Geronimo’s Pass

6,904 total words    

28 minutes of reading

I am of a dying breed. I am a naturalist. We naturalists have an inexhaustible fascination with biological diversity and with organisms themselves, always wanting to know as much as we can about as many species as possible from first-hand experience. We are most happy when immersed in nature, far from concrete, asphalt, and steel.

There was a time when the leaders of biology were naturalists: Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace, Henry Bates, and Louis Agassiz. In the first half of the twentieth century, the infant science of conservation biology was advanced by great naturalists like John Muir, John Burroughs, Theodore Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. Biology has progressed beyond the study of natural history alone, as it should, but in the process naturalists have been largely left behind. Our decline is being hastened by the “nature deficit disorder” spreading throughout society and afflicting scientists as well. Many ecologists and some conservation biologists these days avoid nature, preferring the comforts of the lab perched in front of computer screens, gleaning data collected by those who still work outside.

But we naturalists feel most alive in nature. Occasionally, I have to escape the crush of humanity and lose myself in forests, swamps, and mountains, searching for species new to me and those that are old friends. Returning to civilization, I lapse into a period of depression. This phenomenon is commonly felt by naturalists. President Roosevelt experienced this every time he returned from the wilderness to the White House, anticipating his next chance to escape: “He must long greatly for the lonely winds that blow across the wilderness and for sunrise and sunset over the rim of the empty world.”

There are drawbacks to being a naturalist. Watching the increasing loss of habitat and biodiversity hurts me deeply. As Aldo Leopold’s famous quote goes: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” For me, each extinction is a deep wound that does not heal. As the rate of extinction accelerates globally (possibly over one hundred species per day), wounds accumulate. The first of these was in 1979 when the black-footed ferret was declared extinct after the last one died in captivity. I found it incomprehensible that this prairie dog-hunting weasel that once roamed my home state of Nebraska was gone. A time was when I roamed prairie dog towns in western Nebraska wanting to believe that somewhere below me, these ferrets were asleep, waiting to resume their nocturnal hunt. After the 1979 declaration, I was heartbroken. But sometimes, the extinct return. On a dark September night in 1981 near Meeteetse, Wyoming, a ranch dog named Shep presented a dead black-footed ferret to his owners, Lucille and John Hogg. A small population was then found nearby and the recovery effort was underway. I cheered the rediscovery and followed the captive breeding program closely. Currently 1,200 wild-born ferrets live in eight U.S. states, Mexico, and Canada. They remain endangered and still face great risks, but they exist. I hope to see one someday.

Now I roam the wilds of North America hoping to see rare species before they are lost forever. In the Florida panhandle, I frequently visit a bog where steam rises with the morning sun, leaving me sweat-soaked and swarmed by flying, biting insects. Here I feel most alive. A delicate, translucent green carnivorous plant, Godfrey’s butterwort, grows around me, while a family of red-cockaded woodpeckers scolds me overhead from the crowns of longleaf pines; the butterwort and woodpecker are federally endangered. Nearby, threatened Sherman’s fox squirrels scramble up the trunks of pines, sending down showers of bark scales. These are huge and spectacular squirrels that come in many colors. Some are black with white masks; others are gray with black faces. All these species are in decline as ancient stands of longleaf pines and their associated bogs are devoured by logging and development. For a time, I forget my wounds standing in that bog, surrounded by these rare life forms. How much longer they will exist is uncertain.

When in Florida, I am exuberant watching our largest and showiest birds (white ibis, brown pelicans, great egrets, snowy egrets, wood storks, and many others) knowing they all faced imminent extinction until President Theodore Roosevelt provided them protection and sanctuary with his decree “I so declare it.”

I am constantly tugged by an urge to roam wild places in search of the rare and threatened. I want so see them all while I can. For days and weeks at a time, I have wandered North America for this reason. In 1991, when still young, I set out on a three-month, eighteen-thousand-mile trip that took me through all the western states, from the Arctic Circle of Alaska to the Mexico border. My rusty, little yellow 1981 Ford Courier pickup truck was packed and ready to be my home and laboratory during the journey. It was pushing 150,000 miles and had been with me for many adventures from northern Maine to Key West to the Olympic Peninsula. The truck’s dented white aluminum topper functioned as my shelter, protecting me from the wind and rain as I slept.

