By: Perin McNelis, BRN Native Plant Program Assistant Manager
This summer, BRN’s Native Plant Program team continued its collaboration with the USDA Forest Service with support from the USDA Agricultural Resource Service to document and collect crop wild relatives (CWR) in the Wild Chile Botanical Area of the Tumacacori Highlands and surrounding public lands for future research and safeguarding of genetic material that may play a role in food security in the face of hotter drier conditions.
Wild Chile Botanical Area
What is a crop wild relative, and why are they important, you may be asking. As defined by the United States Forest Service, a crop wild relative is “a plant species occurring in the ‘wild’ that is a species from which the crop was domesticated, or a closely related species in the same genus to a particular domesticated crop species. Crop wild relatives may contribute genetic material to the crop species, which may provide for increased disease resistance, fertility, crop yield or other desirable traits.
Almost every species of plant that we humans have domesticated and cultivate has one or more crop wild relatives. When humans find plant characteristics that may be useful to us in crop wild relative individuals, we breed those CWR plants with desirable traits until those traits are maintained in all offspring. During this process of domestication, we focus on bringing out parts of the phenotype, or how the plant appears on the outside, that we like through breeding which in turn slowly alters the genotype. We maintain these traits through continued cultivation. Once we have achieved our cultivar, often the crop wild relatives cease to be used, but usually continue to grow in the wild.
Why are CWRs important? As we face unprecedented climate catastrophe, future food security is more important than ever. Gary Nabhan and Colin Khoury, who have advocated for CWR protection and research in our region for decades, write that “to produce good, affordable food while reducing the environmental impacts of production, more diversity will be needed both in the variety of plants cultivated or foraged for the market, and in the genetic variation within domesticated crops. Crop wild relatives offer the world both of these gifts.” CWRs that have adaptations for surviving and thriving in hot and dry conditions seem especially pertinent for the future of food security in the face of global warming.
In their paper “Trans Situ Conservation of Wild Crop Relatives,” Gary Nabhan and Erin Riordan advocate for integrating in situ and ex situ strategies for CWR conservation by ramping up protective measures for landscapes where CWR plants grow, and maintaining ex situ backup in gene banks, while also promoting education, research, and relationship with these plants. BRN CWR work is just a starting point that stemmed from this “trans situ” approach. Our work with CWRs started in 2019 and has primarily been focused in the Wild Chile Botanical Area.
Wild Chile Botanical Area outlined in red.
The Wild Chile Botanical Area (WCBA) is a 2,836-acre area under management of CNF and was designated in 1999 to protect the northernmost natural population of the chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum), the wild ancestor of many cultivated peppers. The special area was also created to provide protection and research opportunities for both the wild chile and other plants of economic importance or conservation concern.
At least 45 species of crop wild relatives (CWR) occur in the watershed containing the WCBA within the east side of the Tumacacori Mountains on the Nogales Ranger District. Many of these CWR species have proven or potential uses as crop genetic resources for improvement of domesticated crops already being grown commercially in Arizona and the rest of the U.S. and the world. The WCBA is also one of the most botanically interesting areas in southern Arizona, providing a fantastic snapshot of the unique biotic community of the Tumacacori Highlands, and is home to numerous plant species that are at the northern extent of their range and grow in few other locations in the United States. For this reason in and of itself, the WCBA deserves protective measures.
In 2019 BRN played a small role in a project that the USFS was working on with support from USDA ARS to conduct a thorough botanical inventory of the WCBA. We supported the survey work which was lead by biologists from the Forest Service Enterprise Program, we then used the geolocations from the surveys to collect voucher specimens and seed that was sent to national germ plasm banks for research focused on the specific crop and its relatives.
This year we are continuing and expanding the project with the primary objective to continue locating and inventorying CWR and to collect seeds and voucher specimens of priority species for conservation and research. This is being done primarily in the WCBA and Coronado National Forest land in the Tumacacori Highlands, Santa Rita Mountains and Patagonia Mountains, for species not observed in the WCBA. Results of plant inventories for CWR will be used to determine if further protective designation for the WCBA should be pursued as an Important Genetic Resource Reserve (IGRR) for plant species in addition to the wild chile.
