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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Experts Assist River Restoration Project

COLFAX COUNTY - Scientists from New Mexico State University's Range Improvement Task Force (RITF) and Extension Animal Resources Department are using their expertise to help residents of northeastern New Mexico in their fight against salt cedar.

A riverbank along the Rio Grande near Truth or Consequences shows the results of a salt cedar treatment project. After the invasive species is removed, native riparian plants can become re-established. (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Norman Martin)

The invasive plant crowds out native trees, like willows and cottonwoods; makes soil salty; and lowers the water table. One of the areas of concern is along the Canadian River, which stretches from the high country near Raton through five New Mexico counties to the Texas Panhandle.

The Canadian River Riparian Restoration Project (CRRRP) is addressing the problem, and has chemically treated more than 3,800 acres of salt cedar-infested land along the Canadian River in Colfax County.

Jack Chatfield, project manager for CRRRP, said treatments in Colfax County were done in 2004. Because of the way salt cedar spreads, removal efforts work best if treatments are started upstream, said Chatfield, and future work will follow the river downstream from Colfax County.

The project is a chance for New Mexico State to help landowners and agencies develop their own monitoring programs to track the progress of their restoration efforts.

"In addition to helping managers understand if they are fully meeting their management objectives, it will be an ideal venue to organize educational workshops for landowners, agency personnel and interested stakeholders," said RITF member Terrell T. (Red) Baker, riparian management specialist for NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. The project is being directed by Christopher D. Allison, Extension Animal Resources department head, and managed by Samuel T. Smallidge, natural resources associate with the department.

The NMSU team helped set up vegetation study sites last summer along with representatives from Vermejo Park Ranch, Kiowa National Grasslands, county Extension Service offices and cooperating landowners.

Previous salt cedar removal projects along the Rio Grande and Pecos River in New Mexico provided a starting point for the Canadian River project. Chatfield said the most appropriate removal method is selected for each area to be treated. The primary method so far has been to use a specially configured helicopter to spray an herbicide, which limits damage to desirable riparian vegetation. Other options are mechanical extraction, which pulls the salt cedar plants from the ground, and the cut-stump method, in which salt cedar is cut by shears or chain saws, and the stumps are treated with an herbicide.

Further work on the treated areas will be possible next year. Chatfield said it takes two years for the treated plants to die, and an attempt to mechanically remove the treated salt cedar any sooner only revives the plants.

Chatfield is eager to see what scientists learn about the treatment technique being used on the Canadian, which flows through Colfax, Mora, Harding, San Miguel and Quay counties.

"I think there's a huge resource at New Mexico State of knowledge and expertise that lends credibility to this project," Chatfield said. "They have a past history of expertise in that area."

Each spring and fall, scientists will monitor plant life, birds, mammals and soils. Their results will help guide the restoration project in making management decisions about salt cedar removal and improving riparian restoration strategies.

"They are an unbiased source of credible expertise," Chatfield said. "We wanted someone who will go in there and truly discern what the effect of our project has been. The numbers have to be backed up by sound research and sound science by people who have the credentials to do it right. These guys have proven over time that they know what they're doing."

The Range Improvement Task Force is an interdisciplinary team of range ecologists, wildlife experts, agricultural economists and livestock specialists that provides scientific information to help ranchers, land managers and policy makers make decisions about public land use.

"We've been advising groups on objectives-based management and monitoring for over 20 years," Allison said. "We're happy to be working with the CRRRP and share our experience with them."

CRRRP oversees about 2,000 miles of the Canadian River and its tributaries in New Mexico, an area that covers 880,000 acres. The Canadian River feeds Ute Lake and Conchas Lake, as well as Lake Meredith, near Amarillo, Texas.