Range Restoration: Building Topsoil

The Painted Pony Resort lies in San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua Mountains and Peloncillo Mountains of southwestern New Mexico just a couple of miles from the Arizona boarder which bisects the valley.  An open valley set between towering mountains ranges a variety of people have called it home.  From early hunter gather groups to early agricultural groups such as the Mimbres and Hohokam and up to the present the valley has seen it all, from hunting to farming and most recently grazing.

Past range management decisions, beginning in the late 1800's with corporate ranching combined with changes in rainfall have resulted in a generally altered rangeland in many areas of the valley.  A decrease in grasses combined with an increase in woody shrubs, notably mesquite and creosote, have reduced the current productivity of the landscape.  A local attempt to restore and sustain the grasslands is spearheaded by the Malpai Borderlands group whose goal "is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape to support a diverse, flourishing community of human, plant and animal life in our borderlands region."  Through their efforts much of the bootheel is managed for both cattle and wildlife.  Yet there are other areas (notably public lands, state and federal) where management practices are not producing an increasingly productive landscape but rather a continuing decrease in productivity is observed (see image below).  One of the goals at the Painted Pony Resort is to increase range land productivity on the estate through the grasslands restoration project.

The estate is composed of 750 deeded acres spanning the both sides of the San Simon Riverbed, it includes 6 types of soil, and last year received about 10.75" of rain (CoCoRaHS rain network, NM-HD-17).  The ground cover varies significantly across the estate and ranges from areas denuded of grasses where erosion has eliminated the topsoil to other areas such as the riverbed where fencing has created a seed reservoir used for spreading native grass seed back onto the surrounding landscape.  After successful preliminary experiments with simple top soil restoration barriers as a tool to slow erosion and encourage new grasses these barriers were expanded in both scope and materials.  Instead of simple barriers constructed from cut weeds, mesquite from the riverbed was employed to create topsoil restoration barriers.  Mechanically removed mesquite is transported up out of the riverbed and placed in rows perpendicular to either the dip or to the prevailing winds on a scarified subsoil base.  Grass from the riverbed is then harvested and placed on the upwind (up dip) side of the mesquite barrier followed by some soil from the riverbed to reintroduce microbes and nematodes crucial to developing new topsoil.  The branches of the mesquite combined with raked grasses create micro climates on the exposed subsoil leading to new plant growth.

The result of this effort is already producing results.  As shown below the mesquite topsoil barriers have caught wind blown seed, slowed water flow and new grasses are developing along the restoration barriers.  A simple technique that can be implemented by anyone, the topsoil restoration barriers are useful tools for building new topsoil and restoring the landscape and best of all require no investment beyond time and energy.

loss of ground cover results in loss of topsoil
Blowing dust on New Mexico State land, the result of poor range management decisions.

Soil map showing the boundaries of the Painted Pony Resort.

landscape restoration
Three topsoil restoration barriers installed on the exposed subsoil, click to enlarge.

New grass along a mesquite topsoil barrier

New grass along a topsoil barrier
A topsoil restoration barrier with new grass created from road waste.


Louisiana State Arthropod Museum (LSAM) Returns

The Louisiana State Arthropod Museum returned this month for another visit.  Their yearly visits combine a collecting trip to the Chiricahua mountains with some vacation time at the Painted Pony Resort.  Students and museum staff make the yearly trip and upon their arrival at the estate is transformed into a field station for the duration of their visit.  Collecting equipment is unloaded, processing stations created in the garage, and microscope stations set up in the computer room.  After dinner and an evening introductory lecture on the high desert of New Mexico everyone relaxes in the hot tub or heated pool after the long drive then begin preparations for collecting projects.  The days are filled with collecting at various locations from the valley floor up to elevations over 9000' in the high country.  While a series of flight intercept traps are set up around the mountain range to sample the local insect populations.  Favorite collecting locations are visited and repeat samples collected.  Each evening students and staff return and a communal dinner is prepared.  Every day a different person is responsible for preparing dinner for the group which creates a series of international meals since students and staff come from around the world to study at the museum.  After dinner samples are processed and then the group relaxes with a movie, more swimming, and black light stations set up around the estate are monitored.  Of course with 750 acres the Painted Pony Resort and adjoining public lands are also used for collecting and students could be found out on the landscape with nets throughout their visit.

