WILD NEW MEXICO
by Natalie JohnsonThis article appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of New Mexico Resources.
Despite the stark and lonely landscape, New Mexico is a land rich in wildlife. The state ranks second only to California in the number of different mammals, with more than 150 species roaming the changeable and often parched terrain.
Ninety species of fish swim in the fluctuating rivers, ponds, and reservoirs. Nearly 480 types of birds fly overhead or race across the desert floor like the famed road-runner. More than 50 percent of the bird species that live in North America can be found here.
"What makes New Mexico unique is its biodiversity," says Jon Boren, a wildlife specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "The diverse habitat - from desert to forest land - houses the state's great variety of species."
This richness in wildlife translates into economic richness for New Mexico. Wildlife recreation generates $700 to $800 million in spending each year for non-consumptive uses like bird watching and camping, as well as hunting and fishing.
Richness in diversity doesn't guarantee abundance, however. Fishery and wildlife managers in New Mexico, like their counterparts across the nation, are finding themselves in the midst of a numbers game.
"Almost all we do is try to change the numbers of animals," says Phillip Zwank, leader of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, a joint state and federal effort housed at NMSU. "Either we have too many or too few, or nobody worries."
Conflicts arise when people disagree about the numbers. Elk are a good example. "Hunting guides and outfitters want a certain number and quality of elk," Boren says. "Urban folks have an idea of how many they'd like to see for recreational purposes when they visit the national forest. Then, of course, livestock producers have their own number in mind, because the elk diet may overlap with that of cattle."
It's hard to please everyone. "I think wildlife man-agers really need to base decisions on scientific data," he says. "We need to collect data on how many elk are out there, and also determine their impact on our natu-ral resources."
Boren monitors elk use of grasslands in the Gila National Forest, in cooperation with grazing permittees. There's been concern that there's not enough forage for all, and an increase in elk has led to a decrease in livestock numbers. "The objective is to obtain documented information about elk forage as a basis for future management decisions," he says.
When conflicts arise over numbers, the co-op research unit can help. "The unit tries hard to provide good, unbiased data to allow management agencies to make decisions," Zwank says. Research projects last year included everything from the ecology of bald eagles to using telemetry to locate oryx.
Sometimes encroaching urbanization can put humans and animals at odds. "As you get more urban sprawl into rural areas of New Mexico, animal damage control issues come up," Boren says. "I get quite a few calls about mule deer causing problems in home gardens and eating ornamental shrubs."
Each year, there are incidents of New Mexicans living close to wildlife habitats who awake to find their garbage cans ransacked, their flowers eaten, and sometimes their pets killed by bears, coyotes, or even mountain lions.
"All predators are opportunists," says V.W. Howard, an NMSU wildlife professor. "They take what they can get, and they go to the closest food source."
The drought of the early 1990s set many animals in motion including bears that came down from the Sandia Mountains to forage for food in Albuquerque's foothill subdivisions.
The state game and fish department traps and relocates some unwanted predators each year. Howard says this isn't always best for the animals - they often don't survive or they travel great distances to return to their homes.
Trying to decrease numbers can be an odd idea for wildlife managers who have been working hard since the turn of the century to increase populations, Zwank says.
"We were thinking, 'Aren't we good when we make more?'" he says. "But we didn't know when to stop, and now we have to start adopting a different philosophy in some cases."
Just as the words "too many" worry city dwellers dealing with grackles, pigeons, and house sparrows, the words "rare," "threatened," and "endangered" worry those concerned about wildlife diversity.
The Nature Conservancy's mission is to preserve rare plants and animals by protecting the habitat they need to survive, says Terry Sullivan, director of the nonprofit group's conservation programs in New Mexico. The Conservancy has 6,500 members in the state.
"New Mexico isn't subject to the level of pressure from population growth that some states like Colorado are under," he says. "But we've still lost quite a bit of habitat, and we're trying to protect and restore it."
