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Research Work Unit RMRS-4652

Research Work Unit Title

Ecology, Diversity and Sustainability of Soil, Plant, Animal and Human Resources of the Rio Grande Basin

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Overhead relief map


Rio Grande Basin ecosystems have evolved under human influence for at least 12,000 years. Since 1540, the Middle Basin has experienced increasing environmental and socioeconomic changes, including urban population growth, invasion of aggressive exotic plants, water development, changes in rural economic patterns, shifts in public values, and endangerment of riparian species. Primary goals of the Middle Rio Grande Basin Ecosystem Management program sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) are to generate and share knowledge and methods to maintain the ecological health and diverse cultural and economic values of native grasslands, shrublands, and woodlands in the space- and resource-limited ecosystems of the Middle Basin.

Working with over 30 Basin stakeholders, our program coordinates and implements research designed to solve environmental and sociocultural problems in the Basin with emphasis on sustaining rangeland health, riparian productivity, fish and wildlife populations, archaeological sites, and human values and needs. An initial literature assessment of status and issues of river and upland ecosystems in the Rio Grande Basin was published by our program in 1995 (Finch and Tainter 1995). Research updates and cooperative ventures of the Rio Grande program were most recently highlighted at a symposium held June 2-5, 1998 co-sponsored by RMRS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Research products were summarized in the symposium proceedings, Rio Grande Ecosystem: Linking Land, Water, and People. Toward a Sustainable Future for the Middle Rio Grande Basin (Finch et al. 1999).
Environmental History and Cultural Dimensions

To interpret current ecosystem dynamics and health in the middle Basin, it was first necessary to understand and describe the influences of past human land uses during critical periods of New Mexico's complex history (Finch and Tainter 1995). Therefore, a comprehensive environmental history was funded by the program and published last year (Scurlock 1998). This environmental history report documents land change during the following periods: American Indian (pre-1540); Spanish Colonial (1540-1821); Mexican (1821-1846); Territorial (1846-1912); and Statehood (1912-Present). Another volume reviewing the history of irrigation in the Middle Basin was also funded and published by our program (Wozniak 1998). Members of the program (Roy Jemison and Carol Raish, RMRS, Albuquerque, NM) have published a book about livestock grazing in the Southwest, including an evaluation of historical, social and economic considerations. This volume is published by Elsevier Press and is due to be printed in the year 2000. A pilot project assessing social and economic costs and benefits of Hispanic ranching on national forests has recently been implemented under the auspices of the Rio Grande Program and is described in a recent article by Raish (1999). For more information on the economic role of livestock, see Raish (1998).

To visually document prehistoric human influences, our program is developing three-dimensional GIS models of reconstructed past landscapes using archaeological, vegetational, and paleoenvironmental data from the Rio del Oso drainage of the Santa Fe National Forest (Richard Periman, RMRS, Albuquerque, NM). Landscape models will be produced for three time periods, including two Puebloen occupations (1200-1325 and 1325-1600) and the historic Hispanic occupations (see Periman 1999). In addition, a Ph.D. project on this topic is underway at the University of New Mexico (UNM), and a dissertation should be completed by the Year 2001. A summary of cultural research implemented by members of the Rio Grande Program team is included in Table 1.

Ecological Disturbance and Restoration Research

Watershed and biological studies were initiated in FY94 and FY95 in the middle Rio Grande Basin, defined as the reach between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico (Table 1). Current studies are assessing responses of soil nutrients, water, belowground flora and fauna, herbaceous and woody plants, and fish and wildlife populations to 1) disturbances by drought, fire and its suppression, grazing, and past human activities, and 2) restoration treatments to mitigate or reverse disturbance effects.

Drought, overgrazing, and fire exclusion are three of the major factors, interacting in concert, that have resulted in degraded upland and river ecosystems in the middle Basin (Finch and Tainter 1995). Several cooperative studies were implemented to evaluate effects of drought, grazing exclusion, fire suppression, and historic human influence. These studies have involved the use of tree-ring dating (Betancourt and Swetnam), landscape analysis (Potter, Milne, UNM), experiments with cobble rocks (White, UNM; Loftin, RMRS and Los Alamos National Lab), excluding cattle from streams (Valett, Moyer, Dahm, UNM), and current and historic inventory data and photo records at Research Natural Areas (RNA) (Muldavin, Ladyman, UNM Natural Heritage Program). Ecological assessments have detected widespread shifts in grassland/shrubland/woodland boundaries (Baisan and Swetnam 1997, Kieft et al. 1998, Johnson et al. 1999); influences of early Puebloan cobblemulch gardens on current ecosystem functioning (White et al. 1998); effects of grazing and hydrology on nutrient composition and retention in streams (Valett et al. 1998, Moyer et al. 1998), and influence of RNA protection on ecosystem health as indexed by plant age and densities, nutrient cycling, and extent of cryptogam crusts (Ladyman and Muldavin 1997).

