Innovative Partnership Formed to Restore West Potrillos

On the barren foothills of the West Potrillo Mountains southwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico, a group that included sportsmen, ranchers, biologists and conservationists looked out over the landscape as a crop duster appeared in the distant sky.  Ray Lister with the Bureau of Land Management's Las Cruces District Office convened the group last December to witness the early stages of an effort to restore a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert.

Motivated by a shared concern for the health of the West Potrillos, this diverse group of individuals came together to form a unique partnership to restore an area they all value. 

"When you're out here, there's nothing but creosote as far as the eye can see," explained Lister.  "A couple years from now, this will be a grassland again, restored to a healthy ecological state." 
Front row from left to right: Ken Leiting, New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts; Mark Spiess, New Mexico Quail, Inc.; Bob Tafanelli, Mesilla Valley Audubon Society; Dara Parker, Senator Bingaman’s Las Cruces office; Jim McCormick, BLM Las Cruces District Office; John Elwell, Williams Family Ranch.  Back row:  Pat Mathis, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish; Ray Lister, BLM Las Cruces District Office; Bud Starnes, New Mexico Department of Agriculture; Nathan Small, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance; Dudley Williams, Williams Family Ranch; Eric Ernst, BLM Las Cruces District Office.

Early settlers wrote of the flowing grasslands across New Mexico.  However, years of overgrazing in the late 1800s put a tremendous strain on the lands, causing significant vegetation changes as brush species like creosote and mesquite came to dominate the landscape over time, consuming precious resources and out-competing native grasses.  What was once a healthy grassland has now become a degraded creosote-infested monoculture.  With very little grass left, the habitat cannot support the abundant and diverse wildlife it once could.  

“I’ve been coming out here since the 1950s to hunt and camp, and over the years I’ve seen with my own eyes how much the land has declined," said Bud Starnes from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.  "There used to be so much more grass out here 50 years ago.  I’m so glad to be a part of these efforts to bring back the land to a healthy state.”

Restore New Mexico, the BLM's collaborative partnership effort to restore degraded landscapes like these, has seen tremendous success since its inception in 2005.  Over 1.4 million acres have been treated across the state so far. 

On this particular 26,000-acre project, planes will apply an herbicide to significantly reduce the creosote and allow for native grasses to return.  This, in turn, will reduce harmful run-off and erosion, and significantly improve habitat conditions for wildlife. 

These rich but fragile lands, a volcanic area with historic lava flows, have long been valued for their scenic, recreational, and wilderness qualities.  Recreation opportunities include hiking, bird watching, photography, and hunting.

“This area is a very special place to a lot of different people,” explains Lister.  “Ranchers, sportsmen, and wilderness advocates all care deeply about the West Potrillos.  This is a unique restoration project because it occurs within a wilderness study area.  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.”

Ken Leiting from the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts has been involved in the funding of the project, working as an intermediary between the BLM and the local conservation districts.  He sees this partnership as a unique collaborative effort between federal, state, and local agencies, as well as a wide variety of conservation and sportsmen groups.

“This partnership effort goes far beyond traditional partnerships,” said Leiting.  “This project out here in the West Potrillos is about folks on the ground figuring out how to work together and then actually doing it to benefit the land.”

For Nathan Small with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, this partnership has a long history, going back years to improve access.  When he first heard about the potential treatment, he had a concern over the use of herbicides.  Lister organized a field trip to the West Potrillos and a previously-treated site for members of the Wilderness Alliance to see for themselves the benefits of these restoration treatments.

“Because this project involves chemicals, this isn’t an issue to be taken lightly," said Small.  "But once we got out and saw the successes and potential of what was happening on the ground with these types of treatments, we got on board to support the effort.  There are many diverse stakeholders involved, and we’ve got the opportunity to restore native grasslands and help get the land back to a healthy state.  It’s a very positive situation.”

