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Burrowing owl research fosters cross-border collaboration

RITA BLANCA NATIONAL GRASSLAND, Texas - A summer wildlife research project that stretched across the Great Plains, from New Mexico to South Dakota, also stretched the horizons of the project's young researchers: mostly undergraduate students from New Mexico State University.

New Mexico State University student Jamie Joe holds a burrowing owl that was captured at the Rita Blanca National Grassland. Joe was one of eight NMSU students participating in a summer-long research project that covered burrowing owl habitat at grasslands from northeast New Mexico to southwest South Dakota. The owl was briefly studied, then released. (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

s who were used to a life connected by text messages, ringtones and podcasts instead connected with an environment more accustomed to wailing coyotes, grass-rustling breezes and sky-scorched sunsets.

"I wasn't sure what to expect. You have to bend, be flexible," said NMSU student Jo Lynda Thompson of Eagle Nest as she and other students waited for dusk to deepen one evening last month at Rita Blanca National Grassland. Thompson, a senior in wildlife management, had just helped set 30 walk-in traps at burrow entrances in the vicinity of eight burrowing owl nests. A few hours later, they would check each trap for owl chicks, captured as the birds left the burrows to hunt for dinner. It was a process she had helped with many times during the summer.

"My highlight was being able to catch the owl chicks and being able to handle them," Thompson said. "This was so cool, so different."

The project brought together NMSU, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Chihuahua in an effort to examine the status of burrowing owls in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and South Dakota. The three-year, $350,000 Hispanic-Serving Institutions grant was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.

The project began in May when eight students from NMSU - Thompson, Robin Boyle of Blackstone, Mass., Dana Dominguez of Gila, Jamie Joe of Farmington, Jason Lithgow of Santa Fe, Ryan Mann of Carlsbad, Justin Mapula of El Paso and Mary Rogers of Tuskegee, Ala. - joined two students from the University of Chihuahua - Nancy Hernandez Rodriguez and Otilla Rivera Rodriguez - for a training session in Janos, Mexico. They learned the basics about burrowing owls, including nest identification, trapping techniques and taking blood samples.

Directing the research was NMSU's Martha Desmond, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics' Fishery and Wildlife Sciences Department, who has studied burrowing owls since 1989.

By mid-May, students were stationed at the four research sites - the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands in northeast New Mexico, western Oklahoma and north Texas; the Comanche National Grassland in southeast Colorado; the Pawnee National Grassland in northern Colorado; and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in southwest South Dakota.

Students monitored 350 nests across the four sites, documenting nest locations, reproductive success and nest site fidelity. The project is intended to create a better understanding of factors influencing nesting ecology across the Great Plains and range retraction of this owl in its native habitats. It also will train and mentor young biologists while providing a tremendous amount of information for Forest Service biologists managing this sensitive species.

Dan Garcia de la Cadena, district wildlife staff for the U.S. Forest Service at the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands, said the information collected by the students will allow the Forest Service to more effectively manage the resource. He was impressed by the size of the study, which is unique in that it covers four national grasslands.

"The scale is impressive," Garcia de la Cadena said. "Very rarely so you see something on this scale, where you can look at an animal across its entire range."

As a result of the students' efforts, "we've got a fantastic data set," Desmond said. Information like nest locations and the dimensions of prairie dog colonies, where most burrowing owl nests are located, will be added to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) databases.

The project also is intended to create ways for students at both universities to work together.

"It's a way to foster a relationship with these students at the University of Chihuahua," Desmond said. "These grasslands are the same resource, regardless of the border. What better way to facilitate communication across the border?"

The grant also initiates a student exchange program between the University of Chihuahua and NMSU that will begin next year. Desmond's colleague on the project at the University of Chihuahua is Alberto Lafon, a professor who earned his Ph.D. in animal and range sciences from NMSU. Along with John Sidle, Forest Service endangered and threatened species specialist for the National Grasslands and co-principal investigator on this project, they are working on a second grant that would increase the number of researchers and enable expansion of the project to a grassland site in Mexico.

As part of the summer project, NMSU students earned credit for completing Biodiversity and Natural History of the Great Plains, a three-hour course. They also earned stipends paid by the grant. The Forest Service supplied vehicles, housing for the project and summer salaries for two students enrolled in the Student Career Experience Program.

Desmond said the project gave undergraduates a chance to participate in meaningful field research, something more common to graduate-level projects.

"It gave me an idea of what prospects I might have in the future," Thompson said.

"I'd never seen the plains," said Joe, a senior wildlife and range management double major at NMSU. "I'd never been east of New Mexico. I like the prairies. As the saying goes, 'Anybody can love the mountains, but you have to have soul to love the prairie.'"

Desmond said there were a few surprises as the summer research got under way.

"They learned a lot about themselves, personally as well as professionally," she said. Isolation was a key obstacle for some of the students, who were stationed in campgrounds and farm houses that in some cases are miles away from the nearest town.

"They had never been placed in that kind of situation: no neighbors, no cell phones, no e-mail," she said. "For students in this kind of techno age, being connected is really important."

Desmond said this group of students will now take on leadership roles in the department and college and serve as mentors to younger students.