Article

Condition of Valles Caldera’s Natural Resources and Scenic Views: 2022 Assessment

America’s National Parks protect abundant and diverse natural resources. The enjoyment of seeing a large herd of elk, cross-country skiing through a meadow or forest covered in fresh, white snow, watching a dark night sky full of twinkling stars, and listening to the songs of birds draw millions of visitors to our parks every year. These natural resources are parts of complex ecosystems, and they interact with other plants and animals and their environment. Park natural resources respond to both natural and man-made drivers and stressors (such as climate change, disease, invasive non-native species, human disturbance, and air pollution), which can vary by resource.

Understanding the condition of our natural resources, as well as trends in condition (that is, are conditions improving, declining, or remaining stable), is vital for managing and protecting park resources. If we don’t collect information on these resources, how would we know that what we’re doing is working?

Learn and Explore

Natural Resource Condition Assessment (NRCA) projects (such as this study) are designed to provide an efficient, yet defensible, “status of knowledge” review and update on current natural resource conditions, and identify critical data gaps and drivers and stressors for a limited number of important park ecological resources.



Ecosystem threats and stressors: What is causing change in resource conditions?

An important part of the NRCA is identifying the primary drivers and stressors affecting the condition of the selected natural resources. Understanding what forces are driving change in conditions can help a park determine needed management and stewardship activities.
Illustration of drivers blowing resources as leaves
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Focusing in on a set of natural resources in Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera National Preserve was designated as a unit of the national park system in 2014. The preserve is located in the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico, approximately 77 miles northwest of Albuquerque, NM and 30 miles west of Los Alamos, NM. A primary access road, New Mexico State Route 4, leads to the preserve’s visitor center and the historic Cabin District, which served as headquarters and residences for sheep and cattle ranching operations beginning in the 1860s. The area also preserves the homeland of ancestral native peoples. The 88,900-acre preserve is bordered by the Santa Fe National Forest, the Pueblo of Santa Clara, and Bandelier National Monument.

With elevations ranging from 8,000 to 11,254 feet, the entire preserve is a high elevation ecosystem. It includes wetlands and wet meadows, montane grasslands, woodlands, and coniferous forests, which contrast with the lower elevation and more arid regions of New Mexico. Many types of wildlife inhabit Valles Caldera, including the second largest elk population in New Mexico.

Seven resources were selected for this NRCA: landscape connectivity, visual resources (or scenic views), Redondo Peak species diversity, wetlands, New Mexico meadow jumping mouse habitat, Jemez Mountains salamander, and songbirds. We evaluated these resources as either a condition assessment (four of the resources) or a gap analysis (three of the resources), depending on data availability. A condition assessment is a more thorough evaluation of a resource’s current condition, and a gap analysis highlights what we do and don’t know about a resource and provides suggestions for collecting needed information for future assessments.


Illustration of the names of the selected resources in this article
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Landscape Connectivity

The connectivity of a landscape is important because the more connected and intact a landscape, the greater the opportunity for movement. This is vital, for example, to allow individual organisms and populations to move among areas of suitable habitat for seasonal migrations and for colonizing or moving into new habitat.

A loss of connectivity can effectively reduce the size and quality of available habitats and disrupt needed movements. Connectivity can be disrupted by human land uses and activities, such as developed areas, roads, croplands, energy development, and more.
Spruce fir forest, green grass in the foreground.
Valles Caldera National Preserve.

NPS Photo

As part of our study, we assessed connectivity among patches of major ecosystem types in the preserve, with the study area being about 31 miles wide (encompassing areas outside of the preserve too). From our analysis, we found that ecosystem connectivity is good for upper montane habitats, good/fair for lower montane and riparian/valley bottom habitats, and fair/poor for shrubland and grassland habitats. Landscape connectivity (calculated as the average of the five ecosystems) is fair/poor. Valles Caldera National Preserve is centered within a highly connected landscape, but connectivity gradually decreases away from the preserve’s boundary, with larger declines in the eastern portion of the study area.

