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  • Goings-On at the Pitchfork Ranch

    Our most recent issue of Archaeology Southwest Magazine featured discussions of a number of archaeological sites preserved by private landowners in southwest New Mexico, as well as by other agencies and organizations. To highlight some of the preservation successes individual landowners can achieve, we asked our friends A.T. and Lucinda Cole to write a guest blog post discussing some of their projects on the ranch where our Preservation Archaeology Field School crew has been conducting archaeological survey. Enjoy!

    A.T. Cole, with Lucinda Cole, ranch co-owners

    (August 3, 2017)—For the past three summers, Archaeology Southwest has surveyed the Mimbres and other archaeological sites along the nine-mile reach of the Burro Ciénaga on the Pitchfork Ranch. Although we do have a small grass-fed and grass-finished cattle herd (white cows, because dark-colored cattle run 15 degrees hotter), the Pitchfork is, first and foremost, a restoration ranch with an increasing variety of preservation and restoration features. Here is an overview of the ranch and some of our interests in preservation beyond archaeology.

    The ranch lies at 5100’ elevation, just west of the Continental Divide in southwest New Mexico. Although mountainous, the land is primarily rolling Chihuahuan grassland, one of the most biologically diverse arid regions in the world. South of Silver City, the Pitchfork is six-miles from the nearest neighboring ranch. It consists of slightly less than 12,000 checkerboarded, split-estate acres, 5,160 deeded, the balance State and BLM lease land.  Habitat is Tabosa-dominated grassland with more than 200 documented plants, including 70 grasses, juniper, willow, oak, ash, hackberry, Arizona walnut, and wild grape in the cañyon.

    The dominant landmark is Soldier’s Farewell Hill (6173’) near the historic Butterfield Trail and way station #19. In the late 1880s, this land was part of the historic Diamond A Ranch or Gray Ranch in the New Mexico Bootheel. Later known as the “McDonald Brothers” or “Bart McDonald place,” these lands have been in cattle production for well over a century. In 1903 a Civil War veteran gave 5-year old Bartley McDonald a heifer and registered the three-pronged “pitchfork” brand for the boy, and thus the ranch name and brand.

    There are only 70 of the 155 known ciénagas (shallow, slow moving, spongey, marsh-like desert water) remaining in the Southwest, and 95 percent of ciénaga habitat is lost due the same factors that have transformed the Southwest since European arrival: introduction of sheep, near-extermination of beaver, agricultural re-contouring, rise of huge cattle herds, the absence of fire, drought, and now the human-caused climate crisis.

    A.T. Cole

    A. T. showing 2017 students Chris and Karla willow “dams” that slow down runoff.

    In addition to a conservation easement, more than a thousand grade-control structures—some machine built, most one-rock dams built by hand, both wood post and boulder structures—slow water flow, capture suspended sediment, raise the grade of the incised ciénaga channel, increase ciénaga and riparian vegetation, raise the water table, and generally “shallow” the entire landscape. Because each blade of grass serves as both a dam to slow or capture sediment and a straw to draw CO2 from the warming atmosphere (recall your grade school learning about photosynthesis: plants ingesting CO2, splitting the oxygen from the carbon, returning the two oxygen molecules to the atmosphere for us to breathe, consuming some of the carbon as nutrition, and distributing the balance subsurface as nutrients for the abundant subterranean world), the restoration serves to restore the ciénaga and the rangelands, and to sequester carbon in service of efforts to address the rapidly warming climate. The work has changed the habitat as shown in these same-location photographs taken in 2006 and 2014.

    Habitat Changes

    Habitat Changes

    Because of the current sixth massive extinction of life on the planet, we think of all wildlife as endangered, and endeavor to provide a healthy and safe habitat for them. We have also reintroduced several “at-risk” species: the endangered Aplomado falcon, Gila topminnow, Chirichahua leopard frog, and candidate species Wright’s Marsh Thistle. The Eurphorbia rayturneri, a previously unknown plant, was found here, and the ranch is currently the only place on the planet where it is known to exist.

    Finally, the ranch is available for science and education, as well as school groups, citizen science projects, and groups like Audubon, Plant society, trail groups, and similar visitor groups.

    For more information, see:

    Website of the Pitchfork Ranch

    Video about Aridland Ciénagas (opens at YouTube)

    Wikipedia article on ciénagas

    Cole, A. T. and Cinda Cole

    2015  An Overview of Aridland Ciénagas, with Proposals for Their Classification, Restoration and Preservation. Proceedings of the Fourth Natural History of the Gila Symposium, edited by K. Whiteman and W. Norris, pp. 28–56.






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