Otero Mesa: The Last Pristine Desert Grassland

For a while I had been wanting to visit this unique grassland and finally made the trip this month. The landscape is truly expansive and mostly undeveloped but not quite undominated. The entire Otero Mesa region covers around 1.2 million acres and in it’s center are the volcanic Cornudas Mountains. The wild desert grassland is situated in the southmost region of New Mexico and is part of the Chihuahuan desert. It is considered the nation’s last undeveloped and most pristine desert grassland. This makes it very special. My plan for the trip: hike up to and camp on Alamo Mountain. The drive to Alamo Mountain is a relatively easy drive along well maintained forest roads. During the drive I passed two or three large cattle ranches and passed a man-made ephemeral pond and realized the impact of ranchers is much more significant that what I had previously assumed. I could see cows scattered about the landscape into the distance. They did not seem to be concentrated too much in one area however, cattle in any wild landscape is never a good thing. 

Some very interesting changes in the landscape catch my eye. One of them was a field of Cholla Cactus, all bearing lovely yellow cholla fruits. They were thriving in great abundance and I am remind of my friend, an archaeologist’s story about a native american stew made from the cholla fruit that she once tried and described as exceptionally delicious. Another was an area with very tall Soap-tree Yuccas. All the while hoping to see the unique pronghorn antelope, whose herds are believed to be the healthiest and purest in Otero. Or perhaps a colony of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs who are believed to be living in abundance there and are considered “an imperiled keystone species“.

At the base of Alamo mountain, I parked my car, geared up and made my way up the western slope. Climbing up and over several large volcanic rock before reaching a somewhat flattened area I decided to continue hiking south towards Wind Mountain making my way through thick Ocotillo, Acacia, Hedgehog cacti and more volcanic rock I find what looks like a perfect place to pitch my tent. Next to my camp are several boulders in which I could hear and see Scaled quail making their way higher up the mountain. The day was a nice cloudless fall day. After setting up camp I walked explored around for a while. The flora I noticed was very diverse on the mountain side which created a stunning array of textures and colors. I climbed in and around several large darkened rock in hopes of coming across one of the thousands of petroglyphs in the area. Alas, I didn’t find any. It didn’t matter, I was enjoying the solitude. The winds began to pick up as the sun began to set. While watching the sun set from camp I noticed in an acacia next to me was a curious Loggerhead Shrike. He stayed for a while and watched as my made dinner. After all, I was the only human around for miles, he seemed very curious of me.

At around 8:30 at night I could hear a few barking coyote in the distance and didn’t hear them again for the rest of the night. It was a full moon, and the winds continued through the night, though I slept, mostly like a baby. More than anything I wanted it to be morning already so I can take another look around before heading back home. In the morning my took my time exploring more of the southern portion of Alamo Mountain. Stopping periodically to assess the best way down another curious creature took notice of me, this time it was a Cactus Wren. He hopped into a nearby ocotillo to get a closer look. Cactus Wren are beautiful birds with remarkably elegant plumage. I felt privileged he let me watch him so close. My eyes wandered downward towards a large towering rock and out from the crevices comes a large Desert Woodrat. I noticed him before he caught glimpse of me and returned to the safety of the rock where he curiously looked out. Still no Black-tailed Prairie Dogs…  I recently heard rumors of the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs being poisoned in Otero Mesa, most likely by cattle ranchers in an effort to protect their cattle stock from stumbling into burrows.

Unexpectedly, I spotted a gorgeous Mountain Patch-nosed Snake near the base of the mountain and an unusual looking Blister Beetle, a first for me. During my drive away from Alamo Mountain, I decided to take a different forest road to get a look around and I noticed an area that was severely overgrazed. Most of Otero is blanketed with Black Grama and other native grasses though this area looked pummeled by cattle. There was a water tank near by where cows were gathered and as I drove through hundreds of flies covered my car. Eventually, the grasses returned and I was left shaking my head at the whole cattle-raising industry, and how at the expense of our natural wild-lands they continue to prevail as unsustainable as ever.

This wild grassland faces many environmental challenges since the area has yet to gain protection. Wind Mountain, a cone shaped volcanic mountain that can easily be seen in Otero, faces destruction as a hard-rock mining company has made claims to take it over. Mining and drilling protections for Otero were removed by Bush administration in 2004 which means the wild grassland is extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Not only would mining cause major physical destruction to the beautiful landscape, it would also exposed the area to toxic runoff and other chemicals used in the mining process. It hurts to think of that being a possibility for Otero. Exploitation would also negatively impact an untapped natural water basin beneath Otero which wildlife currently benefit from. Otero Mesa has been described as an “area of critical environmental concern” as oil and hard mineral mining threats loom.

The wild grassland is a crucial wintering ground for migratory birds, such as the Burrowing Owl, many raptor species, song birds and more. These birds are crucial for the survival of Otero as well as they help disperse native plant seeds in the area; a beautiful ecological balance. The endangered Aplomado falcon, which was listed under the Endangered species act has been spotted in Otero thus environmentalists believe Otero Mesa must remain intact in order for the species to survive.

The last Eastern Cougar, the last northern White Rhino, the last Texas Wolf, the last California Grizzly…   the last undeveloped desert grassland wilderness. We live in an age of the “last of’s” or rather the death of the lasts. Sadly, we have become so used to this kind of loss. Loss of forests, loss of free-flowing rivers, loss of entire species… I hope this unique grassland, which is home to more than 1,000 wildlife, even more plant species and thousands of 10,000 year old Apache petroglyphs does not end in the same fate. If it does, we will lose a very precious natural treasure.

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