My plan was to end the trip in southwestern New Mexico to search for the very rare white-sided jackrabbit. Southern Hidalgo County is in the bootheel region of New Mexico along the Mexico/Arizona border. This is where the white-sided jackrabbit lives. It’s a big jack that looks like a small deer. It is tall, long, and lanky, pushing six pounds. White-sided jackrabbits are built to live in desert heat. Huge six-inch ears function as its cooling system with a network of tiny blood vessels that rapidly release body heat during the hottest days. Its long, spindly legs help release heat as well and provide the rabbit with a very long stride needed to outrun predators. Of the seven species of North American jackrabbits and hares of the genus Lepus, this one is unique. When it runs, large white patches of fur flash on its sides, creating a striking visual effect as a warning signal to other jacks. This species has always been rare and is becoming rarer as its numbers decline in the United States and Mexico. White-sided jacks need open desert grassland dominated by buffalo grass, nutgrass, flatsedge, wolftail, blue grama, black grama, and tabosa grass. This critical habitat is being lost as fire suppression and overgrazing cause dense scrub thickets to spread. These thickets favor the much more common black-tailed jackrabbit and create barriers preventing gene flow between already small populations of the rarer jack.

My desire to find this jackrabbit was pressing. A growing national attitude that our border with Mexico should be more secure, with high-tech walls and fences, is a major problem for wildlife. Border walls prevent wildlife from moving between the countries, restricting critically important gene flow between populations. The potential for extinction increases when genes can’t flow and genetic diversity declines. Even border fences are problematic, as the parallel roads used by fast-moving Border Patrol vehicles kill endangered animals as they cross the road moving between the two countries. Both of these create problems for already threatened species straddling the border. These political winds are putting white-sided jacks at a greater risk of vanishing forever. If I did not see one soon, I might never.

 

Pronghorn roaming Animas Valley

Historically, the Animas and Playas valleys in the bootheel, with their diverse assemblage of grasses, were the white-sided jackrabbit’s only home in the United States. I arrived in Animas Valley mid-afternoon in the scorching heat. The valley was harsh and hostile. I could not escape the intense sun, the hot wind was relentless, the earth was dry and hard as concrete, and the grasses were brown. I felt unwelcomed. I drove highway 338 south from Animas to Cloverdale as it transformed from asphalt to a rough, dusty dirt road. Driving was slow as I bounced over the road’s severe washboarding. An old sign indicated I had arrived at Cloverdale—a ghost town where only the weathered, abandoned general store still stood. I pulled close to the building, wedging the truck into the thin band of shade it provided. With binoculars, I scanned the valley.

Five miles to the south, a three-strand barbed wire fence marked the United States-Mexico border. Somewhere out there, hidden in clumps of tobosa grass, a white-sided jackrabbit was hunkered down in a depression it had scraped into the hard earth for a scant bit of shade. Here it would wait for dusk to arrive. I sat on my truck’s tailgate in the shade of the general store, waiting for the long shadows of the Peloncillo Mountains to the west to fill the valley, telling the rabbit it was time to forage. All I could do was wait. I rolled my sleeping bag out in the back of the truck to sleep, but blowing dust and heat made it difficult. As the sun dipped behind the Peloncillos, the heat broke and the wind died down. It was time to begin an age-old ritual of naturalists. It was time to night ride. This involves driving the roads slowly with high beams on, watching for animals on the road. A spotlight is at the ready to follow animals trying to escape into the darkness beyond the lights. With luck my lights might catch the white sides of a big rabbit. I slowly drove the dirt roads of Animas Valley as night fell, kicking up clouds of choking dust behind me. Desert cottontails darted across the road. Occasionally my heart would convulse as a black-tailed jackrabbit ran into the road; each time I looked for white fur. Each time it wasn’t the rabbit I was after. I continued roaming the roads until I was exhausted. Around 2:00 a.m., I returned to the Cloverdale store and rolled out my sleeping bag for a few hours of sleep. At 5:00 a.m. I resumed the hunt, driving the roads until the heat of the day consumed the valley, sending jackrabbits back to their depressions hidden amid clumps of grass. By mid-morning there was nothing to do but explore while waiting for dusk.

