Researchers look to preserve rare cactus near oil and gas site around Lybrook

Caroline Creyke
The Daily Times

SAN JUAN COUNTY — A area of federal land near Lybrook is home to the Brack hardwall cactus, and researchers are trying to find ways to preserve the rare cactus while also accommodating oil and gas production in the region.

To the untrained eye, the Brack hardwall cactus is a miniature version of the more common hedgehog cactus. But a trained observer notices the addition of a small hook.

These cacti have been found solely in New Mexico, and only in three areas of the Nacimiento formation, an area that encompasses parts of San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties. They thrive where outcrops of badlands mix with sage, grasslands, other cacti and wildflowers, such as sego lilies and Aztec gilia.

The cactus is on the Bureau of Land Management's Sensitive Species List. Officials believe it has a habitat range limited to a small area of San Juan County, and its habitat, already vulnerable to erosion, is threatened by possible oil and gas development.

Because of that, the BLM applies certain mitigation efforts to oil and gas drilling and production to preserve the cactus.

"We try to minimize the impact as much as possible," said John Kendall, a BLM wildlife management biologist. "Sometimes, you're successful, sometimes you're not."

The basic idea is to lessen the impact of man and machine on the cacti's habitat. If you are a hiker, this means don't step on it. If you are an oil and gas company, the guidelines are more complicated.

The first Brack hardwall cacti were found in an area south of Bloomfield. A mandatory biological survey of a potential drilling site on BLM-managed lands near Lybrook revealed a second habitat for the cactus.

Now, a joint BLM and New Mexico Natural Heritage survey of the area is in progress as officials conduct inventory and habitat mapping.

"This will allow the BLM to create new management measures to protect this species from ground-disturbing activities," Kendall said in email.

This generally means the placement of well pads, access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure must be within existing corridors or in areas that have already been disturbed.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Wally Drangmeister says horizontal drilling could be another way to access oil without disturbing the cactus.

In this scenario, a new well pad could be placed a mile or two away from the lease. The pipe connecting the two would run a mile deep underground to the oil source without disturbing Brack's habitat. To do this, an oil company would need a permit from the land owner. Transplanting the cacti is another option, though that's Plan B.

"Any endangered species has the potential to be disruptive to our operations," Drangmeister said. "We certainly want to be protective of the species within the area of our operations."

He added that officials also want to make sure procedures recommended by the BLM are "both necessary and effective."

Kendall added the survey's results "could also have the potential to remove Brack's cactus from the BLM Sensitive Species List if deemed that the species is more common than previously thought."

If that doesn't happen, then it remains the federal government's responsibility to protect the cactus. Like most native species, Brack's has evolved and plays a role in the ecosystem, Kendall said.

"The specific role is complex, but generally speaking, many other species (rodents, various wasps and moths) have a relationship with the cacti and are important for pollination and food dispersal purpose," he said.

Brack hardwall cactus named after Belen man

Who found it: Bloomfield High School teacher Bob Reeves discovered the rare Brack hardwall cactus in the early 1960s while walking south of Bloomfield.

Calling in an expert: After he found the cactus, Reeves called in biologist Ken Heil, who described this new species for the scientific annuls.

Name: Heil named the cactus after Steven Brack, owner of Mesa Garden Nursery in Belen. Brack "had done a lot of work with cacti, and no other plant had been named in his honor, so I went and named it after him," said Heil, a San Juan College professor emeritus of biology and geology.

Common practice: Research biologists can name discoveries after whatever they choose. "The person who describes it can name it for whoever they want to, or they may name it for the place it was found, or for a plant characteristic," Heil said.

Caroline Creyk covers the outdoors for The Daily Times.