Young adults helped to count prairie dogs and modify fencing for pronghorn during a summer conservation project in Arizona. Credit: John Millican
What happens when six urban teens, deprived of cell phones, electricity, and running water, tackle a prairie dog conservation project in southeastern Arizona? They learn about the natural world, fast.
During a 12-week summer project in Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in 2013, these young adults — part of the Department of the Interior’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps program — joined in a census effort for the region’s black-tailed prairie dog population. While learning skills like stoking a campfire for a 3:30 a.m. breakfast and pitching camp in a monsoon, the group, directed by the Student Conservation Corps (SCC) and the Arizona Antelope Foundation, got a hands-on introduction to the hard work of conservation.
NFWF provided project funding as part of its national youth initiative, which engaged more than 500 young people in conservation training at 20 locations in 2013. Partners included the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation, and Wells Fargo.
Las Cienegas, formerly the Empire Ranch, was the setting of classic John Ford westerns like “Red River.” Long ago, prairie dogs and pronghorn thrived there; now, both species need help. “Prairie dogs and pronghorns are climax grassland species —when they are present, the grassland is at its healthiest,” explains project manager Glen Dickens. “Neither were here 50 years ago. That’s a statement of what we do in modern wildlife management.”
As part of their workday, the SCC youth observed three new colonies from viewing blinds high above the grasslands. The prairie dogs they studied are re-introduced; after mid-twentieth-century extermination by ranchers, who viewed the rodents as pests, the colonies imported from New Mexico are now reaching sustainable levels of about 100 animals each. However, even healthy groups will represent less than one percent of the former population.
Participant Raquel Irigoyen-Au, a University of Arizona student, explained that the grass-eating prairie dogs help balance the ecosystem. “They help water absorb into the ground when it rains, because they till the land when they dig their colonies. They also help create homes for burrowing owls.”
Healthy grasslands provide shelter for pronghorn fawns, as well. The SCC youth modified 26 miles of fencing during their summer stint, allowing pronghorn to range over 20,000 acres.
Reflecting on the SCC program, Irigoyen-Au says she enjoyed learning about Arizona’s diverse landscapes. “I’ve grown up mainly in an urban setting, so I’m used to the comforts of a city lifestyle. Each day I learned a little more about BLM and gained a new appreciation for the wildlife in this historic site.”