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An Unforeseen Foe
Growing populations of Mennonite farmers are converting important grassland habitat in Mexico to row crops, evicting the endangered aplomodo falcon from its desert home.    

 

Chris Parish

Scientists fighting to protect endangered aplomado falcons are now battling an unforeseen foe in Chihuahuan Desert grasslands of Mexico: Mennonite farmers looking to expand their acreage. Just 16 years after researchers found the falcons in the Tarabillias Valley, Mennonites, who have lived and worked the land in Mexico since the 1920s, are buying ranches, plowing the land, and planting crops in the last known remaining aplomado falcon desert habitat in the country.

Eight of the 25 breeding pairs have been forced out in the last year, and biologists fear the situation will only worsen if the Mennonites succeed in their plans to purchase an additional 50,000 hectares—about 100,000 acres—of grasslands. “Potentially it could lead to the extirpation of the aplomado falcon in Chihuahua,” says Angel Montoya, a biologist with the Peregrine Fund. “Never did I imagine that the conversion of those grasslands was a threat. The very first [aplomado] pair that we found was on a ranch—the very first ranch that sold out to the Mennonites.”

Mark Lockwood

Montoya and other researchers used to think overgrazing from cattle would be the primary threat to falcons, so they focused on partnering with ranchers to conserve aplomado falcon habitat, much as they’re doing in reintroduction programs in West Texas (see “Let’s Make a Deal,” January-February). But the Mennonites are offering a price that many ranchers can’t refuse: Land in the Tarabillias Valley has soared from $50 an acre to $600.

The aplomado falcon is considered endangered and protected by Mexican law, but officials seem to be turning a blind eye to the problem. “We have the law, but unfortunately we have an agency that doesn’t have any will to enforce it,” says Alberto Macias-Duarte, who is working on a doctorate in wildlife and fisheries sciences at the University of Arizona and who has worked closely with Montoya. Preserving the grasslands would also help other species, like golden eagles, white-sided jackrabbits, and the Mexican pronghorn, but few species thrive on the farmlands, researchers say.

Yucca trees in grasslands typical of where aplomado falcons live and breed.
Chris Parish

Mennonites first set up colonies in Mexico in 1922, when the initial group of 5,500 settled there, according to Martin Nesvig’s book Religious Culture in Modern Mexico. The population in Chihuahua now stands at about 100,000. “We need more land to support a growing population,” explains Johan Ferh Buechert, the mayor of the Manitoba Mennonite Colony. “That’s why we buy it.”

In order to bring the falcon’s plight to the Mennonites’ attention, Macias-Duarte met with some of the colony leaders in July to discuss conserving the habitat. After giving a short presentation on the importance of that area to the falcons, the leaders expressed their intention to avoid harming wildlife. “At that time they told me that most of their clearing was already done,” says Macias-Duarte. But it seems that they still continued.” On a recent flight over the area, Montoya saw that even more of the land that used to be owned by ranchers is now farmland.

Chris Parish

To save the falcon population, the scientists may have to capture nestlings for captive-breeding programs. But the clock will be ticking. “If they buy in the next month, by the end of the aplomado breeding season there won’t be any aplomado falcon nests standing,” says Macias-Duarte. He and Montoya find the possibility devastating. “The fact that those birds will disappear breaks my heart,” says Montoya.

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Feature story link to "Let's Make a Deal."

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