There is a sensitivity over the use of chemicals to treat landscapes, even unhealthy landscapes like these, but Lister explained that not only is the use of herbicides safe and effective, but it is the only viable option of returning these shrub-invaded landscapes back to healthy ecological condition.

“Once a brush species like creosote or mesquite overtakes a landscape and drives out the native grasses, it won’t revert back to a healthy, balanced state on its own,” explained Lister.  “Other removal techniques, like prescribed fire or mechanical removal, are ineffective or problematic, especially considering the scale of the problem.  And in the future, after the shrubs have been reduced and the grasses return, the land’s healthy state can be maintained with natural or prescribed fire.”

The herbicide used for treating creosote is tebuthiuron, which inhibits photosynthesis in the targeted brush species with little or no impact on grasses and forbs.  Areas designated for treatment are programmed into the applicator plane’s GPS-guided navigation system, which guarantees high accuracy when pellets of the herbicides are applied.  Sensitive habitats, such as riparian areas, drainages, or raptor nesting areas, are mapped as “leave-out” areas and not sprayed. 

All herbicides used by the BLM have undergone extensive testing, have been approved for use by the Environmental Protection Agency, and comply with rigorous safety standards.

Tebuthiuron is activated by rain, and Lister said it typically takes three to five years for the creosote to die off and grasses to take over.  Then watch out, he said.  “We’ll go from 100 pounds of grass per acre to 1,000 pounds, just by getting rid of the creosote,” he said.

The BLM regularly consults with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to identify priority areas for habitat restoration and participate in project design to ensure wildlife habitat objectives are addressed. 

Pat Mathis, a wildlife biologist with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, was an early supporter of the project.  “Without any intervention, this place would not get better on its own,” said Mathis.  “We're enthusiastic about this project and think it will be great for wildlife.”

In addition, funding approved through the New Mexico Game and Fish Habitat Stamp Program will help develop yearlong water sources for wildlife in the West Potrillo project area. 

Many of the lands treated as part of the Restore New Mexico program, including this area in the West Potrillos, allow cattle grazing.  In order to participate in restoration projects, ranchers must agree to remove their cattle from the treated area for a minimum of two growing seasons following the treatment to allow the land to recover.  Also, even though there is a much greater abundance of grass after treatment, more cattle are not permitted.  Nevertheless, most ranchers typically support treatments because of the overall benefits to their ranching operations from healthier rangelands.

Rancher Dudley Williams, the permittee on this particular site, spoke highly of the many partners coming together to accomplish this project. 

“I’ve always been an advocate of restoration, because the BLM and I can work together to find an option that works for all of us,” Williams said.  “We all see the need to maintain healthy grasses, and not just for the ranching community, but for the health of the land and wildlife as well.”

New Mexico Quail Inc. and its predecessor Quail Unlimited have worked with the BLM in the past to improve quail habitat in southern New Mexico.  The Quail Unlimited Southwest Chapter (now New Mexico Quail Inc.) provided the BLM with $34,000 to help fund the West Potrillo project. 

“The sportsmen in our organization are excited to be part of such a worthwhile project,” said John Moen, president of New Mexico Quail Inc.  “The habitat values in the West Potrillos will be increased a hundredfold.  We have been waiting many years for a project like this in Doña Ana County.  To see it finally happen is very exciting.” 

Bob Tafanelli, representing the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, was approached by Lister for input from the wilderness community.  Tafanelli had some initial concerns over the use of herbicides, monitoring and grazing.  After visiting other treatment sites and seeing the potential benefits of using herbicides to restore degraded landscapes, and being assured that scientific monitoring would be conducted and that no additional cattle will be grazed on the treatment sites, he endorsed the project.

“Grassland bird species have been in decline for the past fifty years,” said Tafanelli.  “With this project we have the opportunity to restore crucial habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife.” 

Treatment began in December 2010.  Results will not happen overnight, but the partners are confident this project will restore the West Potrillos to a healthy ecological condition, benefitting the land, wildlife, and many stakeholders who value this special place. 

“This project is a win-win for everyone involved,” said Small.