Manihot davisiae or AZ Manihot, a wild relative of cassava.
There are over 300 taxa of CWR present in the Tumacacori Highlands area of southeastern Arizona, so BRN has partnered with Erin Riordan, a plant ecologist and researcher, to narrow down such a large list in order to prioritize species that have more urgent research and conservation needs, and to have a more targeted strategy for survey and seed collection work with limited timeline and people power.
Although the insufficient precipitation during the monsoon season this year has posed a challenge to voucher and seed collection, this project feels urgent and timely, and BRN is thrilled to spearhead this work.
Further reading from Erin Riordan on CWR.
Watch the zoom presentation by Perin McNelis to the AZ Native Plant Society, Tucson Chapter about our WCR work.
By: Cholla Nicoll, BRN Borderlands Wildlife Preserve Lead Technician
As October approaches, some of us begin to feel the magic that fall brings cooler temperatures, muted colors, and holidays celebrating the mysteries of life, death, and the unknown. Images of pumpkins, skulls, and owls begin to appear, and life slows down just a touch with the abundance of spring and summer fading. Lately, the preserve wildlife cameras have captured the same feeling highlighting one particularly hauntingly beautiful creature with quite the reputation for mysterious powers, the barn owl.
Barn Owl taking a bath.
The barn owl (Tyto alba) is a medium-sized owl with a worldwide range and 35 individual races with distinct characteristics depending on location. The North American Barn Owl (Tyto alba pratincola) is the largest of the barn owls, comparable to a crow's size. Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal and mostly prey upon small mammals. Barn Owls are famous in the animal world for having the best-known hearing in existence. Researchers have determined that Barn Owls can successfully capture prey in one hundred percent darkness using sound alone. This unique adaptation allows Barn Owls to avoid hunting at similar times of the night to their natural predator, the Great Horned Owl.
Great Horned Owl
Other unique characteristics Barn Owls poses include the ability to breed year-round and the vocalization of a screech instead of the typical hoot sound. Barn Owls' ability to produce offspring year-round makes them a great candidate for rodent control in agricultural settings. Research has shown that Barn Owls can significantly reduce rodent populations and at minimal cost to the farmer. Barn Owls are a great alternative to incredibly harmful rodenticides that kill thousands of unintended animals each year.
Borderlands Wildlife Preserve provides the ideal habitat for Barn Owls, a rough grassland with large open spaces. We are happy to share these amazing pictures of our local Barn Owls with you all, and for an extra boost of that fall feeling, please enjoy the videos of our precious nocturnal wildlife, including a Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Coyote. For more information on Barn Owls and how to create Barn Owl Boxes for agricultural and conservation uses please visit Barn Owl Box Company.
Coyote & Bat
By: Laura Monti, BRN Senior Fellow
On behalf of the Comcáac Health Relief team we are deeply grateful to all of our donors for your generous support. These extraordinary times of Covid-19 have required extraordinary commitment, tenacity and passion on all of our parts. The returns are incalculable: local healthcare teams galvanized and equipped, lives have been saved, and we hope the disease may be starting to diminish. Further, this community engaged approach to Covid-19 care is being used as a model by other indigenous communities in the region.
The funds raised and volunteer support has helped to mobilize resources directly to the Comcáac healthcare team, and to equip them to better respond to health care challenges related to Covid-19. The result is that the Covid response clinics are now established in the two Comcáac villages of Desemboque and Punta Chueca, staffed by 13 community health promoters and supported by medical and public health consultation.
Each clinic now has satellite internet to allow for consultation and emergency transfers. Two integrative healthcare teams now include six health promoters supported by five expert herbalists bringing together modern medical treatment with traditional desert plant medicine to treat patients with Covid-19. Dr. Laura Monti is overseeing the effort on the ground, working with the Comcáac healthcare teams backed up by medical doctors from the Sonora Public Health and Indigenous Health departments.
