Rooting for Rare Plants in New Mexico

By Vida Svahnström, Elisabeth Vulpas, Hailey Loya, July 2023

A few miles down a gravelly New Mexico oil and gas road, a lone, white Chevy Silverado is carefully making its way. But, what’s this!? It’s not an oil and gas truck, it is the rare plants crew on their way to monitor some rare plants!

Setting up a transect at a Clover’s fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus cloverae) plot. Photo by Vida Svahnstrom, 2023.

Every field season, starting in mid-April, the New Mexico rare plants crew revisits established plots for nine rare plant species throughout the state. All of the plots are located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land which serve multiple land uses. This means that the plant populations we study may be adjacent to oil and gas development or recreational off-highway-vehicle trails. Monitoring—in this context—allows us to determine the effects of these varied land uses on rare plant populations.

The crew begins the season in Farmington, New Mexico, with species Aztec gilia (Aliciella formosa), Clover’s fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus cloverae), and Mesa Verde cactus (Sclerocactus mesae-verdae). The crew then visits Carlsbad, New Mexico, to monitor Tharp’s bluestar (Amsonia tharpii), Allred’s flax (Linum allredii), Kuenzler’s cactus (Echinocereus fendleri var. kuenzleri), and gypsum wild buckwheat (Eriogonum gypsophilum). In Taos, New Mexico, the crew monitors Ripley’s milkvetch (Astragalus ripleyii), and finishes the season with gypsum Townsend’s aster (Townsendia gypsophila) near San Ysidro, New Mexico.

Rare Plants of New Mexico

All photos by Vida Svahnstrom (2023) unless otherwise noted.

New Mexico has a rather exciting and unique geologic history, including the existence of multiple inland seas and volcanism in many areas of the state. These geologic events drive diverse soil formations, and with diverse soil formation also comes diverse plant speciation. Of the nine species the rare plants crew monitors, eight are so-called edaphic endemic species—which means they specialize in and are restricted to a narrow range of soil conditions that are difficult for most other plants to grow on. As a result, edaphic endemic plants are often naturally rare, appearing in small, patchy distributions. Three of the species that the rare plants crew monitors are endemic to the gypsum hills and scarps in Eddy County, New Mexico.

Gypsum-rich soils are highly reflective, limited in available nutrients, and have a tendency to crust, which requires special adaptations by plants to live on them. Many gypsum-endemic plants have developed specialized root systems and unique water and nutrient uptake strategies to survive and reproduce successfully in this soil type. Species like these—that are naturally rare—are especially susceptible to human impacts and other threats. Demographic monitoring is crucial to determine plant population trends—and inform land managers if populations are found to be declining.

This is the eighth year the Bureau of Land Management-funded rare plants crew has been monitoring these species, which means we are starting to be able to make inferences about the life history and population trends of rare plants in the region over time. We can’t wait to see what this year’s data analysis holds for these rare plants! Thank you to the Bureau of Land Management for funding this project and working to understand and protect New Mexico’s rare plant species and ecosystems.

Lightning near one of the crew’s favorite camping spots, Brantley Lake State Park near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Photo by Vida Svahnstrom, 2023.