Borderland Rebellion: One Texas Naturalist Takes Conservation Into His Own Hands
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Borderland Rebellion: One Texas Naturalist Takes Conservation Into His Own Hands
This story originally appeared in bioGraphic.
On a humid May afternoon beneath the shade cloth of the plant nursery on his South Texas ranch, Benito Treviño leaned down, magnifying glasses perched on his nose above an extravagant salt-and-pepper moustache, and used his pen knife to remove a bulbous growth from the top of a baseball-sized, dome-shaped cactus. He sliced the thing over a white paper plate, and dozens of bowl-shaped, red-brown specks spilled out. They were seeds, and with the flat of his blade, Treviño sorted them into piles for counting. Along with the contents of the pods from two other recently pollinated cactuses, there were 265 in all—a good haul to add to the 160 he had collected the day before.
Treviño wrote the date and number on a small paper envelope and, using a teaspoon, scooped the seeds in. At this rate, he would soon have hundreds of star cactuses (Astrophytum asterias) growing here—from newborns not much bigger than the seeds from which they’d germinated to penny-sized buttons three years old to 8- to 10-year-old specimens similar to those that had yielded today’s cache. It was a watershed moment in his efforts to pay back a debt and sow himself a legacy, by recovering South Texas’s endangered plants.
“If there’s something I can do for plants, it’s doing something meaningful for endangered species, like discover how to germinate them so that anyone can germinate them,” Treviño, 71, said. “Hopefully by the time I die, I can say, ‘You know that species? When I was 74, it was endangered, and now it’s common.’”
Historically, that was a controversial ambition. The prevailing thinking used to be that humans—particularly ones like Treviño, who hold no university or government title—should leave endangered plants well enough alone. Attitudes have been changing among specialists, though, and Treviño’s story highlights the potential importance of independent naturalists to the work of academics and agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But what that involvement looks like is an evolving question in a field where government regulations run up against heartfelt passion. And in Treviño’s case, the project is not just professional. He’s an ethnobotanist with a unique connection to his chosen mission, a guy who, every day, looks back on his childhood and tells those around him, “Plants like these made it possible for me to survive.”
A Ph.D. in Poverty
The Texas borderlands where Treviño lives, have been contested terrain for centuries. To establish a buffer against other colonial powers, the Spanish crown began deeding land grants in the mid-18th century. Treviño’s forebears were among the settlers whose fingerlike homesteads, known as porciones, stretched through Tamaulipan thornscrub northward from the Rio Grande River. There, with help, in all likelihood, from the indigenous Coahuiltecans they were displacing, the colonists gained the knowledge on which Treviño’s family relied when he was young: which shrubs and trees to harvest for food and which for medicine; how to make various tools from native succulents and grasses.
By the time Treviño was born, the seventh of 15 children, most of the family’s porción had been sold to pay debts. But on the remaining acreage, they made extensive use of native plants. They gathered willow bark to cure headaches and fibrous agave leaves for lassos and clothing. They burned the spines off prickly pear cactus and ate their savory paddles and juicy, pink fruit. They sweetened herbal medicines with fructose-rich mesquite bark, ground the shrub’s seeds for flour, and chewed its leaves to treat indigestion. Treviño’s parents and all their children worked as migrant farm laborers, picking cotton in Texas and produce in California. It was a life of extremity, supported by plants.
“I say I have a PhD in poverty. I counted one time how long we went without eating. It was three days,” Treviño recalls. In 1966, seeing no other options for his future, he joined the Air Force. It was the height of the Vietnam War, but Treviño, having been assigned to work with nuclear weapons, never saw combat. Afterward, he enrolled at University of Texas at Austin on the GI Bill.
“I was associated with plants since I was a baby,” he says. “I didn’t know what botany was, but I found out there was a major and said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s what I want to do.’”
His botany degree offered few ways to earn a decent living, but with a minor in chemistry, Treviño got a lab job at the oil company ARCO after college. There he met his wife, Toni, and the two transferred to Alaska in the early 1980s. The company paid their expenses. Nearly all of their salaries went straight to the bank.