Evaluations of the influence of the 1950's drought on pinyon demography are underway by Julio Betancourt (U.S. Geological Survey Desert Ecology Lab, Tucson, AZ) and Tom Swetnam (University of Arizona, Tucson). Their most recent update was published in Journal of Climatology (Swetnam and Betancourt 1999). In addition, the Rio Grande program sponsored a book about the 1950's drought in the Southwest which is being compiled and edited by Betancourt. A Ph.D. dissertation at UNM on the relationships between lightning strikes, precipitation, and landscape vegetation patterns was published in Landscape Ecology (Potter 1998).

A large number of cooperating agencies are involved in ecological disturbance and restoration research, in part because altered or degraded ecosystems are prevalent in the Basin, crossing organizational boundaries. Restoration ecology studies were designed to determine whether intervention with treatments will interrupt ecosystem degradation processes and re-establish natural ecological functioning (contacts: Carl White, UNM, Albuquerque, NM; Samuel Loftin, Los Alamos Research Lab, Los Alamos, NM; Roy Jemison, RMRS, Albuquerque, NM.) Recent results of amendment, road-engineering, and prescribed fire studies have been published by White et al. (1997), Pawelek et al. (1999), Loftin (1999), and White et al. (1999).

CutthroatBiological Diversity Research

Understanding Basin ecosystems and cultures cannot be achieved without an understanding of the importance of the Rio Grande and its associated tributaries (Finch and Tainter 1995). The river itself has historically been and still is a major focal point for human settlement, water development, farming and irrigation, and pollution from local and upland sources. Despite threats from growing human populations, the Rio Grande and associated tributaries and streams continue to be important reservoirs for biological diversity in the Southwest. To understand the contributions of river and stream habitats to biological diversity, we implemented mapping and survey assessments and experimental studies of Rio Grande cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis), Rio Grande Sucker (Catostomus plebeius), and Rio Grande Chub (Gila pandora) (Bob Calamusso, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces and John Rinne, RMRS, Flagstaff); neotropical migratory birds (Deborah Finch, Jeff Kelly, and Wang Yong, RMRS, Albuquerque); and endangered species (Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, Empidonax traillii extimus) (Deborah Finch, Scott Stoleson, Jeff Kelly, RMRS, Albuquerque) (Table 1). Recent results have been published on fish status and distribution (Calamusso and Rinne 1999), stopover ecology of migratory landbirds (Yong and Finch 1997a, Kelly et al. 1999), willow flycatcher migration (Yong and Finch 1997b, Finch and Kelly 1999), and brown-headed cowbird distribution (Schweitzer et al. 1998).

After further consultation with various agencies and stakeholders, studies of bat "Species of Concern" in upland ecosystems were added to the program in 1995 (Alice Chung-MacCoubrey, RMRS, Albuquerque) and some preliminary results have been published (Chung-MacCoubrey 1996). Because the Southwest has higher levels of species endangerment than most other areas of the United States or Canada, we deemed it critical to develop methodology for detecting population problems and solutions for recovering sensitive species. Given the influence of the Endangered Species Act on how forest, rangelands, and rivers in the Southwest and in the middle Rio Grande Basin are managed, our faunal studies play a key role in supplying scientific information to a large and diverse group of Basin stakeholders.

Table 1. Summary of current research
implemented by the Rio Grande Program.

Salt cedarRiparian and Watershed Disturbance and Restoration

  • Effects of drought, fire, and grazing on woodland-grassland interface
  • Landscape patterns in relation to lightning, precipitation, and vegetation
  • Cienega restoration in relation to road-engineering techniques
  • Methods for restoring grasslands using prescribed fire, vegetation manipulation, amendments and grazing management
  • Classification of vegetation species composition and structure along the Rio Grande
Wildlife and Fish
  • Status, distribution and ecology of Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other fish species
  • Maternal roost ecology of three bat species of concern
  • Arthropod-habitat relationships in the Rio Grande bosque
  • Stopover ecology of Neotropical migrants in the Rio Grande valley
  • Migrant use of exotic and native vegetation
  • Willow flycatcher use of mowed channels and unmowed vegetation
  • Use of stable-isotope ratios in understanding bird migration

Cultural Dimensions

  • Economic, social, and cultural importance to Hispanic ranchers of livestock grazing on national forests
  • Ecology and current role of Anasazi cobblemulch gardens
  • Prehistoric and historic human influences on landscape development

David & SusanMilestones and Graduate Studies

The following milestones have been achieved by the Rio Grande Program:

  • 1994 Rio Grande Ecosystem Management Grant funded and chartered.
  • 1995 Rio Grande Basin Assessment published and first riparian symposium hosted.
  • 1996 Proceedings, desired future conditions for riparian ecosystems published.
  • 1997 ARC-INFO vegetation classification maps for the Rio Grande produced.
  • 1998 Symposia Rio Grande Ecosystems (RGE) hosted.
  • 1999 Proceedings, RGE and Environmental History published.

