Science Moab talks to ecologist Liz Ballenger about protecting the park’s ecosystems from climate change | get out and go

Many efforts are underway with Southwest National Parks to restore degraded ecosystems. From monitoring non-native species to anticipating the effects of climate change, national parks in southeastern Utah are actively managed to maintain or restore their ecological function. Here, Science Moab talks with NPS Ecologist Liz Ballenger about what ecological restoration means for the Utah and Colorado Plateau national parks.

Moab Science: What does ecological restoration mean and what is its primary purpose?

Ballenger: The overall goal of ecological restoration is to put the ecosystem on the right course to recover on its own. At the National Park Service, our mission statement states that we must preserve and protect, intact, natural and cultural resources for future generations to enjoy, so it is our job to ensure that the resources are intact. This is all the more crucial as we face climate change and think about the direction our ecosystems are likely to take, in terms of drought, warming temperatures, etc. What we’re looking for are the best functioning ecosystems we can have, and we think about that holistically, from physical forces and climate to vegetation that then supports wildlife. You need to look at the big picture when thinking about ecosystem function.

Science Moab: Why do you think these areas are not recovering?

Ballenger: It’s really the physical forces at work. Our grasslands that need to be restored are those large, open, arid areas. They are basically stripped because the high winds no longer allow soils to settle on them. When it was grazed a long time ago, cattle and sheep basically broke up the plants and the bio-crust that kind of protected the surface, causing the soil to erode over time, so they wouldn’t are not able to support the perennial grasses that were trying to grow there.

Science Moab: What strategies do you use in restoration projects?

Ballenger: We do several things for invasive species. We do the good old hand-pulling method, and we get a lot of help from staff, volunteers and members of the Conservation Corps. We also do herbicide applications, which we try to use minimally, but which are certainly necessary to control some species. We have introduced some biological control agents, such as the tamarisk beetle. Seeding is an important component of what we do, so we have a very active seed collection program within the Park Service and use our seed stores in our various restoration projects. We’ve been pretty strict about collecting all seeds from the parks, but with climate change in mind, we’re starting to collect seed populations that may be more suited to warmer temperatures and less water. . The Grasslands Project is also very soil-focused, as we capture soil and sediment in these areas to provide a place for plants to grow.

We also hope to embark on more biological recovery and replanting of the soil crust, as soil stability is also an important part of restoration in our dryland ecosystems. In riparian areas, we generally focus on exotic plant control, as most of our weeds like to take advantage of these moist environments and can grow very aggressively in these areas. Generally, when we control alien plants and there are enough native species mixed in that area, we can do passive restoration and allow our native species to reseed themselves and then they can out-compete everything else.

Science Moab: What are some of the unique challenges of restoration in national parks? What do you anticipate will be a challenge in the future?

Ballenger: Because of our dual mission, serving visitors is a big part of why we are here. It can also present challenges because the areas you are trying to restore often experience ongoing impacts from visitors or infrastructure. There is a lot of infrastructure needed to accommodate visitors. The biggest challenge ahead is climate change. I really hope we get the right conditions for the grasses to start establishing there. There are just a lot of unknowns about climate change.

Moab Science: How often are these restoration efforts monitored? Do you experiment within them to determine the right way to restore these areas?

Ballenger: Yes, we always keep track of what we sowed in an area and then go back and see what actually grew. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to do much quantitative scientific tracking of our restoration, but a quick look at what regrows when we’ve put in some effort helps inform our future efforts. This is essentially what adaptive management is

Science Moab is a non-profit organization dedicated to involving community members and visitors in the science that takes place in southeastern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. For more information and to listen to the rest of this interview, go to www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.