Readers weigh in on snakeweed

Spraying snakeweed 1938

Spraying snakeweed in an Arizona field, 1938.

Our recent post on broom snakeweed brought in a lot of comments—mostly pointing out the good side of this plant.

One person opines, “I love snakeweed. It’s pretty and unique, and grows more when it rains. In September the tops turn yellow, and is the precursor to fall… I’ve been here over 20 years (and in New Mexico over 60 years) and I’d say this is just a slightly better than average crop year for the plant.”

In contrast to our BLM expert’s advice, a reader writes that  NM State University says chemical spraying is the best way to control it [on large-acreage rangelands]. Another reader writes, “The other terrible plants that will come up with snakeweed are goat heads and eventually cholla. While some folks like cholla for its flowers, it is a nasty plant well deserving of its name Jumping Cactus.”

Why the moniker snakeweed? “There are two reasons for the name,” writes a local farmer. “One is the roots snake out far from the base. The other is a tincture of the root is a good antidote for snakebite, externally and internally. It works best on dogs.” That sent us to a botanical database, where we learned broom snakeweed contains some of the same chemical compounds found in Amazonian plants traditionally used to treat snakebite.

Snake Clipart“Another reason to call it snakeweed is that rattlesnakes use it for cover,” writes one reader. “The one that bit me was hiding in one.” Yikes!

Several Native American tribes have traditionally used snakeweed to treat respiratory infections and other ailments, and a local Placitan notes that, “One of the old Spanish remedios for hemorrhoids, documented in the late Judge Tibo Chavez’s book [New Mexican Folklore of the Rio Abajo], is smoke from a snakeweed plant.” Okay, we’ll keep that in mind.

And let’s not overlook perhaps the plant’s most practical use: a bundle of dried broom snakeweed stems is just the thing for sweeping out one’s dusty casita, a never-ending task in this beautiful land of wind and sand.


On the road. Again.


WHOA, Nellie!

Rumor has it that pro-horse folks are busily herding, transporting, and relocating dozens of feral horses around the Placitas area in a shell game designed to keep them from being legally impounded by the BLM or private landowners (the BLM issued a notice this summer that they would be impounding horses on the Placitas BLM tract). Since apparently none of these relocation activities have been reported to the NM Livestock Board, as required, the pro-horse groups continue to show their disdain for the law.

They also have little regard for the rights and safety of their neighbors. After several months of having relatively horse-free roads and subdivisions, several readers report there are suddenly a lot of horses wandering around. This video was shot this morning on my way to work. In the few minutes I watched, this horse was almost hit by three vehicles as it looked for grass along the roadside. Are WHOA and PAR releasing horses they gathered from the BLM tract onto Placitas roads and subdivisions because they don’t have enough corrals to hold them or hay to feed them? The timing is awfully curious. Until the situation is resolved, be careful on the roads—horse-vehicle collisions can be deadly for both horse and driver.

Overgrazed Placitas faces snakeweed invasion?

We had an interesting talk today with Lucas Vargas, an environmental specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. We mentioned that in areas of Placitas hit hardest by feral horses, we’re seeing a surge of broom snakeweed. In fact, much of the green we’ve been seeing in northern Placitas following the summer rains isn’t our decimated native grasses returning–it’s broom snakeweed.


Broom snakeweed is a marker of overgrazed areas and disturbed soils

Broom snakeweed is a small dome-shaped shrub with bright green foliage and, at the moment, yellow blooms. It’s everywhere you look in Cedar Creek, Indian Flats, the BLM tract, and other horse-ravaged parts of Placitas. And besides the mature blooming plants, you can see countless skinny green shoots snaking upwards from otherwise bare dirt. In fact, as I was standing near one this morning, it suddenly started to wrap around my ankle and….

Okay, kidding. So what’s the problem with this innocent-looking plant? Although a native, it’s as invasive as all heck. It puts out a turpentine-like compound that prevents other plants from growing near it, said Vargas. The more snakeweed about, the harder it is for native grasses and diverse plant communities to return to health after overgrazing. The combination of soils disturbed by livestock and good rains—exactly the combo we had in Placitas this summer— lets snakeweed gain a dominant foothold on the landscape, where it muscles out other vegetation.

Vargas said broom snakeweed can be a tremendous problem on grasslands. He recommends against digging it out or using chemicals to eradicate it. The best approach is to reseed the area with native grasses and hope they squeeze out the snakeweed.

Without active reseeding efforts, this summer’s bumper crop of snakeweed will make it hard for the native grasses to come back. Which means we just might need to call in the Boy Scouts – because right now, there’s an awful lot of land in northern Placitas abloom with this pretty little weed.


Sources: Lucas Vargas, Environmental Protection Specialist, Bureau of Land Management, Cuba Field Office; Ralphs MH, McDaniel KC. Broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae): toxicology, ecology, control, and management. Invasive Plant Science and Management. 2011;4:125-132; McDaniel K. Control Perennial Snakeweeds. Guide B-815. Cooperative Extension Service, NM State University, 2003.

Feral horses putting Placitas watershed at risk

The just-released annual report of the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), which includes the Placitas area, doesn’t mince words:

“Two issues were significant for Soils and Watershed during FY 14 [fiscal year 2014]. The first was the continuing struggle over feral horses that occupied nearly all of the Las Huertas Watershed below the Cibola National Forest. The District believes that…these horses have caused and continue to cause severe damage to Watershed resources and have impaired the Watershed.”

Why does that matter?

A watershed is an area of land that “catches” rain and snow, allowing the precipitation to drain into streams and seep into underground water sources. In Placitas, we depend on our watershed to replenish the underground aquifers that supply our drinking water.


Source: CT Fund for the Environment

How do free-roaming horses harm a watershed? They eat plants and they trample soil.

