I’m a few weeks into my DFP internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, and I’ve already learned so much. I’ve lived in New Mexico for about three years now, and it never ceases to amaze me how much the landscape can change within a few hours of driving. Throughout my time so far, I’ve been astounded by the open beauty of desert scenery, and I’ve been even more amazed by the ability of life to persist in such seemingly barren conditions.
After a brief period of orientation, I hit the ground running and immediately headed out to the four corners region of New Mexico to check on the known populations of Mesa Verde cactus and Mancos Milkvetch, two endangered species with specific habitat requirements and that are sensitive to disturbances. It’s the time of year that these plants are producing seed, and I am working on collecting these seeds to conserve for future study and regeneration, while leaving enough so that populations can continue to expand in their natural habitats.
I began by doing collections for the Mesa Verde, which has scattered populations in this region. Unfortunately for the cactus, the land use in this area includes cattle grazing, horseback riding, off-road vehicle use, and there are often roads to access telephone wires that run through them, all of which can damage existing plants. The cactus is tiny, only growing a couple of inches high, so locating live plants can also be a challenge. However, we were happy to find a few healthy populations with fruits full of seeds.
The Mancos Milkvetch grows in rock depressions and cracks of point lookout sandstone. I was amazed to see such a small and seemingly delicate plant growing from such a tough material, a true testament to the perseverance of nature. Similarly to the Mesa Verde, this plant can be hard to locate, but I liked to think of it like a scavenger hunt, and I was thrilled every time I found one sprouting up through the minerals.
One prominent insight I had while doing these collections is the health of these plants that exist on tribal lands compared to those found on state lands. To me, this shows the importance of limiting disturbance activities in order for the populations to thrive. I believe that continued efforts during internships such as my own, as well as collaboration with land owners and species experts such as the people I worked with over the last few weeks, a better understanding of these species and their requirements can be achieved to slow the decline of existing plants and allow their populations to grow.
Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP
Location: New Mexico Ecological Services Field Office