Llano Estacado landscape

The landscape of the Llano Estacado is always changing

Published May 18th 1999 in Habitats

The Sibley Nature Center is operated by the Midland Soil and Water Conservation District. Our board members are farmers and ranchers. We celebrate the natural world of the Llano Estacado, the land surface far, far above the Permian Basin. The Llano Estacado is a vast mesa, stretching from north of Amarillo to south of Midland and Odessa.

Most of the Llano appears flat and, to many eyes, ugly. We love its beautiful sunsets, the life-giving monster thunderstorms, the long strings of wintering Sandhill Cranes bugling their triumphant call, the almost impossible fields of multi-colored wildflowers (in rainy years), and its many other wonderful and glorious gifts.

The climate of the Llano Estacado can be harsh. As a blue norther howls, or a sandstorm wails, or relentless triple-digit heat sears, one experiences amazement and awe in the ability of plants and animals to adapt and survive. There are hundreds of wonderful stories that teach about the community of plants and animals that surround us.

A hundred and thirty years ago, five million buffalo, a million pronghorn, and a half-billion prairie dogs could be found between San Angelo and Amarillo. The land was a carpet of grass, interspersed with isolated mesquite patches near waterholes and groves of soapberry and hackberries in the draws. It changed, and is still changing.

A new ecosystem has been developing. New species of plants and animals arrive in or near Midland almost every year. It is fascinating to see these changes, to experience the Increasing diversity of the natural world of the Llano Estacado. We are only a small part of the natural world, although as we travel the streets of suburbia, it may seem we are the dominant life form. One of the most important lessons one can learn by observing the changing landscape of the Llano Estacado is that nature is an unconquerable force.

We disrupted the buffalo prairie. The land was overgrazed in the early days of ranching, creating an opportunity for different species of animals and plants to find a niche in the new and evolving ecosystem. Some species will be successful. Some will not. The combined urban forest and mesquite brushland ecosystems, which are currently developing, are home to more species of plants and animals than the buffalo prairie.

A few species of the buffalo prairie disappeared from the local landscape. We no longer have buffalo, wolves, blackfooted ferrets, or the Aplomado Falcon. We could have the blackfooted ferret again. Blackfooted ferrets eat prairie dogs, and prairie dogs are on the increase. One local rancher reports instead of the one prairie dog town on his ranch in 1970, there are now thirty. He does not mind the prairie dogs, for he has recognized that the soil turned by the rodents provide a place for winter weeds to grow, thereby reducing the feed bill for his cattle. As another rancher commented, “We did not place the wild animals and plants here. We do not have the right to remove them. There is a reason for everything, and if we are smart enough, we may understand, some day.”

Six states have reintroduced blackfooted ferrets. The Sibley Center is promoting the idea for West Texas. The rancher mentioned above has expressed interest in providing a release site. Blackfooted ferrets resemble the European ferret which are sold as pets. Twenty years ago only one colony of blackfooted ferrets existed in the wild. These were captured and captive breeding quickly increased the population. Early releases of the captive-born offspring of this colony worked poorly, but as experience was gained, subsequent releases have been much more successful.

The favorite wild animal of many people on the Llano Estacado is the box turtle. Everyone knows somebody with five to twenty turtles in their back yard. The box turtle is our mascot, the animal we have chosen to represent Sibley. Turtles are wonderful and admirable neighbors. Consider the qualities of turtles: tough and enduring, watchful, tidy, quiet and dignified, purposeful, respectful, gentle. Turtles keep trying, plan ahead, love their home territory, and are smart.

We at Sibley celebrate the ever-changing tapestry of the landscape. We love to tell stories that give you insight in the lives and ways of our neighbors of the natural world of the Llano Estacado.