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Water is life in the desert: Moreno springs rehab site is an oasis for rare animals in the Mimbres River.

Diligent hands make for great wealth, and a great many hands took part in a recent habitat restoration project on the Mimbres River near San Lorenzo, New Mexico. The cooperative project between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and The Nature Conservancy is paying dividends for two imperiled species in the short- and long-term. The outcome has been a boon to the Chihuahua chub (Gila nigrescen) and Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis)--two federally endangered animals native to the Mimbres watershed.

The Mimbres River flows out of the Gila Wilderness and off the west flank of the Black Range in southwestern New Mexico--part of the Mogollon Rim, a physiographic province that spans in a massive arc-shaped form over parts New Mexico and Arizona. The Mogollon boasts a range of biologically rich habitats that support an array of mammals, fish and amphibians, and resident and migrating birds. That biological diversity is in full display on the Mimbres River.

After pouring off the cragged mountainsides, the river threads through canyons that most anywhere along the way offers a stunning visual for onlookers. As the stream makes its way downhill, it purls past spare flat fields of alfalfa, orchards, chile farms, and cow pastures. What's left of the river is soaked up by sun and sand downstream. The fact that the river naturally terminates on the desert floor leads partly to the region's biological diversity.

The Mimbres basin is the only place in the United States where the Chihuahua chub occurs. By the character of its existence, this fish species is naturally rare. But it became all the more uncommon with habitat loss when the stream's course was channelized for flood control. Introduced, non-native fishes that compete with the native chub for food and space in the river were a factor too. The Chihuahua chub was thought to be extinct for many years until it was rediscovered in 1975.

The area is also home to the Chiricahua leopard frog, so named for its leopard-like spotting and its native range centering in its namesake Arizona mountains attendant to the Mogollon province. What has harmed the chub has diminished the number of frogs as well--the loss of habitat. The Mimbres River in the past was lined with willow thickets, especially at its terminus. Soppy soils and wetlands the frogs need to thrive are fewer now. Couple that with introduced non-native, predatory bullfrogs across its range and it's hard-going for the native amphibian. Additionally, the Chiricahua leopard frog faces an insidious Chytrid fungus that weakens the animal to susceptibility to illness and predation.

A patch of flat field along the Mimbres River holds the promise of improving conditions for the two species. The 208-acre Upper Mimbres Preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy encompasses much of Moreno Spring, named for the neighboring landowner. The spring emanates over a large area and not from a single point in the ground. Think of it as a large spongy area with hummocks of dry ground between pockets of mushy soil with some open waters interspersed. One can imagine how the Mimbres River once meandered by, elbowing into the foot of a low bluff where the spring now exists. The spring may be a relic of a former river channel. No matter the case, it is a reliable water source today in an arid land--but one that could be improved upon.

And that's exactly what happened in 2014. The Nature Conservancy partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to improve Moreno Spring for the benefit of Chihuahua chub and Chiricahua leopard frog. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is a cost-share program whereby private landowners can conduct wildlife conservation work in partnership with the expertise and funding provided by the Service.

That expertise came through Angel Montoya, a Service biologist in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Montoya facilitated the spring rehabilitation alongside Martha Cooper of The Nature Conservancy. Together, with many experts in hydrology, ecology, wetland restoration, new habitats were created, bringing new life to the desert. Perhaps most significant was the expertise of a heavy equipment operator, Mike Norris. With deft hands, Norris maneuvered large machinery in small spaces to shape and form fish and frog habitat to exacting standards sought by the experts.

"It's been great to work with such dedicated people in a beautiful place and doing work that matters," says Cooper.

What had been akin to a bog was transformed into a glade with a dozen pools of varying sizes, shapes, and depths. All of them in total now provide much more pond banks where frogs like to loaf and breed, and deeper water where they dive to escape predators. The spring complex has a reliable open source to the Mimbres River where Chihuahua chub can swim to and from.

Where water truly is life in the desert, results were substantial in short order. "The return on the Service's investment was significant," says Montoya. "The results were dramatic with frogs taking to the pools immediately, and we expect the chubs did too."

Craig Springer, a public affairs officer in the Service's Southwest Regional Office, can be reached at craig_springer@fws.gov or 505-248-6867.

Editor's note: Since 1979, the Service's Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center in Dexter, New Mexico, has been the back-up for Chihuahua chub. A captive stock of chubs live there. It is a refuge of sorts, with so few of the chub persisting in the wild. Using conservation genetics, scientists at the facility intensively manage the brood fish and offspring to ensure that fit and healthy Chihuahua chubs are released back into the Mimbres River.

Caption: Martha Cooper of The Nature Conservancy and Angel Montoya of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service walk Mimbres River next to Moreno Spring.

Caption: Chihuahua chub.

Caption: Moreno bog before (top) and after (bottom) renovation.

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Article Details
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Author:Springer, Craig
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U8NM
Date:Mar 22, 2016
Words:992
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