Five graduate students sponsored by the Rio Grande Program have completed their theses or dissertations:

  • 1996. S. Hofstad. Sediment and nutrient loss following prescribed fire in sem-arid grasslands: the potential for resource impairment. M.S. thesis. UNM, Albuquerque.
  • 1996. R. Calamusso. Distribution, abundance, and habitat of the Rio Grande sucker on the Carson National Forest. M.S. thesis. NMSU, Las Cruces.
  • 1996. D. Potter. Spatial relationships among lightning, precipitation, and vegetative cover in watersheds of the Rio Puerco Basin. Ph.D. dissertation. UNM, Albuquerque.
  • 1998. M.J. Mund-Meyerson. Arthropod abundance and composition on native and exotic trees in the middle Rio Grande riparian forest as related to avian foraging. M.S. thesis. UNM, Albuquerque.
  • 1998. D. Moyer. Influence of livestock grazing and geologic setting on morphology, hydrology and nutrient retention in four southwestern riparian-stream ecosystems. M.S. thesis. UNM, Albuquerque.

Several graduate studies are continuing or have recently been initiated:

  • R. Periman. Ph.D. Human influences on landscape development. UNM.
  • A. Chung-MacCoubrey. Ph.D. Roost ecology of bat species of concern. UNM.
  • H. Walker. Ph.D. Use of salt cedar by stopover migrants. UNM.
  • R. Calamusso. Ph.D. Rio Grande cutthroat trout habitat use and distribution. NMSU.

Rio Grande Nature CenterPublication Output

Over 150 publications, including journal articles, general technical reports, and symposium proceedings, have been produced since the inception of the Rio Grande program. Over half of the program's publication output between October 1995 and September 1998 was accomplished through cooperative agreements between RMRS scientists and collaborators from universities or other institutions. Extramural research through contracts and research joint ventures have also contributed importantly to the productivity of the program. No permanent RMRS scientists are currently assigned to the Rio Grande program, but three RMRS postdoctoral scientists (Wang Yong, Sam Loftin, and Jeff Kelly) were hired by the Rio Grande Program and have published papers in the Research Work Unit (RWU) category.

The proceedings of the 1995 symposium, Desired Future conditions for Southwestern riparian ecosystems: Bringing interests and concerns together (Shaw and Finch 1996), sponsored by RMRS, Region 3 of the U.S. Forest Service, and the New Mexico Riparian Council was issued by RMRS in 1996. The proceedings of the 1998 symposium, Rio Grande Ecosystems: Linking Land, Water, and People was sponsored by numerous Rio Grande Basin partners and published in 1999.

Emerging Priorities

The Rio Grande program is responsive to changes in research priorities over time. Team members convened in July 1998 to review status of the program and identify new directions. Emerging research priorities in the Basin based on input from federal, state, municipal and private interests include the following:

  • Understanding the influence of exotic plant invasion on ecosystem health.
  • Determining methods for conserving and recovering threatened and endangered fish and wildlife species.
  • Developing methods for restoring water, native plants, wildlife and proper functioning condition to rivers and watersheds.
  • Understanding ecosystem dynamics in the urban-wildland interface.
  • Understanding long-term human influences on riparian ecosystems of the Rio Grande.
  • Developing conflict-resolution techniques to bridge gaps between environmental groups and traditional land users.
  • Studying growing conflicts over species protection issues and rural economic uses and needs.

To order click here:
Proceedings RMRS-P-7

To order click here: RMRS-GTR-5

To order click here: RMRS-P-2

To order click here:
Research Paper RM-RP-330

To order click here: RMRS-GTR-1

Cited Publications of RWU 4652

Baisan, C. H. And T.W. Swetnam. 1997. Interactions of fire regimes and land use in the Central Rio Grande Valley. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. Research Paper RM-RP-330. Fort Collins, CO. 20 pp.

Calamusso, B., and J. N. Rinne. 1999. Native montane fishes of the Middle Rio Grande Ecosystem: Status, threats, and conservation. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:231-237.

Chung-MacCoubrey, A. L. 1996. Bat species composition and roost use in pinyon-juniper woodlands of New Mexico. Pp. 118-123 in Bats and Forests Symposium. Ministry of Forests Reseach Program, Victoria, British Columbia.

Finch, D.M. and J. A. Tainter, Eds. 1995. Ecology, diversity, and sustainability of the middle Rio Grande Basin. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. General Technical Report RM-GTR-268. Fort Collins, CO. 359 pp.

