General

Volume 36, Issue 1, 2017

Restoring a Desert Jewel

One piece at a time, BCI is helping to revitalize New Mexico’s Mimbres River

By Michelle Z. Donahue


When Jennifer Douglass and Brian Myers bought their 40-acre riverfront farm near Silver City, New Mexico in 2008, dozens of potential buyers had already passed it by.

Bat flying in the sky
A long-legged myotis, a common resident of western forest and woodlands,
swoops in for a drink. Because they drink while in flight, bats must have
still or slow moving water in order to drink.
Courtesy of Micheal Durham

For one, the farm was buried in trash between the hulk of a burned-out hoarder’s house that had taken firefighters three days to extinguish and scrap metal and other junk piled everywhere several feet deep. The rest had been stripped bare by free-ranging cattle.

As artists who have long been involved in conservation efforts wherever they go, the pair saw the farm as a chance to restore some of the property’s original beauty and natural function, as well as turn it into an educational space for conservation in action.

And though they bought the farm in part because of the Mimbres River frontage—a 91-mile river with its origins high in the Gila National Forest and which dives underground in the desert just north of the U.S.-Mexico border—the river’s fragility stared them full in the face after a recent short hike up a tall adjacent hillside.

Observing the thin green thread of the Mimbres in a vast parched tapestry from 600 feet up helped the couple realize how tenuous, yet also resilient and central, the river is to the entire region.

“There’s this tiny sliver of trees and water, and we said, ‘How does anything ever find this?’ It’s clear how precious the river is,” Douglass says.

So when Dan Taylor, BCI’s Director of Public Lands, approached them with the opportunity to participate in a Mimbres River restoration project to benefit bats and other wildlife, they jumped at the opportunity.

“Knowing how fragile river systems are in the desert Southwest, we had a perfect opportunity to help restore the Mimbres River,” Douglass says. “Underneath all the junk that had been here, this incredible place has become a reality.”

“In the Southwest, riparian habitat is so important because in a very dry environment the plant growth is at its most robust and diverse along the rivers,” Taylor says. “That diversity and abundance of vegetation and water gives it the highest insect abundance on the landscape, so it’s the number one place for bats to forage.”

Bats drink on the wing, which requires pooled water, and the 20 species that live in the Mimbres area rely on the springs and still pools that dot the river’s course. But it’s not just them; there are also 261 species of birds and countless numbers of insect and amphibian species that rely on the river for survival, including the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog, and the country’s only remaining population of Chihuahua chub, a critically threatened fish.

Bat flying in the sky
On the left is the old cattle tank (pond) on Billy Lee's Rafter D-Bar ranch, before restoration; dry and covered in weeds.
On the right is the pond after restoration, now an important water source for bats and other wildlife.
Courtesy of Dan Taylor / Bat Conservation International

 

Working in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, which has been pursuing similar efforts on its own neighboring tracts of land, Taylor and private landowners including Douglass, Myers and longtime area resident Billy Lee have been laboring to bring sections of a 6-mile stretch of the river back to life.

“If you think of all these separate natural areas as a necklace, as you take care of each one of the pearls on this string, it helps everything fill in and get pieced back together,” Taylor says.

A Long, Slow Decline

The Mimbres runs through an area that’s been inhabited by humans for more than 1,000 years. Over the last two centuries, it has been subject to intense farming and ranching activity. Irrigation ditches called acequias traverse the landscape, and dug-out earthen ponds referred to locally as “tanks” provide water for livestock, when they have water in them at all.
Decades of drought, tree removal along the river banks, short-sighted flood-control schemes and damage by livestock have all contributed to making the river a shadow of its former self—it runs dry most years from May through June. In 2012, widespread fires in the Black Mountains of the Gila National Forest caused washout flooding downstream when it finally did rain. With fewer trees to hold the banks along its course, the Mimbres’ raging torrents carried away more land than it once deposited along its wandering course. The water table around the river has dropped.

Bat flying in the sky
Even in the winter months, the Mimbres River offers precious wildlife habitat
Courtesy of M.S. Cooper / The Nature Conservancy

Mining in the area has also negatively impacted habitats all around the Mimbres. In 2013, BCI was awarded $158,000 of a $7 million payout from a mining spill lawsuit to fund the Mimbres River work, through a partnership between New Mexico environmental officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Billy Lee, owner of the Rafter-D-Bar Ranch along the river, whose family has lived in the vicinity of Silver City for the last 40 years, is also participating in BCI’s restoration efforts along the Mimbres.

The Lee family has long been closely connected with the land—both he and his father were ranchers, outdoors outfitters and guides. But Lee retrained as a nurse after he said it became evident that the outdoor environment was suffering from too much human pressure.

“There’s a famous quote that goes, ‘The worst thing to happen is for a good man to do nothing at all,’” Lee says. “We are able to control our own environment, and if we’re going to do that we need to be good stewards of what we have.”

Last year, he and Taylor dug out his dry stock pond to install a liner to help the tank retain water. This year, there are more creatures hanging out around the pond than he can ever remember. Birds, bats, foxes, coyotes, elk and legions of endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs—they all come in to visit Lee’s restored pond.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Encouraged by his longtime neighbor John York, a 40-year veteran of the New Mexico Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lee had been working on his own to stabilize the river’s banks by planting coyote willows and cottonwoods, and installing riprap and erosion control fencing to help the river once again create the natural channels that slow the river’s flow and trap sediment as it washes down from the highlands.

“We’ve had three 500-year floods in four years,” Lee said. “But with the fencing and the plantings, we’ve protected ourselves along the river for quite a ways now. There is a lot of conservation going on to make it come together—it’s not just one thing that will do it.”

At Douglass’ and Myers’ Rio Milagro Farm, Taylor and retired Forest Service wetland restoration specialist Tom Biebighauser devised a plan to clear out two springs near the river that had been choked with ash and sediment following the 2012 fire, and create three new spring pools. The springs are again filled with leopard frogs and tadpoles.

Taylor is also working with Forest Service personnel to plant more than 2,000 young willow trees along the Upper Mimbres where it exits the Gila National Forest. And on the Lower Mimbres, Taylor has been working with The Nature Conservancy to remove invasive tree species including Siberian elm, to improve riparian bat foraging habitat on 36 acres of the Conservancy’s 228-acre preserve.

For Douglass and Myers, one additional reward has been seeing the initial skepticism of their neighbors grow into curiosity and even interest.
“We’re trying to change minds through action, but quietly and not screaming about it,” Douglass says. “Over the years, we’ve been able to connect with our neighbors, and some have become interested in doing their own restoration.”

Lee, who is especially heartened to see bats frequenting his pond after sharing a home with them elsewhere in the Mimbres Valley some decades earlier, says that he’ll continue working to build up the river again. After all, this year, the Mimbres didn’t run dry in the late spring.

“It’s a way for us to be able to give back a bit of what we take,” he says. “I’m doing my little part in putting it back together.”

 

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