Here are several images by Mike Ferro of LSAMs 2014 visit to the Painted Pony Resort.  Additional images from the 2014 LSAM collecting trip may be found at:

The first evenings lecture

The arrival and unloading

Collecting in the high desert
Collecting at the light trap
Processing samples in the garage
Microscope station in the computer room
Relaxing after a day of field work
Collecting from an ephemeral pool next to the estate


2014 Monsoon Season in Southwestern New Mexico

The monsoon season is well underway and the mountains on both sides of the San Simon valley are receiving good rains.  But out in the middle of the valley it is a little slower.  The Painted Pony Resort has received about 6" so far this year and hoping for more.  Yesterdays rain was heavy in both the Peloncillos and Chiricahuas but we received only 0.07".  This morning though the views were nice and I took some time from cleaning to capture the image below.  Desaturated, the image is just one of the many faces of the Chiricahua mountains, always changing with the light and seasons.  Always something new to see.

The 8000' Portal Peak on the east side of the Chiricahua mountains


Mesquite Treatment and Rangeland Restoration

One of the goals of the grassland restoration project is to return the segment of the San Simon riverbed at the Painted Pony Resort to open grassland, creating a seed reservoir, and this means removing mesquite.  The riverbed was over run with mesquite as a result of unmanaged cattle grazing.  Cattle are a major dispersal agent in the spread of mesquite, eating and passing seeds back onto the landscape where they germinate.  Originally confined to riparian areas, mesquite has spread across the landscape in modern times.  But it is not all bad, mesquite provide forage for cattle and other native browsers, habitat for nesting birds, and most importantly they fix nitrogen in addition to holding the soil.  Mesquite can be stubborn to remove since they produce deep tap roots and mechanically removed mesquite come back quickly requiring further treatment.  A backhoe or other device that will pull the taproot out is required to completely remove the plant and prevent regrowth.  Alternatively, herbicide treatment may be used after initial removal of the above ground portions of the plant.  But tests by others with a number of different herbicides show variable results with both application timing and herbicide compound being important variables.  Because of the variable results with different herbicides a 2 prong approach was chosen for herbicide treatment.  Glyphosate (the active chemical compound found in Roundup) is available off label at 40% concentration.   This is diluted to a final concentration of 2% (found in commercially available formulations) and combined with 2,4-D at a final concentration of 0.2%.  2,4-D is a plant hormone analogue while Glyphosate interrupts amino acid synthesis.  Once absorbed both herbicides work through different mechanisms interrupting plant growth and killing the reoccurring mesquite.  Below are photographs of a mechanically removed mesquite in the riverbed treated with this combination of herbicides.  Although effective some regrowth is noted requiring a second application to finish off the mesquite.

This combination of mechanical removal followed by herbicide treatment is returning the riverbed to an open grassland while maintaining a few large single stemmed mesquites for habitat and leaving mesquite along the margins and on the uplands to provide cover, soil stabilization, and nitrogen fixation this approach shows what may be accomplished with a minimal investment.  

Untreated, 2 weeks after mechanical removal

96 hrs post herbicide treatment

10 days post herbicide treatment, residual new growth will require a second treatment


An Unusual Tool

While out walking the other day with one of the LSU Arthopod Museum's staff the tool shown below was found amongst a scatter of mano fragments.  Downstream of several room shaped crop marks, the presence of flaking and grinding stone tool fragments suggests we were close to a former habitation site.

The oddly shaped piece measuring 3.3 x 6.5 cm was constructed out of a fine grained local red rhyolite common to the area.  Four long primary flakes running the length were removed from one side to create the tool from a single larger flake.  Several very small secondary flakes were removed from the inner curved surface creating a partially serrated cutting edge.  The shape and curvature of the tool suggests right handed usage and when held the thumb fits comfortably in the basal depression at the base while the index finger comfortable wraps around a groove on the backside.

Tentatively identified as either a burin or awl, this unusually shaped tool would be a handy addition to any early tool kit and would work well in either punching holes in leather or cutting and scraping wood or bone shafts.

An oddly shaped rhyolite awl or burin

The back of the tool showing natural finger groove

The tool fits neatly into the right hand.


New Mexico Rangeland Restoration

The grassland restoration project at the Painted Pony Resort continues to bear fruit.  In many areas the topsoil is completely removed due to poor range management techniques in the past and as a result large swaths of landscape are completely barren of vegetation leading to additional erosion problems.

