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Science and Adaptive Management at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
Empire Ranch at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area - Photo by Bob Wick, BLM

Ensuring healthy grasslands through adaptive management is a major theme at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (NCA), only an hour’s drive from the rapidly growing Tucson metropolitan area. The NCA and adjacent Sonoita Valley Planning District's 96,000 acres support five of the rarest grassland and riparian vegetative communities in the American Southwest - cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands. These, in turn, provide habitat for several threatened and endangered species. The area also contains two proposed wild and scenic river segments. 

The long history of scientific research at Las Cienegas NCA was featured prominently at A Decade of Discovery, a science symposium celebrating the 10th anniversary of the National Landscape Conservation System sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, May 24 – 28, 2010, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A focus of research at Las Cienegas is on the BLM’s adaptive management programs keyed to long-term ecological monitoring.

Livestock grazing is an important activity in the NCA, which historically was a large working ranch. Congress designated The NCA and Planning District in 2000 to conserve nationally important resources while allowing livestock grazing and recreation to continue in appropriate areas. With a strong history of monitoring at the NCA, the BLM and its partners are creating a model for the use of adaptive management, a template for how one can balance land uses with conservation of the resources. A robust ecological monitoring program is providing data on key ecological indicators that the BLM uses to adjust management decisions in order to minimize impacts and optimize the land’s health.
The BLM has been monitoring the grassland, riparian and aquatic areas on the NCA since the late 1980’s. With assistance from The Nature Conservancy, the BLM has closely tied monitoring protocols to specific management objectives. The presentation, Keys to Successful Rangeland Adaptive Management for the Las Cienegas NCA’s Grassland Watershed, described the BLM’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy and its work with livestock permittees and other stakeholders to adjust annual grazing and fire plans in order to ensure watershed objectives are being met. 

Results of other monitoring projects were also presented. For example, in Tracking Riparian Change in Response to Management Actions at Las Cienegas NCA, researchers presented some surprising impacts from reduced disturbance in some areas and confirm the value of using monitoring data to inform management actions.

The BLM has been fortunate to have the Audubon Society’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch Sanctuary located within the southern boundary of the NCA. This cooperatively managed research area has been ungrazed by domestic livestock since 1968 and is surrounded by active cattle ranches, providing a reference area for cross-fence research projects on topics including native and invasive species, fire, riparian systems, shrub encroachment and, more recently, impacts of exurban development. This research was described in the poster session, What Happens When the Cows Come Off? A Unique Opportunity for Collaboration and Research.
The NCA and surrounding grasslands provide winter habitat for a number of bird species. Ten Years of Research on Grassland Birds in Arizona, Including BLM’s Las Cienegas National Conservation Area provided an overview of the work of partners and volunteers in studying these species and their associations with certain habitat types.
Effectiveness Monitoring of Shrub Treatments and Grassland Restoration and Effects of Grassland Restoration Efforts on Birds on Las Cienegas described studies examining the responses of grassland birds and vegetation to experimental restoration treatments (fire, herbicide, and mechanical removal) designed to reduce density of shrubs that have invaded grasslands.
Las Cienegas NCA also supports the nation’s best remaining wild population of endangered Gila topminnow, and BLM has monitored the species’ population trends since the late 1980s. The results of 15 years of fish data were presented in the poster session, The Power to See Change: Designing More Effective, More Efficient Monitoring for Population Trends in the Endangered Gila Topminnow.  

Youth and adults participate as volunteer scientists on a number of projects. Middle school students at the Wild About Grasslands! education program, for example, assist with annual mapping of perennial surface water on Cienega Creek. This was featured in a poster session at the symposium.

Archaeological and historic records that provide clues to human interactions within the Las Cienegas ecosystem were the subject of The Value of Connecting Natural and Cultural Histories on the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in Southern Arizona.

The NCA has a strong history of scientific research, resulting in several hundred scientific publications and numerous management guidelines. More than forty research and monitoring projects are ongoing. The science program at Las Cienegas NCA is helping partners learn more about the area’s cultural and natural resources while providing guidance for management of the watershed. With this adaptive management approach, the local community of scientists, managers and citizens can clearly see the connection between research and management decisions that benefit the grasslands, riparian areas and associated habitats at Las Cienegas NCA and beyond.

To learn more about Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, please click here.

To read more features and learn more about A Decade of Discovery Science Symposium, please click here.

Las Cienegas NCA in Arizona. Photo by Bob Wick, BLM.
Las Cienegas NCA  - Photo by Bob Wick
Monitoring population trends, habitat conditions for the endangered Gila topminnow.
Las Cienegas NCA - Seining for fish in a creek
Las Cienegas NCA is surrounded by cattle ranches and is a focal point for study of livestock impacts.
Las Cienegas NCA - Running transects in grassland
"Wild About Grasslands!" students study aquatic ecology at Las Cienegas.
Students studying outdoors at a table near creek.
The BLM has been monitoring grasslands at Las Cienegas NCA since the late 1980s.
Las Cienegas NCA - grasslands