I roamed the dirt roads of Animas Valley, exploring each. I came upon one marked “Geronimo Trail” heading west up into the Peloncillo Mountains. Curious, I followed as it began to rise out of the valley. A brown wooden sign with engraved white letters read, “Entering Coronado National Forest.” I proceeded into Clanton Draw, a canyon filled with large oaks and alligator junipers. Steep slopes on either side were littered with rocks and boulders. Rock squirrels with their big bushy tails bounced across the road, scrambling for cover. A magnificent bird called the elegant trogon, with iridescent green wings and a bright red breast, croaked at me as I drove by. This is a bird I had not seen before.

Clanton Draw, I learned later, is named for a family that built a cattle ranching empire in the region, but this family did more than ranch. The Clantons (Newman “Old Man” Clanton and his sons) were also smugglers, robbers, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and murderers belonging to a loose association of lawless men known as the “Cowboys” that included Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius, among others. The Cowboys gained notoriety for carrying out two brutal ambushes. The first was in 1879, stealing cattle from Mexican Federales; the second was in 1881, stealing silver from Mexican smugglers. The Cowboys were at their peak in 1881. Their decline toward extinction began when the Mexican government retaliated with their own ambush in August 1881, killing Newman and four other Cowboys.

These events are not why we remember the Clantons today, nor is it because Ike and Phin Clanton were probably involved in the attempted assassination and crippling of Virgil Earp and the murder of his brother Morgan. We know the Clantons because of thirty bloody seconds that occurred around 3:00 p.m. on October 26, 1881, when five Cowboys (Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury) faced off with John Henry Holliday and three Earp brothers (Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt) on a street in the boom town of Tombstone. These two groups of men had strong opposing political views on many issues and simply did not like each another. The Earps were Republicans who favored fencing the rangeland. The Clantons were southern Democrats who wanted open range. These opposing views in part led to the gunfight that left Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers dead. It was a strange day in Tombstone, for a thin layer of snow covered the town. It was said that as school let out, the children were led home by a different route, as their normal path was covered with blood-soaked snow from the fight.

In the days and weeks that followed, Wyatt Earp retaliated for the ambushes on his brothers that happened after the gunfight and in the process killed more Cowboys. The gang’s extinction came in 1887 when Ike and Phin Clanton were served warrants for cattle rustling. Phin was arrested, while Ike was shot dead for resisting.

 

 Geronimo Trail in 2015 at the pass below Geronimo Peak

I emerged from Clanton Draw slowly climbing Geronimo Trail. The trail was littered with loose rocks, some as large as bowling balls. Swerving to avoid one would cause me to collide with others, each one pounding the undercarriage of my truck. Deep ruts and wash outs made driving miserable. I wanted to turn back but pushed on. The trail reached a crest and immediately plunged down a steep slope toward Arizona. Massive rock formations towered on either side, with steep rock-strewn slopes spilling down to the trail creating a mountain pass. The taller formation to the north was Geronimo Peak. Frazzled from the ascent, I pulled over to admire the view. To the west, a deep, hazy San Simon Valley spread out to the horizon with the purple Chiricahua Mountains off in the distance. The slopes around me were stippled by the many shades of green of bunch grasses, cacti, yucca, agave, and sotol. The pass was peaceful and serene. A gentle breeze flowed, making it cool and comfortable. I pulled out a National Forest Service map to orient myself. It was then that I saw the name “Skeleton Canyon.” Skeleton Canyon, just to the north of the pass, connects Animas Valley to the San Simon Valley. Smugglers moving up from Mexico into the United States have used this canyon for over a hundred years. It has a dark history. This is where the Cowboys carried out the two ambushes in 1879 and 1881 that would cost Old Man Clanton his life. In 1883, a band of Chiricahua Apache surprised troops of the U.S. Fourth Cavalry in the canyon, killing three, then burning their wagons and supplies, driving off their horses. But the most historically significant event happened on September 4th, 1886, where the canyon opened into San Simon Valley.