Visual Resources (Scenic Views)

Can you recall a view from one of your favorite national parks, preserves, or monuments? Beautiful scenic views can have a lasting impact in our memories. Protecting scenic views for park visitors is an important part of the National Park Service mission. Views contribute to a visitor’s ability to connect with nature and to better experience the values of a particular park. But views can be impacted by human-related developments or activities that don’t fit in with a park’s setting. We recently “took a look” at the views within Valles Caldera National Preserve.
View across the caldera.
Panorama view of one of seven locations evaluated at Valles Caldera National Preserve.

NPS Photo

Considering two components, scenic quality and view importance, we found that the condition of views at seven locations is good (for example, the panorama view shown here was rated as “very good”). The views include landscapes with few or minor detractions, they are key to the preserve’s purpose, and they are a primary reason for park visits. The main features that are inconsistent with natural scenery at the locations assessed include fencing, preserve roads, downed and unhealthy trees, and powerlines. To determine the condition of views throughout the entire preserve, we need to look at additional sites.

Redondo Peak Species Diversity

The highest point in Valles Caldera National Preserve is Redondo Peak (11,260 feet in elevation). This peak is also the second highest point in the Jemez Mountains, and it’s important for both biological and cultural reasons. The National Park Service (NPS) conducted a comprehensive inventory of plants and animals in Redondo Peak’s high elevation communities—the first ever—in 2014, and while some of the information is still being processed, that on plants and arthropods (especially insects and spiders) was included in our assessment. The high elevation communities on Redondo Peak include spruce-fir forests, upper montane meadows, and exposed rock, or scree, fields (also known as felsenmeers).
Small brown mammal among the rocks
American pika inhabit felsenmeer rock fields on Redondo Peak.

NPS/Sally King

Our assessment found that of the 101 plant species recorded in Redondo Peak’s three communities, 98 (or 97%) were native species. Only three plant species were non-native. For the insect part of the inventory, thousands of moths belonging to 60 different species were recorded, including four species newly recorded in the preserve. The researchers also observed at least 75 species of spiders (is that more than you thought would live there?). Our assessment also recommended that specific plants and animals (such as the American pika) in each of the three high elevation communities be monitored over time as an indication of the Peak’s health.


Wetlands and their Restoration

Wetlands are some of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. They’re important because they provide vital habitat for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife, improve water quality, ease damage from floods and storms, maintain stream flows, and provide educational and recreational opportunities, such as fishing, hunting, and wildlife observation. At Valles Caldera, wetlands and wet meadows make up about 7-8% of the preserve.
Stream and wetlands surrounded by grass.
Example of a rock structure used to restore stream habitat.

NPS/Scott Compton.

Wetlands were once more common in the preserve than they are today, but nearly 150 years of livestock grazing, road construction, and logging led to wetland degradation and loss. However, efforts to restore them started in 2011 in approximately ten areas of the park. Our assessment used restoration monitoring data to see how the restoration efforts are working. We found that flow duration (or presence of water) increased significantly after restoration for the sites studied, although current drought conditions and effects due to climate change make short-term monitoring challenging. In sites with data, there was also an increase in wetland plant cover since restoration, indicating a good condition with an improving trend.

New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse Habitat

The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, a small mammal that’s native to the southern Rocky Mountains, was listed as an endangered species in 2014. Of 22 known populations in New Mexico, one is in Valles Caldera. These mice were confirmed in the park in 2018, after about four decades with no recorded observations. Protection of their stream-side habitat is important for their survival.

Mouse with long back feet
New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

© Jennifer Frey.

