Letting Nature Take Her Course

For those of you who regularly read my blog posts, you know that I am a strong advocate for letting Nature do her own thing with little or no human intervention. I advocate this approach because science has shown that, like the weather, man cannot control Nature. Only when we humans have damaged a species or an ecosystem should we work toward restoration. And then when we have made our best efforts to restore what we have damaged, we need to step back. The reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park is a wonderful restoration story that demonstrates the success of letting Nature do her own thing. Another great restoration story is the reintroduction of the Beaver at the San Pedro River in Southeastern Arizona.

This blog post is the tale of two conservation projects. One of these projects is successful because man and Nature work in synergy with Nature calling the shots. The other project is almost completely engineered by mankind with man making the decisions.

The winter season is the time of the year when many birds migrate to southern locales. Each winter season, I make it a point to visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service migrating bird refuge at Bosque del Apache near St. Anthony, New Mexico. While I always get very excited watching the birds, I’ve written a blog on some issues at Bosque del Apache that deeply trouble me.

More recently, a friend told me about the Whitewater Draw Refuge near McNeal, Arizona. It is operated by the State of Arizona Game and Fish Dynamic Tension-0026Department. Just for fun, I drove over there last summer. Of course there were no birds at that time, but I spent considerable time with the refuge manage. What I learned astounded me. The Whitewater Draw Refuge is in an ancient playa that floods every autumn with the seasonal monsoons. Starting in November, some 20,000 migrating Sandhill Cranes reside in this playa through January. They come to this place because there is a lot of corn and other crops available to the cranes so that they may build up an energy supply in their bodies for their return trip to northern areas in the spring.  Up to this point in the story, this is the same scenario as Bosque del Apache.

At the Whitewater Draw Refuge, the corn that the Sandhill Cranes eat comes from local farms. Farmers time the harvest of their corn crops so that the birds arrive just after the corn crop is harvested. What is left on the ground is the harvest residue. The farmers welcome the Sandhill Cranes because these birds eat the dropped corn, thus preventing pioneer corn shoots which the farmer must then clear from the land before planting another crop. The farmers like the Sandhill Cranes because they save the farmer an extra step in the process of harvesting and then planting another crop. There is a synergy between the farmer and the Sandhill Crane.

What totally amazes me is that the Arizona Game and Fish department and the farmers have no formal process for facilitating this ecological synergy. Basically, it just happens. It is also important to my story that I tell you that the cranes know enough to search elsewhere for corn. They fly to another location known as Wilcox Playa where more crop remnants are available. Many of them overnight at Wilcox Playa before returning to Whitewater Draw. The cranes have this all figured out without any help from man. The only “control” exercised by mankind is that the government has protected the land where the Sandhill Cranes roost by setting aside the Whitewater Draw Refuge as a legal nature preserve.

At Bosque del Apache, things are very different. The refuge sees itself as an instrument for preventing the “depredation” of the farmer’s crops. If you read their documents closely, they are in business to protect the farmer from the Sandhill Crane even though, to the public, they are vociferous about protecting the Sandhill Crane. The refuge grows their own corn for the cranes and knocks down some corn rows each week so that the cranes can access the corn. The refuge makes no effort to work with local farmers to synchronize their harvests with the Sandhill Crane migration. Instead, government documents imply a hostility by the farmer toward the Sandhill Crane rather than a working partnership with Nature. Recently, elk have started eating the refuge corn crops. This leaves less food for the cranes. The government, in an attempt to control Nature, is now killing elk.

To make things more interesting, the government manager and his volunteers at Bosque del Apache have stated to me that, years ago, the population of Sandhill Cranes in the Rio Grande Valley had dwindled to some 19 individuals. They make a point of stating that these birds were near extinction and it was the establishment of this refuge by the government that prevented extinction. It is interesting that the Sandhill Cranes who winter at the Whitewater Draw Refuge have successfully demonstrated the skill of hunting for food by flying to other areas. This scientifically measured activity offers serious doubt to the Bosque del Apache management claim that their group of birds were close to extinction until they were “saved” by the government. Instead, the birds probably went elsewhere for food.

