Science MATTers

Landscape engineers: humans, beavers, and…termites!

We all admire the beaver for the way it can turn a linear river into a lake with a dam, but the termites turning the desert into a pattern of oases that allow permanent life even in drought periods for hundreds of years - that’s much more fascinating.  -Norbert Juergens, University of Hamburg

Read the BBC Science article by Jonathan Amos that examines Juergens’ studies of grass “fairy circles” created by termites in the Namibian desert:

Do termites “engineer” the American deserts to maintain water supplies as they appear to do in Africa? Will this change with climate change? Good questions for scientists about this behavioral pattern!

-Matt Preston. Photo from BBC


It’s here - Burning Man 2013!

Check out this great video, Playa Time: Dust to Dust, that compresses the entire Burning Man 2011 into about five minutes.  Video by:  Matt Goodman

Science MATTers

Are dragonflies the most effective hunters in the animal kingdom? According to the New York Times:

African lions roar and strut and act the apex carnivore, but they’re lucky to catch 25 percent of the prey they pursue. Great white sharks have 300 slashing teeth and that ominous soundtrack, and still nearly half their hunts fail.

Dragonflies, by contrast, look dainty, glittery and fun, like a bubble bath or costume jewelry, and they’re often grouped with butterflies and ladybugs on the very short list of Insects People Like. Yet they are also voracious aerial predators, and new research suggests they may well be the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom.

Check out the NY Times Science article: Nature’s Drone, Pretty and Deadly.

-Matt Preston

Science MATTers: Inventorying the BLM’s National Historic Trails

As part of its National Conservation Lands, the BLM manages over 5000 miles of congressionally designated National Historic Trails. Yet the management of these trails can be a bit tricky, as we are not always sure where the trails are located (the trail markings, like wagon ruts, often disappear over time, or the original travelers left no trace of their passage), and we haven’t had the resources to systematically identify the National Trail resources, qualities, and values or associated settings (viewsheds, cultural resources, trail settings, etc.). Rather, management efforts often have focused on high priority, known trail resources, and efforts to verify the location of a trail and inventory trail resources is often completed in response to project proposals.

However, thanks to a project supported by American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funding, we have conducted in-depth  and systematic inventories of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail in 6 states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado;  the emigrant trails in BLM Wyoming and Utah; and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail in New Mexico. These inventories provide valuable baseline information and help us identify our priority management and protection needs.

American Archaeology recently published an article that we thought you might want to read to learn more about this cutting-edge project. Click here to read the article.


Science MATTers

Studying trail recovery to improve land management

The BLM manages several hundred wilderness study areas. These areas are included as part of BLM’s National Conservation Lands and the BLM is mandated to preserve their suitability for designation as Wilderness until Congress makes a final determination on their status.

Several of these wilderness study areas have unauthorized trails, or routes, created by off-highway vehicles.  The BLM recently completed a study to determine how these trails recover over time in six wilderness study areas in BLM’s Elko District (Nevada). Are people still using them? Do they naturally recover?

BLM staff, along with interns from the Great Basin Institute, mapped these trails,  collected data on soil displacement , took directional photographs, and determined track shape, condition, and surrounding vegetation.

In brief, the research found that some previously known trespasses had disappeared, some trespasses were new, some had become shorter in length implying they have not been used frequently, and some had become longer implying current use. Understanding how routes are used and how they recover can aid the BLM in managing WSA routes and minimizing trespasses.

Please click here to see the study’s final report.

-Matt Preston

Every year, the Bureau of Land Management partners with the Geological Society of America to bring GeoCorps America interns into our offices. These enthusiastic and talented interns support us on all aspects of the BLM mission: from assisting with paleontological digs and surveying hydrological conditions, to processing geospatial datasets and producing maps.

Thanks to Sarah Doyle for writing a great post about her experience as GeoCorps America intern in the BLM’s Royal Gorge Field Office.

-Matt Preston, BLM Science Advisor, National Conservation Lands

Science MATTers! New Dinosaur Species

Do you remember watching Jurassic Park as a kid? Wasn’t it amazing? It sure was – and to my young mind it sure made science and scientists seem really cool!

