November 5, 2018

Management Strategies of a Senescing Rio Grande Cottonwood Bosque

Posted by larryohanlon

NOTE: Across 350 kilometers of the The Middle Rio Grande River students and their teachers from kindergarten through college serve as field scientists for the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program (BEMP). Bosque means ‘forest’ in Spanish, and refers to the vast cottonwood forest that straddles the Rio Grande. Currently there are 33 study sites, and over 1 million data points are collected each year by many local students who would otherwise have limited access to environmental education. This Albuquerque-based program shows how local science initiatives can connect people to their landscapes while helping inform resource management decisions.

By BempinItUp

“What bosque comes next?” was the question that over 50 people came to Bosque School to answer this past week. Each fall the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program (BEMP) hosts a Fall Field Tour for river and bosque managers, ecologists, and other interested people to discuss the implications of BEMP’s research and findings. BEMP, using a network of 33 active monitoring sites that stretches from the Northern Pueblos to Las Cruces, and partnerships with dozens of schools to engage up to 10,000 students and others in tracking and understanding the ecological conditions of the Rio Grande, can generate over a million data points every six months. All that information and expertise combined to create a BEMP Fall Field Tour of learning and discussion about an ever-changing bosque.

BEMP’s partnership between the University of New Mexico Department of Biology and Bosque School was fully on display throughout the Fall Field Tour. For example, BEMP Biologist Sean O’Neill presented on forest fire risk within the current bosque. Sean pointed at a section of bosque and its build-up of down and dead tree branches. It is an area he knows well; he monitored it as a Bosque School sixth-grader (class of 2010), UNM (class of 2014) biology major, and most recently as a BEMP staff member. Sean explained how the accumulating fuels are part of an aging bosque.

The Rio Grande’s bosque, as we have come to know it across our lifetimes, is an ecological anomaly. The cottonwood gallery forest that stretches several hundred miles between the banks of the Rio Grande and its adjacent irrigation ditches is, generally speaking, comprised mostly of the same age class of trees. Those mature cottonwoods were established in the World War II era. They are now reaching the end of their lives, and the theme of the Fall Field Tour “Management Strategies of a Senescing Bosque,” considered both what BEMP knows about the current aging bosque and what it will look like in the future.

As Fall Field Tour participants walked through the forest next to Bosque School and visited a series of stations, BEMP scientists shared their understanding of how aging cottonwoods, salt cedar (tamarisk) trees damaged by tamarisk leaf beetle, and other vegetation were responding to current ecological conditions. BEMP Biologist and Lab Manager Keara Bixby showed how tamarisk trees were both being impacted by and surviving the onslaught of the newly arrived tamarisk leaf beetle.

The trends and data presented by BEMP’s staff were collected by thousands of BEMP K-12 students across the last 20 years. BEMP student collected data now informs multi-million dollar management decisions made by local, regional, state, tribal, and federal bosque managers. Many of those very managers were present at the Fall Field Tour. And several of BEMP’s student scientists from Bosque School also made their own presentations directly to those professional scientists.

Students Parker ’19 and Isabel ’20 shared their BEMP experience and research findings about wildlife of the bosque. Parker explained how his current job of leading weekend wildlife tours at Valles Caldera National Preserve and love for birding are directly linked to his BEMP experience. In fact, BEMP is among one of the reasons he is going to UNM next year (vs out-of-state); he loves what he does, what he researches, and the beauty of the bosque and New Mexico. He wants to make a natural resource career in New Mexico. As Isabel shared about her BEMP research with small rodent monitoring and turtles she too explained how BEMP had fed her love of science. As a 5th-grade BEMP student she wanted more of the science Bosque School is enmeshed in, so she enrolled in its 6th grade, and plans to take all 13 science courses Bosque School offers before graduating.

Building upon the presentations of BEMP staff like Keara and Sean and student monitoring work such as that done by Isabel and Parker, BEMP Co-Director and UNM Research Professor, Dr. Kim Eichhorst, along with her UNM colleague Dr. Esteban Muldavin offered up some possible scenarios of what the Rio Grande’s riverside forest might look like in the future and how managers might guide that change. Dr. Eichhorst suggested such intriguing ideas as lowering sections of the bosque, by removing built up soil and debris, to create nurseries to recruit a new generation of cottonwoods.

No matter what is done and how the forest responds, there will be a new generation of BEMP scientists to study and manage those changes. And many of them will have started out like Sean, Parker, and Isabel; as sixth-grade community scientists from Bosque School or one of BEMP’s many dozens of other partner schools. Their first-hand bosque knowledge and stewardship values will just be a part of who they are.

This post was originally published on the BEMP blog