Yesterday's expedition explored history and ecology at a salina

Published Oct 17th 2010 in Geology & Activities

Where do ten to twenty thousand sandhill cranes spend the winter? Where did the pastores from northern New Mexico have a camp with a rock fence? Where did C.C. Slaughter have a division headquarters in the1880's? Where was Quanah Parker born (according to local legend)? Where have mammoth bones been found?

The answer is found at just one place. The site is an hour's drive from Midland. The Llano Estacado Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists went there on October 16th.

Hispanic sheepherders were familiar with the Llano Estacado before the Anglo free-range cattlemen arrived in the region of the location There is a tiny bit of evidence to suggest the sheep grazing may have started in the region in the 1860s, before the Comanche Indians were confined to their reservation in 1875. Oral history indicates that the pastores' flocks of sheep left the upper Canadian River in April after shearing and lambs were born and then grazed in whatever direction good grazing could be found, and then would return by shearing time in August and September. In a dry year they might have grazed further north, in the headwaters of the Red, Brazos, and Pease Rivers, where were other pastores' fences have been found. There is some evidence to indicate that the sheep were sometimes herded all the way down in Nolan and Fisher County along permanent streams.

Stone fences were built to corral sheep at night. Although 30,000 sheep grazing in the region of the salina, the herd was broken into many much smaller flocks. Hispanic sheepmen employed Pueblo and Navaho Indian herders as well as mestizo herders of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry. One “pastor” would follow a flock of 1500, or two to three herders would maintain flocks in bands of 2500 to 3000. I have seen three other stone compounds, (in Motley County, in Lynn County, and in Borden County) and none have been much bigger than a major league baseball infield. Cramming even 1500 sheep into such a small compound would have filled them to capacity.

Four hundred thousand (or eighty percent of the total population of sandhill cranes) come to the Llano Estacado every winter. Every salina (salt lake) with water on the Llano Estacado has the graceful birds roosting in the shallow waters at night, and then traveling to grain fields (sometimes 50 miles away) during the day. In the summer the cranes nest in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. A few have begun to nest in the prairie potholes of Wisconsin again, after being extirpated there over a hundred years ago.

Everyone that lives in the region – in Hobbs, Portales, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, Big Spring, Lamesa, and the hundred small towns in between should go see the nearest cranes. Every town should follow the lead of Tahoka and have a sculpture of a crane near their downtown, or murals of cranes on buildings. We should write our relatives and friends anywhere in the world and brag about our cranes. We should have photographic contests that feature cranes. The artists of the region should organize a showing of paintings of cranes. Our musicians should write songs about our cranes. The television stations and newspapers should celebrate our cranes – telling their audience when they have returned, and where the biggest populations can be found.

A naturalist is never bored! If you would like to join the Class of 2011, please call the Sibley Nature Center and ask for me, and I will give your name and email address to the Llano Estacado Chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists governing board. We hope you have a digital camera, for the group is actively recording the flora and fauna of the region. Next year’s class will start next January. A field trip is scheduled each month to one of the eight major habitats of the Llano Estacado. In the summer months speakers are invited for advanced training sessions.

If you would like to join the Llano Estacado Master Naturalists, and pay 75 dollars and volunteer 40 hours of service (in a year's time) to local parks and educational institutions including the Sibley Nature Center. You will get to go on field trips like the one yesterday to Tahoka Lake, and act as a citizen scientist, documenting the flora and fauna of the Llano Estacado.

Come to the Tuesday Farmer's Market from 4-6 p.m. Get supper on the way home from school and work!