Las Vegas, N.M. — A New Mexico Highlands University natural resource management graduate student was a guest speaker at the 22nd International Grassland Congress in Sydney, Australia Sept. 15 — 19.
Felicia Archuleta presented her research paper, Prescribed Fire: A Proposed Management Tool to Facilitate Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, to scientists from throughout the world at the conference focused on revitalizing grasslands to sustain communities.
Archuleta’s paper is a precursor to the master’s degree thesis research she is conducting on 316 acres of the Kiowa National Grassland in Union County in northeastern New Mexico.
“Black-tailed prairie dogs are considered a vital keystone species in grassland ecosystems,” Archuleta said. “The goal of my study is to determine how seasonality and frequency of prescribed fire affects Black-tailed prairie dog expansion, a process that is not well understood. It’s estimated that more than 150 different species depend on prairie dogs and their colony sites for survival.
“For example, 90 percent of the black-footed ferret’s diet is black-tailed prairie dogs. The black- footed ferret is an endangered species that is receiving consideration for reintroduction in the Kiowa National Grassland,” Archuleta said.
The 137,131-acre Kiowa National Grassland is a semi-arid, short-grass steppe that is part of the North American Great Plains.
For her study, Archuleta is mapping and analyzing 18 years of historical controlled fire research within her 316-acre study area. She is using remote sensing and geographic information systems technology, along with ground surveys and high-precision global positioning systems, to outline black-tailed prairie dog colonies.
Archuleta learned to use the GIS and GPS research tools at Highlands, which has a state-of-the-art Geospatial Technology Laboratory for advanced map making.
David Hacker, forestry professor and head of the Natural Resource Management Department, is Archuleta’s adviser.
Hacker secured the grant with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station that funds Archuleta’s research, and also paid for her participation in the International Grassland Congress.
“Felicia’s research will expand our knowledge of black-tailed prairie dog management,” Hacker said. “They are a keystone species — if we have healthy prairie dog populations, then we know the ecosystem is functioning properly.
“I think Felicia is a young woman with tremendous potential as a scientist. She’s extremely bright and motivated,” Hacker said.
“The natural resource management professors at Highlands are very knowledgeable and approachable, and have the best interests of their students at heart,” Archuleta said. “I’ve had so many opportunities at Highlands that you don’t get at a big university.”
Archuleta has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory part-time in various positions since 2007, and is currently working in the Environmental Division. She earned her B.S. in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of New Mexico.
“Looking ahead, my professional goal is to continue to research environmental issues that are important to New Mexico,” said Archuleta, a 26-year-old native of El Rito in rural Rio Arriba County, N.M.