Conservation Vision: Bonita Grasslands
Range Management Specialist Turns a Vision into a Reality
WILLCOX, ARIZ. - July, 2011 -
þ Cowboy Hat þ Lunch þ Water þ Project Contract
It is a familiar checklist to NRCS Range Management Specialists as they prepare to go out in the field. Wilma Renken, Willcox NRCS Field Office Range Management Specialist, likes to add an additional bullet to her list:
þ Conservation Vision
Three years ago, Wilma had an idea for a conservation project located in Northern Cochise County and in Southern Graham County in an area classified as Southern Arizona semi-desert grassland. Where vast herds of antelope used to live was found barren of fresh sign of their existence. Southeastern Arizona is known for its diverse bird species. One of its permanent residents, the scaled quail, was also showing declined numbers. It didn’t take Wilma long to identify the correlation between increased invasive mesquite populations and the diminishing antelope and scaled quail populations.
Antelope depend on their keen eyesight and amazing speed to protect themselves from predators. Grasslands are their main habitat, reflecting their comfort in being able to maintain clear vision at all times. However, over time, mesquite thickets have replaced acres upon acres of what used to be grasslands in the Bonita area. Standing at 36-40 inches tall at the shoulder, antelope cannot see over or around the brush, providing an upper hand to coyotes and other predators. Very few herds currently remain in the area. Scaled quail populations are also at stake as they use the grasslands as cover for nesting, loafing, hiding and escape.
“One day, when this whole project started, I came out here [Bonita Grasslands area] with one of the local ranchers and we stood amazed as we looked at an old picture of what the area used to look like and then looked up to see the mesquite covered land that it became. It is like looking in a mirror every day. You don’t notice the change that is occurring because you are looking at it all the time,” explained Wilma.
Wilma envisioned a conservation plan that encompassed partnerships with multiple entities to restore the Bonita Grasslands back to their original landscape, creating premium habitat for wildlife. It also provided benefits to ranchers including better forage production for their livestock, less water erosion due to increased growth of grasses and forbs and improved ecology in the soils.
“This project is really neat because it is a group effort. It is about customers putting ideas in the ground and putting a conservation plan into action that benefits multiple people,” said Wilma.
After three years in the making, the Bonita Grasslands project received financial assistance through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) program for fiscal year 2011. Twenty ranches in the habitat area, Willcox-San Simon Soil and Water Conservation District, Arizona Game and Fish Department, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wings Over Willcox, Antelope Foundation, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and NRCS have joined as partners to make this vision into a reality. The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), through the CCPI contract, provided $200,000 this fiscal year toward the project and the Bonita Grasslands Conservation Initiative requested $200,000 for five years, totaling $1,000,000. It is a long-term project that requires long-term planning and assistance.
Currently, mechanical mesquite brush clearing is underway. Mesquites have an extensive tap root that if it is not completely removed from the soil, it will sprout a new plant. Approximately 1500 acres each year for five years, of privately owned rangeland in the project area will have mesquite shrubs mechanically removed. Once the mesquites are removed, they are placed in large piles. Landowners with help from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, determine how to remove the brush piles. Some piles may be left for quail habitat while most will be burned or chipped.
Areas that do not have herbaceous cover or native grass seed-banks, will be reseeded with native grasses and forbs that will also serve as pollinator habitat. Some ranchers have already started this process. It is critical that ranchers develop a long term conservation plan to maintain the health of the grasslands. Wilma continues to provide technical assistance in developing prescribed grazing management plans that minimize potential for reestablishment of mesquite thickets.
“My favorite part about developing these plans is when the rancher is telling me why we can’t do something because they have already developed their long-term grazing plan,” said Wilma.
The impact of the brush removal is astounding. As seen from the pictures, restoring the grasslands is well on its way and the difference is day and night. While receiving the tour of the project, we had the opportunity to watch a herd of antelope that were gathered in one of the areas that was cleared last year. It goes to show that what started as a vision from a single Range Management Specialist, can evolve into an amazing conservation effort that makes a huge difference!