Just Add Water: Prairie Vegetation Responds to Rain

Note from LPCI: Jake Swafford wrote this field report late last summer, before LPCI had a website on which to share it. It captures so vividly the on-the-ground experience of the life-giving rains that returned last summer that we wanted to share it with you on our newly launched website.

Who knew — the recipe for grass requires rain. It’s as though Eastern New Mexico had everything prepped and ready just waiting for the drought to end. Since the rain started I have watched the surrounding land explode with life, as if the instructions read “just add water.”

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

New Mexico prairie. Andy Lawrence photo

I have been working in New Mexico for just a little over two years now, and this is the first time I’ve seen things really grow. Being a wildlife biologist I have the privilege of spending most days outdoors, traveling all over eastern New Mexico, seeing public and private land. The past month in the field has convinced me that management on the ground is headed in the right direction. The drought made it hard to see positive results of conservation projects, but now that we have some rain, the landowners’ hard work is apparent.

I’ve seen grasses this summer that make me feel like I’m back home in the tall grass prairie of Missouri, huge bunches of grasses and plants I barely recognize because I’ve never seen them that tall. The rain is bringing out the true nature of New Mexico’s grasslands.

The moisture also is demonstrating the true potential for wildlife in this area. I have seen more coveys of scaled quail this year than I have since moving to New Mexico. Rabbits seem to have sprouted from the ground along with the grass. The biggest change I’ve noticed in wildlife populations has been an explosion of insects. While these bugs can be annoying for those of us who work outdoors, they are a key component for supporting other wildlife. They even pollinate many of the grasses and flowers that create beautiful landscapes and habitat for our favorite animals.

The rains provide much needed relief to farmers and ranchers in the area who have been making the best of a tough couple of years. I hope eastern New Mexico is lucky enough to have several more years of much needed rain, and that its landowners are prepared to make the best of the next tough times.

Jake Swafford is an LPCI Farm Bill wildlife biologist. You can reach him at jswafford@pheasantsforever.org or at (575) 201-8117.