The 2020 Malpai Science Conference

“Acknowledging the past and looking forward”


Myles Traphagen

Malpai Borderlands Group Science Coordinator

 For nearly two decades the annual Malpai Borderlands Group Science Conference has brought scientists, ranchers and community members together to present scientific topics of interest to the borderlands. On January 9, 2020 the tradition continued with the conference held at the Geronimo Event Center in Rodeo, New Mexico. It was one of the highest attended in recent years. The 140+ conference attendees were treated to a smorgasbord of presentations that addressed past conservation and research projects, local issues that are affecting us now, and a look forward to what may be affecting us in the future. As the keynote speaker, Dave Simeral explicitly explained that we are in a trend of hotter and drier conditions. Dave is a Research Scientist at the Desert Laboratory and one of the authors of the Western Regional Climate Center drought reports.

Other presentations followed along similar themes, with Dr. Kathy Gerst from the USDA Plant Phenology Network Monitoring who spoke about changes in plant bloom times and how you can help track these changing trends using Nature’s Notebook, an app to contribute your observations to the national network. Dr. Jeff Fehmi from the University of Arizona gave us an excellent overview of the ecology of Lehman Lovegrass, an exotic South African lovegrass that most of us have developed a relationship with whether we like it or not. A lot of work has been done over the years on erosion control and water retention on both sides of the border in the San Bernardino Valley, and Dr. Laura Norman from the United States Geological Survey in Tucson, Arizona provided the numbers that show these projects are working. A lot of things are working in the MBG area, and Dr. Brandon Bestelmeyer, Project Leader at the USDA Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces, provided a comprehensive overview of the socioeconomic and environmental changes in the Malpai region over the last 20 years. Compared to many places of comparable size and demography, we are doing quite well in terms of sustainability

Reptile and amphibian conservation played a big role in the early days during the formation of the Malpai Borderlands Group. Drs. Cecil Schwalbe and Phil Rosen were instrumental in those early efforts working to restore the Chiricahua leopard frog and inventory rare and elusive species like the New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake. Cecil presented on behalf of Phil and we were treated to a collage of photos of some of the region’s most impressive and colorful reptiles and amphibians.  The jaguar is also an iconic creature that has held a special place in the lore of the Malpai. Dr. Ivonne Cassaigne from Primero Conservation out of Mexico City provided the latest in cutting edge jaguar research in Sonora. The GPS collared cats they have studied have yielded a wealth of information on diet and movements, with javelina being the preferred food source of jaguars. Juan Carlos Bravo, the Mexico Program Director for Wildlands Network in Hermosillo, Sonora, updated us on efforts to build and protect corridors for spotted cats in Mexico so that they can continue to freely disperse into the US and freely roam back and forth between the two countries. How will the border wall affect these binational efforts to recover the third largest cat in the world?

Two graduate students presented their preliminary results from research that they are conducting on topics of great interest to folks in the Malpai Group. Cody Wooden, from the University of Arizona, spoke of his work using remote sensing data from Landsat satellites to determine what kind of vegetation changes have occurred in the Malpai region in the last three decades, and whether or not fire management in the borderlands has influenced positive trends in the shrub cover and grassland dynamic. Shelemia Nyamuryekung’e, a New Mexico State University student and researcher at the USDA Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces inspired us all as to possibilities that a “new-old breed” of cattle could provide another tool in how to improve range management in the Southwest. His talk, titled “Criollo cattle research: Landscape use, heat tolerance, mothering style & range finishing,” is a great example of the high quality research being conducted at the Jornada range that is improving our knowledge in animal science and landscape use. I am sure we will hear more from Shelemia in the not-too distant future. Cindy Tolle, a rancher who runs Criollo and bison in South Dakota and Chihuahua, Mexico, closed the conference by telling us of her experiences with, and admiration of this legacy-breed.

In addition to the fantastic content that the presenters provided, it was great to see so many old friends and colleagues reunite, exchange stories and embrace in the common space of the “Radical Center” that the Malpai Borderlands Group has provided for over 25 years. We would like to thank all who presented at, and attended the conference. A heartfelt thanks to the US Fish and Wildlife Service San Bernardino NWR for helping to sponsor the conference, and to Bob and Sheri Ashley for building a world-class facility that will surely draw many-more conferences and gatherings for years to come. Without all of your participation it wouldn’t be a community. See you next year at the 2021 Science Conference!

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