We assessed availability of New Mexico meadow jumping mouse habitat within Valles Caldera during our study. Specifically, ecologists summarized the known occurrence of the mouse in the park and surrounding area, identified potential jumping mouse habitat in the park, and identified potential indicators and measures of condition for conducting a future condition assessment in the preserve. We learned that four patches of habitat along creeks in the park met the minimum patch size that is considered (by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to support resilient jumping mouse populations. Additional habitat not meeting the minimum size was also identified. Jumping mice in the preserve occur in herbaceous (nonwoody) wetlands and riparian shrublands that also have dense herbaceous plants.

Jemez Mountains Salamander

An interesting and secretive little creature lives in Valles Caldera, but you may never see it. The Jemez Mountains salamander, an endangered species, lives most of the year underground. When the salamander emerges from below ground depends on soil moisture and air temperature, but it usually surfaces after late-summer rains saturate the soil and air temperatures average 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The preserve is important to the salamander because it is one of the largest, fully protected areas throughout the species’ historical range.
salamander
The Jemez Mountains Salamander.

© Chris Cirrincione.

Because data were limited on this species in the preserve, ecologists working on our study: summarized what is known about the salamander in the park and surrounding area, summarized current research projects on the salamander in the park and vicinity, and identified potential indicators of salamander condition for future study and monitoring. We found that many areas where the salamanders were present historically are now unoccupied, and those areas that continue to be occupied support fewer individuals. We also found that most areas where salamanders had been observed in the past were burned in severe wildfires in 2011 and 2013, which destroyed habitat and probably killed salamanders.

Songbirds

Several types of studies at Valles Caldera have focused on birds, including the monitoring of songbirds. More than 4,000 species of birds are considered songbirds. Songbirds and other birds face significant threats throughout their range, including loss and degradation of habitat, bright city lights that disorient birds when migrating at night, and predation by domestic cats, to name a few.
Grey bird perched on a branch
Olive-sided flycatcher, one of the many songbird species found at Valles Caldera.

© Robert Shantz.

Our condition assessment used existing data to assess songbird species richness and abundance in Valles Caldera and found it to be in good condition. All or nearly all potential species (in each of five habitat types) are present, trends in species of concern appear stable, and key indicator species are present. These findings may be especially important given the estimated decline in the North American bird population of almost three billion birds since the 1970s.

We also updated the preserve’s checklist of birds and found that it contained 196 bird species, including 117 species that are known or suspected to breed in the preserve. The identification of data gaps was also an important part of our assessment; gaps in our knowledge for songbirds in the preserve could be filled by regular monitoring in high elevation spruce-fir forests, wet meadows, and riparian areas.

Using what we learned to take action

Knowing the condition of these resources and what information is lacking is only the first step. We also need to link our findings to actions park managers can take to better protect the resources in their park. A critical part of any NRCA project is a manager-scientist discussion to identify how the park can use this information to prioritize stewardship actions, guide future monitoring activities, and select important next steps. The “next steps” may integrate multiple resources, park divisions, and/or partnerships. Here are some things that we learned.
  • Multiple stressors affect each resource and drive changes that make resource protection challenging for the preserve.
  • Warming temperatures and increasing frequency and intensity of droughts affect the hydrology or the habitat of all the resources evaluated in this study.
  • Some of the greatest needs identified by park managers include on-the-ground actions, educational and interpretive opportunities, and developing new partnerships (also see next bullet). For example, keeping trespass cattle out and communicating with and encouraging partnerships with angler organizations could continue to improve riparian habitat for the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.
  • Park managers also identified the need for more citizen science participation, completing identification of invertebrate species collected at Redondo Peak, and developing a stronger Tribal partnership to understand and monitor traditional-use plants.




Information in this article was summarized from: Albright J and Others. 2022. Natural resource conditions at Valles Caldera National Preserve: Findings & management considerations for selected resources. Natural Resource Report. NPS/VALL/NRR—2022/2409. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado. https://doi.org/10.36967/nrr-2293731




Part of a series of articles titled NRCA 2022: Condition of Valles Caldera’s Natural Resources and Scenic Views.

Valles Caldera National Preserve

Last updated: July 14, 2022