First, horses compact the soil around the plants they eat and wherever they hang out or take dust baths. Compacted soil doesn’t absorb water well. When the rains come, the water runs off instead of percolating downward. Second, when horses eat a plant down to a nubbin, the soil under the plant is exposed. Heavy rains then wash the soil away, further exposing the bottom of the plant. Some plants will dry out and die. That leaves fewer roots to stabilize the soil and hold water.

All this trampling and noshing means less rainwater finds its way to the underground aquifers that Placitas relies on for drinking water.

Watershed damage is especially a concern during long droughts like our current one, where we need every drop to recharge streams and aquifers. It may not seem like having some horses on the land could really harm a watershed that much. But because horses live on the land year ’round, prance around on hooves, and eat large quantities of shrubs and grasses, the impact can be severe. In the Tularosa watershed in south central New Mexico, removing feral horses in the mid-1990s led to a healthy regeneration of watershed vegetation. Placitas needs that too.



Sources: Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District Annual Report FY 2014; “Tularosa Watershed,” in Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy for New Mexico. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 2006.

WHOA misleads about WHOAful survey

WHOA reports that its recent “independent” survey found a majority of Placitans “want the free-roaming horses of Placitas to remain.”

Let’s look at those claims.

Was the survey “independent”? No. The survey was sponsored and paid for by WHOA, whose President, Patience O’Dowd, was closely involved in developing the questions. An independent poll is one funded and designed by a neutral organization that has no vested interest in the outcome.

Did the survey ask whether or not you “want the free-roaming horses to remain”? No, there was no such question. Nor did the survey ask callers in what part of Placitas they lived, and whether free-roaming horses frequented their subdivision, property, and nearby roads — key variables that would be expected to influence the opinions of those polled.

Was the survey fair and unbiased? Nope. An objective poll would have addressed the key issues residents have raised for years related to free-roaming horses, such as environmental damage, impact on wildlife, impact on the watershed, property damage, and public safety. And some questions were leading or misleading. For example, the response options for one question incorrectly implied that contraception and cattle guards would be sufficient to “manage” the current free-roaming horse population. Another item included irrelevant response options, such as keeping free-roaming horses on the Placitas Open Space (that’s not permitted by the City of Albuquerque Open Space Division). And let’s not forget that long, jumbled question about a loop road.

By avoiding key concerns and manipulating questions and response choices – something an independent poll would not have done – WHOA once again intentionally misleads the community to serve its own agenda. That really is woeful.

San Felipe Pueblo proposes horse sanctuary on BLM tract

A public meeting was held at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church on August 23, at which Land Management Specialist Ricardo Ortiz of San Felipe Pueblo presented the Pueblo’s proposal for the 3142-acre BLM tract that abuts Placitas to the north, should the Pueblo acquire it from the BLM. The Pueblo’s plans include, in part, a horse sanctuary.

The meeting was sponsored by Placitas Wild, a recently-formed group that supports San Felipe Pueblo’s plan. Other organizations that have expressed interest in acquiring some or all of the BLM parcel, commonly known as the Buffalo Tract, include Santa Ana Pueblo and the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant.

We’re grateful to our favorite local cowboy, Marty Clifton, for putting together an excellent summary of the meeting. You can read it here.

And you can read about the meeting in the September issue of the Sandoval Signpost here.


WHOAful survey?

In the last week, many Placitas residents received a phone call asking their opinion about Placitas free-roaming horses. The survey is sponsored by the local Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) and is being fielded by Southwest Planning, a New Mexico marketing firm that conducts public opinion polls.

In a call last week to Southwest Planning, we learned the survey sample draws from 900 Placitas households with telephone landlines. The firm hopes to complete at least 200 surveys, and the results will be statistically weighted to reflect the demographics of the Placitas population. The pollster will calculate both response rates and confidence intervals for each survey item. The poll started on Tuesday, August 19 and was scheduled to end on Sunday, August 24. However, as of August 25, it was still being fielded.

Unfortunately, any survey is only as valid as its design. To be accurate, a survey has to have what researchers call content or face validity. That means survey items must reasonably address all the relevant issues – not just a cherry-picked few – and provide an appropriate range of response options. In addition, a valid survey’s questions are worded in an unbiased, neutral manner and don’t “push” the respondent towards a particular

Uh, could you repeat the question?

We understand the polling firm has gotten an earful from Placitans upset or confused about the survey questions. The short poll asks the respondent if they live in Placitas, how long they have lived here, their age, and how familiar they are with the free-roaming horse issue. So far so good. Another question asks if they prefer the use of contraceptives and cattle guards or round-up and removal as a means to manage the horses (of course, the survey doesn’t let on that contraceptives and cattle guards are, ahem, woefully inadequate methods of management).

However, the most interesting item is a long, convoluted question that conflates development of a loop road/highway with free-roaming horses. The gist being, do you support a loop road that would bring 20,000 cars a day, more real estate development, more gravel mining, and other negative consequences, and which, by the way, would also impact free-roaming horses? It’s a long question, and by the end your head is spinning.

If you answer “Yes”, you are indicating you support a loop road and its various potential adverse impacts – development, traffic, mining, etc. It would be surprising if even one person responds “Yes”. The vast majority of respondents will answer “No,” they don’t support a loop road. And by slipping in the mention of free-roaming horses at the end of the question, WHOA undoubtedly hopes to be able to claim that nearly 100% of Placitas residents support keeping free-roaming horses on the land, when in fact, the question is about a loop road, not horses.

Any researcher who designs surveys can tell you that because of poor design, key components of the survey aren’t valid and won’t be able to accurately represent public opinion. We’re puzzled that WHOA apparently thinks no one would notice this.


UPDATE: See our August 29 post to learn if our crystal ball predictions held true.