Tom Sharpe Now that Fairview Cemetery no longer maintains lush lawns, prairie dogs keep moving in, burrowing into graves and unearthing human bones.
Cemetery Association President Eric Mason says he's given up on trying to relocate the prairie dogs, and has started poisoning them.
"Several years ago, we spent $10,000 to remove prairie dogs from the cemetery. That was $10,000 right down the drain," he said. "Even if we got every single one in the cemetery, within a month they would be back from the Railyard area and the School for the Deaf area."
Mason said this spring he began inserting into the burrows 200 poison-gas cylinders purchased from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Albuquerque.
"We ran out of the gas cylinders yesterday as a matter of fact, and I've got to get down there and get more," he said Wednesday. "Instead of paying $100 per prairie dog to remove them, I can gas them for $1.80."
Mason said the city ordinance requiring "humane relocation" of prairie dogs from construction sites does not apply to Fairview Cemetery because there is no construction under way.
Local prairie dog preservationists were not immediately available for comment. But Yvonne Boudreaux of Prairie Dog Pals of Albuquerque called the move to poison prairie dogs "ridiculous."
"These people have no patience for wildlife and they're encroaching on their habitat," she said. "I can't believe that someone with family buried there would go along with such death and destruction. ... So many want to do the humane thing."
But one woman with family buried there, Martha Novak of Albuquerque, said she was shocked at the state of the cemetery when she dropped by Sunday to visit the graves of her parents, John and Virginia Bliss, and her grandparents, Henry and Lenona Willis.
"As we were driving in, I saw that the trees were mostly dead," she said. "The weeds are sparse because there isn't even enough water for weeds and no grass ... I kept seeing things out of the corner of my eye and my husband pointed out that there were prairie dogs all over."
Novak said the cemetery had changed so much from when she last visited that she couldn't find her family's graves despite 20 minutes spent looking for them. "A lot of the gravestones were slipping under the surface because the prairie dogs had undermined the stones," she said.
She said the poor condition of Fairview Cemetery, currently managed by the private Fairview Cemetery Association, seemed particularly ironic because many of the people buried there are mentioned in the new state History Museum's exhibits, which she visited earlier Sunday. A plot there "was one of those things that was sold as perpetual care," Novak said.
Mason agreed with Novak that the conditions at Fairview are shocking, but he said he's not sure what more he can do given the limited budget for upkeep and the high price of water.
About a decade ago, he said, when the cemetery association was hit with a $57,000 water bill, it cut back on irrigation and let much of its Kentucky bluegrass die. Trees planted along the roadways in recent years have drip irrigation.
Mason said the prairie dog problem increased when the grass lawns died, although cemetery records indicate that prairie dogs have been a recurring problem there for over a century. He said the minutes of a 19th-century meeting of a woman's group that once ran the graveyard mentions two members dispensing "medicine" to the prairie dogs.
Mason disputed Novak's contention that some gravestones recently have disappeared. The last time that happened, he said, was about 10 years ago when someone swiped an ornate, white marble headstone created in 1868 for the baby of the Rev. David McFarland who had come to Santa Fe two years earlier to found the First Presbyterian Church.
Fairview's oldest gravestones date from 1862 when burials occurred in a Masonic graveyard on the north side of downtown. In 1883-1884, these graves were moved to 4 acres at 1134 Cerrillos Road, now with an ornate fence and gate, and a caretaker's house.
For years, Fairview Cemetery was the only graveyard in Santa Fe for non-Catholics. It is the burial place for some 3,700 people, including 10 mayors, three governors and about 1,500 unidentified people. In 2005, the Santa Fe City Council designated it Santa Fe's eighth historic landmark.
Over the years, various groups have run Fairview Cemetery, including the Women's Board of Trade, the Library Association and Santa Fe County.
During the 20 years the country ran the cemetery, Mason said, it was used for indigents. "Those indigent burials were normally in kind of a cardboard coffin, so in that area where the coffins have in fact disintegrated and the prairie dogs start bringing up bones, it is very, very distressing," he said.
Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.