Chris Hass has been working with carnivores in the Southwest for many years and is the Assistant Director of the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Elgin, Arizona. I thank her very much for taking the time to answer my questions.
Please tell us a little about your background, schooling, etc. I was raised in northern Nevada, in the eastern Sierra, where I developed a love of the outdoors and wildlife. I headed to the University of Montana for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Zoology. For my Master’s, I focused on social behavior of bighorn sheep in Montana. I continued research on bighorn reproductive ecology for my Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota, doing a comparative study of bighorns in southern Nevada and northern New Mexico. After my Ph.D., I was interested in looking at social behavior in carnivores, and began studying white-nosed coatis in southern Arizona.
How did you come to work in the Southwest? I started the bighorn research in the Pecos Wilderness in 1985, and have been in the southwest almost ever since.
- Please tell us a little about Audubon’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch. The Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch is about 8,000 acres of semi-desert grassland that was set aside back in 1969, to examine how a grassland functions without cattle grazing. The National Audubon Society took over management in 1980. It is currently run as a research station, with numerous long- and short-term projects focused on naturally functioning grasslands. I became Assistant Director here in November 2006.
- Please share some information on your research on coatis and skunks. What are your current research projects? I studied coatis in the Huachuca Mountains almost full time from 1996 though 2000, when the population crashed. It was an exciting study, and my assistants and I were able to learn a lot about coati space use, food habits, reproduction, and vulnerability to predators. During the time I was live-trapping coatis, I also caught a lot of skunks, primarily hooded skunks of which there was almost nothing known about. I was able to obtain funding for a couple of skunk studies, so I worked on them for a couple of years in the same area. It was interesting conducting a study in an area with 4 species of sympatric skunks. Two of the species, hooded and hog-nosed, are pretty much tropical animals, although they are doing quite well in Arizona. I am currently researching coatis and skunks with remote cameras and vicariously through sightings of other people. I hope to begin more active studies of coatis and spotted skunks soon.
- How do you believe the proposed border fence will affect wildlife in the Southwest? Depending on what kind of wall goes up, it could have major impacts. The so-called “pedestrian fence” is designed to allow virtually nothing to go through. Apparently they have drilled small holes to allow some endangered horned lizards to go through, but not much else. On the other hand, a vehicle barrier is quite permeable to wildlife. The U.S.-Mexico border was not established on any kind of biological boundary, except for the Rio Grande, so the border bisects numerous ecotypes. Many of the plants and animals that are restricted to the border region could suffer if isolated genetically by a pedestrian fence.
- Do you have any response to those who say that a border fence is less environmentally damaging than the foot traffic and litter from border crossers? The foot traffic and litter are also a huge issue. However, most of those impacts are temporary and if a solution to the cross-border migration through remote areas was found (such as improving the economic situation in Mexico and Central America, or having employers pick up their employees at the border) they would disappear in time. The exception to this is the transport of seeds on the clothing of migrants that may rapidly increase the spread of exotic plants. On the other hand, the impacts of the wall will be much longer lasting, perhaps permanent.
- Assuming there’s the possibility for some movement across the border, do you anticipate the appearance of more southerly species into the US as a result of global climate change? Say, ocelots for example? Ocelots were well documented in areas of the southwest until a few decades ago. Why their numbers were low and they seemed to have disappeared is still a mystery. The potential for tropical species to move north as a result of global climate change is a complex issue, and depends on whether any particular area becomes warm and wet versus warm and dry, if potential travel corridors are still available, and how much habitat is still available given how rapidly the southwest is being converted to subdivision. If wildfire becomes more widespread and intense as a result of global climate change, that may preclude some of the forest-dwelling tropical species, like ocelots and coatis, from moving farther north. I just don’t think we know enough yet to forecast what the effects of global climate change will be on wildlife distribution.
- What do you see as the future of jaguars and other carnivores in the SW United States? What I have learned, in the years I’ve been working in the southwest, is that this country is incredibly resilient if you leave it alone. If we are willing to set aside some habitat, be willing to tolerate the loss of a few cows or sheep, let them go about their lives with room to roam, they will probably be ok. Micro-managing, like they are doing with the Mexican gray wolves, is unlikely to result in sustainable populations in the long-term. Likewise, declaring critical habitat for the jaguar may be counter-productive. The biggest threats for the jaguar are the border wall and poaching. Declaring critical habitat addresses neither issue, and will likely result in a “shoot-shovel-shut up” response from ranchers and others who don’t appreciate the “feds” telling them what they can and cannot do with their property. In addition, we have no idea what constitutes critical habitat for jaguar in this part of its range. Unfortunately, I think the future of carnivores in the SW US hinges more on politics and economics than on biology