B Y K E V I N F R A N K L I N
DO YOU SEE one?" I say, straining to glimpse the elusive masked bobwhite, a quail formerly extinct in its natural Arizona range and reintroduced in the last decade.
Some sort of quail-like birds are rustling amid the brush alongside the truck.
"No, I don't think so," my sister Monica replies.
David Tibor, a former ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in California, confirms the quail are the common Gambel's quail.
"Oh, look over there," Monica says.
On the opposite side of the truck, in the distance, a pair of Chihuahuan pronghorn amble by.
With their black, spiky horns and brown and white colors, the pronghorn look somewhat like African antelope. The Serengheti-like grasses and expansive plains of the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge help in creating the illusion.
However, the American browser bears no relation to its African look-alike. But that doesn't keep us from feeling like we're on safari as we bump along in the 100,000-acre refuge.
Originally a stage stop in 1864, the Buenos Aires Ranch has a long history of human manipulations. Pedro Aguirre founded the ranch and constructed Aguirre Lake just north of the ranch. The seasonal lake finds use today from migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. Aguirre later went on to become a Pima County supervisor and one of the richest people in Tucson in 1886.
The landscape took a beating in the late 1880s when the number of cattle in southeastern Arizona soared from 5,000 head to 1.5 million, Fish and Wildlife Service documents say.
When a drought lasted from 1885 to 1892 many of the cattle died and the remaining steer severely overgrazed the parched landscape. The ensuing destruction caused the channeling of arroyos and the demise of native grasses, the masked bobwhite and the pronghorn.
The property switched hands a number of times over the next 100 years until, in 1985, the Fish and Wildlife Service bought the land for $9 million from a Mexican businessman.
Since then attempts have been made to restore the range and its former inhabitants.
Before the establishment of the refuge, the masked bobwhite was extinct in the United States. For 20 years the bird was thought extinct worldwide until some were discovered in Mexico in 1964. The bird's future in Mexico was uncertain and so a captive breeding program began here in the U.S. Releases into the wild met with no success until the purchase of the refuge, which allowed the control of grazing.
Even then survival rates were low--13,000 bobwhites have been released since 1985 and only 400-600 individuals are now in the wild. The goal of the refuge staff is to have a self-sustaining population of 500 pairs.
The birds, which live for two or three years, have failed to breed extensively, and so their numbers need an artificial boost every year.
"We do have some evidence of breeding, but it's very little," says wildlife biologist Sally Gall.
The use of wild Texas bobwhites, experienced at predator evasion and other means of survival, as foster parents to young masked bobwhites has been only marginally successful, says Gall. The Texas bobwhites are sterilized in order to prevent their breeding and introduced to young masked bobwhites whom they adopt. The hen and chicks are then released into the wild.
Unfortunately, either the parents, young or both seem to be separating after release, Gall says.
With plans for different release times, more initiation to wild foods and some more research, Gall is confident they can fix the problem and increase the bobwhite numbers.
The pronghorn are also staging a comeback. Originally 80 animals were released. That number died off to 40 as a result of predators and the hardships of survival. Now about 60 individuals roam the refuge.
Removing the reams of barbed wire on the refuge is one of the things the staff is doing to help the pronghorn along.
"There are at least 100 miles of fence," says Thea Ulen, outdoor recreation planner at Buenos Aires.
Ulen has made use of volunteers from the Sierra Club and the Girl Scouts to remove fence, and she and welcomes inquires from other groups interested in helping. Before contacting Ulen, a group should see if it can muster at least 10 people willing to supply their own gloves.
If so, then Ulen will meet with them, instruct them in the fine art of fence removal and put them to work.
Ulen says watching the pronghorn make use of newly opened pasture is especially rewarding.
The final challenge in restoring the range will be to bring the native grasses back, Ulen says.
Currently Lehmann's Love Grass, an introduced African species, dominates the grassland.
"What we have now," says Ulen "is a monoculture. We used to have a variety of Grama Grasses. They're still here but they're no longer dominant."
The foreign grass fails to provide food and habitat the native animals prefer. Ulen considers the alien grass to be one of the prime inhibitors of success with the masked bobwhite population.
With that in mind, the refuge staff conducts prescribed burns to beat back the Love Grass and allow the natives a chance to sprout.
"It's hard, but we're working at it," Ulen says.
With continued hard work and ongoing small successes, perhaps some day visitors will come to the refuge and see, as Pedro Aguirre once did, herds of pronghorn and bevies of quail amid fields of native grass.
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