A Biological Imperative in Four Acts
by Tom Leskiw
Humans Marking Territory: Tagging
Several days after the winter solstice, Sue and I set out with our dog Gypsy for a mid-afternoon walk. Our destination, the San Pedro River—the last remaining undammed river in Arizona—is a scant three miles north of the Arizona-Mexican border. A number of options are available for a hike in this area. We can choose to stay out of the wind by following the sandy arroyo filled with crisp, dead cottonwood leaves just above its confluence with the river. Or, we can climb out of the arroyo at the metal trail sign that boasts a cut, stenciled Gray Hawk and hike the mesquite-dotted plain southward toward Mexico. Or, if we’re seeking to tally Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Red-naped sapsuckers, Red-shafted, Gilded Flickers—or the winged specter known as Green Kingfisher—we can work the cottonwood groves that border the San Pedro.
Today, we opt for following the arroyo downstream to its confluence with the river. As we come within sight of the Highway 92 bridge, I note that traffic is light between the cities of Sierra Vista and Bisbee. The bridge rests on three concrete supports, each the width of the bridge and placed parallel to the river’s flow. My eyes are drawn to some fresh, multi-colored graffiti tagging on one of the supports. Circling the structure, I discover additional workings: “U.S. –>.” What interests me about this contribution is that the arrow is pointing the wrong way, toward Mexico. Clearly, the tagger was hoping to dissuade anyone directionally impaired who’d recently crossed the border, re-routing them back to whence they came.
On a gravel bar, I spy a discarded spray can—the tagger’s brush and palette, so to speak. Much of the writing on the can of pintura espray is in Spanish, so my background in this language serves me well. Peligro! Danger! Vapories nocivos. Vapors harmful. Irrita los ojos. Irritates the eyes. However, the following words need no translation: “Extremadamente Inflamable. Contains hydrocarbons, ketones, and toluene.”
My blood began to boil. You see, for birders and other aficionados of the natural world, the San Pedro River is a lifeline, an incomparable jewel. The river’s origin in Mexico and its north-south orientation is unique, creating a natural migration corridor. The river hosts two-thirds of the avian diversity in the United States, including 100 species of breeding and 300 types of migrating birds. Here, higher humidity and the thermal and escape cover afforded by willows and cottonwood trees nurture 82 species of mammals and more than 65 kinds of reptiles and amphibians. Winged migrants are by no means limited to birds: 200 species of butterflies and 20 of bats use the corridor annually. In short, it’s a hallowed place, one unsuitable for blithely discarding cans containing hazardous materials under pressure.
I tried to wrap my head around the rationale—or unconscious lack thereof—of those who could do such a thing. Slowly, I cooled down as I realized that tagging is one way that humans mark territory.
Marking territory isn’t necessarily bad. Wild creatures like mammals and birds mark and defend territory. A mutually agreed-upon understanding of where one’s territory ends and another’s begins more efficiently apportions scarce resources. These claimed boundaries lay the groundwork for the daily activities of family, covey, herd, or pack.
Fox Terrier vs. Fox… and Friends
Gypsy is a rat-fox terrier mix. When she was two years old, we bought a place outside of Eureka, California, on 3.4 redwood-filled acres. Outdoor projects such as landscaping, trail building, and slash burning—conducted on our steep hillside property—require me to walk a mile or more daily. Even if Gypsy has followed me around all day, she invariably finds me a couple hours before sunset and corners me. With imploring, laser-blue eyes, she makes clear that none of the day’s meandering around our yard has counted toward her walk. To her, a walk’s a walk and any ersatz “prelims” that take place while still on our property simply don’t cut it. For several years, I searched for an answer to this conundrum, to no avail.
There’s a lot of open space in our neighborhood; the parcel to the east is 32 acres in size and it abuts vast holdings by various timber companies. Wildlife in our “hood” is abundant and varied: mountain lion, bear, fox, skunk, coyote, raccoon. We like living close to wildlife; placing sunflower seeds on a redwood stump at the edge of our deck is an early-morning ritual for Sue. Except for mountain lion, all the afore-mentioned wildlife—plus chipmunks, squirrels, wood rats, birds—have been spotted dining on these tasty black kernels. For a year or two, a family of foxes owned our backyard. Early summer, Mama would bring her three kits by, introducing them to the bounty of unshelled sunnies. Their daily presence infringed on Gypsy’s time in the backyard, but we compensated for it with longer walks.
