What A Long, Strange Field Season It’s Been

2019 has been a whirlwind. From wrangling hiring paperwork during a government shutdown to carefully doling out ice water from the thermos in 104° heat, there were trials and tribulations the entire way. This past year, I’ve bounced between four different funding sources, but my primary focus has been the Rare Plant Monitoring Program out of the BLM – New Mexico State Office. This program works hard to develop datasets and protect species before they get federally listed. This crew, based out of Santa Fe, monitors species in every field office of New Mexico. We spent so much time on the road that we listened to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on Audible before mid-season reviews!  

Some of the rare species we got to spend time with, from top left: Eriogonum gypsophilum, Astragalus gypsodes, Amsonia tharpii, Coryphantha robustispina ssp. scheeri, Justicia wrightii, Linum allredii.

We read 70 previously established plots and constructed an additional 29 new plots. These permanent transects are used to collect baseline demographic data for these species: what is recruitment like? What is mortality and lifespan for an individual? What reproductive effort is being made by individuals? By collecting this type of data over five or ten years on rare plant species that occur mostly on BLM land, the Botany Program can better inform management practices to protect these species. 2019 was the fourth year of this program, and a lot of species are still being added and kinks are being worked out. This made for an interesting season in which every week we were facing new challenges. Throughout this season, I developed rigorous monitoring methods, improved my plant ID skills, and dove into the wonderful world of geospatial data. It’s deeply rewarding to know that these species that I got to know so intimately have a brighter future because of our work.

Calisthenics at the daily Stretch and Safety meeting before reading an Echinocereus fendleri var. kuenzleri plot.

Since reading our last plots in November, we’ve been working on reporting and analysis for the plots we’ve read. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to relearn R. Though I love to hate R, it’s a crucial skill for graduate programs and employment, and has made for really robust reporting in the Rare Plant Monitoring program. My crew lead, Lauren Bansbach (featured triumphantly holding an Agave above) is staying on for another season with the Rare Plant Monitoring program. I can’t help but feel jealous and sad that it’s over so soon.

Reading a plot in the Land of Many Uses.

Mike Beitner
Bureau of Land Management
New Mexico State Office

Rare Plant Conservation Strategy Rollout Meeting

This past week has been a big step in rare plant conservation for New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) New Mexico State Botany Department helped the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) host the New Mexico Rare Plant Conservation Strategy Roll Out Meeting, held March 26 and 27 in Santa Fe. Esteemed conservationists and botanists from several federal and state agencies convened to discuss ways to protect and monitor rare and endemic species across New Mexico. As an intern with the BLM, my responsibilities at the meeting included: 1) arranging tables and chairs, 2) making gallons of coffee, and 3) shmoozing. My fellow intern, Laura, was responsible for note-taking, which totaled 29 pages after two days. I don’t envy her at all.

Laura poring over her detailed notes from the meeting.This meeting presented various aspects of the New Mexico Plants Conservation Strategy. The organization was formed in 1999 as the NM Rare Plant Technical Council, which does the taxonomic dirty work of reviewing reclassifications and adding or removing taxa from the Rare Species List. The Technical Council is still at the core of the Conservation Strategy, but this meeting added other subcommittees that work on outreach, intergovernmental agreements, research, data sharing, and partnerships. All of these projects are interrelated, so I’ll detail the ones that stood out to me.

Daniela Roth, the state botanist at the EMNRD, has worked with other partners to assemble a Conservation Scorecard and an Important Plant Area map. These tools can be used together by land managers to evaluate strategies for conservation and potential impacts of development. The scorecard, which is incredibly detailed and evaluates threats, knowns and unknowns, population trends, and management and monitoring needs, is available only to Rare Plant Conservation partners. The Important Plant Area map is free to all on the nmrareplants.unm.edu website, although it doesn’t specify which rare plants are where. Conservation of rare (and often beautiful) species can be delicate; not all botany aficionados are interested in preserving biodiversity, and some will collect endangered specimens. The conference has moved towards a more inclusive definition of ‘rare’ plants, part of which includes making the broad list available to the public on the NM Rare Plants site. Since this website is a one stop shop for land managers and citizens looking for information on the rare flora of New Mexico, it makes sense to include as many species as possible under all possible definitions of rare. This website will be a hub for outreach and education, and there are plans to collaborate with graduate students from UNM and NMSU to expand our baseline of knowledge on rare species.

