Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Woo hoo! It's Bisbee's favorite holiday, when it's hard to tell who's in costume and who's just wearing their street clothes.

We missed celebrating Halloween last year because I was in Cape May, but we're going out tonight in a couple of our favorite costumes (right): The Horned Lizard King and Ambassador Krkktt. This photo is from these characters' inaugural year, 2001; I'll try to get a back photo of Tom's costume tonight to post as an addendum, because it rocks.

We each made our own mask in a workshop put on by a local art gallery. First we formed the basic shape in earthen clay then covered the form with plastic wrap and applied layer upon layer of cotton batting soaked in watered-down glue. After several days of drying, we painted them and added additional touches (dimensional fabric paint works great).

It's been several years since we've been that inspired, but on past Halloweens Tom's been the World's Largest Montezuma Quail (left), a Great Gray Owl, a Javelina, a gorilla tourist in Bermuda shorts and bucket hat, a musical spider (he played The Ballad of Spider John by Willis Allan Ramsey at the now defunct Quarter Moon Coffeehouse), and Tim the Enchanter (he won a costume contest with that one).

I've been a Druid priestess, green elf, and Mother Earth, but the last few years I've been bouncing back and forth between the frog alien pictured above and a Dia de los Muertos catrina, with skull makeup and a big black hat wreathed in red roses (very Dead). One year, a guy came up to me in the Stock Exchange Bar and said, "Your makeup's really realistic and I should know...I've seen a lot of skulls." (Uh, thank you kind sir?) In keeping with my costume, I abandoned my usual karaoke alter ego, Roberta Shrub, for "G├╝era Calavera" (roughly, "Blondie Skull").

So we're recycling costumes again this year, but maybe the spectacle of our Bisbee neighbors all decked out in their wonderfully creative finery will get us charged up for next Halloween.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

P-Dogs are in da howz!

A little good news amongst the grim:

Decades after federal programs extirpated them from the grasslands of southeastern Arizona, Black-tailed Prairie Dogs have returned to their historic home with a little help from their friends in the Arizona Game & Fish Department and Bureau of Land Management.

According to the AGFD press release, 74 BTPDs captured at Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in New Mexico were released on Las Cienegas National Conservation Area on October 7. It's ironic that the transplants came from over 200 miles away when a small BTPD town persists less than 40 miles from the release site just across the Mexican border from Coronado National Memorial (thanks to a friendly rancher), and the largest remaining colony of this species in the world is less than 150 miles away in northwestern Chihuahua (where the PD photo above was taken).

P-dogs aren't canines, of course, but rodents in the same family as fluffy-tailed feeder raiders. Their sharp alarm calls, actually a complex and adaptable language that transmits detailed information about goings-on in their community, earned them the name that, given Euro-American culinary taboos against dining on dogs, probably saved them from becoming favorite targets of hungry pioneers and greedy market hunters.

They would have been an abundant food source, too. Two hundred years ago, BTPD "towns" numbering in the thousands to millions of inhabitants were found from Texas to Montana. The intensely social nature that inspired wonder in early explorers such as Lewis and Clark (who sent a live specimen back to President Thomas Jefferson) doomed them when cattle replaced the great herds of bison, pronghorns, and elk. In the late nineteenth century, newly-minted cattle barons who saw the colonial rodents as competitors taking food out of the mouths of their stock persuaded the government to launch a campaign of extermination that persists to this day. In their heyday, the shooting and poisoning efforts resulted in mountains of dead PDs displayed as trophies.

This wanton destruction was a disaster not only for the dogs themselves but for entire grassland ecosystems. Prairie dogs are keystone species, altering their habitat in ways that benefit other animals such as Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, Pronghorn, American Bison, the critically endangered Black-footed Ferret, Kit and Swift foxes, and over a hundred more common species. The p-dogs' range management activities include suppressing woody vegetation, cultivating tasty and nutritious forbs, recycling nutrients from their underground latrines, and providing protected nest and den sites in landscapes where shelter is normally scarce. The dogs' elaborate burrow systems also significantly enhance recharge of aquifers essential for irrigated agriculture and other human activities.

Their underdog status is just one factor that earned prairie dogs a special place in our hearts. Thirty years ago, as director of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge in Texas, Tom (who really ought to be writing this post) launched a project that successfully introduced Black-tailed Prairie Dogs to the refuge's large bison enclosure. Actually, he tried to introduce them to a large fallow pasture adjacent to the "buffalo range," but the p-dogs had other ideas. Like characters in some prison break movie, they dug under the sunken fencing of their temporary pen, crossed the road, and made themselves at home right in the middle of the bisons' favorite grazing area. Over the next few years the dogs became a favorite attraction with the public as well as one of Tom's passions. Their behavior and ecology are complex, fascinating, and easily observed, not to mention that they're civilized creatures that don't emerge from their burrows until well after sunup or stay out past sundown.

This history with prairie dogs prompted us to attend a public meeting held several years ago by AGFD to explore the possibility of reintroducing BTPDs into southeastern Arizona. The opposition was out in full force, repeating the same kind of easily debunked myths you hear at wolf meetings. (So cows and horses break their legs in prairie dog burrows? Have you ever personally seen this happen? No? Then maybe you can tell us why the early explorers didn't report herds of bison limping across the plains?) Naturally, Tom and I stood up for PDs at that meeting, but given the controversial nature of the subject and the glacial speed at which government bureaucracies move, we didn't expect to see any meaningful progress for a decade or more. The announcement of preparations for this week's reintroduction came as a thrilling surprise, and I wish we had been able to donate a few volunteer hours to the effort.

So what do we have to look forward to as BTPDs establish themselves in their new digs? Birders will delight as Ferruginous and Red-tailed hawks and Golden Eagles cruise the colony trying to pick off unwary residents, Burrowing Owls move into abandoned burrows, and longspurs and Mountain Plovers spend the winter foraging in the town's wide open spaces. Children on school field trips will learn about the social life, ecology, and history of prairie dogs, and both residents and tourists who would never have thought to visit Las Cienegas National Conservation Area will stop in for a peek at these remarkable mammals. If left alone, the town could get big enough to support Black-footed Ferrets, perhaps even some raised right here in Arizona at the Phoenix Zoo. A few ignorant people will complain (loudly), but with positive feedback to AGFD and BLM from birders and other enlightened members of the public, these agencies may have the support they need to expand reintroduction efforts to the Sulphur Springs and San Pedro valleys.

In 1968, Audubon magazine published an article titled "Dark Days in Dog Town" about the federal poisoning program. Here's hoping that those days are over and a brighter, more rational day is dawning in our relationship with prairie dogs. --SW


Black-tailed prairie dogs return to historical site in Arizona

The Role of Prairie Dogs as a Keystone Species: Response to Stapp

Black-footed Ferrets Return to Mexico

Wired: Rodents' Talk Isn't Just "Cheep"

Arizona Daily Star: Can we talk? Prairie dogs do

More resources

Even more resources