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c. Bill Dunmire

The amazing tale of New Mexico’s Spanish livestock heritage

—Signpost Staff

The University of New Mexico Press recently published William Dunmire’s book, New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage. Dunmire, a Placitas author and naturalist, has written six books since 1995, including New Mexico’s Living Landscapes: A Roadside View. Dunmire’s latest effort traces four centuries of animals, land, and people that were profoundly impacted by the introduction of livestock into the Southwest.

The six principal species that we call livestock today—horses, mules, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs—were brought to North America by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. These animals made their way from Spain to the Caribbean, to Mexico, and then up El Camino Real to northern New Mexico with soldiers, missionaries, colonists led by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Prior to then, raising livestock, except for turkeys, was not practiced in among Southwestern tribes.

Dunmire tells the lively tale of the chronological history of livestock in New Mexico from 1540 to the present, based on the observations of travelers and the work of earlier historians. Livestock spread Old World infectious diseases to humans and played a part in unwelcomed aspects of colonization of Native American lands. Lush grasslands were overgrazed and turned to desert. Cornfields were trampled, and crops were eaten by Coronado’s unrestrained hordes of livestock. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all bad. The introduction of livestock provided food security, wool, and transportation to Native Americans. “Navajo educator Harry Walters told Dunmire, “The coming of livestock was one of the best things that ever happened to the Navajo.”

Although Dunmire’s approach is mostly non-judgmental, he says, “It’s a challenge to come up with any beneficial long-term effects upon New Mexico’s natural environment that may have resulted from the arrival of Spanish livestock.”

Since the livestock industry reached its peak near the end of the nineteenth century, the sheep population has dwindled from five million to 110,000. The cattle industry continues to be impacted by the ongoing drought in a land that has perhaps been irreparably damaged by overgrazing.

New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage is available at bookstores or directly from the University of New Mexico Press. William Dunmire is a retired national Park Service naturalist and an associate in biology at UNM and a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

 
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