At one point in my discussions with the Bosque del Apache staff, I suggested that they visit the Whitewater Draw Refuge and talk to the Arizona Fish and Dynamic Tension-0026Game people. It seems that the Bosque del Apache refuge managers have never heard of the Whitewater Draw Refuge even though Whitewater Draw attracts more Sandhill Cranes through environmental synergy than does Bosque del Apache’s “engineered environment” approach.

This tale of two different conservation programs offers both some truth about Sand Hill Crane biology and questions about whether human intervention is really necessary. The real story at the Whitewater Draw Refuge is a great example of humans working in synergy with ecosystems rather than trying to control Nature. The story at Bosque del Apache portrays the perils of an engineered Nature, a government agency doing some “puffing” to justify its existence while minimizing transparency, and the passing of speculative information to the public.

Lest I sound cruel, I love Bosque del Apache and the fine programs that it offers the public every year. Its strong suit is promoting environmental awareness. But, the hidden truth is that there is little environmental synergy at Bosque del Apache and a large amount of synergy at the Whitewater Draw Refuge where mankind accommodates Nature rather than engineering Nature. At the Whitewater Draw Refuge, the birds are in control and mankind adjusts to the timing of the arrival and departure of the Sandhill Crane. At Bosque del Apache, the policy is total control of Nature by mankind. This has led to a “one-armed paper hanger” syndrome where the unexpected is met with yet more human intervention. Whitewater Draw Refuge lets Nature do her own thing and accepts the unexpected by doing little or nothing.

I have written a blog post on the case for passive restoration which adds to the ideas of hands-off ecology which I’ve expressed here.

If you have a passion for witnessing migrating birds, good ecology, and a great example of mankind and wildlife working in a natural synergy without humanity controlling Nature, you might check out the Whitewater Draw Refuge. Unlike Bosque del Apache, there is no docent program or annual festival. But there is excellent written material made available as well as a very friendly and accommodating preserve manager who will spend time with you. On occasion, there are knowledgeable volunteers available who offer excellent tours.  

Worth Your Extra Attention :

Thanks for reading this blog post.

There is a section in my blog entitled “Musings”. You can reach it by clicking on the menu tab near the top of my blog site. This area contains my growing list of posts that list web material that I have found interesting. You might stop by an take a look.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

5 Responses to “Letting Nature Take Her Course”

  1. What a neat compare and contrast. It seems like the Whitewater draw refuge looked upon their locals more as resources rather then competitors and everybody benefited.

    This kind of synergy takes work (as well as a soft touch) but is priceless.

    I love hearing about different wildlife refuges. They are an amazing resource that are so often under represented.

    • Thanks for your comments Meg. In my opinion, you are absolutely correct in your assessment. I’ve learned that there are at least three essential elements to a successful restoration/conservation plan.

      1) Strong community support.
      2) Good and impartial science.
      3) An expert facilitator.

      I believe that Bosque del Apache lacks both community support and there is no expert facilitator to work with the farmers. Their science is sometimes questionable. Unfortunately, when they try to manage Nature, they are having to invent new tactics to cover for the effect of past tactics.

      Again, I am hesitant to be too critical because Bosque del Apache does provide a very valuable service in its various education programs that help build a consciousness for Nature in the visiting public.

  2. Do you know if the corn at either site is GMO or non GMO?

    • Hi Lori: A very good question!!! The managers at Bosque del Apache insisted on using non-GMO corn. The reserve share crops the government land with local farmers. These farmers have insisted on GMO corn so the government got rid of the farmers. For the moment, no corn is grown. The reserve now grows its own alfalfa crops. The Sandhill Cranes love alfalfa roots which are higher energy than corn. Hopefully the cranes will stay on the reserve to eat. The problem is that the local alfalfa farmers will shoot the birds if they try to uproot their cash crops. There are always problems when when there is no community support.

      At Whitewater Draw, I have no idea if the corn is GMO or non-GMO. I will ask the next time I see the preserve manager.

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