2010 Annual Report
1a.Objectives (from AD-416)
The goal of the research unit based at the Jornada Experimental Range (JER) is to develop ecologically based technologies for monitoring, remediation, and grazing management in desert environments. In order to achieve this goal, our overall research objective is to determine how biological (plant, animal, microbial), soil, and geomorphological processes interact across multiple spatial and temporal scales to affect soil development, soil stability, nutrient and water retention and acquisition, plant establishment and survival, and animal foraging behavior. Our ecologically based management technologies will be built from a knowledge of these processes. We will accomplish this objective by integrating short- and long-term experiments with a suite of tools (simulation modeling, geographic information systems [GIS], and remote sensing) to extrapolate information across spatial scales from individual plants to landscapes. Such an approach will enable us to accomplish four specific objectives and associated products:
1. Develop an integrated assessment and monitoring approach for vegetation structure and composition, soil stability, watershed function, and biotic integrity of spatially and temporally heterogeneous rangelands at landscape, watershed, and regional scales.
2. Identify key plant and soil processes, and environmental factors, such as landscape position, land use history, and climate, that influence the potential for remediation success.
3. Develop adaptive strategies for livestock management across multiple scales based on animal foraging behavior.
4. Predict responses of ecosystem dynamics and livestock distribution across time and space to changes in climate and other management-dependent and -independent drivers, and develop an integrated management, monitoring, and knowledge toolbox that can be easily applied by individuals with a range of management experience, from minimal to extensive.
1b.Approach (from AD-416)
We will build upon information collected since 1912, complemented with ongoing and new research, to address our objectives. We will integrate short- and long-term data sets with simulation modeling, geographic information systems, and remote sensing tools. Our approach will combine short-term experiments to test specific hypotheses with synthetic experiments requiring a more complex integration of ecosystem components and drivers. Objective 1 is shared among numerous collaborators where we are evaluating ground-based and remotely sensed indicators of ecosystem properties for use at multiple-spatial scales for effectiveness in monitoring resource conditions. Objective 2 is addressed by studies to identify areas within landscapes where stimulation of key processes will generate recovery of desired functions or control of undesired species. Objective 3 is addressed by (a) developing techniques that control animal movements on rangelands, (b) rapidly identifying botanical composition of livestock diets, and (c) identifying cattle breeds adapted to nutritional forage and environmental conditions of deserts. Objective 4 is shared by the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research project at the Jornada. Experimentation involves long-term studies of the effects of disturbances on ecosystem properties. For example, we have well-established studies that quantify pattern and control of primary productivity.
Progress was made on all four objectives and their subobjectives, all of which fall under National Program 215, Component I, Rangeland Management Systems to Enhance the Environment and Economic Viability. Progress on this project focuses on Problem A, the need for economically viable rangeland management practices, germplasm, technologies, and strategies to conserve and enhance rangeland ecosystems, and Problem B, the need for improved rangeland production systems for rangelands that provide and use forages in ways that are economically viable and enhance the environment. We made significant progress in developing management and monitoring strategies that conserve natural resources. State and transition models, ground-based indicators, and remote sensing technologies were developed and tested at a broad range of spatial and temporal scales (Objectives 1a and 1b). These technologies are being applied by stakeholders, including the NRCS and the BLM, to hundreds of millions of acres of US rangelands. Specifically these technologies and tools are being used by land managers and federal agencies to monitor rangeland status and change. One new technology being developed is adaptation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for monitoring rangeland vegetation change remotely (Objective 1c). We made considerable progress in UAV technology advancement in 2009-2010. Restoration of degraded rangelands remains a daunting challenge. We made significant progress in identifying plant processes that can influence remediation potential (Objective 2a). Progress was made in identifying seed-borne bacterial consortia in native species, with implications for increasing successful revegetation of native plants in arid rangelands. Progress was also made in determining the role of spatial connectivity and landscape context on remediation potential of rangelands (Objectives 2b and 2c). Significant progress in assessing animal productivity under alternative management strategies was achieved (Objective 3). Progress was made in improving our ability to measure terpene metabolism in livestock browsing shrub-infested rangelands, determining market potential for aridland-adapted cattle, and testing effects of weaning on foraging behavior and animal distribution. Progress was made in predicting ecosystem dynamics (Objective 4a). An accessible database was created for use in model simulation and validation for predicting response of different rangeland sites to climatic and other environmental drivers (see: www.ecotrends.info). Tangible progress was also made in predicting wind erosion and automating a web-based toolbox of monitoring and assessment technologies (Objective 4b). These erosion prediction are having direct application to the Conservation Effects Assessment Project.
Landscape-level rangeland monitoring. Monitoring protocols are needed for use across large land areas to help determine where remediation treatments have most potential for success. A monitoring protocol was developed in collaboration with BLM that is being applied to restoration approaches implemented by the Restore New Mexico program for use on over 1,000,000 acres at an anticipated cost of over $20,000,000. An experiment was conducted to examine how local vegetation patchiness and landscape setting in relation to soils, climate, and hydrology interact to determine remediation success. Future treatment of rangelands by the BLM will be guided by assessments of these conservation practices from over 100 monitored locations in southern New Mexico alone. This science-based approach will be applicable nationwide and if implemented could save millions of dollars in unnecessary or ineffective treatment applications.
