SESABE, Ariz. — Columns of smoke spiraling over the land in this region of arid ranches and stark volcanic mountains were a nagging signal to cattlemen that Wayne Shifflett was at it again.
As manager of the embattled Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Shifflett has spent a decade ripping out miles of fences and dozens of corrals, and setting fire to thousands of acres of shimmering grasslands that once provided excellent pasture for cattle.
Shifflett is determined to transform 200 square miles of savanna grasslands into a "subdivision" in the Sonoran Desert for migrating birds--and a species of quail that disappeared a century ago. "For this, they call me an 'Easterner' and a 'slick-talking bureaucrat,' " he said, "which are pretty bad things to be called in the West."
Especially galling to cattlemen and their supporters in the Arizona Legislature, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent more than $1 million to rear and release 28,000 federally endangered masked bobwhite quail on the refuge, about 60 miles south of Tucson.
Yet, the odds that any of the quail Shifflett frees will survive are only about 5 to 1. These pen-reared quail brought back from the edge of extinction, it turns out, are extremely vulnerable to bullsnakes, falcons and coyotes.
An estimated 300 to 500 of the released quail--which have 18-month life spans--are believed to currently roam the refuge.
At a time of federal cutbacks, the project's seemingly meager results are generating local questions with broad implications: Should there be a limit on spending for recovery projects with questionable results? And should federal wildlife agencies be held accountable for the economic impacts of such projects on surrounding communities?
The rift between Shifflett and livestock producers and their backers is deep and wide.
Shifflett steadfastly insists his agency's recovery operations are not based on cost-benefit analyses and that he operates under laws and policies that dictate cattle are not compatible with the long-range objectives of the refuge.
Beyond that, his refuge includes a wide range of threatened wildlife and plants, as well as world-class bird-watching areas.
Nonetheless, the state Legislature this month is expected to approve a measure urging Congress to audit the refuge, which cost more than $35 million to buy and has grown from 111,000 acres to about 118,000 acres since it was established in 1985.
"They have taken about 30,000 of these cute little birdies and fed them to fat coyotes," said Becky Fenger, a lobbyist and critic of the refuge. "If those quail could talk they'd say, 'Hey man, quit this biological engineering experiment and let us out of here!' "
Not so, according to Shifflett, who is enthusiastic about the prospects for his tenuous flock of quail. He argues that the political range war will subside once the refuge achieves a self-sustaining quail population of about 500 pairs.
"Once that happens--and it could be within a year--every birder in the United States will want to come to this refuge to add the masked bobwhite quail to their life list," Shifflett said. "And that will bring lots of money into southern Arizona."
So far, bird-watchers do not seem all that interested in scouring the brush for a glimpse of the quail. One day last week, birders were arriving in droves--to ogle a rare ruddy ground dove pecking at chicken feed behind a bar in nearby Arivaca.
For the doubters who view the natural world as a resource for livestock growers and extractive industries, Shifflett's formula for a new and vigorous local economy based on quail watching sounds too warm and fuzzy, if not irrational.
"Bird-watchers come in with a $5 bill and a pair of old shorts and when they leave they haven't changed either one," said Richard Bennett, founder of the Society for Environmental Truth, a group that has launched a campaign to have Shifflett replaced and room made available for cattle on the refuge.
Others point out that having masked bobwhite quail dodging coyotes in sunbaked desert flatlands simply lacks the cache and spectacle of reintroduced wolves taking down elk at Yellowstone National Park, or captive-bred California condors with 10-foot wingspans soaring over the Vermilion Cliffs of northern Arizona.
Striding through the smoke of a fire set to kill mesquite trees and weeds, Shifflett said, "We're nourishing the earth with ashes, which will create new native grass and better cover for the quail.
"But we're also slowly putting a fragmented ecosystem back together here, the only Sonoran savanna grasslands left in the United States.
"So I don't mind them calling me names, and I welcome an audit--we'll pass with flying colors," he added. "But I'll tell you what. Cattle will never come back to this refuge."