Ecologists tackle invasive plants of Sonoran Desert


Northern Arizona University researchers have landed a $1.9 million grant to assess the spread of non-native, invasive plant species throughout Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and across Department of Defense lands.

The Department of Defense grant launched NAU faculty, staff and students on a four-year task to model multiple features of Arizona’s desert landscape.

“This is a great opportunity to take the tools, techniques and skills we have developed to an entirely new ecosystem,” said principal investigator Brett Dickson, assistant research professor of wildlife and landscape ecology who has studied wildlife, fire and invasive species in northern Arizona for the last decade. “And it satisfies the academic needs of students, giving them access to cutting-edge tools and technologies in research.”

The program will assess the invasion risk, fire risk and wildlife habitat associated with key species to assist managers in making appropriate decisions regarding the conservation of military and adjacent lands under current and future climatic conditions.

Researchers include:

  • Brett Dickson, assistant research professor of wildlife and landscape ecology, principle investigator for the Sonoran Desert Research Program
  • Steven Sesnie, assistant research professor of remote sensing, principle investigator for the Program
  • Tom Sisk, professor of ecology and director of the Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology, co-investigator for the program
  • Bethany Bradley, assistant professor of environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, co-investigator for the program
  • Luke ZachmannJill Rundall and Valerie Horncastle, senior research specialists, Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology
  • Aaryn Olsson, postdoctoral research associate, with a degree from the University of Arizona and an extensive knowledge of the Sonoran Desert and remote sensing.
  • Ophelia Wang, postdoctoral research associate, with a degree on the way from the University of Texas, Austin, and extensive experience in remote sensing and ecology.

Students include:

  • Karl Jarvis, PhD student in biology who came to NAU to do research within a National Science Foundation-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program. He is using genetics to look at relationships between animals and their environment, and to determine places on the landscape that provide for population connectivity and persistence.
  • Cerissa Hoglander, MS student in environmental science and policy, is studying the relationships between desert bighorn sheep and water resource and habitat availability.
  • The team is currently looking for undergraduate students from both the Flagstaff and Yuma campuses to collect data and work in the field.

Problematic species, such as African buffelgrass, red brome, Sahara mustard, Mediterranean grass and arugula, are invading the habitat of several threatened or endangered native species, and allow fires to become more frequent, more destructive and more costly in an area historically devoid of fire.

The project is expected to provide valuable research opportunities for students, benefit Arizona’s economy and protect its natural resources. Researchers, working out of NAU’s Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology, hope to produce tangible results that can be rapidly applied to pressing conservation and management questions.

“We are not just addressing science for the sake of science,” said principal investigator Steve Sesnie, assistant research professor of remote sensing. “We are translating science into a framework suitable for management.”

The team also is anticipating the technological advances that will be made in the next four years, and is excited to improve the methods used to measure landscape-scale change over time, especially in light of ongoing climate change and impediments to the movement of wide-ranging species of wildlife.

The program works in cooperation with U.S. Department of Defense, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The program has also received additional funding totaling $2.5 million.