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Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS)

A Program of the Southwest Biological Science Center & Ecosystems Mission Area



Hello RAMPS Community:

In the hustle of our work, it is important to pause and celebrate our collective accomplishments. In this edition of the newsletter, we share a summary of our work from 2020.

This newsletter also highlights recently published papers on the use of ecological drought models that are improving climate change predictions for the Southwest as well as understanding soil water-vegetation dynamics. RAMPS also recently published a paper on the use of plant traits to optimize restoration seed mixes on the Colorado Plateau, and a research summary of fire science on the US-Mexico border. We share a couple stories from the field and announce a new collaborative experiment involving the use of targeted grazing to combat non-native invasive species.

Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to continuing our work connecting cutting-edge science to address the most pressing land management issues in Southwest drylands.

Enjoy our update!

Molly McCormick, RAMPS Coordinator

Seth Munson, RAMPS Ecologist



Despite the challenges presented to us in 2020, RAMPS had a productive year.

Here is a snapshot of our activities:

  • 16 Research Publications
  • 4 Research Briefs
  • 25 Presentations
  • 5 Collaborative Working Groups
  • 5 Workshops & Field Trips Organized
  • $1.5 M in Grants Funded
  • 2 Interns Supported

Here is what our partners are saying:

“There is some good information in here that I will definitely utilize. This format certainly makes the decision-making route much easier for a land manager in my role.”    – Rob Nelson, Habitation Evaluation and Lands Program Manager, AZ Game and Fish Department, in response to the Cost-Benefit Analysis research brief.

 “Thanks for your work on these important topics! Facilitating the meetings and facilitating the momentum in between meetings via updates, note sharing and keeping in touch are key ingredients of success.  Your team does all of this well. There is a valuable lesson for us in NPS with interest in climate adaptation that will benefit from your example.”    -David Thoma, Hydrologist, National Park Service, Northern Colorado Plateau and Greater Yellowstone Networks 



Fire scorched desert landscape.
Restoring areas infested with invasive species that carry catastrophic fire is a top priority for the Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southest (RAMPS) and our partners. In 2019 & 2020, fires carried by the invasive red brome (Bromus rubens) grass destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert Scrub, resulting in some of the biggest fires in Arizona history. What remains now is a landscape highly vulnerable to further vegetation type transitions and degradation. RAMPS is currently mapping the spread of red brome to help land managers make decisions on how to prevent large fires and save the Sonoran Desert.


Tools for managers to prepare for ecological drought

Ecological drought influences plant growth, mortality, and recruitment, but what exactly is it? More than just reduced precipitation, ecological drought is a combination of hotter temperatures + reduced precipitation that results in lower amounts of water in soils. Soil water is a big driver of ecosystem dynamics in the arid Southwest, and RAMPS researchers are using soil-water models and developing new frameworks to understand how ecological drought effects ecosystems.

For forest managers who make decisions about forest stand density, looking at ecological drought can reveal how trees respond to forest thinning and climate. For managers seeding rangelands, ecological drought models can be used to understand the weather conditions needed for successful establishment and growth of seeded species. RAMPS is working to expand the use of these models to help managers improve restoration efforts by understanding the soil moisture conditions needed for successful establishment of plant species used for restoration.

Read more about how RAMPS uses ecological drought to support management:

Andrews, C. M., A. W. D'Amato, S. Fraver, B. Palik, M. A. Battaglia, and J. B. Bradford. 2020. Low stand density moderates growth declines during hot droughts in semi-arid forests. Journal of Applied Ecology 57:1089-1102. 

Bradford, J.B., C.M. Andrews, M.D. Robles, L.A. McCauley, T.J. Woolley, R.M. Marshall. 2020. Landscape-scale restoration minimizes tree growth vulnerability to 21st century drought in a dry forest. Ecological Applications 00: e02238

Munson, S.M., J.B. Bradford, K.R. Hultine. 2020. An Integrative Ecological Drought Framework to Span Plant Stress to Ecosystem Transformation. Ecosystems,

O’Connor, R. C., M. J. Germino, D. M. Barnard, C. M. Andrews, J. B. Bradford, D. S. Pilliod, R. S. Arkle, and R. K. Shriver. 2020. Small-scale water deficits after wildfires create long-lasting ecological impacts. Environmental Research Letters 15:044001. 

Thoma, D.P., M.T. Tercek, E.W. Schweiger, S.M. Munson, J.E. Gross, S.T. Olliff. 2020. Water balance as an indicator of natural resource condition: Case studies from Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Global Ecology and Conservation24, p.e01300.


Read more about how RAMPS is developing climate predictions for the Southwest based on an ecological drought model:

Bradford, J. B., D. R. Schlaepfer, W. K. Lauenroth, and K. A. Palmquist. 2020. Robust ecological drought projections for drylands in the 21st century. Global Change Biology 26:3906-3919.  

Bradford, J. B., D. R. Schlaepfer, W. K. Lauenroth, K. A. Palmquist, J. C. Chambers, J. D. Maestas, and S. B. Campbell. 2019. Climate-Driven Shifts in Soil Temperature and Moisture Regimes Suggest Opportunities to Enhance Assessments of Dryland Resilience and Resistance. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 7:358. 


Using plant traits to inform restoration actions

Plants are shaped by the environments where they live. Traits such as size of seed, height of plant, or thickness of leaves are a result of selective pressure from the surrounding environment, such as temperature, precipitation, and seasonal fluxes. Restoration actions can be improved with a more nuanced understanding of how plants are affected by their environments, thereby increasing our ability to match plant species with restoration sites. In a recent study, RAMPS researchers show how large seed size and taller plant height (likely shrubs) are more often found in places with a large range of temperatures (cold winters + hot summers) on the Colorado Plateau. We can use this information to select large-seeded shrubs over shorter, smaller seeded species for restoration in places such as canyon bottoms that experience large seasonal temperature swings.

Read the article:

Balazs, K. R., Kramer, A. T., Munson, S. M., Talkington, N., Still, S., and Butterfield, B. J. 2020. The right trait in the right place at the right time: Matching traits to environment improves restoration outcomes. Ecological Applications 30( 4):e02110. 10.1002/eap.2110




A woman measures vegetation using a quadrat underneath a long linear powerline right of way in the forest.
Connecting powerline rights-of-way vegetation management to improve pollinator habitat. Katie Laushman (USGS) reads vegetation cover of a plot along the Salt River Project powerline that crosses through Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto National Forests. This fall, baseline plots were established in areas that will be treated with mechanical and chemical vegetation management treatments and assessed for differences in native plant cover and pollinator abundance. This research was recently featured on the front page of the Utility Arborist Newsletter.



Combating an invasive plant-fire cycle that threatens cultural resources and highway travelers

RAMPS is partnering with the Bureau of Land Management Agua Fria National Monument and local rancher Brad Jannenga from Cross Y Ranch to develop techniques to reduce fuels on Black Mesa in central Arizona. Black Mesa is infested with non-native wild oat (Avena fatua) grass and black mustard (Brassica nigra) that cause frequent wildfires. Fires typically shut down nearby Interstate 17 at least once annually and threaten cultural resources scattered across the National Monument. The partnership is testing targeted grazing, herbicide, mowing, and re-seeding treatments in an effort to create native plant barriers that will stop or slow fires after they start.




Commercially available ‘Viva’ galleta grass (Hilaria jamesii) actually a hybrid between galleta and tobosa (H. mutica)

It can be challenging to find the seeds of native plants for restoration projects. Often times the seeds that are available were originally ‘conservation plant releases’ developed from wild collected seeds for large production. The only known source for galleta grass (Hilaria jamesii) is ‘Viva,’ having been used for seed increase and rangeland planting since 1979. Galleta grass is a widely used plant material as it is palatable to cattle in its early growing stages and has value for soil stabilization. Southwest Biological Science Center researchers recently looked at the genetics of Viva and discovered it is actually a hybrid cross between galleta grass and closely related tobosa grass (H.mutica). These two species can hybridize at the edges of their ranges, and Viva was likely sourced from a hybrid population. These results show that Viva can be a great plant material to use in hybrid zones. However, likely because of galleta grass’ popularity, the researchers found that Viva has migrated outside of the hybrid zone into the core range of galleta. This can potentially have unintended genetic consequences for galleta in these areas, including reduced vigor and fitness (inability or diminished ability to reproduce). These findings highlight the importance of genetic research for developing plant materials for restoration, correct labeling of released plant materials, and the importance of selecting plant materials adapted to restoration sites.

Read the article:

Winkler, D.E., and Massatti, R. 2020. Unexpected hybridization reveals the utility of genetics in native plant restoration. Restoration Ecology 28:1047-1052.



Restoration Webinar Series to feature RAMPS’ RestoreNet Experiment

The Restoration Webinar Series, hosted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a venue for disseminating new approaches, best management practices and innovative restoration techniques to some of our nation’s greatest restoration challenges. The series covers a broad spectrum of topics including: planning and implementing restoration projects; project monitoring and evaluation at multiple time scales; accounting for a changing climate in restoration; regional restoration planning and priority setting; and permitting.

March 18 (2-3 pm ET): RestoreNet: An Emerging Restoration Network Reveals Controls on Restoration Seeding Success Across Dryland Ecosystems – Caroline Havrilla (USGS). Results from the RestoreNet project, an emerging dryland restoration network in the southwestern US, reveal how common restoration strategies, climate adapted seed mixes, and environmental factors control restoration seeding success across degraded drylands.

Register for the webinar here.


An infographic summarizing activities of the RAMPS program.

RAMPS is a program of the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center located in Flagstaff, AZ

RAMPS works with stakeholders within DOI, Tribal governments, private lands, and state agencies to provide guidance and support for effective restoration strategies across the Southwest U.S. The RAMPS network consists of over 500 people representing 50+ entities working together to increase land productivity and to reduce threats posed by environmental hazards. 


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