Another big push from the meeting is to get rare plants included on the New Mexico Game and Fish Department (NMGFD) Wildlife Action Plan. Each state’s Fish and Wildlife Department submits these plans to the USFWS as a condition for receiving federal funding for conservation. These Action Plans are important because grant-giving NGOs such as IUCN and NatureServe give preferential treatment to the species they include. However, the NMGFD isn’t involved in plant conservation– traditionally, plants aren’t considered wildlife. That didn’t stop eight other states from including plant conservation in their Wildlife Action Plans, so there’s hope that the New Mexico Wildlife Action Plan will be updated. There’s also a favorable political atmosphere because the newly elected governor is more interested in natural resource conservation than her predecessor. Considering that the governor appoints the heads of various state departments, it’s looking hopeful that the newly-led NMGFD would be interested in joining forces with our coalition in order to better conserve rare plants.

Meetings like this can cause major headaches at times. A very respected and knowledgeable botanist objected to including a lichen on the list on the grounds that it’s not a true vascular plant. He also claimed that any lichen we have significant occurrence data for is too common for conserving, which is a strange Catch Twenty Two that wouldn’t leave much for the group to work on. The lichen was included in the end, because if the Rare Plants Conservation Strategy didn’t include it, no one would. This meeting was dominated by five or six strong personalities, and while their strength is needed to influence policy and secure funding, there were certainly tense moments. All this lowly intern had to worry about was keeping the coffee fresh and staying out of the way, so it was instructive to watch from the sidelines.

GIS Musings

GIS is the backbone of many scientific investigations and fieldwork. Spatial analysis is so much more than making maps; it allows us to link data across many variables to a point in time and space. It’s a crucial resume item for many fields these days.

The problem is that doing spatial analysis with ArcGIS takes up a lot of storage, a lot of processing power, and a lot of patience. Files get corrupted, geoprocessing tools run for 15 hours and then break, and inconsistent data entry causes headaches for analysis. I had a little GIS experience from college, but had never taken part in big spatial analysis projects.

The New Mexico State Office has been running a Rare Plants Monitoring program for three years. This program, supported by the ERNMD and New Mexico Natural Heritage Program, aims to gather consistent population monitoring on rare plants around the state. In 2017 at the program’s inception, six species were being monitored. In 2019, we’re aiming to monitor ten species across New Mexico. For many of these species, there’s little hope. Between resource extraction, habitat fragmentation, and climate change, too many subpopulations are disappearing, and reproductive effort is compromised.

The Pecos Sunflower (Helianthus paradoxus) is not such a hopeless case. This annual sunflower loves seeps and sandy banks along the Rio Grande and Pecos River. Some populations fluctuate between hundreds and hundreds of thousands of individuals year-to-year due to a robust seed bank, and this habitat isn’t threatened by oil and gas development. The major threat to this sunflower is water table depletion that dries up the cienegas that it depends on. The NMSO Rare Plants Monitoring crew will be monitoring known populations and searching for new ones this field season, and this project begins with a lot of GIS prep work.

This is how beautiful GIS can look. Layers are wetland habitats and EcoSites along the Rio Grande.

By comparing the habitats (Ecosites, soil, and landform data) of known populations to the combinations of factors that exist in the landscape, we can model potential habitats for Pecos Sunflower. After generating multiple models that weight different variables different amounts, we just need to see which are on BLM lands and head to the field to find them. Simple, right? Wrong. Even bringing in the right data from data.gov can be a whole-day task, and processes often take 20 hours to run. Imagine a photo of New Mexico with a 10 meter resolution, and then imagine comparing dozens of those photos, pixel by pixel, to generate more. Lots can go wrong, and sometimes you don’t know until much later.

This process has been frustrating, enlightening, and very interesting, and I’m very thankful I’ve got the resources to learn more about this crucial system in my first month at the BLM. These skills are transferable almost anywhere, and it’s exciting to get so much hands-on experience in GIS early in my career.

Mike Beitner

BLM — New Mexico State Office