“I told Toni, ‘We’re making a lot of money, but this is not what I want to do,’” Treviño says. He aspired to raise the native plants that had sustained him as child. “‘I’ll probably be broke because who wants to buy this stuff? It grows by itself. But I don’t want to grow roses.’”
The couple returned to Starr County, Texas to launch Benito’s nursery, purchasing 177 acres seven miles from the banks of the Rio Grande. Unlike ranches near it that had been turned over to grazing or farming, Treviño’s land had never been plowed. A third of it was ramadero, a lush thicket grown up along tributaries that slope away from the river. It’s prime habitat for wildlife, including endangered cats, like the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) and jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). “And monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use it as a freeway,” Treviño says. He called the place Rancho Lomitas, “ranch of small hills.”
He loved the ranch’s biodiversity: 180 bird and 117 butterfly species have been spotted here. There are threatened Texas horned lizards, and many types of frogs and toads, whose calls Treviño mimics for visitors: Rhinophrynus dorsalis, the threatened Mexican burrowing toad (“Wo-ow, wo-ow, wo-ow!”), Hypopachus variolosus, the sheep frog (“Ma-a-aaa! Ma-a-aaa!”), and Bufo marinus, the giant toad, which makes a noise like a pneumatic drill.
It was late morning on a Saturday, and he was telling his story as part of an ethnobotany tour he offers at Rancho Lomitas. The tours and frequent talks he gives have made Treviño “the Rio Grande Valley’s most renowned naturalist,” according to local KVEO News.
“Benito draws our biggest crowds,” says Ken King, president of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s non-profit Native Plant Project. “He has so much knowledge from living it.”
“This is colima,” Treviño told his tour group, chewing on a teardrop–shaped leaf pulled from a shrub (Zanthoxylum fagara) laden with red berries. “It tastes like lime. It’s a sedative. When people were sick and couldn’t sleep, or when their daughter eloped with somebody, we could give them colima, and they would relax.”
The crowd laughed. But the tour had a more serious intent. “The goal is to spread the knowledge,” says King. “We’re becoming so isolated from nature, and he’s encouraging people to do something like plant a little area of their yard or patio to attract native insects, which attracts the rest of it. It starts with the plants.”
Treviño’s popularity is indicative of a transformation over the past 30 years in how people in South Texas relate to plants. In 1986, when Treviño started cultivating butterfly-friendly Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides) and Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens) for hedging, “every plant I grew,” he says, “I had to give away.”
But slowly, interest in the endemic landscape grew. The Native Plant Project formed. The local Audubon and Sierra Club chapters started educating the public on creating native gardens. Treviño became involved with them all. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where more than 95 percent of native habitat has been destroyed, the movement to conserve native plants was particularly crucial to the preservation of the area’s unique animals that rely on the flora for food and shelter.
Around that time, Treviño got wind of a government initiative. The Fish and Wildlife Service was buying up former cropland along the river and restoring native habitat, linking fragments into a contiguous wildlife corridor for safe passage of the ocelot and other species. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Revegetation Program was run by Fish and Wildlife Service botanist Chris Best, who was contracting local nurseries to grow plants for him.
Treviño started cultivating for the Fish and Wildlife Service, germinating tens of thousands of seedlings of the upland varieties he lived among: Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), which he likes for jams; amargosa (Castela erecta texana), whose bitter berries his family used to cure dysentery; lotebush (Ziziphus obtusifolia), whose grassy-tasting berries they ate when hungry. He was helping to pilot a community-based means of habitat restoration.
“Botanists, ecologists, and foresters together are outnumbered by wildlife biologists in the agency by 75 to 1,” says Best. “There’s a handful of us out of 9,000 employees. Part of my job is to stimulate a wider network of people who know about native plants. We were constantly sharing propagation techniques. Quite often I was calling Benito.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service started recommending Treviño as an environmental surveyor. Under the Endangered Species Act, projects on federal land or financed with federal dollars must use a consultant to assess the presence of endangered species and—when it comes to plants—avoid, minimize, or mitigate damage to those found. Says the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kim Wahl, who now runs the Revegetation Program, “Because Benito has so much expertise and knowledge of the area, his surveys are highly informative.”
