NMSU faculty collaborate on grant to study Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

WRITER: wthv8420
CONTACT: Rani Alexander , raalex

An interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, geologists, biologists and geographers from New Mexico State University is helping the Las Cruces office of the Bureau of Land Management by locating and recording natural and cultural resources on the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument.

The multi-disciplinary research is funded through a five-year grant from the BLM, which will use the information collected by the team to better manage these resources for the public. This grant is a direct outcome of a memorandum of understanding that was negotiated between the Las Cruces office of the BLM and NMSU researchers in the College of Arts and Sciences in spring of 2016. The intent of the MOU is to essentially establish the NMSU faculty involved as “subject matter experts on call” to conduct research needed to help BLM develop a Resource Management Plan for the Monument.

“It’s a partnership,” said Rani Alexander, department head of anthropology at NMSU and one of the co-principal investigators on the grant. “We work closely with McKinney Briske and the BLM’s resource managers in botany, geology, paleontology, geography and archaeology.”

“The project was designed to help the BLM gather information about biological and non-biological aspects of the national monument,” said Donovan Bailey, NMSU professor of biology and one of the botanists on the research team.

Bailey, along with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences’ Sara Fuentes-Soriano, assistant professor and curator of NMSU’s herbarium, are researching plant life on the monument.

“The diversity of habitats found in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Monument is notably higher and exceptional with respect to surrounding areas of Las Cruces. These habitats are critical to support the very unique and extensive biological richness of these lands,” said Fuentes-Soriano.

Bailey, Fuentes-Soriano and undergraduate students participating in the project, Chloe Battista and Trystan Harpold, are studying herbarium samples of plant life only found around the monument. The botanical team is data-mining information about the monument plant species, the elevation where they were found and their exact location to increase knowledge about these species records and ultimately disseminate findings in on-line biodiversity portals.

“This is important information for the BLM so they can decide how best to protect these plants,” said Fuentes-Soriano.

The geologists on the research team are interested in learning how and when the volcanic rocks of the monument, such as the Organ Mountains, erupted. The Potrillo volcanic field, which was last active between about one million and 14,000 years ago – relatively recently in geological terms – is of particular interest. Volcanoes here formed because of rifting, or thinning, of the Earth’s crust.

“There’s a relationship between how the earth’s crust extends and volcanic activity,” said Jeff Amato, NMSU professor of geological sciences and one of the geologists on the team. “We’re interested in learning whether the extension causes the volcanic activity or if the volcanic activity causes the extension.”

Lava flows from the Potrillo field are near some towns south of Las Cruces and, given the recent history of volcanic activity in the area, Amato said that some of these volcanoes could eventually erupt again, but probably not soon.

“In the fall we’ll have a student compiling a database on geological information about the monument for consumption by the public,” said Emily Johnson, NMSU assistant professor of geology. “Additionally, we’re planning field work at Kilbourne Hole to map the deposits and better understand this explosive volcanic eruption. We’ll also document the presence and depletion of xenoliths, pieces of the earth’s mantle that were deposited on the surface during the eruption. The xenoliths are an important resource and we need to understand how they’re being depleted by people removing them from Kilbourne.”

The monument’s volcanic history also contributes to the diversity of the soil, which in turn contributes to the diversity of the plant life being studied by Fuentes-Soriano and Bailey.

Archaeologists from NMSU’s anthropology department will be studying cave sites and other evidence of past human habitation in the area. Alexander recently directed students in recording archaeological sites on the monument as part of a mapping class.

“We were able to teach students how to properly map archaeological sites by producing maps that the BLM can use,” said Alexander. “The maps show exactly where contemporary recreational activities impact ancient activity areas, which will help the BLM protect the sites.”

The sites, which included the old “rock house” at Soledad Canyon and various prehistoric cave sites near Peña Blanca, will be studied more fully later this summer as part of a survey project managed by assistant professor of anthropology Kelly Jenks.

“Our goal is to help the BLM know what sites are out there so that they can figure out the best way to manage them,” Jenks said. “Some of the earliest evidence of farming in this area came from those mountains. We’re excited to see what else we can find and what we can learn out there, especially now that we’re working with other disciplines.”

Peter Houde, professor of biology and curator of the vertebrate museum, will be looking further back in time to see what lived here thousands and even millions of years ago. Houde, who recently excavated a 1.2-million-year-old stegomastodon skull discovered by a local boy, will put together an inventory of fossil vertebrate specimens that have been recovered in or around the monument. He also hopes to do some field reconnaissance.

The geographers on the research team will compile the information collected by the other teams to create a larger database available to the public.

“In addition to building a geo-database with the information from our colleagues, we’re also compiling satellite images and other publicly available spatial data of the monument,” said Michaela Buenemann, associate professor of geography at NMSU and one of the geographers on the team.

Sara Aristizabal, an undergraduate student in geography, is a member of the geography team and is responsible for creating the geo-database, which will be used by the BLM to decide how to preserve the monument and its various resources.

“I’ll use a software called ArcMap,” Aristizabal said. “It’s basically a library of geography images, locations, boundaries, slope and parking.”

Aristizabal will also create story maps for various sites in the monument. These story maps will include information about the sites’ archaeology, paleontology, geology and botany.

“Currently, the geo-database with mapping data is pretty bare, but once fieldwork starts at the end of May, we’ll be receiving a large amount of data from the other research teams that will help us populate the geo-database,” said Christopher Brown, associate professor of geography and another geographer on the team.

One of the end goals for the database is to make it easily accessible to members of the community to enable them to print their own maps of the monument sites to help them explore nearly 500,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert, mountains and volcanic landscape protected as part of the National Landscape Conservation System.

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