Sonoran Desert Research Center

In cooperation with the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources

U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 2005-1187
version 1.0

Vascular Plant and Vertebrate Inventory of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

By Brian F. Powell, Eric W. Albrecht, William L. Halvorson, Cecilia A. Schmidt, Kathleen Docherty, and Pamela Anning


photo of cliff with dwellings in it
Namesake cliff dwellings of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico. Photograph by Brian Powell.

Executive Summary

This report summarizes the results of the first comprehensive biological inventory of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (NM) in western New Mexico. This project was part of a larger effort to inventory plants and vertebrates in eight National Park Service units in Arizona and New Mexico. Our surveys address many of the objectives that were set forth in the monument’s natural resource management plan almost 20 years ago, but until this effort, those goals were never accomplished.

From 2001 to 2003 we surveyed for vascular plants and vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM to document presence of species within the boundaries of the monument. For all taxonomic groups that we studied, we collected “incidental” sightings on U.S. Forest Service lands adjacent to the monument, and in a few cases we did formal surveys on those lands. Because we used repeatable study designs and standardized field techniques, these inventories can serve as the first step in a biological monitoring program for Gila Cliff Dwellings NM and surrounding lands.

We recorded 552 species at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM and the surrounding lands (Table 1). We found no non-native species of reptiles, birds, or mammals, one non-native amphibian (American bullfrog), and 33 non-native plants. Particularly on lands adjacent to the monument we found that the American bullfrog was very abundant, which is a cause for significant management concern. Species of non-native plants that are of management concern include red brome, bufflegrass, and cheatgrass.

For a park unit of its size and geographic location, we found the plant and vertebrate communities to be fairly diverse; for each taxonomic group we found representative species from a wide range of taxonomic orders and/or families. The monument’s geographic location, with influences from the Rocky Mountain, Chihuahuan Desert, and Madrean ecological provinces, plays an important role in determining the species richness at the monument. Also important is the wide range of conditions at the site. The diversity of plants results from a wide variety of soil types and aspects (from the cool, moist Cliff Dweller Canyon to dry mesa slopes) and an abundance of water from the West Fork of the Gila River. In turn, the vertebrate communities respond to this diversity of vegetation, topography, and microsites. For example, for each taxonomic group we found species that were only associated with a single community type, most often the riparian areas along the West and Middle forks of the Gila River.

We found cause for significant concern with regard to loss of species in the last few decades. One species of amphibian (Chiricahua leopard frog) is certainly extirpated from the area. Three other species of amphibians (Mexican spadefoot, Woodhouse’s toad, and red-spotted toad), reported as being “common” in the area in 1971, were not found during our surveys. In addition, we did not find three species of rodents that were found in 1965: silky pocket mouse, Ord’s kangaroo rat, and southern grasshopper mouse. The monument’s aquatic vertebrate component, in particular, may be at a critical juncture whereby other species, such as gartersnakes, may be poised for extirpation. Declining abundance of native fish species has been demonstrated from long-term monitoring of these communities along t— Middle Fork of the Gila River.

This report includes lists of species recorded by us or species likely to be recorded with additional survey effort. It also includes management implications from our work—how the monument staff might better maintain or enhance the unique biological resources of the monument. This study is the first step in a long-term process of compiling information on the biological resources of the monument and its surrounding areas. We recommend additional inventory and monitoring studies and identify components of our effort that could be improved upon, either through the application of new techniques or by extending the temporal and/or spatial scope of our work

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