These eroded areas are generally surrounded by terracettes, individual plants or low woody shrubs which hold topsoil and sit up to 18" above the surrounding subsoil.  While observing these naturally occurring terracettes and noting how the plants hold the topsoil an artificial terracette was found.  This artificial terracette was the result of several pieces of hog fence left laying on the ground.  The mesh work held the top soil, creating a micro habitat for new plant growth.  The plants and mesh work would also catch additional windblown seeds and soils continuing the process of topsoil regeneration.  In an attempt to replicate this process an experiment in topsoil restoration was started.  The first treatment utilized weeds pulled around the estate and this material was laid in widely spaced rows perpendicular to the dip, to catch water, or if the ground was level, perpendicular to the prevailing winds.  With the arrival of the monsoons new grass has sprouted along these test barriers and additional soil has accumulated.  The placement of biological material in rows on the landscape creates not only a micro habitat for new plant growth but also slows water running across the landscape decreasing soil loss and in combination with the seed reservoir will help heal the landscape naturally and continue to restore the landscape to its' original condition.

Untreated state land showing soil movement and little grass.

An artificial terracette of hog fencing.
Black lines denote new growth along test topsoil barriers.
A close up of new grass growth along one topsoil test barrier.  Note the accumulation of soil around the line of grass.


A Most Polite Visitor

All curled up in a shallow depression I never saw the Mojave, his light green and brown coloration blended in with the rock and soil covering the ground in the front garden. I had been weeding and was now busy examining an Ocotillo, looking for ways to weave the long stems into something interesting and my mind was elsewhere. Never hearing a rattle the beautifully marked Mojave remained quiet and in an uncharacteristic fashion did not alert me to his presence. Without noticing I stepped over him and continued to look up at the Ocotillo stems trying to divine some some way to train the stems into something interesting. After weaving several stems together I glanced down and saw the Mojave between my feet. Reacting to the presence of a venomous creature between my feet I gave a yelp raised one foot and comically hoped back like some cartoon character. All the time the Mojave just sat there unimpressed and unresponsive. So I retrieved the snake tongs along with a 5 gallon bucket and caught the 18” specimen for relocation. After carrying him about a mile and half away he was released into a low mesquite bush to find a new home off the estate.

I make it a habit to speak with guests about the presence of venomous creatures found in the high desert of New Mexico and if they should see one, to come and find me and the animal will be captured and relocated. The current group of Biologists were of course interested in seeing the specimen and those students on their first trip to the Chiricahua's got their first introduction to some of the wildlife found in the area.

warning sign
Signage about wildlife in the high desert
A most polite visitor.  Photograph by Michael L. Ferro


The Monsoon Means Work

Having survived another family reunion at the Painted Pony Resort it is back to work on the estate.  Monsoon season is synonymous with work since the rains combined with sparse vegetation generate water events whenever it rains.  Water concentrates in arroyos creating flash floods which results in more erosion.  To combat the erosion problems, check dams are constructed in many arroyos, but no check dams have yet been built on the new property.  Recent flash floods in 3 arroyos on the east side of the property took out the old road and work has centered on getting culverts installed and back filled so access to the new east entrance is possible.  The largest arroyo, 10' wide x 4' deep, drains the uplands east of the old El Paso and Southwestern railroad bed and carries water that is eroding the landscape further downstream.  A 36" culvert was placed in the drainage and metal wings installed to direct water into the culvert.  Back filled with old concrete fragments and rock it will eventually receive dirt to finish the project.  A good thing too because it looks like more rain.

flash flood damage
Adding a 20' long 36" diameter culvert to a 10' wide arroyo.
Peloncillo mountains monsoon
Monsoon clouds over the Peloncillo mountains illuminated by the setting sun.


Friends of Cave Creek Canyon - Garden Work Day

The Friends of Cave Creek Canyon held a work day in the gardens planted last year by the visitors center in Cave Creek Canyon.  Eight participants turned out for the event and a sunny Saturday morning was spent removing weeds and laying ground barriers around several of the planting areas to reduce future weeding. Images from the event are shown below.


The Desert Garden in Bloom

With more more work on the irrigation system at the Painted Pony Resort the front garden is looking good.  Everything is in bloom and the predominant color is now purple replacing the white of the Yucca blooms which peaked several weeks ago.  The butterfly bushes are large and lush and the Crape Myrtles are busy adding to color.  The Lantana and Gold Mound are adding additional colors making the front garden an inviting place to stroll.  The butterflies and hummingbirds are enjoying the bounty of nectar and are constantly found feeding.  A single moth species, the hummingbird moth, is also visiting the explosion of garden colors currently available in the front garden.

