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 ExploreNatural 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.
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.
Ecosystem threats and stressors: What is causing change in resource conditions?
Focusing in on a set of natural resources in Valles Caldera
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.
Landscape ConnectivityThe 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.
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.
Redondo Peak Species DiversityThe 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).
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.
Wetlands and their Restoration
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.
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 SalamanderAn 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.
SongbirdsSeveral 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.
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 actionKnowing 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 identified a need to develop new partnerships to address landscape-level issues (such as wildfires, and wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity), while maintaining existing partnerships (such as the Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.
- 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