The Conservancy's strategy is to buy or arrange conservation agreements for at-risk land that contains habitat important for rare and endangered species. The group often works in partnership with landowners or other agencies concerned with conservation. "Ideally, a piece of land will contain more than one or two species of concern," Sullivan says.
For example, the Gila Riparian Preserve northwest of Silver City is one of the most important biological areas in the state with 38 identified rare or endangered species. The Gila is important because it's the last major free-flowing river in the state and has a unique forest that supports many species.
The Gila Riparian Preserve is one of three preserves the Conservancy manages on a long-term basis in New Mexico. Other projects are turned over to various agencies to manage once the land is secure.
One such project was the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, established as a research area in 1973. This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge is home to four major vegetation zones - Great Basin, Great Plains, Chihuahuan Desert, and Mixed Conifers. These zones are home to 217 species of birds and 65 species of mammals, including desert bighorn sheep.
Theodore Stans manages the Sevilleta's 228,000 acres. A wildlife biologist, Stans has spent his career with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"This is one of the only refuges in the United States dedicated solely to research," he says. The University of New Mexico runs a Long-term Ecological Research project at the refuge.
The ecotonal areas of the Sevilleta - where the edges of the vegetation zones meet - are of particular scientific interest. Great changes occur in these areas when the land is stressed.
"We study animal populations and how predator/prey relations change during drought conditions," he says. "There is a great deal of concern about how the environment reacts to long-term global climate changes."
Stans says his job is to make sure the researchers are studying natural changes and not "big foot" effects left by the tracks of other visitors or researchers.
The refuge is off-limits to the public, except for an occasional tour. No vehicles are allowed off the main gravel roads, and all signs of study, like colored pin flags to mark research plots, must be removed when the work is complete. To further reduce human impact, information from seven weather stations on the refuge is retrieved by radio telemetry.
During an afternoon tour, Sevilleta visitors are sure to see black grama grass, creosote bush, and plenty of gravel road, but no promises of wildlife are made. A fleeting visit by a hurried herd of eight pronghorn can take even the refuge manager by surprise.
"I still get excited," Stans says. "It's always neat to see these critters, and it makes your day when you do."
Not everyone concerned with wildlife diversity works for the government or a nonprofit organization. Many private landowners have an interest, too. "Most ranchers love their wildlife," says John Fowler, who heads NMSU's Range Improvement Task Force. "They have a harmony with wildlife that most people don't understand."
To get a better handle on the economics of hunting in New Mexico, Extension is surveying the state's 3,000 landowners who receive elk or pronghorn hunting permits. "We're looking at the different types of services they provide, the different species they hunt on their hunting leases, and the economics of their operations," Boren says.
Byron Wright, agricultural specialist with Extension, is conducting the study. "Many agriculturists have found wildlife to be an effective means for diversification, which has become essential for some agricultural producers in terms of survival in an uncertain economic environment," he says. "Information collected will help them make informed decisions about creating a wildlife enterprise."
The study analyzes wildlife's economic value. "Habitat loss is becoming an issue of increasing concern when managing wildlife," Wright says. "By ascribing monetary value to wildlife, we can provide an incentive for people to manage for various species and, consequently, the habitat in which they exist."
Harmony between raising bison and encouraging wildlife is a way of life for Steve Dobrott, manager of Ted Turner's 399-square-mile Ladder Ranch near Hillsboro. "We manage bison and wildlife to be compatible to make money. This isn't a hobby, it's a business."
The ranch, with its 12 permanent employees, is run on an ecosystem management approach. "We think a healthy ecosystem makes for a better, more productive ranch," Dobrott says.
He transformed the ranch from a cattle to a bison operation. The ranch crew removed 250 miles of interior net wire fence so the bison, and the wildlife and game species are less restrained. At the same time, major portions of the boundary fence were rebuilt with high-tensile, solar-charged wire. Traditional barbed wire won't always hold bison.
Since the sun is more reliable than wind in New Mexico, Dobrott also replaces broken windmills with solar panels to pump water to strategic sites.
