By Kevin Franklin
WE CAN SEE from the loose sand at our feet that the victim ran across the road with his pursuer racing close behind.
In the center of the road, the hunter caught his prey and like some maddened merry-go-round the two spun together: one in a desperate attempt to break free, the other fervently trying to maintain a grip.
Staring down at the tracks, Luke Evans, a renewable natural resources masters student, and I try to divine the final outcome. An absence of blood or fur and a few scuff marks heading off into rockier surrounding terrain seem to indicate the rabbit survived, leaving the predator, possibly a bobcat, to go hungry.
In the sparse, unforgiving terrain of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, a few missed opportunities like this could be fatal. The refuge, 45 miles west of Ajo and just north of the Mexican border, is some of the Southwest's most austere yet beautiful terrain. It is also unforgiving to the unprepared or unlucky.
With only five inches of rainfall a year, the Cabeza is not for the meek. But for the desert adapted, the lack of competition and human impact are a boon. More than 30 endangered or candidate endangered plants and animals find shelter within the refuge's boundaries, along with hundreds of other more populous species.
Humans are not among them. The critical factor in the Cabeza for Homo sapiens is water. Even in the dead of winter, the human sytem requires at least a gallon of water a day. Double that for summer.
The rugged nature of the Cabeza serves it well. Efforts to mine, ranch and colonize the region have all been repelled by its ferocity. Until recently, the human interaction with the Cabeza has primarily been one of transience: people forced to pass through on their way somewhere else.
The route they historically took was El Camino del Diablo. In the middle of winter, the ancient roadway, though extremely arid, is a pleasant 70 degrees. But in the summer, temperatures can exceed 120 degrees and wick the life out of weary, waterless travelers in a matter of hours.
The first European to use this route was the Spaniard Captain Melchior Diaz, writes William K. Hartmann in his definitive book on the region, Desert Heart. Diaz passed through here in 1540 during a futile attempt to contact ships sent to resupply Coronado's famed expedition.
Diaz's ill-fated journey set the tone for many later travels through the region during the camino's two eras of heavy use: Spanish colonists and conquistadors routinely crossed it between 1770 and 1781, until the Yuma Indians took to killing the interlopers.
The camino had a resurrection in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. Multitudes of prospectors and pioneers used the route as a shortcut to California instead of following the Gila River to the Colorado River. Not all those who tried to cross the camino survived. Accounts vary on the death toll--from a hundred souls to more than 1,000--but one account identifies 63 graves at Tinajas Altas alone.
Today Evans and I visit Tinajas Altas, a collection of rain-fed granite pools in a canyon outside the refuge on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. Theoretically the land falls under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management.
With new machines and more civilization, the threat this region poses to humans pales in comparison to the hazards of encroachment. The terrain, while hardy against the elements, is fragile to human intervention. Ancient wagon tracks still scar the desert surface out here.
While Evans and I tour Tinajas Altas, a biological, historical and anthropological monument, a pack of ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) morons from Yuma come roaring in. Brazenly driving over the rock barrier to keep vehicles out, they zoom up to the pools. When confronted about their flagrant trespass, the gun-toting geezers' response was "We didn't see any damn barrier."
Trespassing aside, the ATV crowd continues to apply tremendous pressure to open up the refuge for motorized recreational use. It will take a lot more people demanding continued protection of this bastion of wilderness to prevent its becoming a refuge for weekend warriors instead of Bighorn sheep. Let's hope it isn't those squeaky wheels that get oiled...in fact, I hope someone spikes their two-stroke oil with bleach.
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