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Weekly Alibi Conservation in the West

Native Americans Lead the Way

By Ben Ikenson

JANUARY 17, 2000:  In recent history, the western part of this country has come to symbolize freedom. Early settlers wrote voluminously of its wide-open spaces and enormous skies. Ancient cultures sketched out on rocks its symbols: a mosaic of desert, mountain, canyon and plains; of snakes, wolves, fish and birds. The West captivates the imagination with symbols of wilderness fundamentally ingrained in the human psyche like strange links to the primordial past. The West gives us memories of things that never happened.

Perhaps it is the majesty and grandeur of its landscapes that dominate us so readily. They imbue the human spirit with a sense of freedom, awesome in both its immensity and its timelessness. The West seems to demonstrate an untouchable quality to which we are drawn, perhaps because we are drawn to the past, to a world unscathed by human civilization.

Countless generations of native civilizations which inhabited the region for thousands of years certainly did not seem to have too much of an adverse impact on the landscape of the West. Today, sadly, civilization threatens to destroy much of what makes the West so awesome. This is probably why people are so quick to idealize the Native American approach to the natural world, to mythify it into possibly inaccurate proportions, to stick its profound sentiments on the back of their cars, to envy a "simpler" time when there was a balance between give and take, and the world was still unscathed.

All Things Are Connected

Only a century ago, for example, Indian tribes fished the backwaters of the Lower Colorado River and depended on a surplus of razorback suckers for food. Today, these fish are endangered and require human management to sustain their existence. If it were not for fish hatcheries, recovery programs, and various habitat enhancement and protection efforts, these native fish would have already disappeared. This is just one of any number of examples of a grave situation.

In the Southwest, Native Americans in fact deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to conserve natural resources -- resources that their forefathers likely had no part in destroying -- including administering endangered fish programs. As early as 1934, in fact, Navajo and other Indian tribes enacted legislation to protect wildlife in response to many changes resulting from the settlement of the Southwest.

"Railroads were built, market hunting was widespread, land was cleared for farming and the overall increase in the human population brought a gradual decline of wildlife resources thus prompting the need to implement measures to protect wildlife," said John Antonio, Native American Liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1855, Chief Seattle of the Duwamish Tribe of the Pacific Northwest implored: "What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, also happens to man. All things are connected."

This belief reflects strongly in current resource management approaches on many tribal lands in the Southwest; tribal conservation efforts have been nearly as diverse as the land itself. Reservations in Arizona and New Mexico encompass more than 25 million acres of grassland prairies, desert shrublands, montane juniper woodlands, ponderosa pine and spruce-fir forests, and alpine tundra at the peaks of the southern Rockies; over 150,000 surface acres of lakes and ponds; and nearly 700 miles of rivers and streams.

Enhancing Native Habitat

Southwest Indian tribes employ more than 100 full-time wildlife personnel to administer a wide variety of programs from game management to endangered species to law enforcement. "Just about all of the 80-plus tribes in this region are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in one way or another for the benefit of a healthy landscape, for healthy natural resources," Antonio said.

In cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Management Authority, for example, Navajo and White Mountain Apache tribes in Arizona monitor the taking of bobcats. The tribes make sure that bobcat hunters have proper permits. That stops a lot of illegal bobcat hunting.

Many tribes have implemented habitat enhancement projects such as water development, fencing projects, sagebrush and oakbrush control, and reseeding of native grasses and forbs, benefiting a variety of wildlife species. In northern New Mexico, Jicarilla Apaches execute controlled burns to stimulate forage for wildlife.

Some tribes manage fish hatcheries or water impoundments to provide sport fish or to restore declining populations of native fish. The White Mountain Apaches support native fish populations of Apache trout. The Jicarilla Apaches support native Rio Grande cutthroat populations, which are imperiled because of deteriorating conditions in the Rio Grande watershed.

The Hualapai, in Central Arizona, implemented a native fish restoration project to restore endangered Lower Colorado River species such as the razorback sucker, humpback chub, and bonytail chub, all of which have been jeopardized by the introduction of non-native fish, as well as severe damming and channelization of the Lower Colorado.

Protecting endangered species is a top priority for many tribes. The Zuni Pueblo, in western New Mexico, provide protected habitat for a relatively large population of Southwestern willow flycatchers, endangered neotropical migrants. By restricting livestock access to streamside vegetation, the Zuni are protecting choice flycatcher habitat.

"Also," said Steven Albert, Zuni Director of Fish and Wildlife, "we are removing vast amounts of non-native salt cedar, and restoring miles of native riparian habitat for willow flycatchers and other species of birds important to the Zuni culture."

In fact, more than 90 percent of wildlife in the Southwest use these precious riparian areas, which are disappearing as a result of livestock grazing, underground water pumping, erosion, urban development, and damming and channelization.

Many tribes use the same monitoring technology federal biologists use, "which makes gathering data and survey information a lot easier and more consistent," Antonio said. White Mountain Apache, Mescalero Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo, Laguna Pueblo and Zuni Pueblo tribes have used radio telemetry, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems to analyze migrations and habitat use of elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, bear, mountain lion, and turkey.

"The outlook for wildlife resource management on Indian lands in the Southwest is promising, though," Antonio said. "Tribes have the technical know-how, the strength of partnerships with federal and state agencies, and, of course, a continuing understanding of the importance of maintaining a land's integrity. They realize that good wildlife resource management is necessary to ensure a secure future for wildlife resources."

Hands-On Youth Training

Getting kids interested is also necessary. Last July the Wildlife Service, the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, and Turner Enterprises, Inc. sponsored the 6th Annual Native American Natural Resources Youth Practicum. On Ted Turner's Ladder Ranch in Caballo, N.M. -- a sprawling expanse of fields, hills, canyons, and arroyos -- Native American high school students from Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma convened for a week of outdoor fun and education. "What we were trying to do," said Antonio, "was to instill in these kids the sense that all components of the environment are interrelated and that what you do to one component will affect the others."

Antonio along with others led educational sessions including lectures on the National Environmental Policies Act and its relationship to natural resources management and the recovery of the Mexican gray wolf. "The overall objective of the youth practicum," said Antonio, "is to show the students that a career in natural resources management is a very challenging and rewarding one and we hope they will one day pursue such a career."

Participants received plenty of hands-on instruction as well. Demonstrations of natural resources management techniques included soil sampling, big game inventory, rangeland inventory, radio telemetry, invertebrate identification, water quality analysis, and fish population/stream habitat assessment. Also, kids learned about geographic information systems and used global positioning technology to map out a pond on the ranch.

"I especially enjoyed seeing all the wildlife and how the symbols of strength, beauty and speed are being taken care of," said 16-year-old Adelbert Quiver of the San Felipe Pueblo.

The precarious future of the American West certainly depends on how future generations treat all the "symbols of strength, beauty and speed" -- living symbols of the West that were so revered by the ancient cultures that lived here long ago.

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