BLM and partners ‘Restore New Mexico’ on a landscape scale



by John Wallace, J. Wallace Communication

Amid the barren foothills of the West Potrillo Mountains southwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico, a group that included sportsmen, ranchers, biologists and conservationists gather to witness the early stages of an effort to restore this vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert, a wilderness study area. 

Ray Lister, a natural resource specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and others in this diverse group share concern for the health of the West Potrillos, and came together to restore an area they all value.

“When you’re out here, there’s nothing but creosotebush as far as the eye can see,” explained Lister. But it wasn’t always this way. Historically, this was grassland. 

“This will be a grassland again, restored to a healthy ecological state,” he predicts.   

The goal: healthy lands

The 26,000-acre West Portrillos project is just one of many partnerships BLM has worked through in its Restore New Mexico initiative. The goal is to recover the state’s native grasslands, woodlands and riparian areas to pre-1900 ecological states. Since then, unintended consequences of human activity have degraded those resources. 

Now, diverse interests are cooperating to recover those lands. Since 2005, BLM and its partners in Restore New Mexico have pooled resources to recover more than 2 million acres of federal, state and private land. More than 300 partners have participated, including ranchers, other landowners, industry, conservation and sportsmen’s groups, and federal and state agencies.

Bringing back historic grasslands now invaded by creosotebush and mesquite has been a priority in Restore New Mexico.

In the West Portrillos, planes applied pelleted Spike® 20P herbicide to significantly reduce the creosote and allow native grasses to return. This, in turn, reduces run-off and erosion and significantly improves habitat for wildlife.

“Ranchers, sportsmen, and wilderness advocates all care deeply about the West Potrillos,” Lister says. “And even though everyone’s approaching this effort with their own perspective, we’ve been able to come together and find a lot of common ground to develop a strategy to improve the health of the watershed and return the vegetative community to its natural potential.”

Dow AgroSciences LLC has worked with BLM and other partners to ensure the most favorable outcomes for the investment and for the land.  “Dow worked with our aerial applicators, on improving the processes, methodology and science of application,” says Bill Merhege, BLM-New Mexico deputy state director, resources. “And any information we needed, Dow made available at the drop of a hat.”

Grasses recover

Lister led a field trip to a previously-treated site for the group to see firsthand the benefits of these recovery treatments.

“Once a brush species like creosotebush or mesquite overtakes a landscape and drives out the native grasses, it won’t revert back to a healthy, balanced state on its own,” explains Lister. 

Other methods, like prescribed fire or mechanical removal are ineffective or just not practical on a landscape-scale basis. There’s not enough fine fuel to carry a fire. Once brush is no longer dominant, Lister foresees using fire as a maintenance tool. 

Following brush removal, grasses come back from long-lived seed in the soil. “Depending on site characteristics and if Mother Nature cooperates,” Lister says, “we can see grass production increase from 100 pounds to nearly 1,000 pounds per acre in three to five years.”

Before and after. BLM used herbicide to treat sites infested with creosotebush and/or mesquite. Following brush removal with herbicide, grasses came back from long-lived seed in the soil; in some cases, grass production increased from 100 pounds to nearly 1,000 pounds per acre in three to five years.

Many of the lands treated as part of the Restore New Mexico program, including the West Potrillos, allow cattle grazing. To speed recovery, ranchers agree to defer grazing for at least two growing seasons after treatment. Even with more grass, more cattle are not permitted. Still, ranchers typically support the effort because healthier rangelands benefit their ranching operations in other ways. 

Results don’t happen overnight, but the partners in the West Portrillos project – like those in many other projects – know their work can restore a healthy balance that benefits the land, wildlife, and many stakeholders who value this special place.

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Active ingredient of Spike 20P herbicide is tebuthiuron.