Transnational Research Associates

Field Trip to White Sands, Alamogordo, Tularosa Basin and the Sacramento Mountains in Southern New Mexico

Autumn 1999

Art Madsen, M.Ed.

During the above-captioned time frame, the entire Habitat Relations class, consisting of approximately 40 students, traveled in private vehicles, under the supervision of Drs. Paul Turner and Martha Desmond, Wildlife Professors at NMSU, to a series of destinations essentially north and east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The objective of this excursion was to experience, first-hand, significant habitat highlights of special interest to instructors and students. The sites explored were directly or indirectly related to course material presented, earlier in the semester, in lecture format.

The first stop on Friday afternoon was at White Sands National Park. Students entered the visitors' center and were greeted by a uniformed official of the National Park Service. This professional Ranger presented several of the priorities and purposes of the White Sands Office of the National Park Service which consisted, among other responsibilities, of management and containment of the oryx population, currently reproducing at excessive rates. This species, Oryx leucoryx, introduced artificially nearly a century ago, has no natural predators and is multiplying well beyond limits originally intended. The Park Ranger explained that duly authorized efforts at population control were underway and consisted primarily of non-lethal methods.

She also expressed concern that certain plant species in the area were quite undesirable, namely Russian and Scottish Thistle, sometimes referred to as Milk Thistle, respectively Salsola iberica and Silybum marianum. These two species thrive under conditions where ecosystemic disturbance has occurred. She also noted that the African Rue, Peganum harmala, is a plant that is extremely poisonous and further emphasized that a victim can be hospitalized if the smoke emitted by burning this plant is inadvertently inhaled. Other ecological data were presented by the Ranger and students duly noted, with respect to her information, the potentially adverse environmental effects that these findings could produce if not properly controlled.

The class excursion then proceeded to Lake Holloman, adjacent to the Air Force Base. Two representatives of the U.S. Air Force, employed by the Department of Defense, greeted the students. Their names were Dr. Reiser, and her assistant Mike; both were identified as specialists in water fowl research. They noted, in a forthright manner, that the Air Force Base constituted an on-going threat to stability of avian species in the area due, in part, to the presence of a high capacity sewage facility designed for treatment of human waste. Because the waste is not fully processed, they explained, contamination of the environment frequently ensues, affecting water fowl and mammalian species on or near the Base.

At this point during their visit, students noted the presence of a Prairie Falcon, Falco mexicanus, gliding five feet above the surface of the desert, as if pursuing prey.

As their tour continued, all students toured a Wetland Habitat on the Base, located in proximity to a former sewage plant, currently inoperative. Here, the soil was particularly rich in nutrients, adding to the quality of the aquatic ecosystem which exhibited eutrophic effects related to elevated O2 concentrations.

The caravan of vehicles then departed Holloman en route to Alamogordo. Once in town, the class reported to the U.S. Forest Service Office where two officers greeted the class; both were professional biologists. During their presentation, emphasis was placed on the Sikes Act, the intention and purpose of which is to raise revenue for restoration of wildlife habitat throughout New Mexico, the first state to benefit from such an Act. Other states have patterned similar legislation after the principal objectives and clauses of the Sikes Act. This specific Act, it was noted, is an integral part of the Habitat Stamps program which generates income for the U.S. Forest Service and various subsidiary agencies.

The topic then turned to the history and creation of the U.S. Forest Service. The two speakers, both highly experienced, outlined in some detail the reasons, in 1906, for establishment of this important Federal Agency. One major point highlighted in Alamogordo dealt with the protection of public federal forests. They noted, however, that, a century ago, protection and maintenance were not considered important priorities, due to sparsely settled human populations in the American West. But times have changed and forests, no longer considered inexhaustible, must now be properly managed, the Rangers noted.

Next on the itinerary was a drive to the NMSU outpost in the Tularosa Basin area, with an adjunct trip, the next day, to the neighboring Sacramento Mountains. The entire class stayed overnight in or around this rural NMSU facility, either inside on bunks, or outside in tents. No lecture was scheduled at night; however, a well-presented discussion facilitated by an alumnus of NMSU, Dan Bagal, currently a Bureau of Land Management Representative, was held the following morning. His main focus revolved around a prominent riparian area, known as Government Springs, created in 1982, for purposes of safeguarding water resources, mostly for pup-fish, Cyprinodon macularius eremus, and other native aquatic species. He pointed out that, if government agencies cooperate with private owners, then progress can be made in the interest of habitat protection and environmental conservation.

Mr. Bagal stressed that the knowledge students acquire in biology, wildlife science and conservation are tools which will later be used, to varying degrees, in the management process. As a BLM representative, he emphasized the significance of proper planning and informed decision-making.

The class then departed the Tularosa Basin and proceeded to the Sacramento Mountains, where all vehicles met near the "Capitan" sector of these scenic mountains. The class proceeded to examine tanks known colloquially as "water umbrellas" designed to disperse water to wildlife over a large area. The availability or non-availability of water determines dispersal patterns of various species throughout this mountain region, it was noted. Students learned that the U.S. Forest Service had installed these "water umbrellas" fairly recently with the objective of ensuring the presence of water even during extended dry spells. After noting the efficacy of this system, and making notes on other details made available to them concerning wildlife in the Sacramento Mountains, all students returned to Las Cruces.

In summation, I was impressed by the wealth of information which was made available to us by Federal and State Rangers, as well as by our Professors and other Wildlife Officials from the very beginning of our field trip in White Sands through completion of our excursion in the Sacramento Mountains. I was particularly fascinated (1) by the oryx over-population problem and (2) by the methodological approaches used to control excessive numbers of this artificially introduced species, now extant in the Organ Mountains and in the White Sands Desert.


1. Oryx:

2. Scottish or Milk Thistle:

4. Prairie Falcon:

3. Russian Thistle:

5. Pup Fish:

6. African Rue: