Friday, July 26, 2013

Mesa Monsoons

Storms at Hope Lake trail
The summer rains have begun, a little behind schedule but all the sweeter considering the drought and high temperatures.  The rains contained the West Fork Fires near Pagosa Springs, and brought cooler temperatures to Mesa Verde.  Colorado is experiencing a below average fire season to date.  Whew!

At Mesa Verde, we've begun sampling the Long
Long House Ruins
 Term Fire Monitoring plots.  With 100 plots, it takes some time to complete.  The goal of that study is to understand how the pinyon-juniper woodlands at Mesa Verde are recovering from its large fires.  As I've mentioned before, there is a lot of uncertainty about what seral stages the burned area will grow through, how long each stage might require, and what the species-mix is during each stage.  The classic textbook view of woodland post-fire seral-stages is grass yields to shrubs which yields to forest.

Plants are our Friends
However, the real world is never so tidy, and at Mesa Verde these classic stages are muddled by factors such as fire intensity, future fire frequency, human intervention with post fire reseeding of grasses (at unnatural densities and without forbs), unnatural feral horse grazing pressure, and post-fire recolonization with invasive plants.  These factors may create a new path of seral stages for Mesa Verde, so the climax community may end up resembling something different.  Since Mesa Verde has several endemic plants and that aerial reseeding is expensive, studying how fires and related management plans are changing the biotic community is an important goal.
Coppers feast on Arnica

Many of these factors are active areas of study, as we found out first hand at a visit to Rio Mesa Center -- a new research facility for the University of Utah.  We camped out at the new tents and learned about the current research projects, such as inventorying the plants & animals, reclaiming weedy fields to grow native seeds for restoration projects, and peering into the past to understand the past fire regime.  I met several paleoecologists and they encouraged me to learn more and come visit their department in Salt Lake City.  I've been mulling graduate school in either ecology (systems and/or restoration) or paleontology (evolutionary ecology) for a really long time... this year it seems like the fates are coalescing into new potentials to consider.

So as I walk through the mountains here, I wonder what next year will bring.  Any suggestions for my next career?
Cascade Cascades (yeah, the names here are that original)

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