Finch, D.M., J.C. Whitney, J. F. Kelly, and S. R. Loftin, Tech. Coords. 1999. Rio Grande ecosystems: Linking land, water, and people. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. Proceedings RMRS-P-1. Ogden, UT. 245 pp.

Finch, D.M., and J. F. Kelly. 1999. Status and migration of the Southwestern willow flycatcher in New Mexico. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:197-203.

Kelly, J. F., R. Smith, D. M. Finch, F. R. Moore, W. Yong. 1999. Influence of summer biogeography on wood warbler stopover abundance. Condor 76-85.

Kieft, T. L., C. S. White, S. R. Loftin, R. Aguilar, J. A. Craig, and D. A. Skarr. 1998. Temporal dynamics in soil carbon and nitrogen resources at a grassland-shrubland ecotone. Ecology 79:671-683.

Johnson, A. R., B. T. Milne, and P. Hraber. 1999. Analysis of change in pinon-juniper woodlands based on aerial photography, 1930's-1980's. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, Ut. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:106-111.

Loftin, S. R. 1999. Trial by fire: Restoration of Middle Rio Grande upland ecosystems. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, CO. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:119-122.

Moyer, D. L., C. N. Dahm, M. H. Valett, J. R. Thibault, and M. C. Marshall. 1998. Effects of livestock grazing on morphology, hydrology, and nutrient retention in four southwestern stream ecosystems. American Water Resources Assocation TPS-98-1: 397-408.

Pawelek, D., R. Jemison, and D. Neary. 1999. A constructed wet meadow model for forested lands in the Southwest. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:97-98.

Periman, R. D. 1999. Dynamic human lanscapes of the Rio del Oso: Restoration and the simulation of past ecological conditions in the Upper Rio Grande Basin. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:12-19.

Potter, D. U., J. R. Gosz, M. C. Molles, Jr., and L. A. Scuderi. 1998. Lightning, precipitation and vegetation at landscape scale. Landscape Ecology 13:203-214.

Raish, C. 1998. Agricultural intensification and the economic role of domesticated animals. Pp. 137-147 in Papers and Proceedings of the Applied Geography Conference, Vol. 21. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Raish, C. 1999. Espanola/Canjilon pilot study: Economic, social, and cultural aspects of public land grazing on the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:35-38.

Schweitzer, S. H., D. M. Finch, and D. M. Leslie, Jr. 1998. The brown-headed cowbird and its riparian-dependent hosts in New Mexico. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-1. Fort Collins, CO. 23 pp.

Scurlock, D. 1998. From the Rio to the Sierra: An environmental history of the middle Rio Grande Basin. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. General Technical Report RM-GTR-5. Fort Collins, CO. 440 pp.

Shaw, D. W. and D. M. Finch, Tech. Coords. 1996. Desired future conditions for Southwestern riparian ecosystems: Bringing interests and concerns together. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. General Technical Report RM-GTR-272.

Swetnam, T.W. and J. L. Betancourt. 1999. Mesoscale disturbance and ecological response to decadal climatic variability in the American Southwest. Journal of Climate 11:3128-3147.

Valett, H.M., C. N. Dahm, M. E. Campana, J.A. Morrice, M.A. Baker, and C.S. Fellows. 1998. Hydrologic influences on groundwater-surface water ecotones: Heterogeneity in nutrient compsition and retention. Journal of North American Benthological Society 16:239-247.

White, C.S., S. R. Loftin, and R. Aguilar. 1997. Application of biosolids to degraded semiarid rangeland: nine-year responses. Journal of Environmental Quality 26:1663-1671.

White, C. S., D. R. Dreesen, and S. R. Loftin. 1998. Cobble mulch: An Anasazi water-conservation gardening technique. In Proceedings 42nd New Mexico Water Conference. WRRI Report 304:109-121. New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

White, C.S., S. R. Loftin, S. Hofstad. 1999. Response of vegetation, soil nitrogen, and sediment transport to a prescribed fire in semiarid grasslands. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. Proceedings RMRS-P-1:83-92.

Wozniak, F. E. 1998. Irrigation in the Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico: A study and annotated bibliography of the development of irrigation systems. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. RMRS-P-2. Fort Collins, CO. 204 pp.

Yong, W., and D. M. Finch 1997a. Population trends of migratory landbirds along the middle Rio Grande. Southwestern Naturalist 42:137-147.

Yong, W., and D. M. Finch. 1997b. Migration of the willow flycatcher along the middle Rio Grande. Wilson Bulletin 109:253-268.

Yong, W., D. M. Finch, F. R. Moore, and J. F. Kelly. 1998. Stopover ecology and habitat use of migratory Wilson's Warblers. Auk 115:829-842.

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