Treviño’s lifelong experience with the ecology of the borderlands came in handy, too, on advocacy trips to Washington to argue for increased appropriations for the wildlife corridor. “He was, as you can imagine, a very effective lobbyist,” says Jim Chapman, Frontera Audubon’s president emeritus. Land acquisition has slowed along the Rio Grande in recent years, and the proposed border wall will likely cut through some of the 98,000 protected acres. But the refuge was a federal priority for years, Chapman says, in part due to Treviño’s efforts. “When he speaks about the need to protect plant communities, it’s his life. You can’t hire that.”
It’s Treviño’s depth of connection with the flora of South Texas that lately has had him embarking on his most ambitious project yet—one that threatens to open faultlines between himself and the state and federal agencies with which he’s had such a productive working relationship.
“I’ve grown 865,000 plants from seeds. I wanted to hit a million. I’m not too far off, but they’re just regular plants,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to grow endangered plants. When I reached 70, I thought, ‘I’m cutting down on this other stuff to do what I have in my heart.’”
He was, in part, motivated by distress. Years earlier, he had been invited to a pachanga—a party—on a high school friend’s ranch. “Walking in the brush there, I found a lot of star cactus. It was loaded,” he says. The spineless succulent, named for its eight triangular segments, has a larger range in Mexico, but it survives north of the border only in Starr and Zapata Counties, where its habitat is being lost to agriculture, housing developments, and oil and gas exploration.
“The state biologist from Texas Parks and Wildlife had said that the best Christmas present would be to see star cactus in the wild,” Treviño says. So he took her to the ranch that winter, “and it had all been poached. There was one little button left.”
It’s a problem for cactuses: Collectors, who crave wild genetics to add new characteristics to the plants they grow will pay for specimens from the wild. Treviño himself has been offered up to $800 for a star cactus. Compounding the problem is star cactus’s association with peyote, the psychotropic cactus that it resembles. The two are often found together in well-drained, gravelly, saline soil shaded from the sun. Harvesters hired by peyoteros, licensed suppliers of peyote for use in the Native American Church, sometimes take star cactus, too. Peyoteros have been known to try and replant it in their own gardens or to give the non-psychotropic cactus away to clients as a freebie.
Treviño figured there might be star cactus elsewhere on the ranch’s 400 acres. So when the property came up for sale 10 years ago, he convinced The Nature Conservancy to buy it and establish Las Estrellas Preserve. The 2,000 or so cactuses they found there were a possible seed source for Treviño’s restoration efforts.
“If you can provide the seed, I’ll do everything for free, and what I grow goes back to you to conserve,” he told Nature Conservancy land managers. Although star cactus is often bred and hybridized from plants grown in captivity by collectors, Treviño hoped to use wild seed to re-establish wild populations, not for the sake of cactus enthusiasts, but to preserve the species in its natural habitat.
The first hurdle was getting a straight answer from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Was it legal for him to collect seeds and propagate the plant? “All of their answers are like four paragraphs long, and at the end, you don’t know, did they say yes or no?” Even an agency employee like Christ Best admits that the rules can be confusing. “Finally,” says Treviño, “we got them to say, ‘Well, if you’re collecting from federal property, you need a permit. But we have no jurisdiction over private land like The Nature Conservancy’s.’”
It’s an inconsistency in the law that works in Treviño’s favor: Endangered plants have fewer protections than endangered animals. Whereas the Endangered Species Act’s protections apply to animals no matter where they’re found, private landowners are free to destroy, protect, or cultivate endangered plants found on their property. They can also give the plants or their seeds to someone else. For Treviño, this has meant the opportunity to reach out to other ranchers, who might have star cactus on their own land, or know someone who does.
In the end, Treviño never did get seeds from The Nature Conservancy. The organization’s acquisition of Las Estrellas was followed by a cyclical drought, when star cactus, which is highly cryptic, tends to shrink, sinking below the surface of the soil and compounding efforts to keep track of and conserve it. The dry spells also bring predators, as thirsty herbivores chew on anything containing water. Many of the original plants surveyed were eaten by jack rabbits and ground squirrels. Although new populations have since been discovered at Las Estrellas, the situation vexed Treviño. “Star cactus requires a lot of care,” he says. “It’s labor-intensive. They don’t have the people to monitor and harvest the seeds.”