The health care teams in both villages have been working around the clock, seven days a week to care for patients with Covid-19 in their communities. During early July through August 10th, new cases of Covid-19 continued to rise with an average of 5-8 new cases per week in each village. During late June to mid-August, the number of cumulative cases of Covid-19 cases was just over 100, confirmed during a series of eight testing clinics carried out by the Public Health Secretary.
In each village approximately 50 cases were documented through testing, with at least 20 more persons in each village identified with positive Covid symptoms. Our conservative estimates are that since May 2020 in Desemboque (population 300 +-) has experienced a 25% infection rate. Punta Chueca, with over 700 people has had a 10% infection rate. While the numbers seem to have begun to decline, complicated cases have continued to occur, with one recent hospitalization.
While unfortunately five persons have died due to Covid-19, as of late August most patients under the care of the Comcáac health promoter team have recovered or are recovering.
The Health Promoters of Desemboque and Punta Chueca have provided the following services and activities:
● 125 consultations evaluating and caring for patients with Covid-19 symptoms.
● 50 oxygen and respiratory therapy treatments have been delivered.
● The herbalists have gathered bushels of medicinal plants traveling to remote
areas where specific plants are found.
● 100 patients have received a “Covid Kit” with hand sanitizer, masks and a two
week supply of plants known to be effective for Covid-related symptoms.
● 120 home visits to provide follow-up treatment and preventative care from July through mid-August to patients with Covid and their families.
● 24-hour care for 7 patients ranging from 1-3 days to 4 weeks.
In addition, Dr. Monti and the healthcare teams have initiated contact tracing mapping the locations of cases of Covid-19 by neighborhood and are providing follow-up care and prevention for Covid+ patients, families and neighbors in their native language. This outreach has reached dozens of individuals and families who have not approached the clinic or participated in the Covid testing clinics.
The health care team doubled their efforts in “hotspot” areas distributing protective gear, masks, face shields and hand sanitizer to all of the stores, fishing sector and their families living closest to the beach area, and to vulnerable groups that have not contracted the disease.
This science and community based public health approach, combined with excellent clinical care has reduced deaths and prevented many hospitalizations for Covid-19 patients in the Comcáac communities of Desemboque and Punta Chueca.
To date, no deaths have occurred under the care of the health promoters since the beginning of the Comcáac Health Relief Fund, a fact that Indigenous Health Coordinator of Sonora, Dr. Martin Maldonado says has made this indigenous Covid response program a model in the state and the nation.
“We send profound gratitude to our many friends that have supported us. Before this program began we were alone, without experience or knowledge confronting a situation that seemed impossible. We had no protective gear and were exhausted. Now it is a different story completely. We have a team and a circle of friends. Now we feel confident because many have recovered under our care.” -Desemboque health promoters-- Omar Casanova and Isabela Morales.
Thanks to the following individuals for their support:
Comcaac authorities and leaders Francisco Fonseca, Rogelio Montaño, Leonel Hoeffer and Reynaldo Estrella are currently providing ongoing logistical support. Work has begun to restore adjacent buildings to the clinics. Additional safe space is essential to keep the healthcare team healthy, to provide adequate space for patient isolation, a work room for the herbalists and equipment storage. The clinic water pump in Desemboque has been repaired and the clinic now has running water thanks to Solarex company workers. Restoration of additional safe space will begin soon with installation of electricity and running water to these much needed areas.
Our next steps of this project are to continue health promoter support, renovate structures adjacent to the clinics to assure safe space and working conditions for the health promoters and patients; support nutrition and home gardens and achieve affordable clean water for both community. We have raised approximately $31,000 at this point along with thousands of dollars of in-kind supplies.
Your continued contributions are needed as we move to the next phase and are greatly appreciated!
Questions? Contact Dr. Laura Monti, BRN Senior Fellow, Researcher, University of Arizona, College of Public Health and The Southwest Center
Read in Spanish here.
By: Francesca Claverie, Native Plant Program Manager
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