To help fulfill Turner's conservation mission, the ranch includes a farm to grow wildlife food. There's millet for ducks; sunflowers for doves; and corn, alfalfa, wheat, and oats for geese.
The habitat for quail, a favorite game bird of Turner and his wife, Jane Fonda, is carefully managed. The bison are kept out of draws where quail find cover. Prescribed burns are used to reduce overstory brush and encourage growth of leafy plants quail prefer.
Sometimes when Dobrott and his dog Oso find themselves high on a ridge overlooking the expansive ranch, Dobrott says he contemplates his task. "It's a wildlife biologist's dream world," he says. "There's so much potential for diversity. To manage this land in such a way as to develop its biotic potential is a unique opportunity."
Wildlife also is a big part of the business at Circle Bar West Ranch in Hondo. The ranch is owned by Louisian-an Patrick Taylor, who runs an independent off-shore oil company. Circle Bar West is a sheep, Brangus cattle, and bison ranch, as well as a game park and a fee hunting operation.
"Our primary objective is to determine the best use of the land," Taylor says. "Proper management of the wildlife resource can result in better revenues and a better life for the people who live on the land. At the same time, we're restoring and maintaining the land for the future."
The key to establishing the game park was a two-year effort to encircle the ranch's best mule deer population and habitat with a sturdy, 11-mile-long game fence.
Inside the park, supplemental feeding and careful culling have nearly tripled the mule deer population to 300 on 3,500 acres, says Tony Dickinson, Circle Bar West's general manager.
This effort yields about four trophy bucks per year, as well as 15 to 20 culled bucks and 20 to 30 does. Trophy hunts cost $250 a day, plus trophy fees if the hunters succeed. There's no guarantee a guided, five-day hunt in the game park will mean a prize buck. But hunters are assured a "total ranch experience" with outdoor sightseeing, trout fishing, and a rifle range.
Dickinson keeps careful track not only of the mule deer but also the restocked elk population. Each year, the ranch employs a university student interested in game management to help track the animals. Dickinson knows mule deer habits so well, he can even predict the best photo opportunity at a feeder just as the afternoon sun begins to wane.
Whether the land is private or government-owned, NMSU researchers are interested in helping fishery and wildlife managers make best use of the resources.
A 15-year project, supported by New Mexico's game and fish department and NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, led to RIOFISH, a computer model that helps fishery managers make better decisions to improve sport fishing for the 250,000 licensed anglers. Ninety percent of the fishing waters in the state are publicly managed.
"RIOFISH provides an estimate of the economic value added by a management change in stocking rates or habitat," says Richard Cole, RIOFISH developer and researcher with NMSU's Experiment Station.
Often fishery management decisions revolve around proper water levels at the state's man-made lakes and reservoirs. For example, the model can help managers of small reservoirs decide if it makes economic sense to buy water to sustain certain fish during a drought, Cole says.
Back on land, another tool to help manage "the numbers game" comes in the form of a digital map of New Mexico with layer upon layer of information about vegetation types, species distribution, and conservation management.
This "gap analysis" project identifies gaps in conservation efforts. Wildlife managers can find out which plant and animal communities are not represented on lands being managed to promote long-term conservation and biological diversity.
"We looked at 584 wildlife species, and we found that proportionally more reptiles and amphibians are at risk," says Bruce Thompson, assistant leader of the co-op research unit. Six species - the Rio Grande frog, Great Plains narrowmouth toad, Rio Grande river cooter, zebratail lizard, plainbelly water snake, and the gray-checkered whiptail - are not expected to be found on any of the state's well-conserved lands.
Once potential at-risk communities and species are identified, further study is needed to confirm or deny the gap. "This analysis is one tool to help land managers make better decisions," Thompson says.
"I say 'land managers,' because gap analysis isn't an end; it's just the beginning," he adds. "We can provide information to go beyond single endangered species management to total conservation management of the land surface to make good decisions for the future." Decisions that will preserve wild New Mexico's richness.