A Watershed Restoration Project: Saving the Giant Sacaton Grass

Earlier this month, I joined a team of volunteers to help restore a broken watershed within a desert floodplain in Southern Arizona. Under the guidance of Van Clothier, a watershed restoration expert and founder of Stream Dynamics, the project took place on the Malpai Ranch located near the Chiricahua Mountains. The ranch is a 20,000 acre working cattle ranch situated just one and a half miles from the Mexican border.

Grazing, roadways and the installation of the border wall have all contributed to the ecological disruption of this unique desert grassland. The ranch has had its share of beatings, both by anthropogenic and natural means, primarily caused by a route driven on by ranchers which developed into a large gully, disrupting the natural desert floodplain. Massive rainstorms caused this route to erode substantially, essentially creating a man-made river or arroyo. When it rains, water in the gully continued to flow erosively carrying away important soil substrates. Naturally and ideally, rain water would disperse onto the neighboring floodplain where the native Giant Sacaton Grass (Sporobolus wrightii) thrive. But this newly formed gully has denied the native grass communities its seasonal flood waters necessary for its survival.

The Giant Sacaton Grass is an impressive grass and is indeed a “giant”. The name “Sacaton” in Spanish actually means “giant grass” and so the common name is often redundant. For the sake of this article I will simply refer to it as Sacaton. The Sacaton can grow very tall and the grass bunches can grow impressively large in diameter. Though these grasses are drought-tolerant, in some areas of the desert, they are in danger due to overgrazing,  over-harvesting for ornamental use and by other means. The Sacaton lives in areas that experience natural seasonal flooding and are important to the ecosystem because they prevent erosion, slow run-off and trap important sediments. Damage and disruption to these floodplains can cause floodwaters to divert away from Sacaton communities causing the plants to weaken and die off. Due to the fact that these grasses are incredibly hardy, a die off process would take a relatively long time. According to restoration expert Van Clothier, the Sacaton on the Malpai Ranch have gone at least 50 years without a natural flooding event. The Sacaton on the Malpai Ranch are a spectacular display of plant adaptability, but for how much longer? What may seem like a long time for us humans is a blink of an eye to what I like to call “Earth time” or our time in natural history. These Sacaton are in trouble and this is why the restoration of this watershed is so essential.

Upon reaching the worksite, it was apparent that much engineering was done to design the recovery zone. Most significantly, the engineers created what are referred to as “gully plugs”; essentially massive soil “plugs” or walls built into the gully in several locations. These gully plugs would not only prevent water from simply flowing through, but will also act as extended bank stabilizers once hundreds of Sacatons are installed. Our goals for the weekend included installing several native Giant Sacaton and helping to build-up and stabilize a few cross vanes; structures made of rock, dirt and plants meant to reduce the intensity of water flow. The entire project design was meant to slow and/or disperse rain water so that it serves the land as it was meant to, instead of simply passing through it.

It was going to be a very chilly weekend. We expected nighttime temperatures to be well below freezing and I quite honestly did not expect people to stay around for the entire weekend. But they did. It takes a unique individual to volunteer their time, pitching their tents in a freezing desert and maintain amazing work-ethic. The work itself was rugged, labor intensive yet meaningful. Just the kind of work I love to be a part of. The planting process, involved using mattocks and shovels to dig adequately sized holes to accommodate the large root systems of Sacaton. Digging the hole, filling it with water, placing the grass, and my favorite part, filling it with dirt while on my knees, wishing the plant success, as if to say “There, there… For now you are little, but you’re going to grow big and strong, dear little Sacaton.” Then, the hardy transplant required a forcible stomp at it’s base, to ensure it will stay put if any rains come in too soon or too heavy that may dislodge the plant.

Several times throughout the workday, I spotted a curious Flycatcher in the mesquite. Every time it tried to take a photo, the bird turned from curious to skittish and flew away. I hoped to be able to get a photo by the end of the weekend. Despite a freezing second night and a late start in the morning, everyone worked even more diligently then before. It was a great experience; the sense that everybody wanted to accomplish as much as possible before heading home. Needless to say, this was a stellar volunteer group, members of the Sky Island Alliance and High Desert Native Plants nursery were also a part of this effort. Overall, the project was filled with amazing individuals doing beautiful work. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the connections that were made.

At the end of the final workday, I gathered with some of these amazing people for a quick lunch before packing up camp. During this time I was able to chat with Van Clothier a bit more and learned a bit more about his work and the history of the ranch. Just after finishing our lunch, another Flycatcher came by and a fellow naturalist, and my crew leader (Mike Gaglio), said it was a Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus). Up to that point, I had only known it was simply a Flycatcher and had hoped to get a photo so that I would be able to identify it. After learning it was possibly a Willow Flycatcher, I grew more excited. Southern Willow Flycatchers are endangered! That I had known. And we had just finished restoring the home of the endangered Southern Willow Flycatcher. That was a good feeling.

These birds can be somewhat difficult to identify and it is their call that biologists rely on most for their identification. Upon a closer look, you can clearly see a white eye-ring and two bright white wingbars. The lower abdomen has a slight tinge of yellow, while upper abdomen is white with gray. The upper dorsal you can see a slight olive-gray coloration. Willow Flycatcher’s live primarily in riparian habitats such as marsh lands, along rivers and floodplains, rich with thick grasses, like the Sacaton floodplain we are working to restore.

Not only is the Sacaton a beautiful species, it is important to many native wildlife; for instance Sporobolus wrightii is critical resource for seed-loving birds, such as the Botteri’s sparrow (Aimophila botterii). Insects also rely heavily on grass species, which in turn provide food to other wildlife, such as the wonderful Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. It can be easy for people to underestimate the importance of a grass, but if it supports one life, it supports many. For now, the project is done. And all we can do is let nature do her thing, with the hope that we steered her into the right direction.

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2 thoughts on “A Watershed Restoration Project: Saving the Giant Sacaton Grass

  1. One of my first field jobs was working 3 seasons in southern AZ in Sacaton (other grassland habitats too) on a Botteri’s sparrow project. Beautiful photos – looks like you had fun and what an interesting project!

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    • Yes, it was a fun project with amazing people. The Botteri’s sparrow project sounds like a neat project. I wish I could take part in more wildlife projects though there aren’t many around me and/or they are costly to participate. I hope in the future to do more wildlife projects. Since, I have been planning so much for my thru-hike, I haven’t been able to do much in terms of field biology projects since the Sacaton project. Thanks for stopping by again 🙂 Hope all is well.

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