One winter afternoon, with Sue gone on a business trip, Gypsy ran upstairs and found me at my computer. For several moments, I actually succeeded in ignoring her. Finally relenting, we dodged through the gap in the grapestake fence and hit the road. Over the years, I’ve noted a stylized, ritualistic nature to her walk. Head down, she alternately expands and contracts her jowls—not unlike lions on nature documentaries—the better to envelop herself in the panoply of fragrances that line the road.
Like an innkeeper at the changing of a shift, she takes stock of the hotel register: Oooh, a feral cat brushed up against this tuft of grass. And look! Here, at the base of the redwood where I always pee, a fox—the scat still fresh—has dared to invade my territory. Gypsy pauses, squats over the fox poop, and covers it with urine.
On brisk winter days when I’ve under-dressed and need to keep moving to stay warm, Gypsy’s insistence on stopping to pee on every scat she encounters is maddening. I don’t know which is more amazing: the number of scat piles she finds or her ability to hold back enough pee to squirt nearly every one she encounters.
Suddenly it hit me: why wandering to and fro on our property lacks the cachet to be counted as a full-blown walk. It’s the smells, stupid. Gypsy has so thoroughly staked her claim to our yard that, insouciant foxes and skunks notwithstanding, there are fewer smells to investigate. When it comes to territorial markings, it’s impoverished, compared to the rest of the neighborhood. Scientists have confirmed that a dog’s sense of smell is generally 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human’s. They’re able to distinguish minute concentration of scents, such as a single drop of blood in 1.25 gallons of water.
Today, I decided to completely defer to Gypsy: to let her nose determine our course, take us where it would. I fell into step directly behind her, shadowing her movements. Something in the ditch line caused her to stop abruptly. Her nose worked the lingering scent over until she’d vetted it and we moved on. The seasonal pond in the depression on the road shoulder was next. She worked the shallow, muddy edges of the vernal pool, confident that something worthy of her inspection recently had passed this way.
I began to get into it, taking full measure of the incredibly rich and diverse olfactory realm our pets inhabit. I imagined fragrances as cloudscapes: all-enveloping, carried upslope to the road by mid-day thermals. The sensation of letting go, of deferring to ancient instincts, was liberating. Gypsy took an abrupt turn across the road. She sniffed around the curlicued, desiccated blades of Pampas grass that lay at the base of the plant. Satisfied, we wove our way back to the other side of the road, where a red huckleberry beckoned.
We came to a brush pile—illegally dumped yard prunings—alongside the road. We’ve occasionally encountered discarded salmon carcasses behind the pile. Concerned, I called for her to come. The spell was broken. We soon reached a gate and turned around for home.
On the return trip, Gypsy suddenly froze in her tracks. She lifted her front right paw and went on point. “What’s up, Gyps? Whatcha got?” Motionless, her eyes were fixed on a redwood tree across the road. She flattened her body, her belly nearly touching the pavement, while walking slowly toward the tree in maximum stalk mode. Gypsy circled the tree, sniffed, and peered into the lower limbs of the tree. Nothing. Six months ago, she’d flushed a Douglas squirrel from the ditch line. It had scampered across the road and run up the very tree she was now inspecting. We hadn’t encountered a squirrel this evening; the mere memory of the day we did prompted her to inspect what she considered her territory nearly every time we came abreast of the tree. I was impressed by her ability to connect the dots: to catalog prominent landmarks along our route, based on whatever creature we’d encountered there one or more times.
Gypsy relocated the first fox scat she’d found earlier. Tentatively, she circled it, then stopped to squat and pee, right on the scat. Satisfied that she’d had the final word for the day in her ongoing territorial dispute with the fox, she turned and—nose to the air—steered a course for home.
Wild Cat and Apache Territory
“Now, this track here could be a bobcat,” said Gene, pointing to a fresh imprint in the sand. “However, because bobcat tracks are so similar to a mountain lion’s, size is your best mark.” He slid a ruler next to the track and noted its dimensions. “This one’s just way too big,” he said, shaking his head. “Yep, a mountain lion.”
