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NMSU Researchers Are Protecting Wildlife In The Face of a Climate Crisis

Josh Bachman

Researchers at New Mexico State University are setting out to take a deeper look at the effects of climate change. Colleen Caldwell, the leader of the New Mexico Cooperative Fish and Wildlife co-op unit, is concerned how the many raging fires will impact the health of the state’s waters and the wildlife living beneath the surface. 


KSFR: You're part of the New Mexico cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at New Mexico State University where you're training students to research renewable natural resources and conserve wildlife. Can you explain more about what you do and what those conservation efforts look like in New Mexico?

Colleen Caldwell: One of the things I would say that the federal unit, I think does a really good job, is educating future researchers, because we need to be replaced by smarter, better scientists. We're in a good place in New Mexico, to educate, and to replace, and push into the future, future scientists. 

Every state is very different in its needs for understanding the natural resources. And the West, the issues are very different than what certain units faced in the East. And so in the West, most of the western states have a lot of federal land. New Mexico is very special, because over half of the land in New Mexico is federal. And as such, we've been given a good opportunity to study the natural resources and all these federal lands. 

Most of what we're here for is answering some of the important questions that our state agency has. So there's New Mexico Department Game and Fish, they're really in charge of all the natural resources in New Mexico except for federally listed, federally endangered species. Those belong now to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So depending upon the question, the question at hand, we'll work closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , or the New Mexico Department of   Game and Fish, or the Forest Service and so on. All these different agencies will come to say, “hey, we have issues. We'd like to expand the current range of say the white tailed ptarmigan”. That's Dr. Abigail Lawson's project. The white tailed ptarmigan used to be in New Mexico, they're no longer here. Why is that? Can we translocate some birds to New Mexico? Ultimately, if we can expand their population, then the hunters can go back out and start hunting these lovely birds again. Our research helps to make available these fish and wildlife opportunities for our citizens in New Mexico.


KSFR: Pivoting to your own research, you focus on disturbances on aquatic systems like you had mentioned. So how healthy are New Mexico's waters and their ability to support wildlife?

Colleen Caldwell: When I first came to New Mexico, one of my objectives I was asked to tackle was where was mercury coming from? Why was it getting into every single water body in New Mexico, it wasn't high in concentrations, but where was it coming from? So it's been about 10 years studying the fate, transport, and effects of mercury in our aquatic systems. In the aftermath of all that research, I find that really mercury isn't a big deal. It is not as important. It's actually coming from the sky and getting into our water bodies is what I learned. But it doesn't end up in high concentrations. It's rare to find contaminants in our bodies of water that are so elevated that it requires food consumption advisories. It is fairly rare, all along the Rio Grande corridor, you would expect to see warnings for pesticides and things like that, but it doesn't exist. 

We tend to see high nutrient levels in areas where there's some agricultural work all up in the Rio Grande. But those levels aren't so high as to cause some problems. Where my research is starting to turn away from contaminants because it really, contaminants are not a big issue. In New Mexico. Up in Southern Colorado, Northern New Mexico, there was the Gold King Mine spill, that was fascinating. And I visited and worked with some of my colleagues, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to understand a little bit about the impacts that that Gold King Mine spill was going to have as it moved downstream into areas where native endangered fishes were. Those are rare. Those  are really rare. So most of my research has shifted down to climate change, the impact that say fires have now on our aquatic systems, and the recovery of our aquatic systems from very intensive fire effects.

KSFR: You just mentioned fires and New Mexico is experiencing many of them right now. What does that mean for our waters and for you and your research?

Colleen Caldwell: What we've learned is fires having a hard time. After decades of recovery for healer trout, we're still experiencing fire throughout their range, which sets us back. So, fire has a really a long term effect on the recovery efforts that we're working on in terms of our native salamanders. Fire has probably the hardest effect.

KSFR: And another hot button topic on climate change is the Rio Grande drying up. Are you concerned about this at all?

Colleen Caldwell: Well, absolutely. There are many species in the Rio Grande that have evolved in the Rio Grande. We've lost them, they've become extinct, they will never come back, we'll never see them again. There's some wonderful fishes in the Rio Grande, that have to deal with long expanses of miles of that river drying up so they have to go and they have to anticipate the river drying they find themselves in pools that then become too hot, low oxygen, or the become predated upon by birds and people. It's a really hard thing to see a river dry up in the southwest. I understand the importance of water for human use, for agricultural use. I understand it. My job is important in that I try to walk a fine line and understanding that, yeah, it's about fish. My job is about fish, fish need water, there's not a single fish that doesn't need water. But, understanding that water also has these conflicts, I'm still learning how to work with people to understand why they need the water and how we can work together to make sure there's more water in the river. We have to anticipate longer, more intensive periods of drought. I'm not exactly sure what the future holds for some of our fishes in the Rio Grande.

KSFR: It was said that New Mexico offers a unique opportunity because of our diverse ecosystems to study the effects of climate change, do you mind explaining that a little bit more?

Colleen Caldwell: New Mexico exists in the most southern of the United States, and so animals, not just fish, but all animals living in New Mexico are going to be subjected to the effects of climate change, because it is much much warmer here. We have longer periods of dryness, and so are the effects that a warming climate will have are going to be longer, and they will be drier. And so these animals that have evolved in the desert southwest, are having to adapt to these changes so much more quickly. And so New Mexico is in a really important place, I would say in the entire United States, to monitor, manage, help these animals adapt to a warming climate. Some of the research I've done has shown that warming occurs. But what's more important than a warming temperature is the fact that it's not as cool as it needs to be. Some of our native species, especially our trout, need cooler winters than they are actually getting. And that's really shifting their life history requirements. So it's not getting as cold as they need it to be. So it's a combination of getting too hot for too long, and not getting as cold as they need it. So New Mexico is just in a prime position, and Arizona is to, to really understand the impacts that a warming climate is having on our native fishes, and our native wildlife.

KSFR: And I really liked how you said that New Mexico is in the prime position to understand climate change. So why should New Mexicans care or start to care about climate change?

Colleen Caldwell: I think from an ecologist perspective, and that's really what's hard to communicate the importance of understanding ecology to  my family even, I have to explain how important ecology is. Because it what it does represent is a really delicate thread, we're all threaded together very finely. And that includes animals, butterflies, birds, insects, it's just part of the natural ecosystem. And when there's such a shift as quick as it has been in terms of temperature changes, what we won't see is the disappearance of some of these important species that we really don't know how important they are to our ecosystem. It creates, oh, it sort of decouples, or makes our system so much more fragile. And so yeah, as a person that lives in the southwest, we should be very conscientious about conserving water, about thinking about how important it is to reduce our carbon footprint so that we can contribute toward kind of ameliorating effects that our warming climate will have. In addition, education, it's really important to educate our kids about conservation strategies to reduce our warming temperatures and how they might be able to contribute in their own small way. And then last is to understand the importance of the impact that warming climate is having on everything, not just people and all organisms because we're all tied together.


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