The New Mexico Landscapes Field Station

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The New Mexico Landscapes Field Station is a place-based, globally-connected, ecological research group that studies and interprets ecosystem and wildlife dynamics, working with land managers and community leaders to deliver solutions that foster the linked health of human and natural systems.

Our partnerships, and co-location, with land management agencies provide us with opportunities to deliver our research through high-quality science-based conversations. We often work together to develop strategies to adaptively sustain or restore vital ecosystem functioning.

For over three decades, we have used holistic multidisciplinary approaches to develop ecological understanding of the surrounding landscapes and biota. We focus on pressing research needs, from forest watershed health to diseases of sensitive bat species.

Recent and ongoing major changes in northern New Mexico ecosystems, in response to interactions among land use histories, drought stress, and disturbances like fire and insect outbreaks, may be a harbinger of future landscape responses elsewhere. We contribute to global scientific progress and science-based strategies to address management issues locally and beyond. 

A USGS science technician studies vegetation changes in the Bandelier National Monument area of New Mexico.
A USGS science technician studies changes in vegetation at Bandelier National Monument. USGS photo. 

Long-term Place-based Ecological MonitoringPrincipal Investigator - Craig D Allen in cooperation with Kay Beeley of the National Park Service

For over 30 years we have monitored the ecosystem dynamics of the mesas and mountains of northern New Mexico, based at Bandelier National Monument and the New Mexico state office for the Bureau of Land Management. Our work provides land managers and scientists with diverse information on landscape responses to climate and disturbances (fire, drought, insects) such as vegetation and erosion changes, piñon-juniper demography and mortality, weekly tree growth, ground-dwelling arthropod population fluctuations, and detailed ecohydrological info. Being co-located with our management partners, we are able to directly interpret ongoing research through high-quality science-based conversations. We also contribute to broader research networks at regional, national, and global scales.

 

 

 Southern Rocky Mountains with golden aspen
Southern Rocky Mountains with golden aspen. Photo by Ellis Margolis, USGS. Public domain.

Western Mountain Initiative: Southern Rocky Mountains - Principal Investigators - Craig D Allen and Ellis Margolis

Mountain ecosystems of the western U.S. provide irreplaceable goods and services such as water, wood, biodiversity, and recreational opportunities, but their potential responses to projected climatic patterns are poorly understood. The overarching objective of the Western Mountain Initiative (WMI) is to understand and predict the responses—emphasizing sensitivities, thresholds, resistance, and resilience—of western mountain ecosystems to climatic variability and change. The WMI - Southern Rocky Mountains project, with diverse research partners, works on forests in the Southwest to: 1) elucidate centennial- to millennial-length shifts in past vegetation and fire regimes; 2) study responses of fire to short-term (annual to decadal) climatic variation; 3) determine drivers of tree mortality, including drought-stress thresholds for dieback; 4) assess patterns of post-disturbance ecosystem recovery; and 5) understand the joint effects of climatic variability, fire, and land use on watershed runoff and erosion processes. 

 

Dr. Ellis Margolis examines a tree ring specimen under a microscope.
Ellis Margolis cross dates an old piece of ponderosa pine from the Tesuque watershed outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Collin Haffey, USGS, public domain.

New Mexico Dendroecology LabPrincipal Investigator: Ellis Margolis in cooperation with Lane Johnson of the National Park Service

An interdisciplinary landscape-scale ecological research program that focuses on the effects of climate variability on forest ecology, fire ecology, and ecohydrology. Much of my research is applied and therefore designed to inform forest, fire, and ecohydrology resource management (e.g., Santa Fe Fireshed Collaboration Restoration Initiative). Researchers use dendrochronology as a primary research tool, which involves dendrochronological cross-dating of tree-ring samples, including fire scars and tree ring-width series.

