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Courtesy Taos Soil and Water Conservation District

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) provides food and habitat for a variety of species, such as pronghorn antelope, mule deer, many bird species and game animals. Clearing it is considered by some as range improvement, making way for native grasses and forage for livestock.

Wildland fire, prescribed burns, thinning and herbicide applications are four main treatment options proposed by the Bureau of Land Management Taos Field Office on 106,634 acres of Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

The Cones Fire Project spans an east-west belt of volcanic cones from the Guadalupe Mountains in the east to San Antonio Mountain in the west.

It encompasses the proposed Cerro de la Olla Wilderness Area, which was introduced as legislation last January by New Mexico senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall.

Taos BLM manages the monument and proposed wilderness area under a general 2012 Regional Management Plan because the official monument plan was never completed.

In February and again in early August, Taos News requested information from the BLM media spokesperson in Farmington on why the monument plan has been delayed. The monument proclamation was made during the Obama administration in 2013.

So far, there has not been a response.

The environmental assessment and related maps can be viewed online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2001177/510.

Comments will be accepted by Taos BLM through Sept. 5.

Treatment options

If fire does not occur naturally, about 50-70 percent of 79,000 acres could be subject to prescribed burn. These measures, according to the proposal, would reduce the risk of severe fire as well as help to restore the ecosystems in the project area.

Thinning would occur on about 15,000 acres, providing fuelwood and wood products for local industry.

Up to 70 percent of the 20,000 acres dominated by sagebrush could be treated with the herbicide tebuthiuron, often marketed as Spike 20.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tebuthiuron has a high potential for groundwater contamination because it dissolves easily in water and persists in the soil for years.

In Europe, it has been banned since 2002.

In the proposed project area, tebuthiuron would be applied to BLM lands by air in the fall or early winter before snow accumulates. Playa lakes and drainages would not be treated.

Impact on ranchers

Back in Feb. 2018, Taos BLM met with range permittees. Rangeland treatments would occur on 26 allotted parcels and, according to the proposal, have the "full support" of area ranchers.

Maureen Johnson, a Costilla rancher and chair of the board of Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, said in a phone interview that people have a misconception about how the herbicide is applied.

"It's not a spray. This stuff is a tiny pellet. It drops straight to the ground," she said, adding, "I'm not concerned with it reaching the water table. Our water level out here is 280 feet."

At one time Johnson and her husband, Steve, disked several thousand acres on their ranch.

"But where there are rocks, you can't disk," she said. "It just tears up the equipment."

Peter Vigil, director of TSWCD, said by email that "if the projects' intention is to create more forage (grass), then adjacent agriculture producers would be in support of the project since it would lessen the ecological stresses on private lands from wildlife, especially during drought."

Concerning the use of tebuthiuron, Vigil said that if the herbicide was used as directed it was "an effective treatment for managing large infestations of big sagebrush."

Good for the environment?

The proposed treatment regime purports to be good for the environment.

By creating what the proposal terms a "mosaic" or "patchwork" of treated and untreated areas, Taos BLM projects that "appropriate vegetation communities" and the species that depend upon them will thrive.

Not so, said a consortium of conservation organizations - including Defenders of Wildlife, New Mexico Horse Council, WildEarth Guardians, Audubon New Mexico, Western Watersheds Project and others - in a joint statement put forth by Sangre de Cristo Audubon.

They contend that the first step in effective restoration is to understand and evaluate the causes of habitat degradation in the first place and then design projects that minimize the causes of degradation and encourage recovery.

According to the joint statement, "While the monument proclamation specifically authorizes grazing, it requires that grazing permits and leases be consistent with the purposes of the proclamation, with its emphasis on the preservation of ecological diversity and healthy ecosystems, and the effects of continued grazing should be considered."

The group approved of the stipulation that treatments would not occur during peak nesting season for birds.

Pinyon jay research

Absent in the environmental assessment is mention of one of the only surveys Taos BLM ever conducted on the iconic pinyon jay, a species of conservation concern and reportedly one of the 35 fastest declining bird species in the United States.

Kristine Johnson, research associate professor of biology (working retired) at University of New Mexico, was the principal investigator for the 2017-18 pinyon jay research at Río Grande del Norte National Monument.

In her report reviewed by Taos News, one of the research findings showed that after Taos BLM's 2018 treatments in the Guadalupe Mountains west of Questa, there was an 87 percent reduction in the average density of trees in a pinyon jay nesting area.

Johnson explained by email the implication of this finding.

"By removing a large percentage of the trees, the treatment reduced the quality of the nesting habitat within a traditional nesting area, and the pinyon jays stopped nesting there," she wrote.

One of the objectives of the 2012 Regional Management Plan is "achieve no net loss" of special status species habitats.

Neither Taos BLM nor the media spokesperson at Farmington BLM responded by press time as to why the survey was not mentioned.

Comments may be made online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2001177/510 or postmarked no later than Sept. 5 to Bureau of Land Management, attention Kyle Sahd, 226 Cruz Alta Road, Taos, New Mexico 87571.

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(1) comment

JGL1951

That has to be one of the most neglected assets in the federal portfolio of land. It has been ignored for decades and is no a real waste land. It should have been restored to dry land native grass years ago. BLM is a mystery to me, the way they manage land.

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