It was exciting to be in the company of skilled trackers, Gene and Bernice Isaacs, who had completed a wildlife tracking course sponsored by Sky Island Alliance (SIA), a conservation organization headquartered in Tucson. During February 2010, our party of seven had traveled to Jordan Canyon in the Dragoon Mountains, located near Willcox in southeastern Arizona. As leader Jessica Lamberton, an SIA biologist and conservation associate, had explained, the trek’s goal was to change out memory cards in two wildlife cameras set up in the canyon and to assess the habitat’s suitability as a wildlife migration corridor. The wildlife cameras were funded by the Freedom to Roam Coalition and outdoor gear maker Patagonia as part of a new citizen science program, Witness for Wildlife, which is dedicated to chronicling and protecting North America’s wildlife corridors.
Although our intent was to assess the canyon’s suitability as a migration route for wildlife that included mule deer, coati, fox, ring-tailed cat, bobcat, and mountain lion, there was definitely a buzz surrounding several recent jaguar sightings in the desert southwest. In the wake of these sightings, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently had agreed to designate critical habitat for the cat, the location and exact acreage to be determined.
Lush jungle, not arid high desert, is the terrain that comes to mind when most people think of jaguars. In reality, though, the Dragoon Mountains have historically hosted el tigre; in fact Jessicare counted that, as recently as 1986, a local hunter had pursued a jaguar from the Dragoons eastward across the Sulphur Springs Valley to the Dos Cabezas Mountains.
Although the trail had grown cold on that particular animal, that jaguar was not the only known seen recently in Arizona. “Macho B” was first videotaped in southeastern Arizona in 1996 and later photographed over 50 times until his death in 2009. He resided in Arizona continuously from 2004-07. Furthermore, analysis of coat spot patterns in several photographs confirmed that at least three other jaguars had recently roamed the southwest.
That the Dragoon Mountains were known to have harbored jaguar within the past quarter century and might do so again convinced me—as I suspect it did my six companions—to regard today’s habitat assessment as much more than an academic exercise. With jaguar sightings in the U.S. increasing, it was more important than ever to look at potential habitat with fresh eyes. What did jaguars eat? If they were again sighted in the Dragoons, where did they originate and where were they going? What would a potential jaguar den site look like?
Fifteen minutes of hiking along a jeep road brought us to the canyon bottom. I was excited to see water in the stream and I began to take notes on the riparian vegetation that included Fremont cottonwood (not yet showing leaf or catkin) and Gooding’s willow. After hiking for about an hour—pausing frequently to tally birds, animal tracks, and plants—we arrived at Camera #1. Jessica had elected not to carry a laptop, so whatever wildlife images were on the camera’s memory card remained unseen for now.
Hiking several hundred feet beyond Camera #1 brought us to the confluence of two drainages. We took the north fork. It dawned on me not only what a great location had been chosen to place Camera #1, but also how well suited the Southwest is for using wildlife cameras. Many of the resources necessary for life are concentrated in canyon bottoms: water, thermal and escape cover, and food. The two canyons funnel and concentrate not only water, but also the paths of wildlife right past the camera.
Reaching Camera #2 required a scramble up a bedrock chute. As Jessica changed out the memory card, we ate lunch and reveled in the warm sunshine and a world awaking from its winter slumber. With our work done—two camera’s memory cards in pocket—we hiked out at a much brisker pace than we’d gone in.
Before we had entered Jordan Canyon, Jessica had pointed out the ruins of the Butterfield Overland Mail Route stagecoach stop. The station was one of many that furnished overnight lodging for passengers making the grueling, 2,795-mile journey from St. Louis to San Francisco. The site had been chosen because water seeped to the surface near the mouth of the canyon at Dragoon Springs.
The plains and surrounding mountains were the ancestral home of Cochise and the Chiricahua Apache. The construction of the stage stop infuriated the Apache and the stage line was a favorite target of Cochise’s warriors. In one 16-month period, they killed 22 drivers. Why the sudden escalation of violence, you might wonder? Surveyors, frontiersmen, and immigrants—at least in the early years of contact—were tolerated by the Apache. But building a stage stop, at one of the few year-round water sources in the vicinity, was a transgression they couldn’t abide: the marking of territory by outsiders laying claim to that portion of their homeland.
Marking Territory: the U.S-Mexico Border Wall
In the wake of 9/11, the security of America’s borders has come under increasing scrutiny. In 2006, Congress, in response to a national outcry about our porous border, approved the Secure Fence Act. The law authorized the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to construct 845 miles of fence along our nearly 2,000-mile-long southern border.
