Long before global climate change made its way to the top of the international political agenda, Mark Dumesnil was in the trenches, producing research for the U.S. government detailing climate change’s impact on native plant communities.
Dumesnil, now the Upper Gulf Coast program manager for The Nature Conservancy of Texas, worked in the late ’80s and early ’90s at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Grassland Soil and Water Research Lab in Temple, Texas, analyzing data from around the world. He also researched carbon sequestration, testing different types of native plants under differing conditions to determine the amount of carbon they could sequester through various photosynthesis strategies unique to each plant.
Interestingly, his team’s research pointed to post-industrial age elevations in CO2 as a cause for the global increase in brushy invasive species, which have a competitive advantage in higher-carbon environments compared to native grasses.
A native of New Orleans, Dumesnil still cooks up a mouth-watering crawfish etouffe for his colleagues from time to time, and has used his time on the coast to become an avid saltwater fisherman. But he got his start in the grasslands, earning his bachelor’s in wildlife management and his master’s in range science at Texas Tech University.
He began working with the USDA right out of college, crunching data and learning the latest in computer and data storage technology. It was fascinating work, but it wasn’t quite enough.
“I was feeling really stifled; I wanted to get out in the field again to start making things happen.”
In 1993, he took a job as a range specialist with New Mexico State University. He primarily assisted with rangeland experiments on a 28,000-acre ranch with 400 cows and 1,000 sheep.
“I was doing the cowboy thing, riding the range all day and gathering cattle, but I was also evaluating the range resource: collecting data, documenting the effects of various grazing management schemes,” he recalls, adding with a chuckle, “I even had a set of spurs.”
Three years into that job, he saw an opening back in Texas that he couldn’t resist and in 1996, he joined the Conservancy as coastal preserves manager. Since then, he has held five different positions throughout the organization over the course of his 15-year career.
Initially, he found it a challenge to learn all the regulatory and biological intricacies of working with coastal habitat, but Dumesnil’s early work on invasive species and grazing management brought him full circle.
“That’s where the real learning began,” he said. “I had to really educate myself in coastal species, shoreline erosion, training in prescribed fire, marine ecology...” The list goes on, but learning is Dumesnil’s specialty so he adapted readily to the coast.
He worries about the continued effects of development on coastal habitat; not just unsustainable coastal development, but increased pressure on water resources upstream, leading to saltier bays and estuaries. He attributes this factor, combined with the ongoing severe drought, to recent deaths in the whooping crane population. While the species still faces an uncertain future, it has bounced back from the brink of extinction, largely thanks to conservation measures undertaken at the breeding and wintering grounds in Canada and Texas, as well as at key stopover sites along the species entire migration route. In the past few years, Dumesnil’s team has been successful in preserving thousands of acres of whooping crane habitat in Texas through conservation easements.
“The recovery of the whooping crane has been a phenomenal success,” he says. “The Nature Conservancy is doing its part working with the state, federal, and private landowners to put more coastal areas under protection.”
In his current position, he oversees the management of several projects, including Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve, Texas City Prairie Preserve, Shamrock Island Preserve, Francine Cohn Preserve on Mustang Island, Refugio-Goliad Prairie Project and the Columbia Bottomlands/Lower Brazos River Project, to name a few. He’s rightfully proud of the team he’s put together to run the Upper Gulf Program.
“You just have to put the right people in the right place, give them the resources they need and get out of their way.”