Llano de la Soledad is part of a grasslands complex of 50 colonies of Mexican Prairie Dogs, distributed at the point where the Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas meet. This region’s grasslands house the largest concentrations of various grassland birds, including some very vulnerable species such as Mountain Plover Charadrius montanus, Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus and Upland Sandpiper Bartramia longicauda. It stands out as one of the most fragile open grassland ecosystems with the highest conservation priority for highland wintering shorebirds and birds associated with the North American Central Grasslands biome.
Llano de la Soledad is where the presence of the prairie dog is the widest and more continuous in Mexico and, possibly, in the whole of North America. The conservation and management of this prairie is important for maintaining healthy populations of highland shorebirds, whose distributions are closely linked to the open grasslands biome of North America. Their population studies show important declines and, for this reason, they have been identified as having a high degree of vulnerability in North America.
Llano de la Soledad is in the Municipality of Galeana, Nuevo León and Saltillo, Coahuila. The site belongs to the Chihuahua desert eco-region which in its southern part is known as the Central Plateau and High Plateau. Llano de la Soledad is a natural area protected at the state level. The region is recognised as an Important Bird Area.
Habitat and shorebirds
The soil of Llano de La Soledad is known for its large amount of plaster. This fact determines the presence of gypshopyllic plants. 80% of the soil has no vegetation, 4% has gramineous plants and 16% grass and shrub. Their diversity and density are very low (33 plant species and 57 plants per square meter) if compared with the potential vegetation that this prairie could hold if the grasslands’ condition was improved. The vegetation is lower than 10 cm high because higher species have been eliminated giving way to the “zacate” species which cattle finds less desirable. The prairie is overgrazed.
Information obtained during recent years enables us to ascertain that over 6,000 Long-billed Curlew and around 1,500 Mountain Plover winter in Llano de la Soledad. It is likely that Llano de la Soledad, with neighbouring grasslands of other states, concentrate a more significant amount of shorebirds, a reason why it is quite probable that the region qualifies as Site of Hemispheric Importance. Nevertheless, quantifying shorebird populations and a greater awareness of the landowners is required for this.
Worthen's Sparrow, Spizella whortheni is also present in the region. This is an endemic species of the Mexican High Plateau which was chosen by the Bird Conservation’s Alliance Zero Extinction program as one of the most threatened species of the world. Other vulnerable birds that concentrate on this prairie are Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Sprague’s Pipit, Grasshopper Sparrow, Baird’s Sparrow and Chestnut collared Longspur.
The central grasslands of North America are distributed from the center of Mexico to the center of Canada. Their balance and composition depend on fires, droughts and grazing. To date, grasslands are recognized as one of the most threatened ecosystems of the world. They have been modified to such an extent that only a small percentage remains in its natural state. Before the European migration, the colonies of prairie dogs of the central grasslands of North America , dominated the area. The herds of American buffalos (bisons) and deer-like wild mammals (“berrentos”) were widely distributed but at times they concentrated in small areas, and grazing produced an uneven impact in the landscape. This, together with fires and climatic factors converted the grasslands into a mosaic of diverse vegetation which gave birds access to various habitats. In the central grasslands of North America pasture and grass are not very high, thus providing a very open vision and warning prey when predators approach. The main vegetation is composed of types of grass that are very important for cattle such as Bouteloua gracilis and Buchloe dactyloides.
The Mexican grasslands ecosystem is not fully included in the national system of natural protected areas, although they are recently on the lookout due to their ecological importance. The grassland eco-system of the northwest of Mexico is an important wintering site for shore birds that do not depend exclusively on wetlands and which, despite of the fact that their priority has been recognised, are not considered in the National Plan for the Conservation of Shorebirds in Mexico since this plan is centred on wetlands.
Land holding in Llano de la Soledad include 50% of communal land used by three communities (La Carbonera, La Hediondilla and San José del Alamito). The remaining 50% corresponds to the farms (“ranchos”) “Los Arrieros” and “El Compromiso”. The primary land activities are:
Although agriculture in Llano de la Soledad is non-existent, this continues to be a main threat from surrounding areas. Human settlements benefit from modern potato crops which produce harvests of up to 6 tons/ha since potatoes are in high demand in the every day Mexican diet. They result in high profit for large producers. Potato crops are a source of income for over 75% of the region’s population. 23% of the potato crops are located in this region. In 2003 a phytoplasma caused a disease (“punta morada”) that was transmitted by the insect Paratrioza cokerell and caused serious losses. As a result, the potato crop became uncertain.
Intensive agriculture is highly sophisticated and its economic yield is high. The community land owners receive significant amounts of income for the rent of their land only. The production is compensated with the intensive application of chemicals but these cause a short-term land productive use (5 years), after which the land is mostly abandoned. Similarly, the constant opening of new land for agricultural purposes creates a fragmented landscape which worsens and accelerates the loss of biological diversity by increasing habitat loss which, in turn, promotes isolation effects, contributes to genetic deterioration, increases the competition among species in an unbalanced way, and causes components’ change in wild communities. This creates a situation were agricultural prosperity is gained at the cost of the natural capital’s loss.
