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New Mexico

Staff Q&A

Conservation Ecologist Karla Sartor cares a lot about what’s growing in our desert soils.

Before joining the Conservancy in New Mexico, Sartor conducted research at Harvard University on how climate change is impacting the nutrition of major grains—the largest source of calories for the world’s population.

Nature.org talked with Sartor about a rare plant that only appears few weeks a year and why every drop of water counts.

Nature.org:

Your adventures in science have taken you all over the country. A brief recap?

Sartor:

I’m originally from Alaska and have ventured far and wide as a scientist, including Oregon, Yellowstone National Park, and Boston.

Nature.org:

As a plant ecologist, how are plants a part of your work for the Conservancy in New Mexico?

Sartor:

My work now focuses on New Mexico’s desert grasslands. For instance, I’m working with a landowner near Silver City to address major soil erosion problems on his ranch, the Pitchfork.

Lack of fire, historical overgrazing and drought have reduced grass cover leading to major soil loss. So we’re installing rock structures to slow down water flows during heavy rains, and catch soil and seeds to reestablish grasses.

We're also working with scientists from the Jornada Experimental Range to map grassland condition at a fine-scale on the Pitchfork Ranch and in the Hachita Valley. We're using these maps to prioritize and plan restoration activities so that we apply our limited funds to areas that will respond most favorably to restoration.

Nature.org:

It sounds like water is a big issue for grasslands and people.

Sartor:

Absolutely. The rancher we’re working with has a perennial water source on his land and tells me that this year water flowed through the ranch only one day whereas last year it ran 70 days. These remnant desert wetlands (called cienegas, for “100 waters” in Spanish) are critical for supporting wildlife.

As you can imagine, any amount of water you can get to stay in place long enough to soak into the ground is important for maintaining the health of grasses which, in turn, help hold soil in place. That’s what our conservation project aims to do. And we’re meeting with more landowners in the watershed we hope will also join the effort.

Nature.org:

You’re also focused on a very rare plant right now.

Sartor:

Yes, I’m researching a rare plant called the Chihuahua scurfpea that is only known to exist in three places in the U.S., including New Mexico’s Hachita Valley.

We’re trying to understand what this plant needs to survive. It only comes up for a few weeks a year in the spring in response to good winter rainfall and during the summer monsoons and then is gone without a trace. We are working with the BLM to help them more quickly identify where this plant occurs to protect it.

Nature.org:

How does this one little plant tie to grasslands restoration?

Sartor:

Like any rare plant, it is an indicator of the larger ecosystem and associated species that may also be at risk.

It's also very much linked to grasslands restoration treatments.

Our focus is on restoring grasslands by reducing the spread of woody species before they are so abundant that it's too difficult to remove them. We're trying to speed up the process of locating this plant, which is required before any woody plants are cleared.

Nature.org:

What keeps you up at night?

Sartor:

Water! It’s so dry down here, and only predicted to get drier with climate change. But we got snow today, so I’m very excited.


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