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UW-Eau Claire Biology Research Team
Works on Project in New Mexico
MAILED: Sept. 2, 1999|
For the last three summers, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has conducted research in Bandelier National Monument to help conserve the monument's biological diversity.
Bandelier National Monument, located in New Mexico near Santa Fe, was established because of an abundance of Native American artifacts and dwellings of the ancestral Pueblos, or "Anasazi." But in the last 50 years, natural fire regimes have been suppressed and elk populations have grown exponentially, said Dr. Paula Kleintjes, an associate professor of biology at UW-Eau Claire.
"Elk can be hunted in national forests, but not in national parks," said Kleintjes, who has worked collaboratively with student researchers at the site for three summers. "These animals aren't dumb, and they're figuring out where they'll be safe in the national park."
Elk have moved into the area and the Bandelier staff has become concerned, Kleintjes said. Evidence suggests that in combination with the lack of fire and loss of native grass cover, the elk are trampling the ground and overbrowsing the vegetation, she said. The result is a loss of topsoil, and thus degradation and displacement of cultural artifacts. Also, it might have negative impacts on bio-diversity, Kleintjes said.
In response, park officials have recruited scientists to study the effects of elk grazing and fire on the cultural and biological diversity of the park, Kleintjes said. Plant, bird and insect populations are being used as bio-indicators of environmental change in order to quantify what's happening in the monument, she said.
"I come in to the picture with the insects," Kleintjes said. "I have been studying the butterflies and moths of the monument because they are sensitive to changes in plant structure and species composition, and they are important pollinators. Plus they are good bird food."
Kleintjes has studied these insects in areas that have been burned and not burned, and in fenced areas where elk cannot roam and in open areas where elk can freely browse and trample.
"The long-term goal is to see if the monument needs to reduce the number of elk in combination with prescribed burning," Kleintjes said, noting that if butterflies and moths don't survive in the overbrowsed and overgrown areas, then other inhabitants probably won't either. "They want to maintain elk populations that are sustainable because a few elk do some good. But right now the monument appears overpopulated with elk and it may be reducing the monument's diversity.
"As for the fires, it looks as though the cool, prescribed fires are doing good. Our research has indicated so far that flower and butterfly populations are up in the areas that underwent these small fires."
For the past three summers, Kleintjes has brought UW-Eau Claire students with her to New Mexico.
"One of the best things about this project is being able to bring students out there and into the backcountry," Kleintjes said. "They have the opportunity to go out West and learn a great deal about field biology, the national park service and another culture."
Chris Raebel, an August UW-Eau Claire graduate from Brooklyn Park, Minn., and Lindsay Pawluk, a senior biology major from Cottage Grove, worked on the project this summer.
Raebel, who plans to study conservation biology in graduate school, said being involved with this project was the perfect chance to study the management of wildlife in national parks. "What's so great is that this research will play a role in how national parks will be managed later on," Raebel said.
Pawluk said the best thing about the research was being totally immersed in the project. "I had no idea about what I was going to be doing," said Pawluk, noting that she wanted to be involved because she loves butterflies and wanted to do field work research. "I gained knowledge on the subject because there was so much going on."
Kleintjes is writing a grant that would allow her and her students to continue their research in New Mexico for three more summers. Bandelier National Monument, the Southwest Parks and National Monument Association and the UW-Eau Claire Office of University Research have funded the research efforts in past years.
"I know my work is helping to conserve bio-diversity," Kleintjes said. "It's rewarding that I am making a difference to conserve the little things that make the world work."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Sept. 2, 1999