During the nineteenth century, the U.S. and Mexican governments expanded into the tribal lands of the Apache, displacing them and leading to the decades-long Apache Wars. Goyaałé, leader of the Bedonkohe band of Chiricahua Apache, was the last warrior chieftain to surrender to the U.S. government. Mexican soldiers called him Geronimo. In 1858, when most of the warriors were away, Mexican soldiers attacked Geronimo’s band, killing his mother, wife, and three children. For nearly three decades following, Geronimo engaged in revenge attacks on Mexicans, killing hundreds. During 1885 and 1886, thousands of U.S. and Mexican soldiers pursued Geronimo and his band through the canyon lands of southeast Arizona and northern Mexico. Growing fatigued from constant pursuit, often hiding in Skeleton Canyon, Geronimo finally surrendered at the canyon’s mouth.

With this, the United States declared the nation’s Indian Wars over. The Apache were eradicated from the region as Geronimo and what was left of his people were packed into boxcars under squalid conditions and shipped out of his homeland. For the rest of his life, Geronimo was a prisoner of war kept in Florida, Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Geronimo became a national celebrity appearing at fairs, including the 1904 World’s Fair, wild west shows, and President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 inaugural parade. Despite his celebrity, Geronimo was never allowed to return to his tribal lands. In his autobiography, which was dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt, Geronimo asked that his remains be buried in the land of his people: “It is my land, my home, my fathers’ land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains.” This request was ignored. Geronimo’s last words were: “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.”

There, on a pass that was once Geronimo’s, I imagined the horror the Apache faced as an overwhelming force arrived without invitation or explanation and took everything. I understood why Geronimo fought back for so long; he was trying to keep his last position—freedom. As a naturalist being left behind by science, I felt a slight connection to Geronimo, understanding what it is like to be cast aside by a changing world.

The competitive exclusion principle is an ecological phenomenon that occurs when more than one species tries to occupy the same niche. The winning species will gain control of the resources; the loser is forced to leave or go extinct. This principle applies to competing human cultures, too, and has been an ugly part of human ecology for as long as humans have existed. With the elimination of the Apache, the United States turned its attention toward other competitors that were eating its livestock and game. Mexican gray wolves, grizzly bears, and jaguars were soon eradicated, leaving European Americans alone in the niche of top predator.

I sat there at Geronimo’s pass thinking about all the species we extirpated in the past, knowing the future would be more of the same. I mourned for the creatures we eradicated from the region and imagined a day when they roamed the valleys below me. Longing for the past, I felt a connection to all species now gone. It seemed most appropriate that I should camp at the pass. The view itself was reason to stay. With the gentle breeze still flowing over the pass, I napped in the back of my truck in preparation for another round of night riding. As the sun began to dip, I awoke and began the slow descent down the mountain to resume my search for white-sided jackrabbits. As I reached Animas Valley, a fierce thunderstorm erupted over the Peloncillos, bringing violent wind and rain. I stopped on the trail to wait out the storm; my truck rocked as it was pounded by driving rain. I was elated with this unexpected event. Animals are particularly active following early evening storms. Jacks would be active as well.

By the time the storm passed, Animas Valley was dark. The dusty, washboard roads were transformed into sheets of slimy mud. Hitting the brakes caused the truck to slide sideways before stopping. Hitting the gas caused fishtailing, as my spinning tires sprayed mud everywhere. My truck was quickly covered. As expected, rabbits were active and bouncing about. Desert cottontails zigzagged across the road trying to escape my headlights. Jacks crisscrossed in front of me, kicking up mud like race horses on a wet track. Each jack caused my heart to jump, hoping to see a flash of white. Black-tail, black-tail, not sure! With each “not sure,” I hit the brakes and slid, directing my spotlight towards the jack now hidden by the night beyond the road. Another black-tail. The tires spun as I resumed the search. Dozens of jacks galloped across the road, none of them glowing white. Water-filled road ruts were clogged with male toads in breeding frenzy. Great Plains toads, red-spotted toads, Couch’s spadefoot toads, desert spadefoots filled Animas Valley with their cacophony of calls. For weeks and months these toads were dormant, buried beneath the desert hardpan, waiting for this thunderstorm. This was their narrow window to breed. Time was short and the orgy would last a single evening. Then the race would begin as the tadpoles hatched and scrambled to eat enough and grow fast enough to transform into toadlets and escape the drying pool.

Black-tail, black-tail, another black-tail. Kit fox! I slammed on my brakes, almost sliding off the road as this yellowish, cat-sized fox with giant erect ears trotted across the road. It froze for a moment, looking directly into the headlights, then fled for darkness. My spotlight followed it as it ran, looking back, frustrated by my intrusion. Finally it escaped beyond the light and was gone. This is a species I had not seen before. Elated and hopeful, I kept driving.

Snakes, too, were active, gliding across the road: long-nosed snakes, glossy snakes, night snakes, and western diamondback rattlesnakes. Then I saw a small, unfamiliar creature slowly crossing the road. I slid to a stop for a look. It was a tarantula hawk, dragging a victim. This is a giant wasp with bright orange wings and metallic blue body. It hunts tarantulas larger than itself. Once found, the spider is stung, causing permanent paralysis. The helpless spider is then dragged to a hole where it is buried after the wasp lays an egg on its victim. Over time, the wasp’s larva will devour the helpless, living tarantula and transform into an adult. I slowly approached the hawk hoping for a decent photo. It dropped the spider, stood up on four back legs, and locked its eyes on me. Unnerved by having an insect make eye contact with me, I got back in my truck. The hawk resumed dragging its prey. I waited for it to cross the road, then proceeded.

Soon I was back on roads I had already driven. More and more, large tire tracks were appearing, clearly not mine. Others were driving the roads. It seemed an odd time for anyone to be out. Then I saw a six-foot diamondback rattlesnake writhing in the road. It was just run over, leaving it with a crushed spine and internal organs sprawled out over the mud. It was dying, so I carefully put it in a bucket, then into the back of my truck. It would make for a fine teaching specimen demonstrating the anatomy of a venomous snake once the skull was cleaned and the skin tanned.

As the evening wore on, black-tailed jackrabbits continued to run in front of me. Still nothing with white sides. More large tire tracks appeared on every road. Suddenly something glowing white was lying in the road. It was a mammal. I hit the brakes and jumped out while the truck was still sliding to a halt. Slipping and falling on the muddy road, I ran sure it was a white-sided jack. When I got to it I was both disappointed and relieved. It was a kit fox that had just been hit. Its whitish-yellow belly glowed in my lights. I am always conflicted when I find road kill—saddened that another marvelous creature is dead, yet elated that I’m the one to find it. It will be a tremendous teaching specimen; the study skin demonstrating the huge ears of a desert-adapted mammal, and the skull that of our smallest North American canid.

Exhaustion got the best of me. After seeing over forty black-tailed jacks and over fifty desert cottontails, I needed some sleep to resume the search in the morning. I made the slow climb back up to the pass. It was two in the morning.

In the summer, processing fresh road kill must be done soon before decomposition begins. Sleep had to wait. I set up my field lab by flipping down the tailgate as a bench; turning over the plastic bucket provided a stool. I set out my skinning tray with scalpel blades, scissors, and forceps. I placed a hefty pile of cornmeal on a tray to soak up blood and fluids. I laid out my meter stick and notebook. With a bright headlamp centered on my forehead, I began making notes—date and location found, sex and weight, body and tail length, and, for the fox, length of hind foot and ear. The data tags I filled out would be attached to skins and skulls. I have skinned hundreds of animals in my life and have become very fast. Before long, a pile of fur sat on the tailgate next to a pile of scales. Two skinless heads sat next to these, and a couple of carcasses were piled on the ground. The vultures would be most pleased in the morning. Arms smeared with reptile and mammal blood, I was sealing the two skins in plastic bags, ready to place them on ice, when my concentration was broken. I could hear vehicles coming up the trail from Clanton Draw. They sounded big and they were moving fast. Then I heard vehicles on the Arizona side.

Something was wrong and I was alarmed. Was someone being chased? Why would vehicles be on such a rough road at 3:30 in the morning? I stood in the road listening. Whatever was to happen when they arrived, it would look bad to have arms covered with blood. I frantically washed the blood off with wet rag, not realizing some was on my face. My t-shirt was smeared with blood as well, so I turned it inside out and put it on backwards. The vehicles were louder and getting closer. I wanted it to look obvious that I was a biologist camping on the pass. I rolled out my foam mattress and sleeping bag and laid out my pillow. I leaned my butterfly net against the truck in plain view. I spread out my field guides to birds, butterflies, reptiles, and amphibians on the tailgate next to camera and binoculars. My heart was pounding and I was shaking with fear. Something wasn’t right.