A large butterfly bush in front of the main house at PPR

Gold Mound and Butterfly bush


Painted Pony Resort front garden
Panorama of the front garden in bloom with the Chiricahua mountains behind.



Tarantula Behavior and the Monsoons

The arrival of the summer monsoons is always a big event in the high desert of New Mexico.  Working with the law of the minimum the rains awaken the desert and the wildlife explodes across the landscape.  From the emergence of frogs and toads singing for mates at ephemeral pools to the ants on their mating flights, the desert suddenly becomes alive with the rains.

One of the species visible on the landscape are the tarantulas (Aphonopelma sp.).  A large female has maintained a burrow by the garage for years, and is always a good indicator of monsoon season.  She digs herself out every year and can be found mating just before the start of the rains, (video).  A second female has established a burrow about 100 ft away by a concrete pad and both have mated several times this year with local wandering males.

A new behavior was observed in these insects with the first significant rain of the season.  The estate received 0.15" the other afternoon and while out wandering in the rain both females were observed sitting partially outside their respective burrows, see images below.  Curious as to this behavior observations continued (yes, I was standing around in rain watching insects).  Seeing females out during the day is unusual and their position suggested they were either blocking their entrance from the rain or funneling water to drink.  As the rain subsided the female by the garage emerged completely from her burrow, circled the entrance, and went back inside.  The other female also retreated into her burrow after the rain stopped.  A single male arrived approaching one of the burrows, but the female did not respond or emerge, so the idea of a mating behavior was discarded and it was concluded that the entrance sitting behavior was not associated with mating but rather related to the rain.

Several days later the estate received another rain, 0.53".  This rain came in several waves.  The first (0.03") did not elicit any response from either female and they stayed well inside their burrows.  The second wave of rain (0.13") was rapid and flooded the entrance to one burrow but at the other burrow the female could be seen in throat of the burrow but not partially emerged as noted during the previous rain.  During a lull in the rain the burrow that was flooded was again open and the female observed sitting in the throat of the burrow.  With subsequent waves of rain neither female repeated the partial emergence behavior but continued to sit in the throat of their respective burrows.  Though after the rain one female did completely emerge and circle the entrance before reentering and disappearing, see last image below. 

It is still not clear whether the entrance sitting behavior is related to capturing water for drinking or a burrow protection behavior.  But it is clear that Tarantulas also like the rain.

female tarantula sitting at the entrance to her burrow
Female Tarantula by the garage.

female tarantula sitting in the entrance during a rain
The newest female Tarantula sitting in her burrow.

tarantula behavior
Female emerging after the rain


Cloning - Old School

Cloning or the production of genetically identical individuals is a process that has existed for thousands of years.  Yet in today's world cloning is still feared by some, especially when discussing the potential of human cloning.  As a Biologist and former molecular geneticist much of my time was spent cloning, mostly just DNA fragments which required producing populations of cloned bacteria with the DNA fragment of interest for analysis.  Cloning was a fundamental tool in the work on the genetics of Type II Diabetes in Pima Indians.  With DNA sequencers, a dozen PCR machines, and an oligonucleotide synthesizer, it was possible to localize regions of specific human chromosomes which were linked to a number of diabetic traits in the study population.

Fast forward in time, no longer running a laboratory but instead running a 750 acre estate in the remote southwest corner of New Mexico.  Without the large grants and federal support there is no laboratory, no DNA sequencers, no PCR machines.  So, is it possible to still clone?  The answer is yes, but only using old school techniques, and while not cloning DNA fragments it is still possible to clone.  Instead of cloning human DNA it is possible to clone plant material using the tools available. Oaks were chosen since rhizomes from the tree send up new shoots around the base of tree.  Several of these sprouts were isolated, cut, and treated with rooting hormone then individually planted in 1 gallon plastic ice cream buckets, creating a second mechanism (besides growing from acorns) to produce oaks for the Painted Pony Resort.  It is nice to be able to practice some of the old skills (cloning) in a new way.

cloned oaks
Cloned oaks with lizard.
For anyone interested, here are links to some papers that resulted from the Diabetes research.