Well, in case you hadn’t thought about dinosaurs in awhile, let me remind you about their awesomeness with a link to a story about dinosaur discoveries in BLM’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Meet Talos - - one of at least 15 new dinosaur species found at Grand Staircase in the past decade!

Photo: Jorge Gonzales; Image Copyright: Utah Museum of Natural History

What?!?! I can’t believe they are still finding so many new dinosaur species, and I had no idea that dinosaurs were so diverse. Just imagine spending a few days in Laramidia with these types of dinosaurs running around! I can’t wait to hear even more the amazing dinosaur research going in Grand Staircase. How ‘bout you? More to come!

Grand Staircase National Monument is one of nearly 900 awesome places in BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System. Check us out!

-Matt Preston

Science MATTers - (Very) Long-Term Effects of Land Use Change

A study recently published in Scientific Matters, and summarized in the New York Times, shows how deforestation 3000 years ago in Eastern Europe had a substantial impact on current environmental conditions.

“Around 3,000 years ago, humans began clearing forests for agriculture in present-day Serbia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria…and around 1,000 years ago, the agricultural efforts significantly expanded. With fewer trees to trap rainwater, the Danube (River)’s volume probably increased; it carried far more eroded nutrients and silicate-laden soil with it and its salinity decreased, laying the foundations for the modern-day Danube Delta.

Today, the Danube Delta encompasses a rich assembly of 23 different ecosystems, including wetlands, lakes, lagoons and dunes. Over 300 species of birds pass through the delta, and 45 species of freshwater fish inhabit its waters. “What our ancestors did without purposefully having it in mind was to enrich that part of the world and increase the diversity of the land,” Dr. Giosan said.

In some lucky cases, such as this one, land use changes can help biodiversity. In other cases, we might be facing environmental catastrophes.

The taking away for this story being that care must be taken with the important decisions we make about current land use, as these decisions can affect the course of the environment for longer than we may care to imagine.

-Matt Preston

Science MATTers: Native species taking on cheatgrass!

Cheatgrass photo:

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) invasion is a major problem across much of BLM land. Cheatgrass is invading sagebrush ecosystems across the western USA. Much funding is spent on trying to eradicate or, at minimum, control the spread of cheatgrass – and to be honest, it seems like we are pretty far from a solution.

However, promising research out of the University of Nevada, Reno provides some hope. The researchers found native perennial grasses had altered their flowering patterns in response to cheatgrass invasion, and in some cases had developed more tolerance to cheatgrass. The researcher also found that two of the native perennial grasses, in some locations, were able to reduce the success of cheatgrass.

There is a ton more research needed on this topic (e.g. why in some locations were the native plants successful in suppressing cheatgrass, but not in other areas?), but at least it looks like there might be a touch of light at the end of the long cheatgrass tunnel.

-Matt Preston

Science MATTers - Fossils in New Mexico

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, a valued BLM science partner, recently put out an excellent book on the paleontological history of the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument. Many of the fossils in the Monument are about 280 million years old (when southern New Mexico was covered by a shallow tropical sea)! My favorite are the undichna fossils (p. 34): fossilized swimming tracks from fish!

Prehistoric Trackways National Monument is one of nearly 900 awesome places in BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System. Check us out!

Science MATTers - Cattle and Healthy Landscapes

Photo Credit: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos,

Grazing cattle is an important part of the western U.S. culture and economy.

Much of this grazing occurs on BLM land, and in some cases well-managed grazing can help us to manage healthy landscapes. For example, appropriately timed grazing can help to reduce the spread of invasive species: However, grazing cattle isn’t appropriate in all places at all times. For instance, a recent article in Conservation Biology, led by a USGS researcher, shows how the removal of cattle from a national wildlife refuge in SE Oregon led to “substantial regeneration of aspen shoots, increased densities of riparian forbs and shrubs, and increased avian abundances.” Or in other words, the land was regaining its biological integrity, following the removal of the cattle (

The point of the story: local conditions matter. Proper coordination with scientists can help us understand those local conditions and allow us to improve our management of the public lands.

-Matt Preston