From: Morgan Lee, Associated Press
Published April 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Conservationists to Convert Pesky Prairie Dogs into Valuable Farm Tools in Northern Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Conservationists have bought 46,000 acres of desert grasslands in northern Mexico in an effort to show the black-tailed prairie dog -- seen as a pest in much of the western United States -- can help grazing lands thrive.


The goal is to protect the prairie dog, as well as other rare native plants and birds. The project also aims to promote better farming practices among cattle ranchers, agricultural cooperatives and Mennonite farmers who have been hurt by 12 years of drought.


Resented by ranchers who see them as pesky grass-eating competition for their cattle, prairie dogs actually can help grazing lands by cutting down shrubs and churning up the soil when they burrow, allowing water and air to filter into the ground, said Terry Sullivan, assistant state director for the New Mexico office of the Nature Conservancy, the project's U.S. sponsor.


Both "misunderstanding, and maybe misapprehension, of prairie dogs" is a challenge for project organizers to overcome on both sides of the border, Sullivan said.


In the United States, ranchers who blame the animals for destroying their grazing lands have been engaged in a protracted battle with conservation groups who fear prairie dogs could become an endangered species.


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In Mexico, the Nature Conservancy, with help from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is developing a management plan involving "working" prairie dogs at the El Uno cattle ranch, outside the small town of Janos, about 45 miles south of the New Mexico border. The plan also will rely on reseeding, rotating land use and prescribed burns of grazing areas.


A "grass bank" will let ranchers graze cattle at El Uno while allowing the soil on their own lands to rest and recuperate.


The plan's primary goal is to provide a model that will help cattle ranchers and farmers recognize the biological treasures of the area, said Rosario Alvarez, director of the Nature Conservancy in Mexico.


"It's an area that is not that charismatic but which has great importance as a habitat," Alvarez said.


Conservationists hope the project helps to preserve a slice of the Chihuahua desert that serves as an important part of a larger ecosystem.


"Many species that spend winters in Janos spend summers in the northern grasslands of the U.S. and Canada," Sullivan said. "We see this as an integral part of protecting grasslands in North America."


The Janos grasslands are believed to support more than 200 species of birds. The area also is home to the white-sided jackrabbit, kit fox, jaguarundi and pronghorn. Burrowing owls make their homes in abandoned prairie dog tunnels.


The rare black-footed ferret, which feeds on and helps hold down the population of prairie dogs, was reintroduced to the area three years ago.


The Mexican conservation group Pronatura purchased the ranch at market value, according to the Nature Conservancy, which refused to disclose the exact sum.


This is not the first time Pronatura and the Virginia-based Nature Conservancy have joined forces in the interest of conserving Mexico's flora and fauna.


Late last year, they negotiated a deal that protected 370,000 acres of tropical forest on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. In 2003, international nonprofit groups, including the Nature Conservancy, contributed millions of dollars to protect a Manhattan-sized island on the Sea of Cortes from development. Both sites feature unspoiled ecosystems including exotic plants and animals, while the rain forest contains ancient Mayan ruins.


The activists have found a strong ally in former Janos Mayor Celso Jaquez, who says local ranchers who continue to suffer from drought are open to new ideas on how to care for receding pastures.


"They understand a little more the benefits that prairie dogs can bring," Jaquez said. "They don't see them the way they do in other places. The prairie dogs eat a small percentage and leave a great benefit."


Source: Associated Press


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