance. “We looked at it,” says Laura Paulson, the Conservancy’s lead on arid lands protection, “and thought, here’s an opportunity to do something.”

But doing something meaningful to restore the grasslands—like setting prescribed burns to remove shrubs and rejuvenate the prairie—usually requires winning over the neighbors, which is challenging under normal conditions. Add to it the fact that this region of Mexico was plagued by La Violencia, the drug war among cartels, and Barajas seemed to be facing insurmountable challenges.

All that began to change the winter the bison arrived.

Following the Three R’s
No one had seen permanent herds of wild bison in Mexico since the 19th century. Like the great masses that once roamed the United States and were hunted to the edge of extinction, the animals had once prospered here, too, but their numbers were far fewer, most likely because of the arid climate. Except for a few cattle hybrids known as “beefalo,” including some that were brought over the border as game, bison had been completely wiped out in Mexico by the 1830s.
The loss meant far more than the absence of the prairie’s most majestic animal. Bison were a crucial part of the grassland ecosystem. Cattle grazing often leaves the soil bare and allows shrubs like mesquite and Mormon tea to run rampant, but bison increase the heterogeneity of grasslands. Unlike cattle, which tend to stay close to water and graze pastures to the root, bison eat and roam, leaving enough of each plant intact that it continues to grow. Bison also play and wallow, carving depressions in the ground where water later accumulates to nourish dense islands of grass. For these reasons, biologists often refer to bison as the architects of the prairie.

But at El Uno, Barajas was the one drawing up plans. The first year, she and her team focused on bringing the property back to life by following the three R’s of grassland restoration: resting it, replanting it and researching. There wasn’t much to show for it at first, but as the grasses slowly returned, so did the wildlife—coyotes and owls and golden eagles.

At the same time, outside El Uno’s gate the landscape was being ravaged by overgrazing and intensive agriculture.

“We had a small piece of heaven to protect,” Barajas says, recalling her perspective during those early days. Then came another realization: “We couldn’t hide like the last jewel in the desert. We had to open our gates and try to work with our neighbors and convert them to the right side.”

Her plan from the start had been to transform El Uno into a living laboratory, where university researchers and Conservancy scientists could study animal and plant species and the effect of cattle grazing on native grasses. But what if El Uno could also be an educational center where ranchers could learn about new, sustainable grazing methods and school kids could learn about birds and prairie dogs?

Amid that brainstorming, Barajas and other Conservancy colleagues began working with the state and federal government on an ambitious plan to protect a huge portion of the Janos Valley’s remaining grassland habitat by having much of it declared a biosphere reserve.

As Barajas saw it, El Uno had the potential to become both a catalyst and a model for sustainability in a valley that desperately needed it. Her plans depended on raising El Uno’s profile, which meant that she first had to get university researchers and local ranchers in the door.

So Barajas tore down the old wrought-iron archway marking the entrance to Rancho El Uno and hoisted a new one. It reads, Reserva Ecológica El Uno. Barajas viewed the new name as a welcome mat, a clear sign that she had “opened the scope of work” and the doors to all. But the local people didn’t come.

In the Chihuahuan desert, distances are vast, and people were not eager to drive down a remote dirt road to check out a purported ecoreserve in the middle of a drug-war zone.

She was going to need more than a new sign over the gate.


Thinking Bigger
It was an old friend, Rurik List, who hit on the idea. List, a conservation biologist at Mexico’s National University, had been studying the nearby prairie dog community since 1988 and had helped document the rodent’s importance as a species integral to grassland health. He had also worked on the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, the prairie dog’s main predator. But there was a much larger, central character still missing from the ecosystem—one that could help restore the grasses but also a draw a crowd.
“Necesitamos bisontes,” List told Barajas. We need bison.

Reintroducing bison then seemed far-fetched to Barajas. “We were talking about the largest mammal in North America,” she says. The liability issues alone were enormous. But as List’s idea sank in, it began to make perfect sense. “We already had prairie dogs, golden eagles, healthy grass,” says Barajas. “It was time to start thinking bigger.”