Dealings with government agencies have left him no less frustrated over their seeming ambivalence toward his work. Concerns over plant genetics, legal issues, questions about documentation—they have all come into play in his interactions with officials.
However, in 2012, Chris Best, who had transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ecological Services Program, which oversees enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, formed the South Texas Plant Recovery Team, a group of outside experts that recommends recovery criteria and actions for endangered plants. Appointees include state botanists, land managers from The Nature Conservancy, and landowners, Treviño among them. The team represented a paradigm shift, from law-and-order regulation to conservation partnerships with ranchers and farmers. In Texas, where 95 percent of land is privately owned and distrust of government abounds, good community relations are an expediency for government agencies.
“And Benito, he’s a two-fer. He’s a botanist who understands plant ecology, and he’s a landowner who knows other landowners,” says Best.
Treviño’s star cactus population is a case in point: Some of the plants that have put out the showy yellow flowers he’s cross-pollinated come from a neighboring rancher. Others were sent to him by a master naturalist who took an ethnobotany tour at Rancho Lomitas. “Those are different gene pools, so that’s diversity continuing when I cross-germinate,” Treviño explained as he showed off the test tube in which he gathers pollen from one flowering star cactus to freeze until another cactus is in bloom and ready to receive it. Diverse genetics help plants stay resilient. “That is a drawback of cactus nurseries. They’re breeding the same gene pool. I’m going to need more wild plants, so I need to find more private landowners.”
It’s a touchy subject, the genetics of endangered species. Chris Best remembers, back in the mid-1990s, finding an endangered tapioca, Walker’s manioc (Manihot walkerae), on the refuge he manages. “It occurred to me that we could create refugium populations, so if the plant was lost to catastrophic impacts in the wild, we could keep the genetics alive and put them back in good habitat,” he recalls. “And the old-guard botanists pounced on me. The prevailing thought was ‘hands off.’” Their worry was that, if humans got involved, unintentional inbreeding depression—too little genetic variation—or outbreeding depression—the introduction of new genetic variation—might harm the species’ natural ability to adapt.
In recent years, the need to outpace habitat loss and climate change have forced botanists to rethink this position. “The instinct to be minimalist is very sound,” says Donald Falk, Chair of Global Ecology and Management at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. “Having said that, the problem now is that we don’t have that large-scale, high-quality habitat left for many species. We can’t argue, ‘Just leave it alone because it’s been okay for the last 10,000 years.’ So the strategy has turned to people saying we’re in a desperate situation and we must be proactive and interventionist.”
Certainly, that’s Treviño’s stance. However, although agents for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife hold Treviño in high regard, they remain wary of efforts that are independent of their oversight. “They say plants could be hybridized. Well, yeah, we could have an earthquake, too,” says Treviño. “We need to preserve the species.”
The trepidation government agencies feel about Treviño’s work is compounded by concerns about the illegal market for endangered plants. Officials would prefer Treviño give them oversight of his work so they can ensure that he won’t sell the plants without a permit, a move that would violate Texas state law. (Federal law allows intrastate sales with a federal permit.) But the agents’ repeated admonishments alienate Treviño even as they seek to collaborate with him. He has, on more than one occasion, offered to grow seeds from plants that officials have in their possession. But they always tell him “No, no, no.” He says he’s finally stopped trying to “jump through the loops and hoops of government.”
Recently, he collected seeds from a private landowner—while officials looked on. The South Texas Plant Recovery Team had taken a field trip to a private ranch to check out specimens of Zapata bladderpod (Physaria thamnophila), an endangered species that Treviño has seen growing close to the Rio Grande, where it could be impacted by the proposed border wall. “I know the ranch owner. He knows me. He’s been on my tours,” says Treviño. “So with all the government agencies watching, I said, ‘Do I have your permission to collect seed?’ He said, ‘Yes. It’s gonna go to waste anyway.’ I said, ‘Okay, everyone heard it. It’s legal.’”