Extensive Cattle and Goat Breeding
Cattle and goat breeding constitute the second main activity. No production or technical systems, however, are applied to these cattle herds in order to allow them to become competitive; no mineral nor energetic supplements are provided; or a sanitation program (occasional vaccination) is put into practice. The producers are not aware of their grasslands' capacity and continue to practice grazing with little management. The recommended grazing coefficient is of 20 ha/UA but this coefficient is surpassed. The cattle is native and production and financial registers are non existent. The productive animals are sold on site at low prices. Grazing has been taking place for over 100 years, and cattle, horses and goats have increased considerably having an effect on the overgrazing of grassland. The grasslands and underbrush, however, are in acceptable condition in terms of their composition and appearance.
The Mountain plover Charadrius montanus is considered in Mexico as a threatened species (NOM-ECOL 2001) and the Long-Billed Curlew Numeniuis americanus was designated by USFWS as one of only 9 focal species in November 2005. Three Prairies in Nuevo León: (1) La Soledad, (2) la Trinidad and (3) La Hediondilla, were declared natural protected areas at state level. Still, agriculture has been established in two of these natural protected areas.
Pronatura Noreste is implementing the Regional Conservation Plan in collaboration with WHSRN, TNC and other partners. In this plan, Llano de la Soledad has been identified as having the highest priority. The plan includes the integration of the planning team, the definition of the grassland’s geographical boundaries, and the spatial distribution of the conservation objectives. Threats, strategies, actions aimed at reducing these, and the measurement of success were also included. Additionally, the plan includes a strong education and legal land protection component that considers land purchase, limitations on its use through Ecological Conservation Easements, and the acquisition of profit grazing rights.
Two portions of land in this prairie have been protected at present. These amount to 7,064 ha, representing 50% of the prairie: La Carbonera (3,246 received protection through a profit right for a period of 20 years, and the use limitation of Rancho Los Arrieros (3,818 ha), received protection through an Ecological Easement.
The region’s open grasslands are strongly threatened by the prosperous potato crops. This accelerated agriculture development takes place without adequate regional planning which causes the loss of the original vegetation cover as well as habitat fragmentation. The shorebird populations are strongly affected by the loss of this critical habitat; each year, over 4,000 ha are used for crops. The largest part of this land is new land that has been opened to agriculture because it is an area free of diseases, has more nutrients and its yield is, therefore, greater. The current agricultural production systems have increased their effectiveness through the implementation of synthetic substances made with the aim if improving the product and preventing diseases. Unfortunately, pesticide application by planes, and the lack of containers for toxic residues, generate contamination problems on water resources, concentrate on people and provoke harmful effects, the impact of which has not been evaluated. The agriculture development goes hand in hand with important investments in infrastructure such as roads, electric installations, and larger water requirements. All these elements affect the landscape. Other elements are habitat fragmentation, bird mortality due to birds crushing against vehicles, and land loss. Agriculture has eliminated 85% of the grassland eco-system since 2003 and the impact of agriculture in the Natural Protected Areas has destroyed 50% of the grasslands in “La Hediondilla”, and 15% in “La Trinidad”. Also, irrigation pivots were established in the neighbouring areas of Llano de la Soledad (outside of the natural protected area).
- Complete the protection of the prairie through legal tools for land protection that limit their use and the conduction of production activities.
- Put order in the region’s production activities (next to Llano de la Soledad) and in other prairies that are relevant to shorebirds.
- Implement cattle management plans aimed at grassland recovery and water sources distribution.
- Distribute water sources and exert good cattle management, solve the problem of the use of water shared by birds and humans, and transform the homogeneous condition of the open overgrazed grasslands in a high quality vegetation mosaique for shorebirds. These actions would be conclusive in order to attain population recovery and attract shorebird international conservation efforts.
- Conduct an ecological study using satellite imagery as well as other technology to know more about the use of habitat, the wintering diet, and the threats that face shorebirds in their wintering sites.
- Establish a permanent monitoring and ring placing station to enable a better understanding of their migration patterns, threat identification during migration, and population size trends.
- Determining the impact of pesticides in the health of the birds and human populations is also required.
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Photos courtesy of Miguel Ángel Cruz Nieto - Pronatura Noreste
Llano de la Soledad is very close to the cities of Monterrey and Saltillo.
Monterrey, Nuevo León – The City of Mountains
The land of the young goat (“cabrito”), the grilled meat, the “machaca”, the beer, the glass, and the cement. Recognized for being the place where the Tecnológico de Monterrey – a high level education institution– originated. The Cerro de la Silla, the natural caves (the García and Bustamante caves), the Cola de Caballo waterfall and the orange blossom flowers of the citric orchards, are some of its main attractions.
Saltillo, Coahuila -The Desert’s Route (“La Ruta del Desierto”)
The “sotol”, the natural “candelilla” wax, the “ixtle” fibre, the mineral charcoal and the “mezquite”. The land of Venustiano Carranza, the originator of the Mexican Constitution, are the symbols of Coahuila state. One of the attractions of Saltillo is the Desert Museum (Museo del Desierto) and so is the only Museum of Birds in Mexico.