Grasslands need to be protected

By Carol Beidleman / Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon New Mexico
September 25, 2013

albuquerque-journal

Over the last few years, as stakeholders in southern New Mexico and beyond have added their voices to the discussion over how best to manage public lands around Las Cruces, we’ve heard about the value of protected wild land as a place to recreate, hunt or seek solitude.

We’ve also learned that businesses see locating near undeveloped open spaces and scenic landscapes as a way to attract employees who appreciate the quality of life that these public lands afford.

And, while we all understand the need for natural areas to support wildlife like pronghorn, mule deer and mountain lions, we don’t usually hear about the importance of these lands for our native bird populations.

Yet the grasslands around the Organ Mountains region are vital for more than 20 bird species of conservation concern, of which the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish lists the aplomado falcon as endangered and the peregrine falcon and Baird’s sparrow as threatened.

Other species of conservation concern supported by this habitat include the Swainson’s and ferruginous hawks, long-billed curlew, burrowing owl, loggerhead shrike, Sprague’s pipit, and chestnut-collared longspur – all of which, along with the Baird’s sparrow, are high priority grassland species throughout their entire range from Canada to Mexico.

In fact, grasslands contain more high priority species than any other habitat in New Mexico. As a group, grassland birds have suffered more severe population declines than any other bird species in the United States.

According to the 2011 State of the Birds Report, the nation has lost more than 97 percent of its native grasslands, largely due to conversion to agriculture. The small percentage of the native grasslands that remain on Bureau of Land Management lands are especially important to grassland species in the Western United States during both the breeding and non-breeding seasons.

Given the ongoing transformation of Chihuahuan desert grasslands in nearby areas of northern Mexico, the grasslands of southern New Mexico may be of even greater importance in the years to come if our nation’s remaining grassland bird species are to survive.

It is for this reason, that we endorse the proposal to designate the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks area as a national monument. For while most people focus on the colorful iconic peaks, we believe such protection offers an important opportunity to safeguard many of Doña Ana County’s most valuable grasslands.

One type, the tobosa grasslands, occurs along gently sloping drainages and in flat basins where silty soils settle.

Because of the area’s closed basin topography, low-lying depressions known as playas that fill with water during years of heavy precipitation are common. These temporary wetlands, some of which also function as natural cattle tanks, are an important component of these arid grassland landscapes. They increase the diversity of grasses and other plants available to wildlife, and in wet years also provide open water for species dependent on aquatic habitats.

It is important to include these valuable grasslands in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, particularly the Corralitos Valley and the Mason Draw grasslands of the monument proposal’s Sierra de las Uvas Complex.

These areas represent the most expansive and publicly accessible tobosa grassland in the county and will benefit many sensitive bird species.

The 2011 State of the Birds Report helps makes the urgent case for grassland preservation: “Grassland has always been undervalued as wildlife habitat … a small amount of U.S. grassland (less than 2 percent) is both publicly owned and managed primarily for conservation. More public land specifically protected for grassland birds is needed, and a higher proportion of multiple-use lands should be managed with grassland birds in mind.”

We hope our elected officials keep this in mind when deciding how best to safeguard our irreplaceable Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks.