New Mexico Ridge-Nose Rattlesnake
One of the Groups' major efforts has been to work with land managers to return fire to the landscape as a natural ecological process that is necessary to sustain and restore grassland and savanna woodland habitat. The early steps to accomplish this have been to plan a series of prescribed burns which are beginning to get vegetation structure back into a healthy equilibrium with periodic fire. As we began working toward a programmatic fire management plan for the Peloncillo Mountains, endangered species concerns arose for which no one had any answers. We had to find some way to move ahead with fire management while lacking important information about how to manage these endangered species. The solution that we developed was to convene meetings of the experts for each species to share information, identify critical data needs, and develop goals for monitoring and research that would answer those needs. The New Mexico ridge-nose rattlesnake appeared to be vulnerable to fire impacts. The rattlesnake lives in wooded mountain canyons where decades of fire suppression has allowed fuels to build up to such a level that it poses a risk that unnaturally hot fires could kill too many snakes. One of the key questions for this species is: how can we measure adverse fire effects in a way that meets the needs of the agencies, and gives us some assurance that fire will not cause unacceptable impacts to the species? The New Mexico ridge-nose rattlesnake question has proven to be a difficult one to answer. These snakes are so rare in the Peloncillo Mountains that it takes 30 man-days of searching to find one! This makes it nearly impossible to know how many there are, or what their population trend may be. Given this uncertainty, our snake advisory committee decided that monitoring habitat could substitute for monitoring the snakes themselves. We worked with the herpetologist considered the most knowledgeable for the species to make a map of snake habitat. The map was then used by the Forest Service as the basis for fire management zones based on where the snakes are most likely to be found. The final step was to get agreement among the experts to set a fire effect threshold, but in this case we used acres of habitat impacted by high intensity fire as a surrogate for direct effect on the snake. In 2003 we used the Baker Burn II as an experiment to see if snake habitat could be monitored on a large enough scale and with enough accuracy to be practical. The result satisfied our snake committee, and after several years of planning, mapping and data collection the USFS and the USFWS were finally ready to finish the fire plan! With the completed plan we should be able to let fire play its natural role in the Peloncillo Mountains.