Since my retirement in 2009, my wife and I have escaped the rainy winter in northwestern California by spending the winter months in southeastern Arizona. On our daily walks along the San Pedro River, we sometimes stop to scan the wall with binoculars. Crossing the southern flanks of the Huachuca Mountains, the border barrier runs eastward across the plains, disappearing from view once it reaches a line of cottonwoods that edge the river. In late January, when cottonwood catkins emerge, their gauzy-green color underscores the importance of surface water in this arid region. Studying this verdant ribbon of green reminds me that 10% of the roughly 530 species on the federal endangered species list can be found along the San Pedro.
In a land with scant water resources, the ecological bargain struck long ago by humans and wildlife alike was one of movement and migration in order to escape extremes of heat and cold and to procure resources necessary to survive. Long before the concept of political borders emerged, human and wildlife movement was concentrated along natural borders: desert and oasis, oak woodland and grassland, forest and brush field. Not only is the border wall the latest in a long series of actions that have impeded the movement of wildlife, but it also bisects some of the most biologically rich areas in the United States.
The conservation of wildlife populations at the periphery of their range is now considered extremely important to the long-term survival of endangered species. The preservation of sufficient core and connective habitats to avoid population fragmentation is seen as crucial to reducing the probability of extinction for species such as jaguar. Therefore, erecting a 9-to 15-foot-high fence across approximately 70% of Arizona’s border does not bode well for the small, northernmost population of jaguars, as it will isolate them from the larger source population in northwestern Mexico.
What are taxpayers to make of a project initially estimated to cost $49 billion, and since plagued with huge cost overruns? That thirty-six laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, were waived to expedite construction of certain segments of the wall hints at the lengths a nation will go to in order to mark its territory.
Results from the 2012 Colorado College State of the Rockies “Conservation in the West” poll found that Arizona voters rejected the idea that the illegal immigration situation warrants suspending environmental laws along the border. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the poll’s respondents stated that it was not necessary to suspend environmental protections “within one hundred miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, including in National Parks and other protected public lands, in order to reduce illegal immigration.” These results mirror those obtained from a nationwide survey commissioned by Sky Island Alliance in May 2011 that showed that 64 percent of respondents oppose or strongly oppose waiving environmental laws for the purpose of building infrastructure along the border.
Besides, the wall doesn’t work. Even one of its chief proponents, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, has admitted, “The idea that we are going to solve the problem simply building a fence is undercut by the fact that yesterday we discovered a tunnel. So the idea that fencing alone is a solution I think is overly simplistic” (7/1/2007).
Fortunately, concerned citizens and environmental groups that include Defenders of Wildlife, Sky Island Alliance, and TrekWest are publicizing wildlife’s crucial need for migration corridors. On February 28, 2013, my wife Sue and I participated in an event to welcome conservationist John Davis on the first leg of his human-powered journey—dubbed TrekWest—in support of wildlife corridors. John’s commitment to the creation and protection of habitat connectivity is legendary: for his TrekEast adventure in 2011, he hiked, biked, and paddled 7,600 backcountry miles from the Florida Keys to Quebec’s Gaspe´ Peninsula. We joined nearly 40 others—both U.S. and Mexican residents—in a city park in the Mexican border town of Naco to participate in a Yaqui blessing ceremony before helping to carry a long jaguar art piece to the base of the border wall.
The jaguar art piece—entitled “Sewing Spots Together”—was the brainchild of Tucson artist/educator Stephanie Bowman. She created two 8-foot-long panels from twin bedsheets, one depicting the front half and one the rear half of a jaguar. Classrooms, museums, and other groups were then invited to make their own panels that highlighted the fantastic biodiversity of the jaguar’s range between the Amazon rainforest and the Sonoran Desert. The panels were then fastened together with saguaro cactus ribs into an ever-elongating mobile art piece that could be carried full length or folded in various patterns, depending on the number of people participating. [For more information visit “Sewing Spots Together,” and get their PDF for a visual and conceptual understanding of what the project actually is.]
John was encouraged to visit this antithesis of habitat connectivity: the border wall constructed along vast swaths of the border with Mexico, straight through prime wildlife habitat.