Current research projects include:

  1. Tree-ring reconstructions of fire history of the Taos Valley Watersheds.

  2. Tree-ring reconstructions of fire history in the Santa Fe Fireshed.

  3. The largest mountain range fire scar network in North America: fire regime reconstruction in the Jemez Mountains.

  4. Dual-season climate reconstructions and fire-climate relationships in the southwestern United States. 

  5. Fire history, old-growth forests, and climate variability on the Navajo Nation.

 

Ernie Valdez holding a long-eared bat
Research Wildlife Biologist, Ernie Valdez, holds a long-eared bat (Myotis evotis) that will be swabbed for bacteria that may serve as natural defenses against white-nose syndrome.

Ecology of Insect-eating BatsPrincipal Investigator - Ernie Valdez

Recently, many insectivorous bat species have suffered drastic declines in numbers due to new environmental stressors, both natural and human caused. One of these stressors is the emerging wildlife disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS). This disease is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans and has been devastating colonies of hibernating bats in the eastern United States for several years. At present, there is no known cure for WNS, which continues to spread north-, south-, and westward. It is likely that the effects of declining insectivorous bat populations will influence insect populations, including possible increases, in some geographic areas of insects that are economic pests.

Documenting Naturally Occurring Bacteria in Bats - Principal Investigator - Ernie Valdez

In 2015, three tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus), a species found primarily in the eastern United States, tested positive for P.d. in eastern Oklahoma. Until March 2016, the discovery of WNS and P.d. in Washington state, these records represented the westernmost occurrence of the disease causing fungus. In addition, records of P.d from eastern Oklahoma are also on the same latitude and trajectory as a possible corridor to the western United States via northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado. In 2003, tri-colored bats were discovered in northeastern New Mexico, thus suggesting that this species is moving into the West via the riparian corridors of northeastern New Mexico.

 

Pinon Pine die off in New Mexico
Area outside of Bandelier National Monument during early 2000s drought, in which greater than 95% of the mature piñon pine trees died due to warmer temperatures and bark beetle infestations. Craig D. Allen, USGS, public domain.

Tree Mortality Patterns and Processes Principal Investigator - Craig D Allen

Natural climatic variability, including episodic droughts, has long been known to trigger accelerated tree mortality in forests worldwide, including in the Southwest U.S. Scientific understanding of the process drivers and spatial patterns of tree mortality is surprisingly limited, constraining our ability to model forest responses to projected climate variability. The onset of regional drought since the late 1990s has resulted in extensive die-off episodes of multiple tree species across millions of acres in the Southwest, fostering substantial collaborative tree mortality research in this region. Ongoing tree mortality research in northern New Mexico includes: reconstruction of historic forest dieback patterns; monitoring of forest and woodland demographies (tree mortality and regeneration); experimental determination of physiological thresholds of drought- and heat-induced tree mortality; relationships between tree growth, drought stress, insects/diseases, and mortality; remote-sensing of landscape-scale patterns of forest stress and die-off; documentation of regional, national, and global patterns of forest die-off; and efforts to improve models of tree mortality processes.

 

Habitat used by bats and insects at uranium mines along the Grand Canyon Strip
Acoustic bat detectors and light traps used to sample for bats and insects at detention ponds located on and near uranium mines adjacent to the Grand Canyon. USGS photo, public domain.

 

 

Assessing Impacts to Ecosystems from Uranium Mining in the Grand Canyon RegionPrincipal Investigator - Ernie Valdez

The use of uranium is an alternative energy source to petroleum products and some of the United States’ highest quality ore is located on the Colorado Plateau. However, some regions where suitable mining efforts are conducted include areas that are near important environmental resources such as National Parks that provide viewscapes and habitat for wildlife. Research is ongoing to reduce the uncertainties of mining impacts and effects on water quality and quantity, and better understand the potential toxicological and radiological effects of mining on wildlife, as well as to evaluate the potential impacts on cultural and tribal resources.

