Disengaged Youth, Hybrid Swarms and Other Pressing Questions.

In the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that my time at the BLM is almost up.  I find myself looking at the calendar and ticking off the remaining work weeks on one hand. How did that happen? Wasn’t it November 1st, like, yesterday?

No doubt the time has sped by due to some of the interesting projects I’ve worked on in the last month.  One experience in particular led me to ponder some basic questions about botany, as well as its future as a field in the United States.  Eli and I were lucky enough to attend the New Mexico Rare Plants Technical Council Meeting at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in Albuquerque earlier this month.   We were representing our mentor, the New Mexico State Botanist, who (literally) holds the key to the BLM’s Sensitive Species list for New Mexico.  The attendees were a small, passionate group of professionals from various backgrounds: academia (UNM and NMSU), government (Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife), and private business.

Like the couple other botany events I’ve been to in New Mexico, almost everyone was over fifty.  I don’t say this to disparage, I mention this only to draw light to an alarming theme.  Younger generations are largely absent from the plant sciences and botany.  Within the last few years, numerous articles have chronicled the demise of botany at universities or the merging of plant science within the larger disciplines of ecology or biology.  I’m not sure if youth just aren’t interested in botany because of our culture’s preoccupation with technology, convenience, and the artificial or if this lack of interest stems from a rift in early education where these passions should be cultivated.  I’m inclined to think (and hope) that it’s the latter because then it’s an easier issue to solve.  Even at this meeting, the issue was acknowledged – people are needed to collect the retiring generation’s institutional and local knowledge before it’s too late.

Ok- that was a brief tangent- onto the pressing meeting issues!  Two subjects held the majority of the meeting floor- instituting a new ranking system for rare plants and deciding upon a hybrid policy for the Council.

In regards to the ranking system, it is very difficult to give native plants a rarity ranking because, well, they are rare.  Often little is known about a species and no documentation exists.  Categories that must be considered for ranking are range extent, population size, population trends, threat impacts, and more.  Natural Heritage New Mexico is a division of the University of New Mexico that maintains a rare species database that uses a species ranking calculator.  The Technical Council decided to do a pilot project and utilize the calculator on 30 well-documented rare species to see how accurate or useful such technology would be.  The “pros” of a calculator are that the process is data-driven (less human opinion) and that input factors are documented.  The “cons” of the tool are that populating all the categories is a lengthy process and unknown factors could skew the calculated outcome.  In my personal opinion, I’m confident that the calculator will be useful and will help standardize the ranking process among larger areas because different states and agencies also use a similar system.

Hybrid policy- now this was a point of contention in the group.  What constitutes a hybrid? At what point does a hybrid constitute its own species?  However simple this questions appears at first glance- it’s not, think about it more.  Say two species cross and create a hybrid.  Ok, this is just one weird plant, no biggie.  But what if this happens ten more times throughout the population? Ok, still not a problem- you might say- those hybrids are spread throughout the population and probably won’t pass along their unique genetic makeup.   But THEN, what if all of these hybrids crop up in the same area and being reproducing primarily with each other? It’s now a hybrid swarm, and if you decide to call the population a new species haven’t you got a new rare plant on your hands?  Can every hybrid swarm be considered rare?  Ok, ok, that’s a lot of questions but hopefully you see what I’m getting at.  It’s difficult to define when a hybrid becomes a distinct species, and then it’s difficult to decide if it should be protected or not.  At the meeting, someone raised a great point- looking at a plant is simply looking at an evolutionary snapshot whose endpoint we cannot see.  Therefore, we must reference whatever data has been published and work on a case by case basis as hybrids are brought for review.  The council generally agreed that a hybrid is a species if it is reproductively independent from its parents, but they would only acknowledge a new species if someone had published the data to support it.

Since my post has already passed the maximum length that can hold my reader’s attention span- I’ll only address one more exciting event.  (Although many of you might not think this qualifies as exciting… I mean KEEP READING THIS IS SOME THRILLING STUFF).  A soil scientist from NRCS came to the office a couple of weeks ago and gave a tutorial on “Creating Soil-Based Thematic Maps and Reports Using Soil Data Viewer”. I was at first, skeptical, of how much I might get out of this training but I was mistaken.  The speaker introduced us to an alternative to Web Soil Survey (an online soil data database that is notoriously slow- cue painful memories of late night studying for Soil Science in college).  Soil Data Viewer is faster, easier to navigate, more informative, and did I mention faster?  There are so many different attributes you can explore and the program can rank these attributes of the various soils in an area and spit out a fantastic report.  So you want to know what areas in Doña Ana County have the best soils for sinking fence posts? Done. Want to know which areas have vegetation cover best suited for cattle ranching? Done.  This resource could be useful to a vast majority of government and private agencies concerned with land management and other fields.  Hopefully, it will be used for improving our knowledge and appropriate use of different landscapes- in addition to the entertainment value of the pretty, vividly colored maps that I use it for.

Oh, and one last thing – IT SNOWED! I’m from Sacramento, CA and have never woken up and seen snow outside.  Needless to say I was pretty excited.  Pictures galore!



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