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Packrats are pests, but also a prized Apache delicacy during the wintertime

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story includes graphic descriptions of an animal death.

Desert woodrats, more commonly referred to in and around the Valley as packrats, are also called "gloscho." It’s an Apache word which translates to “big nest-builders,” according to Kim Adams. “It sounds like a big bird, but it’s gloscho.”

Adams, a fluent Apache linguist, stopped to pick out a couple of thin Evergreen branches from a pile outside his trailer home in the Gilson Wash District, neighboring the San Carlos capital of Peridot. 

A lifelong packrat hunter, Adams shared it’s important to always be prepared in case any elders show up without warning, especially before trekking any farther into the San Carlos Apache Reservation stretching across 1.8 million acres in Gila, Graham and Pinal counties. 

“You gotta live with it once they show you. You gotta know it, understand it,” said Adams. “One day, they’ll say, ‘Go on, let’s go.’ They’ll pick you up, and then, next thing you know, you’re on your way to go look for appetizers.” 

Much like that overcast day in late January when San Carlos Apache forager Twila Cassadore drove her black pickup truck to the foothills of the Natural Corral, a mesa once favored for cattle herding.

Now, it’s a popular destination for packrat hunting.

It’s an arid and remote landscape speckled with cacti, like prickly pear, and agave, but Cassadore and her crew are in search of what’s burrowed below the surface. 

They’re looking to break apart packrat nests protruding from the ground, and the tiny, elaborate tunnels dug underneath root systems, providing the rodents protection from predators.

Even Apaches like teenager William Hopper. 

“You never know,” said Hopper. “Man, homey just built his mansion.” 

Packrat mansions, made from heaps of decaying leaves and feces. Cassadore explained that disturbing their homes actually helps aerate the soil and nourish the plants around it. 

“So you’re not exactly destroying it, because this is in its natural habitat. And they always remodel,” said Cassadore. “They have more than one home, they build quickly and adapt to any situation they get into, sorta like us.” 

She was overseeing two boys taking turns demolishing another nest, as Adams watched out for any furry critters that tried to scurry away. 

Armed with a rock in his hand, almost the size of his fist. “Hit him right in the head. Knock him out,” Adams laughed.

Typically done in teams of at least three, Cassadore remembered how her son went gloscho hunting all by himself alongside a dog named Bandit — with a stick in each hand — one to disturb the nest and another to hastily tap any rodent right in the head. 

While on the lookout, Adams got hungry, too. So when asked what this Apache delicacy tastes like, many say chicken, “but depends on who you ask,” according to Cassadore.

“Nothing compares to it,” added Adams. Cassadore agreed, suggesting it has its “own, unique taste.” 

Cassadore is also part of the Traditional Western Apache Diet Project, an Indian Health Service initiative in partnership with the San Carlos, Tonto and White Mountain Apache tribes as well as the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

She’s documented some 300 ancient meals from the past, and helped develop nearly 100 daily menus, both high in fiber and protein. 

Apache traditional diets are tied to the seasons. 

A reliance on rations, and later, commodities grew once Apaches weren’t allowed to hunt or forage freely. The project estimates that wild meat made up between 20 and 40 percent of their total pre-reservation diet. 

Rodents were even the most eaten mammal, by volume, among 30 species. And her favorite way to prepare packrat is by boiling it whole, fur and all, for about 10 hours.

“You’ll watch it explode. All of the intestines and everything comes out. And you’re left with this beautiful piece of meat,” said Cassadore, before adding an agave-sumac glaze and grilling it to a crunchy crisp. 

Packrats are foraged typically between December and February, a short season to safely hunt the species without worrying over rattlesnakes or botflies. “That’s why you don’t do it in the summertime,” Cassadore added.

But that brief two-month window for hunting has narrowed. In fact, it’s still shrinking. 

Rattlesnakes are mostly dormant during the winter. Hopper recalled the last time he embarked with a packrat hunting party, at least five years ago, and encountered a few of them when they shouldn’t have been awake.

Fertilized female botflies lay eggs near the entrances of rodent nests and burrows. Those eggs hatch instantaneously once any warm-blooded animal is nearby. Then, they’ll crawl underneath the skin like parasites. 

Desert botflies not only feed off those culturally- and nutritionally-rich rodents. These insects also target other sources of wild meat like cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits on their tribal lands. 

Rising temperatures and warmer winters, coupled with climate change, are among the basic ingredients to a bad recipe for packrat hunters on the reservation. 

They kept on home-wrecking with a few false alarms along the way, until a gray, fat packrat suddenly appeared and scampered off to another nest.

The boys continued digging out its dwelling, and eventually that packrat got pinned down by one of those branches, no more than 3 feet in length. Cassadore then instructed one of the teenagers to take that stick and “hit his head, really hard like a cue ball.”

That poke temporarily knocked it out, before she delivered the final blow. Lifting the limp rodent in the air from its slim tail, Cassadore shouted, “He’s huge. There he is, he’s a one-pounder.”

Although packrats are pests, particularly for car owners in and around the Valley, this small mammal is highly sought-after among Apaches since it’s an essential ingredient for their traditional diet.

Hunting only a handful of them each season is considered to be a prize during those two months. So they’re still grateful to gather even a single, plump packrat on this windy winter day.

Walking back to her muddied pickup truck that morning, Cassadore paused to reflect on an Apache teaching that she’s always felt after spending part of her day, in the wild, hunting packrats.

“In our way, we say ‘Gozhóó’,’” said Cassadore. “It’s just respect for nature, something that’s so beautiful. I always feel there’s an energy in all of this, where in a way, it blesses you. You’re going back blessed.” 

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This photo gallery below includes graphic depictions of an animal death.

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.