The sounds grew louder. I became frightened. Are they after me? Am I about to get robbed, beaten, my truck stolen? With this my fight-or-flight response kicked in. This is a physiological response and evolutionary adaptation in which, in response to fear, the body is prepared to either escape or fight. The nervous and endocrine systems spring into action as the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenals kick into gear, dumping the hormones ACTH, norepinephrine, and epinephrine into the blood. Heart rate and breathing accelerate. Blood vessels constrict in the skin, sending blood to the dilated vessels of the muscles where a boost of oxygen is needed to run or fight. The body begins to shake. Blood clotting chemicals increase in preparation to reduce blood loss from wounds. Hearing and peripheral vision waver. My body was ready for whichever action I would take.

I chose flight. I started scrambling up the slope towards Geronimo Peak. I stopped, ran back to the truck, grabbed my twelve-gauge double barrel shotgun, and headed back up the slope. I stopped again and ran back to the truck to grab my camera. Back up the slope I went. For a third time I turned back to lock the truck doors. Then an internal voice said, “Stay!” The little truck had been my home for three months, and everything inside was precious to me. I couldn’t leave it. I slid the loaded twelve-gauge under my sleeping bag, stalk pointing toward me. I loaded the twenty-two-caliber revolver and slid it under the bag as well. I locked my elbows, then leaned back on my palms, my fingers on the shotgun and the revolver. One voice said “Run, fool!” while another kept saying “Stay.” The vehicles got louder and closer. My heart raced faster. I was shaking badly. Run, fool! Stay.

Suddenly I was blinded as vehicles swerved off the trail, directing their high beams into my eyes. All I could hear were big engines roaring. I slowly removed my left hand from the shotgun to cover my eyes, right hand still on the revolver. The vehicles sat idling, blinding me. We all sat and waited. Finally, I heard a door open and boots on gravel. My finger was on the trigger of the revolver. Then, over the sound of engines, I heard the crackle of a dispatch radio and the sound of a distant voice. I felt a sudden surge of relief. Someone of authority. An imposing silhouette of a man stood between me and the headlights. Then a voice: “Let’s see some ID.” I took my hand off the hidden revolver, fumbled in my wallet, then held out my driver’s license. A long arm covered in a brown sleeve reached down and took my license. I heard a door close, the crackling of a radio, and muffled voices. My relief was suddenly replaced by another rush of fear. Did I do something wrong? Then horror replaced fear. I had loaded weapons, possibly not well concealed, behind me. Leaning back I slowly pushed the guns farther under the bag. I sat and waited. Eventually I heard a door open and a stern voice asked, “What are you doing here?”

I began to babble without taking a breath. “I’m a biologist. I’m here looking for rabbits. I’ve been picking up road kill. I have a dead fox. I have a dead snake. Do you want to see?” A long silence followed.

“A biologist?” Another long pause. The long arm extended out from the lights with my license, and the voice spoke these words: “You picked a bad time to be here.”

Silence. Then doors closed and engines revved as red tail lights slipped down the trail toward Animas Valley. I sat on the tailgate, shaking as the sound of vehicles faded away. “A bad time to be here!” I sat in the silence pondering these words. Eventually my heart slowed, the epinephrine ebbed, and I stopped shaking. Consumed by fatigue, I collapsed onto my sleeping bag and fell asleep. I don’t know when, but in the darkness I was jolted awake. I felt the truck move ever so slightly. I heard and felt the truck door’s latch lifted, then released. Then footsteps. Again, epinephrine surged and my heart raced. I didn’t move. Should I yell? Should I jump out of the truck waving my shotgun? Should I run? I did not move but listened until it seemed whoever it was left.

Feeling vulnerable in the back of the truck, I slipped out without a sound, slowly slung the double barrel over my shoulder and quietly crawled up the slope towards Geronimo Peak. There was just enough star light for me to see my way. I reached a large boulder protruding from the slope two-thirds of the way up. I sat down, leaning against it. I could make out the dim shadow of my truck. If anyone approached it, I could safely fire the shotgun in the air to scare them away. There I sat waiting for dawn. There was no movement below.

