I’m standing on a hillock in the middle of Otero Mesa, the last remaining Chihuahuan Desert short-grass prairie left on public lands in the U.S. I find it hard to comprehend how vast this grassland is. Knowing it’s 1.2 million acres just doesn’t do it. I turn in a slow circle and look out over the plateau. From where I am to the horizon in every direction there is the undulating grassland. Sixty-some miles to the north are the Sacramento Mountains. To the west are the Hueco Mountains and to the east are the Cornudas Mountains, which block my view of the Guadalupe Mountains farther east. The plateau within this triangle of mountains constitutes Otero Mesa.
The human footprint here is still relatively light. Ranchers lease much of the BLM-managed lands for cattle. Other than that, the land seems empty. It is anything but. Life, comprised of more than 1,000 plant and animal species, abounds everywhere I look.
Ever since joining the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance (NMWA) I had heard about Otero Mesa and I had wanted to experience it. On a weekend in late September, Cheryl Fallstead and I joined Nathan Newcomer, NMWA associate director, and about a dozen people at a campsite in the shadow of Alamo Mountain, the highest peak in the Cornudas.
Saturday most of the campers elected to hike the a steep trail to the summit of Alamo Mountain, some 1400 feet above the plain. They were promised a grand view of the entire mesa and were not disappointed.
Cheryl and I joined Steve West, NMWA staff scientist, to conduct wildlife surveys at several stock ponds out on the plateau. Otero Mesa is high on the Department of the Interior’s list of possible new national monuments and knowing the variety and extent of plant and animal life contributes to our understanding of the land and why it should be protected.
Instead of the grand view, we got up close and personal. We sited and identified more than forty of the 250 species of birds that call Otero Mesa home or which migrate through the area. I’m not a birder so this was an education, learning to tell the difference between a bunting and a warbler; a Vesper’s sparrow from a Brewer’s sparrow. I was more impressed with the raptors we sighted: the osprey, northern harrier, red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Cooper’s hawks. We saw waterfowl – red and green-winged teal, an American coot, and American avocet – and one magnificent hummingbird. That’s not an exaggeration. That’s its name: Magnificent.
We listed plants not yet identified in other areas on the mesa. I learned how to tell the difference between a croton and a winter fat plant and about the all-thorn or crucifixion-thorn tree. The trees we were looking at grow exceedingly slow and may have been more than a century old.
What was most obvious was the change in plant assemblages. In some areas there was an abundance of gramma grasses studded with yucca, indicative of healthy grassland. Other areas were carpeted with yellow snakeweed, mesquite, and prickly pear – signs of poor range management over the century or more cattle have been grazed here. How to give the land respite and let it recover are issues now being debated.
As evening arrived, we helped set up mist nets to trap birds, which West was banding. Each one he caught, he measured and weighed. He was excited to find and band an orange-crowned warbler and a cordilleran flycatcher.
There were other exciting moments during the day. We spotted several pronghorn, some single males and others with their harems. Pronghorns we were told are not antelopes but last surviving species of nine Pleistocene animals, which thrived as long as two million years ago. That may account for their strangely shaped horns and head that’s out of proportion to their bodies.
As the sun settled over the Hueco Mountains, we were treated to a delightful coyote howl. I expect the coyotes were simply letting each other know they were in close proximity, maybe on the edge of each other’s territory but, to me, they sounded more like an a cappella choir in four-part harmony.
Sunday was a day of exploring human history rather than natural history. Newcomer led our group up to the first bench on Alamo Mountain to see some of the hundreds of petroglyphs. Many of the rock-art creations are thought to have been made by the Mescalero Apache whose territory was near the area in the mid-1800s. Designs of horned characters and zigzagging lines may represent Apache deities of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning. Drawings of horses suggest many of the petroglyphs date from the 1600s, although other artifacts and potsherds indicate native people have inhabited the area for thousands of years.
As you might expect, there was a wide range of artistry. Some rock artists could do no more than make stick figures; others had the competence to do remarkable images of fish, owls, bear paws, and what looked like a rainbow. He also pointed out a broad bowl in which archeologists have found pit houses and other evidence of human occupation. Newcomer said he expects scientists will find pottery, tools, charcoal from old campfires, and perhaps even human remains. We looked into the bowl from its edge and turned away. No one wanted to disturb an area that could enlighten us about those occupying the land long before us.
Our last stop was the remaining stone walls of the Butterfield Stage station, one of 140 stations along the trail from St. Louis to San Francisco. Perhaps impressed by the Native American rock art, a number of Anglos – maybe travelers, maybe cowboys – etched there names and the dates of their passing.
If our ride onto Otero Mesa was like venturing into a brave new world, our ride home was like leaving an old friend, one we’re sure to revisit time and again, certain each visit will reveal new wonders.
Posted by Bud Russo