She and List began working the phones and their connections. Barajas traveled to the United States to see how bison herds were being managed there. And the big ideas got even bigger. Why stop at one herd at El Uno? Why not make El Uno’s the seed herd to provide bison to four other Mexican states where the animals once roamed?

Within a year, she had persuaded the Conservancy to move on the plan. “Nélida was definitely the initial champion,” says the Conservancy’s Paulson. “She got the rest of us to rally around the idea.” Then Barajas and List got the OK from U.S. and Mexican wildlife authorities. Still, when rangers at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota called in 2009 to tell her they would donate some wild bison and deliver the animals in three months, she was floored.

“I didn’t realize everything was going to pass so fast,” says Barajas. Ready or not, the bison were coming to El Uno—and coming back home to Mexico after more than 150 years.

Bienvenidos, Bisontes!
In times past, bison herds thundered freely across the U.S.-Mexico border. This time they came by tractor-trailer. There were 23 in all, and they traveled more than 900 miles over 18 hours to get there. Barajas was waiting at the border to receive them. By now, they were her babies, and she wanted to see them through the last stretch of the journey to El Uno.

When the bison arrived at the ranch, they spent three weeks in a quarantine corral feasting on alfalfa. Then it was time for them to meet the neighbors.

Hordes of Mexican journalists and politicians reserved their places at the release ceremony, which the country framed as the centerpiece of its National Environmental Week. Mexico’s environmental secretary was there, along with the governor of Chihuahua and a small army of other public officials. Everyone in town was invited as well. The party was for “the local people, not just the big potatoes,” says Barajas. More than 700 people turned out to see the bison and the permanent return of a species to Mexico.

“In the eighteen years I have worked in Janos,” says List, “the reintroduction was by far the biggest event I have seen.”

The stars of the show—20 females and three males—were oblivious. When the gates to the wide prairie opened, they were in no rush. Some brave vaqueros jumped into the corral and started waving their cowboy hats to flush the animals out. A bull finally led the way. Within seconds, to whistles and cheers, the bison were charging past a line of photographers toward the golden carpet of prairie.

The return of a permanent wild bison herd to Mexico marked a major victory for El Uno Ecological Reserve. Bringing back a keystone prairie species was a bold statement of the Conservancy’s intent to fully restore the Janos grasslands. In fact, just a week later, the Mexican government decreed that a 1.3-million-acre area surrounding El Uno—about the size of Grand Canyon National Park—was under federal protection as the Janos Biosphere Reserve.
Barajas never doubted that the bison would play a critical ecological role. She was overjoyed that they were also playing the role of conservation ambassador.

Everything Comes From Grass
Based on the look of the herd at El Uno now, it’s hard to believe that bison had essentially vanished from Mexico. On a sweltering day in July, the animals grazed, oblivious to the heat. Glorious with a tableau of desert grasslands and mountains behind them, they looked as though they’d walked straight out of a Western.

“They will approach, but they won’t take food from your hand,” said Barajas. “These are wild animals.” The bison are massive, but the herd is still fragile. One disease could wipe them all out.

A big bull lumbered in, grunting warily, followed by the other animals. The herd’s new mothers stuck to the fringes, russet-colored calves nursing beneath them.

Ten calves have been born and survived over the past two years. Each birth has been greeted by Conservancy employees with nearly as much anticipation as the arrival of one of their own children, with El Uno’s staff e-mailing daily updates and photos of “their babies.” Appropriately, the first calf was named Uno. Antonio Esquer, the reserve’s current manager, has held calf-naming contests for some of the others—another effort to involve the local community.

Now that Barajas has moved on to other projects and passed the baton to Esquer, one of his top jobs is to make sure the herd stays healthy and grows; the future of bison in Mexico depends on his successful management at El Uno.