Eventually, the first hint of gray appeared in the east, and I could make out my truck and the trail more clearly. Feeling I was no longer in danger, I scrambled down to my truck and headed for the valley. I was numb from lack of sleep.

By the time I reached Animas Valley, color was returning. Jacks would be finishing a night of foraging and heading back to their depressions to sleep. I parked at the Cloverdale store. With camera and binoculars, I began meandering my way south to Mexico, hoping to kick up a white-sided jackrabbit. Since night riding failed, maybe walking would bring success.

Immediately a jack bounced up from the grass. A black-tail. I was exhausted to the point of feeling dizzy but determined to walk the five miles to Mexico. My little truck grew smaller behind me. With binoculars, I could see the barbed wire border draw closer. I meandered from right to left as I walked. Stopping from time to time, I looked around for ears of big rabbits moving above the grass. With my binoculars, I looked forward to the fence, then back to my truck. It was not much more than a yellow speck. Slowly, on tired wobbly legs, I kept going.

Again, I looked back at the truck. Something was different. Something shinny and white was next to it. I stood amid the desert grasses wondering what to do—head south or turn back. Concerned, I turned back. As I got closer, I could see a white Blazer with a bold green stripe. In the stripe were two words in bold white letters: “BORDER PATROL.” Now what have I done? As I approached, I could see an agent leaning against the Blazer. Reluctantly, I continued. Reaching the road, the agent sprang from his vehicle approaching me at a brisk pace. With broad smile and hand extended, he gave me an enthusiastic hand shake and a hearty hello. The agent said “You gave us quite a chase last night. I wanted to congratulate the elusive biologist.”

I was confused until I realized that overnight, I had become a celebrity. I had questions, and the agent filled in the details. Local ranchers reported someone in a small truck behaving strangely. They reported this to the Border Patrol and the Hidalgo County Sheriff. Agents and the deputy sheriff fanned out to find me. It was the deputy sheriff who talked to me on the pass. Somehow, I had eluded them in the night. Those were their fresh tire tracks. The snake and fox were their road kill. It ended when they sandwiched me in on Geronimo’s pass. I was told drugs were smuggled into the United States from Mexico by foot here and that August is a month of heavy trafficking. Ranchers are especially edgy about strangers this time of year. I stood out the moment I arrived in the valley. The agent said the valley is becoming more dangerous. He said that in the future I should check in with the County Sheriff and be careful where I camp. We shook hands and he departed.

Alone, I sat on the tailgate looking out over the valley, thinking about the conversation, still wondering if someone was at the truck the night before or if it was my imagination. All the while I was scanning the grass for a white-sided jack. I wanted to stay another night, but I was tired and my truck was beaten up. It was two hard days at the end of three exhausting and exhilarating months. I was spent. It was time to return to civilization, despite the fact that the thought of doing so was depressing. I promised myself I would return soon to look for the rabbit. It was a broken promise.

In May 2015, twenty-four years later, I returned to Animas Valley with the intention of staying the night to search for white-sided jackrabbits and camp on the pass. I felt even more unwelcome this time than I did on my previous trip. I drove past fifteen Border Patrol vehicles—each agent watching me as I passed. “No trespassing” signs were in abundance. My New Mexico bird finding guide was on the dashboard, open to the page for Animas Valley, which had a highlighted warning: “It is important that you bird only from the road while in the Animas Valley. Be aware that virtually all of the land is private property and some landowner will have trespassers arrested.” Signs along the road warned, “Border Patrol Agents use South Road.” I turned onto Geronimo Trail, headed for the pass. Yet another sign greeted me, “Travel Caution—Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.” It took me twenty minutes to make the slow, dusty drive up. A second travel caution sign awaited me at the pass. I pulled over to the exact spot where I had parked twenty-four years earlier. The sun beat down on me. A hot wind assaulted me. Quickly I was covered by swirling dust. I tasted dust and felt grit between my teeth. After only a few minutes, I left, dropping down into Clanton Draw to escape the wind. On the way down out of the national forest, I passed by two ranchers who stopped what they were doing while suspiciously watching me drive by. I surprised a golden eagle feeding on a jackrabbit carcass. The giant bird flew to a nearby fence post, also watching me with suspicion. I stopped and got out of the truck looking to see if I was alone. Knowing I could be charged for trespassing, I ran twenty feet off the road to identify the rabbit. It was a black-tail. Running back to my truck, my heart raced from fear of being caught. After only three hours, I left Animas Valley.

