NM's Spanish Livestock Heritage“New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage – Four Centuries of Animals, Land and People” by William W. Dunmire

University of New Mexico Press, $34.95, 233 pp.

By David Steinberg

William Dunmire’s new enterprise – “New Mexico’s Spanish Livestock Heritage” – looks like a history book, smells like a history book and reads like a history book.

But Dunmire is quick to clarify his credentials.

“I’m technically not a historian as much as I am a botanist, a naturalist,” the Placitas, N.M., resident said.

He did an exhaustive amount of research for the book. Notice the 30 pages of footnotes and 16 pages of literature cited that are near the back of the index.

But Dunmire declares, “I’m not an historian that does original research.”

Yet the book must be of some significance since it is the first one that comprehensively tells the story of the Spanish introduction of European livestock to the New World. We’re not just talking cattle and horses, mules and donkeys (in Spanish, ganado mayor), but a full range of livestock. Dunmire, again using the Spanish, ganado menor, is referring to sheep and goats and pigs and chickens.

The book discusses the effects of the introduction of these animals on the landscape as well as on the diet and the ways of life of the Native peoples. Wool from sheep, for example, played a key role in Native weaving practices. Animal power would be used “for human transportation, hauling heavy payloads, tilling fields and  many other kinds of work,” Dunmire writes. “The horses, cattle, goats and sheep accompanying (Don Juan de) Onate’s caravan would indeed lay the foundation for a livestock industry that would dominate much of the Southwest in years to come.”

Dunmire contends that New Mexico’s history of livestock is more complex and fascinating than many people realize.

That history, he said in an interview, goes back to 1540, before Onate’s arrival in what is today New Mexico.

Looking forward to the state’s multicultural population, Dunmire wrote, “livestock has had an effect on the Pueblos, the Plains Indians, the Navajos and certainly on the Anglos.”

“I’m somewhat of a grassland ecologist and I made the point that cattle on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico – the short grassland prairie – replaced the bison. … The point I make is that cattle in moderate numbers are an essential part of maintaining that grassland.”

Cattle grazing has also had a negative effect on the plains, his book acknowledges; it’s led to soil erosion.

The book has impressed New Mexico historian Richard Melzer. Melzer calls it “groundbreaking.”

In Dunmire’s earlier, award-winning book “Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America,” he devotes a full chapter on the arrival of Spanish technology and the spread of livestock from the interior of Mexico. That chapter presumably planted the seed (pun intended) for his new book.

Dunmire has been giving a series of lectures around the state to ranchers, to local historical societies.

In a presentation in Las Vegas, Dunmire said a number of ranchers spoke up about the history of their families.

“I love that and the New Mexico Humanities Council does, too. It’s been a sponsor of most of the lectures,” he said. Dunmire received a Humanities Council grant to do more than 20 lectures on the subject of his book.

Dunmire is also the author of “Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province” and “New Mexico’s Living Landscape: A Roadside View.”

He retired from the National Park Service where he served as a naturalist at several parks and retired as superintendent of Carlsbad Caverns. He is an associate in biology at UNM and a research associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.