Among other challenges, organized crime has come so close to the reserve—more than a dozen executions took place in Janos last year, three of them just beyond El Uno’s fence line—that some research projects had to be suspended. And there have been some painful setbacks. Though the herd has grown to 30 animals, two adult bison have died, one of a cattle-related disease; a third animal simply disappeared.

Like Barajas, Esquer considers the bison family. But he’s also close to the community. A native of the neighboring state of Sonora, he’s a natural at working with local ranchers. This is critical, because although the Janos Valley is now part of a biosphere reserve, 80 percent of the land is privately owned. Ranchers and farmers are supposed to follow strict regulations regarding water use, crop selection and wildlife protection, but enforcement is nonexistent.

Esquer’s goal is to demonstrate that sustainability is good not only for the reserve, but also for the ranchers’ own bottom lines. “To get effective conservation, we need to work as a partner with the owners of the land, because the final decision of what happens on that land depends on convincing the owner,” he says. Or as Barajas puts it, “We are teaching them that their product should be grass, not cattle, because everything comes from the grass.”

El Uno and partners like Pronatura Noreste are trying to win over the community through a host of programs. To help neighbors rest their fields, El Uno runs a “grass bank,” allowing ranchers to graze their cattle on the Conservancy’s healthy prairie lands in exchange for following sustainable practices on their own land. In addition, El Uno hosts workshops designed to teach progressive farming techniques. One major initiative is Pocas Vacas Gordas, “Few Fat Cows,” which encourages ranchers to run smaller herds on healthier grasslands that produce bigger individual animals.
“El Uno has given us a seat at the table,” says Rosario Álvarez, head of the Conservancy’s efforts in Mexico. “We’re not coming in to talk about theoretical things about how to manage a property or your cattle. We’re doing it every single day. It gives you a completely different level of conservation.”

Jesus Manuel Martinez, who runs a 250-acre ranch a half-hour’s drive from El Uno, was an early beneficiary of the workshops. At 60, he’s an elder in the community and an enthusiastic convert. He says he saw quick results after following some new grazing practices he learned.

“Now there are seasons when I don’t put cattle in the field,” Manuel Martinez says. “And now I have good grasses.” He has also stopped poisoning prairie dogs.

Instead, he’s working with researchers at the National University of Mexico to introduce the prairie dogs’ natural predator—the endangered black-footed ferret.

Manuel Martinez has been an important entrée into the larger ranching community for Esquer, but El Uno’s manager is still trying to find inroads into other local groups.

Bison Ambassadors
By some estimates, Mennonite immigrants now own a third of the land in Chihuahua. And most are farmers who practice irrigation-heavy agriculture in the middle of the desert. Frequently they buy land after it has been overgrazed, clearing the mesquite and creosote and then tapping into the water table to irrigate their crops. They often leave when the wells run dry. It’s not unusual to come upon abandoned homesteads that are being swallowed up by blowing desert sands.

Involving Mennonites in programs at El Uno remains a big challenge, but the arrival of the bison may have provided an opportunity to do just that. During the first months after the bison welcoming, Mennonite families drove to El Uno every weekend in trucks filled with kids eager to look at the animals.

Once inside the reserve, no one is an outsider. The beauty of the bison and the grasslands belongs to all. And these days no one has any doubt about what’s going on at the ranch.

“You should see them in the winter,” Esquer says of El Uno’s bison ambassadors. “We came out here one day and there was snow on the ground. They were feeding on the grass. At their feet were the prairie dogs. Above them, golden eagles were circling.

“It was the whole thing, the whole ecosystem, all right there.”

Photo Gallery

girl in truck watching bison 60x60 The Conservancy has reintroduced bison at Rancho El Uno—and brought back a whole lot more.

"El Uno has given us a seat at the table. We’re not coming in to talk about theoretical things about how to manage a property or your cattle. We’re doing it every single day. It gives you a completely different level of conservation."

Rosario Álvarez, head of the Conservancy’s efforts in Mexico.

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