White-sided jackrabbits remain much on my mind. I have read everything written about them, and I have talked to those who know the rabbit best, especially Myles Traphagen, who completed a comprehensive survey of them in 2011. This is what I know about the white-sided jackrabbit: it is now extinct in the Playas Valley; since 1976, its critical desert grassland habitat has declined by over 50 percent, from 29,600 to 14,400 acres; shrub habitat, which favors black-tailed jackrabbits, is spreading; it is endangered in Mexico; there may be fewer than fifty individuals left in the United States; and the state of New Mexico considers it a threatened species, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not list it as threatened or endangered. Thus, it is afforded no federal funding for protection; the 500,000 acres of the Animas Valley in which this rabbit lives are private land with an easement by The Nature Conservancy, yet there is no motivation for the land owner to develop a management plan for the rabbit; in 2005, an imposing Normandy fence with parallel dirt road for Border Patrol vehicles replaced the barbed wire fence across Animas Valley; the number of Border Patrol agents in the sector including Animas Valley increased from fifty in 2000 to three hundred ten years later; biologists now avoid research in the border region, creating a knowledge gap; Border Patrol vehicles average hitting one jackrabbit per night in Animas Valley, and these killings probably include both species; efforts to enforce a twenty-five mile per hour nighttime speed limit in the valley for all vehicles to reduce road kill were met with strong local opposition and stopped; and, most importantly, the white-sided jackrabbit is in serious trouble.

I worry much for the white-sided jackrabbit and all the threatened border species. The political winds in Washington, DC, have transformed the entire border region, creating more problems for these species. Politicians do not consider how increased border security will harm conservation and management of endangered species. Rabbits are getting hit by government vehicles, jaguars and Mexican gray wolves can’t disperse from Mexico to the United States easily with the new fences and walls. Gene flow between Mexican and U.S. populations of ocelots and jaguarundis is in decline. Thus, the recovery and survival of these species in the U.S. are being threatened. White-sided jackrabbits could be one of the easiest and cheapest species to save if we choose to do so. Myles Traphagen has made recommendations to accomplish this: establish a land management program that involves some combination of prescribed burns and controlled grazing on both sides of the fence to increase the needed desert grassland habitat and reduce shrub growth; mandate that Border Patrol vehicles go no faster than twenty-five miles per hour at night; develop a Border Patrol outreach program to help agents recognize white-sided jackrabbits to avoid hitting them and to record sightings and locations of these rabbits; transplant some of these rabbits to suitable grassland habitat in eastern New Mexico to establish a second population in case the Animas Valley population goes extinct.

Following the 2016 presidential election, environmentalists and conservationists are deeply concerned. During the campaign, Donald Trump vowed to increase border security with a forty-foot wall and even more border agents. Doing so will put the white-sided jackrabbit in even greater peril as more border patrol vehicles will hit more jackrabbits. A wall will destroy gene flow, preventing these jacks from moving between the two countries. If we are to save this rabbit, we must act soon. Since November, I have become deeply fearful for the white-sided jackrabbit’s survival. Yet I have no choice but to desperately cling to the hope that this species can be saved. It does not compete with livestock or humans in any way. It does not eat our crops. Its flesh and fur are of no value. Sadly, the problem is that this rabbit is not glamorous, charismatic, or conspicuous, and too few care about it. But these are not reasons to let this species slip away into extinction. What white-sided jackrabbits need, like so many species facing extinction, are politically powerful people who care. What this rabbit needs is a Roosevelt to save it with the decree, “I so declare it.” Only time will tell if this is a species I’ll have a chance to see. Only time will tell if this is another species whose extinction I will mourn.

  • James J. Krupa

    James J. Krupa is a Professor of Biology at the University of Kentucky who teaches the required evolution course for biology majors, in addition to courses in vertebrate biology and mammalogy. His research focuses on the ecological interactions between carnivorous plants and spiders.

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