Data support for state-and-transition models (STMs). STMs are used to determine the likelihood that a landscape will undergo a severe change in vegetation and use, but long-term data are often unavailable to test STMs. Experimental and inventory data were used to test the limits of resilience in a desert rangeland STM, providing a clear illustration of how diverse datasets can be incorporated in STMs and a mechanism for interpretation of monitoring and assessment data for the NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP) for grazing lands. Interpretations enable decision-making to target restoration activities and to modify management to increase rangeland sustainability.
Improved remote sensing technologies for monitoring patterns. High-resolution remote sensing technologies are needed to monitor, assess, and manage rangeland vegetation. Protocols for use of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) have been developed and used to provide high resolution (6 cm) data when flown at 215 m altitude. Software was developed for constructing mosaics from multiple images to monitor large study areas. Also techniques have been developed for operating legally under FAA regulations while maintaining ground-based pilot line of site at all times. These techniques improve our ability to monitor vegetation change and rangeland health.
Quantify processes that affect arid land ecosystem dynamics. Microbial endophytes (microbes that live within plants) may influence plant survival. Increased understanding of how plant-associated microbes affect plant ecology will allow development of microbial-based technologies for arid land restoration. Metagenomic (community genomic) analysis of seed-borne endophyte communities in native arid land shrub species revealed diverse nitrogen fixing and thermophilic microbes. This previously unrecognized diversity of seed-borne microbes may enhance plant productivity and adaptability to harsh desert environments.
Importance of landscape linkages for remediation success. Improved understanding of the relationships among landscape units of variable size and management strategies needs to be better understood to increase remediation success. A time series of aerial photography and satellite imagery was used to identify spatial processes (e.g., the gradual expansion of mesquite dunelands) limiting remediation and locations within a landscape where remediation is more or less likely to be successful. Land managers can use this approach to identify where conservation practices are more likely to lead to desired state changes or to maintain state resilience.
Importance of previous management activities on remediation success. Remediation success will benefit from improved understanding of landscape context and effects of prior management activity. Analyses of runoff barriers installed over 70 years ago in southern New Mexico show persistent effects on vegetation patterns, but the magnitude of these effects varies within landscape units. For example, these barriers are more effective at reducing bare ground on fine-textured soils than coarse-textured soils. Land managers can use this information to identify landscape locations where modification of soil and vegetation is more likely to improve long-term soil and water resource retention.
Biochemical principles of shrub use by livestock. Shrubs contain a variety of secondary compounds (e.g., terpenes), and how ruminants metabolize and cope with these chemicals is poorly understood, in part because of a limited ability to measure absorption and elimination from the body. A procedure was developed to measure terpenes in rumen fluid and serum from sheep. This procedure successfully recovered structurally diverse mono- and sesquiterpenes and provides a technique for measuring rates and identifying mechanisms by which ruminants process terpenes. This information will improve our ability to manage livestock browsing in shrubby ecosystems.
Pre- and post-weaning cow behavior. Information on spatial and temporal use of landscapes by livestock during different production phases is crucial for rangeland management and optimizing animal distribution. Location of cow-calf pairs was continuously monitored by GPS electronics attached to individual cows before and after weaning to document foraging behavior and rate and distance traveled. Distance traveled increased and spatial use of the landscape for foraging changed after weaning. Understanding the effects of husbandry practices on animal behavior will enhance strategies for managing livestock on rangelands.
Market potential for aridland-adapted breeds of cattle. Alternative productions systems are needed to offset the increasing costs associated with beef production. Criollo cows that co-evolved with arid landscapes require fewer external inputs than traditional breeds, but their smaller size causes them to be discounted in current commodity markets. Criollo cattle receiving limited grain were well received by consumers based on meat flavor. These cattle provide producers local and regional marketing opportunities and decrease production costs.
Simulation modeling of vegetation dynamics over time. Tools are needed to integrate our knowledge base in order to understand historic dynamics and predict vegetation change. Long-term (10-50 years) vegetation data (species composition) from 50 sites across the US were integrated into a database to improve accessibility to a broad audience. Accessible data can be used as inputs to simulation models and to validate model outputs. Results can be used to conduct cross-site syntheses of rangeland responses to climate and other drivers.
Integrated rangeland management toolbox. An integrated suite of tools is needed to facilitate the synthesis and application of new and existing research. A database for inventory assessment and monitoring (DIMA) with a simple integrated field acquisition system was enhanced with automated reporting and GPS capability. This database is now being used by a number of organizations and government agencies throughout the US to assess and monitor changes in ecosystem health. This database will increase data quality and accessibility for rangeland managers.
Indicators of ecosystem processes. Cost-effective vegetation and soil measures are needed that reflect key ecosystem processes. New indicators of soil susceptibility to wind erosion were identified (including a field test of soil erodibility) that are being combined with vegetation indicators previously developed at the Jornada. These indicators were incorporated with data from the National Resource Inventory to assess resource status across the western US. A key finding of this assessment was that non-native species currently occur on nearly 50% of non-federal rangelands, and account for at least 50% of plant cover on over 5% of these lands. Information will be used by the BLM, NRCS, DoD, and NPS to evaluate effects of management practices on the status of over 100 million acres of western US rangelands.
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