Now that he’s got Zapata bladderpod seeds, he’ll start learning how to germinate them—and with the help of a camera and dissecting microscope, he’ll take meticulous notes. “I want them to be subject to scrutiny, so that if it works, and somebody wants to do it, I’ll have the recipe.”
Chris Best anxiously awaits those notes. “It’s to our benefit that we have interested people who are doing this, but if they’re afraid to talk to us—maybe they get old, or move on, or forget—we’ll lose the information. They could publish, but most scientific journals won’t take it if they’re not university affiliated.” That’s why he pins hope on his Plant Recovery Team. “If we build rapport, we can document it. This all falls into the category of gray literature, and that’s a huge part of the information we have on our rare, threatened, endangered plants.”
Botanists who do publish in scientific journals have varied opinions on research like Treviño’s. “If no commerce is involved, I applaud it,” says Martin Terry, a professor of biology at Texas’s Sul Ross University and chairman of the Cactus Conservation Institute. “These plants need all the help they can get, and if some humans are helping, I don’t see the downside.”
Others resist the triage mindset and take a more philosophical approach. “In my mind, this poses a challenging ethical dilemma,” says Falk. “We’re supposedly intervening to save biological diversity, but we value biological diversity because it exists independently of us.” Restoration efforts, according to Falk, threaten to undermine exactly what we value about nature—its otherness.
Treviño sees it a little differently. “I depended on all these plants,” he says. “They were like my cousins or part of my family.” In his view, the line between him and the rare and endangered species he works with just isn’t that distinct.
As for the plants themselves, their fate is uncharted. Treviño’s first goal is to establish viable populations at Rancho Lomitas. He knows, for instance, that he has appropriate spots for star cactus on part of his land, where plants associated with the cactus—saladilla (Batis maritima), horse crippler (Echinocactus texensis), clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra trachysperma)—grow. There, he can cage the cactuses to protect them from herbivores, and continue to study them, with the hope of identifying the species’ pollinators. “That will be the first step,” he says. “Can they live on their own here? How will they survive?”
After that? Under the Endangered Species Act, if Treviño were to give plants to the Fish and Wildlife Service to repopulate federal lands, the agency would be required to issue a permit to itself to put those plants in the ground. That would require the creation of a controlled propagation and recovery plan, a layer of bureaucracy that, Best told Treviño, would be “another headache.”
None of this inhibits Treviño. “I haven’t even established my own populations, so I won’t worry about that,” he says. “It’s way in the future.”
In the meantime, he’s plugging away. He’s started work on Walker’s manioc, the same species that got Chris Best into trouble back in the ’80s. His nursery shade house contains half a dozen of the spindly perennials. Their leaves are shaped, to his eye, like the heads of Texas longhorn cattle. The seed pods, which look like tiny watermelons, are prone to burst. To capture their contents, which he describes as “the size of ticks filled with blood,” Treviño nets the pods in jeweler’s bags. His small population originated with seeds he collected from a single, beleaguered plant he found clinging to a neighbor’s fence post, munched on by cattle and strangled by a parasitic dodder plant (Cuscuta sp.). And now, they may represent the species’ future.
After years of neglect, conservation efforts are just picking up for Walker’s manioc. While the government’s most recent environmental review on the species isn’t yet complete, the Fish and Wildlife Service now has a mandate to update its backlog. Recommendations for recovery criteria from the South Texas Plant Recovery Team will be published in a draft for public comment at the end of the year. And, after a long stall, research into the geographic distribution of Walker’s manioc has just received funding. Botanists at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Mexico’s Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas hope to use their findings to assess the plant’s conservation needs.
But the official wheels of conservation, in Treviño’s view, grind too slowly, and the few hundred Walker’s manioc plants left in the U.S. are unlikely to proliferate on their own. He’d rather learn by doing—collecting seeds and propagating endangered plants in his nursery at Rancho Lomitas. “If we don’t do something to keep this plant, it will go extinct. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is not doing anything to increase the numbers and harvest seed. I tell them, ‘Yeah, well, you’ll know down to the day when the last plant died.’ We could have done something to save it, but we studied it to extinction.”