 

 

 

 

 

Post-fire Recovery Patterns in Southwestern Forests - Project Lead - Collin Haffey

This area needs to recover from fire damage to its trees.
High-severity crown fires in Southwestern dry conifer forests have created large treeless areas, un-precedented in the regional record. Photo by: Viveash. Public domain.

High-severity crown fires in Southwestern dry-conifer forests — resulting from fire suppression, fuel buildups, and drought — are creating large treeless areas that are historically unprecedented in size. These recent stand-replacing fires have reset extensive portions of Southwest forest landscapes, fostering post-fire successional vegetation that can alter ecological recovery trajectories away from pre-fire forest types toward persistent non-forested ecosystems (shrublands and grasslands). Our team studies areas that burned during the recent persistent regional drought (ca. 1996-2014) that are recovering under "hotter drought" conditions that foreshadow projected future climate trends. Our field surveys document a wide variety of post-fire ecological responses following stand-replacing crown fires in diverse forest settings, including potential "type conversion" to non-forest. These research results improve understanding of Southwest landscape changes in response to land use and climate, contributing to informed land management decisions regarding adaptation or mitigation strategies to sustain forests under projected “hotter drought” conditions.

Our field surveys document a wide variety of post-fire ecological responses following stand-replacing crown fire, including potential type conversion. These research results improve understanding of Southwest landscape changes in response to early-stage climate warming, contributing to informed land management decisions regarding adaptation or mitigation strategies to address increasingly the “hotter drought” conditions of regional climate projections.

 

 

Bat hanging from a cave ceiling
A healthy, banded little brown bat hangs out in a cave. Photo credit: Paul Cryan, USGS. Paul Cryan, USGS, public domain.

Surveillance for the Presence of White-Nose Syndrome in the Bat Community at El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico - Principal Investigator - Ernie Valdez

To better plan and manage for the possible arrival of WNS, it is imperative to have current information on the occurrence of bat species and the types of habitat they use in the national monument. These data will serve as a current baseline on the status of the existing species and can be compared to historic and future studies alike.

The purpose of this study is to locate new hibernacula, as well as provide an up-to-date assessment of bats and their micro-biota that occur on El Malpais National Monument. This study will provide new insight to what species may be affected by the potential occurrence of white-nose syndrome. Moreover, information from this study will provide information that is critical for managing habitat of the park as well as insight to what species may be using the lava tube systems.

This study will be initiated with a review of the literature, as well as the database of species encountered during the 1999-2000 bat assessment conducted US Geological Survey. Field studies that include acoustic monitoring and mist-netting bats over open water sources will target early emergence of bats during late winter and early spring to allow for detection of hibernacula across the landscape and fungal hyphae, respectively. Mist netting will continue throughout the spring and likely the summer of 2013. All efforts are dependent on local weather conditions and available funding.

 

Tall wind turbines in a semi-arid shrubland with a bright rainbow
Tall wind turbines in a semi-arid shrubland with a bright rainbow. Jeff Lovich, USGS. 

Bat Fatalities at Wind Turbines—Investigating the Causes and Consequences

Principal Investigators - Ernie Valdez and Paul Cryan

Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world and represents an important step toward reducing dependence on nonrenewable sources of power. However, unprecedented numbers of tree-roosting bats are dying at wind turbines on multiple continents, raising concerns about the well-being of these animals. While causes of bat fatalities at wind turbines remain unknown, potential clues can be found in the patterns of fatalities. TSH scientists, in collaboration with other U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) science centers as well as partners from Federal, State, and non-governmental organizations, are using these clues to focus research efforts. Investigations are underway to better identify the seasonal distributions, habitat needs, and migration patterns of species showing greatest susceptibility, assess the potential roles of mating and feeding behaviors in turbine collisions, develop new video-based methods for studying and monitoring bats flying around wind turbines at night, and test whether bats are attracted to turbines. Findings from these studies are leading us toward new ways of monitoring and possibly avoiding bat fatalities at wind turbines.

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