Mavericks Personified: John Karges

When the wild called, he answered

By Mark Permenter

Like the roadrunner he so admires, John Karges scoots across the Chihuahuan Desert in remote Southwest Texas, searching for lizards and snakes. When he encounters his feathered friend, Karges often says hello in his best roadrunner-ese.

“I once got a vocal response from one, although I have no idea what it was saying,” the 1983 UT Arlington graduate said. “They are incredible animals—the equivalent of little velociraptors.”

Roadrunners aren’t the only creatures this real-life Dr. Doolittle talks to. He can squeak like the endangered black-capped vireo and bark like a rock squirrel. But it’s his ability to mimic an injured rodent that comes in most handy during tours of the vast ecosystems he manages. His sounds have drawn foxes close enough to touch.

John Karges

“I’m so passionate about saving biodiversity and about conservation for both human reasons and because of what it is: the complexity of nature.”

Tour guide is among the hats Karges wears as The Nature Conservancy’s West Texas program manager. He oversees key conservancy preserves, including the Davis Mountains, Sandia Springs, Diamond Y Spring and Independence Creek. He performs ecological inventories—tallies of plant and animal species—to determine an area’s conservation value through public or private partnerships. He even does much of the organization’s regional public relations.

The Nature Conservancy protects ecologically important lands and waters and has conserved more than 119 million acres and 5,000 miles of rivers in all 50 states and more than 30 countries. In Texas the organization protects more than 750,000 acres of land and water. Karges manages about 300,000 of those in the Trans-Pecos region, which extends west of the Pecos River to El Paso.

Trekking the desert and mountains, he has crossed paths with some of the country’s rare animals: Montezuma quail, common black-hawks (which aren’t so common) and mountain short-horned lizards. Then there’s the Leon Springs pupfish found only in the Diamond Y Spring in Pecos County. Biomedical researchers have used relatives of these minnow-sized fish to study human kidney functions.

“I’m so passionate about saving biodiversity and about conservation for both human reasons and because of what it is: the complexity of nature,” he says. “I can come up with a long list of reasons to conserve biodiversity. But one of the supreme ones is just because it is. It involves an intricate balance honed by a refined system that far outdates humans.”

Raised in Fort Worth, Karges’ favorite childhood vacations included trips to the Big Bend area of West Texas. The remoteness, the deserts, the mountains—vastly different from his hometown—fascinated him.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at Texas A&I University, he came to UT Arlington in the late 1970s to study under renowned herpetologist William Pyburn, who established the University’s Amphibian and Reptile Diversity Research Center. The facility has grown into an internationally recognized laboratory that houses 60,000 amphibians and 57,000 reptiles.

While working on his master’s degree in biology, Karges met a fellow graduate student named Jonathan Campbell. They shared a love for biodiversity and traveled to Guatemala, Mexico, and West Texas to collect specimens for the center.

“John has an innate curiosity about nature and wildlife,” says Dr. Campbell, now chair of UT Arlington’s Biology Department. “And he sincerely cares about conservation.”

That sincerity led to jobs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Fort Worth Nature Center and the California chapter of The Nature Conservancy. In 1991 he became the conservancy’s West Texas land steward, a job Campbell helped him get, then served as conservation biologist before ascending to his current position about a year ago.

Now recognized as one of Texas’ foremost natural historians, Karges has a knack for making the complex seem simple. His field expertise is a joy to experience, says Jim Bergan, director of science and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy’s Texas chapter.

“John is the epitome of a natural scientist,” Dr. Bergan says. “He’s a wonderful interpreter of natural history. He’s in the mold of some of the great Texas natural history experts.”

Karges never dreamed he’d work the West Texas landscape professionally. He planned to follow in Dr. Pyburn’s footsteps, imparting his knowledge of herpetology to biology students. But like a truck swerving to miss a jackrabbit on a winding desert road, he changed course. The call of the wild was too strong, the task of protecting Texas’ animals, plants, water and special places too important to ignore.

“There’s a running joke among conservationists,” he says. “Some see the glass as half empty, and some see it as half full. Conservationists see the glass as too big. We face the daunting challenges of conservation and the clock. Can we effectively conserve ahead of pressures like population demands, climate change, water shortages?”

If we can, Karges may learn to interpret the roadrunner’s reply. Perhaps it will translate to “thanks.”

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