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PODCAST: Cleaning up abandoned mine areas provides wildlife benefits in southwestern New Mexico

A construction worker completes cement work for the closure of a mine. The finished product allows bats and small creatures through, but keeps people out.

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In the southwestern corner of New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management is closing more than 300 mining areas — mines, shafts and other open spaces. These locations, often hidden from view, were abandoned years ago and can be dangerous for people unfamiliar with the area they are in. Some of these features also offer a glimpse into the country’s mining history.

Simply closing mines is not a blanket solution. Some of these are home to species such as the Mexican long-nosed bat – also called the greater long-nosed bat – a small species that was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1988. mining operations have been ongoing since 2016, BLM received funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2022 to restore the abandoned mining areas. For physicist Chris Teske, this means improving the bat habitat and making the area safer.

Cookes Peak Range in southwestern New Mexico.

TRANSCRIPT: Cleaning up abandoned mine areas provides wildlife benefits in southwestern New Mexico

In a remote part of southwestern New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management is restoring an area to protect people from dangerous mine shafts and improve habitat for endangered species.

I’m David Howell, and you’re listening to On The Ground, a podcast from the Bureau of Land Management. Chris Teske is a physicist responsible for clearing mines and shafts in the Cookes Peak Range, west of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The mines were abandoned many years ago by private operators, but still posed a danger to the public. Congress provides funding each year to make abandoned mines less dangerous, but the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021 provided additional funds for mine land rehabilitation – to help erase or reduce the mines’ visibility on the landscape. And when I sat down with Chris, he immediately surprised me when he described the scope of work on site.

CHRIS TESKE, PHYSICAL SCIENTIST, BLM NEW MEXICO: Cookes Peak Range was a mine for silver, and then they shipped their silver to a little factory called Lake Valley, which is probably 40 miles away. In total we carried out 320 mine closures at Cookes, but not all 320 involved BIL financing. It was just that…

DAVID HOWELL, INTERVIEWER: Sorry, did you say 320 mines?

TESKE: Yes, mining functions, yes.

HOWELL: Holy cow! So these were individual holes they drilled?

TESKE: Yes, adits, shafts, a few stopes that had opened up. So we did seven phases: six regular phases and then the BIL financing phase at the end of it. 2016 marked the beginning of the phases of our regular mine closures.

HOWEL: Wow. Okay, so you’ve been working on this for about eight years.

HOWEL: Yeah, yeah. But it really is a beautiful mountain range. It’s quite rugged, the roads go all the way to the top, but once you get there it’s a really great view from there.

HOWELL: That’s great. Backing up a bit, I understand this mine was abandoned, right?

TESKE: Yes, they were all deserted.

HOWELL: Okay, so what does an abandoned mine mean for the federal government?

TESKE: So all these open holes at the range with all the crowds, you know, going out and recreating more has actually increased the likelihood of people letting you know that they’ve been hurt or killed. Fortunately, we haven’t had that many: the last fatality at a mining site in New Mexico was in 2020. We hadn’t had any fatalities in Cookes Range, but with the increased visitation, it was bound to happen.

HOWELL: So the regular funding for BLM’s abandoned mine lands program, which comes from Congress, is mostly just to address the holes in the ground, plug them so they don’t pose a public health or safety hazard?

TESKE: Right, right. Unless it’s something really important, we won’t go back to reseeding it at that point. Where the BIL funding has actually helped is we have reseeded the roads that actually went to the locations so that you can’t even see where the roads were that went back to some of these locations.

Some mine features are historic and help tell the story of past mining. These features are made safer by building a structure around the historic shaft, which reduces harm to people but allows bats to pass through.

HOWELL: So… Okay, so you have these 300 mining functions that you’ve been working on. The bipartisan infrastructure bill funding, as I understand it, is intended to not only address the closures, as you have been, but also to restore the country, right?

TESKE: Yes, and the BIL part was just to close some facilities, the few that were left, and then we reseeded grass at all the locations. And then our last part here in February was planting agave, because this is Mexican long-nosed bat country. That’s why we planted agave to increase their range. And that is also an endangered bat.

HOWELL: Oh, so they need the agave, like… for their livelihood, I guess.

TESKE: Yes, yes. Since they are nectar feeding bats, they would use the agave as soon as they bloom. So it was threefold, you know, what we did: we wanted to improve their habitat, and then we also improved the habitats of other wildlife with reseeding and all that.

HOWELL: Wow, okay – that’s fantastic! Is the project now ready?

TESKE: Almost. I want to go in and do another phase of agave on the east side of the mountain. We did 300 plants on the agave on the west side of the area, and then I’ll go in and put another 300 agave plants on the east side.

HOWEL:
So what do you hope that someone driving through that area might or might not see in ten years?

TESKE: What I would like them to see is that there is no pronounced erosion. Often the erosion starts from the old mine roads and old mine paths, and the way we went about mitigating that was to restore the vegetation on them. I believe that we will not experience major shaking and excavations due to erosion in the next ten years.

HOWELL: That might be one of the other hazards, the natural hazards that occur as a result of mining in that area?

TESKE: Yes. Because those roads give you a channel through which the water can flow down so quickly. So if we soften them, you remove that energy from the water, then it’s more manageable; At that moment you kick it a bit towards the stream over land. When that road is revegetated, the water is spread over the hillside and not just channeled.

HOWELL: Takes the energy out and doesn’t wear out the ground. That’s fantastic.

TESKE: Yes.

HOWELL: So this project has been going on for a long time, longer than the eight years of just the treatment.

TESKE: Oh yeah – it was a number of years before that, the cultural studies, wildlife studies. A lot of people don’t understand how much work goes into one of the projects, you know.

HOWELL: Yeah, I was going to say – you’re looking at this very holistically from many different scientific disciplines.

TESKE: Oh yes. There are other things. I also want to do natural waters in this place, and we have consulted with our nature people. That’s what I want to do: end up on Cookes with two natural bodies of water, one on the east side and one on the west side.

HOWELL: And so, besides the bats that you have there, what other species live in the area?

TESKE: Elk and deer right now. The state plans to reintroduce desert bighorn sheep to the Cookes Range. These are the other species that natural waters would be good for once they settle there again.

A fence around a historic mine opening deters people and protects wildlife from human contact.

HOWELL: Okay, so you’ve received $300,000 from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, mainly to complete all this work: removing the final elements, doing the revegetation and reseeding.

TESKE: Right. And when we sow again, we don’t just spread the seed over the ground either. We use a wood mulch: it’s like wood shavings that we use and it actually holds the water better and helps the seeds get established. Often people don’t use the mulch, or they try to use straw mulch, which blows away. But this wood mulch disappears after a while, but remains sticking out and allows your plants to get established.

HOWELL: Right. Yes. You know, I’ve actually seen that in a lot of landscaping.

TESKE: Right.

HOWELL: I did that a lot in the Northwest when I lived there.

TESKE: Yeah, yeah, that’s where it would really hold water in the northwest.

HOWELL: It would be. It does!

TESKE:
Yeah, things are going well here too, you know. With our limited rainfall it works really well.

HOWELL: Well, that’s fantastic! Chris, thank you very much. This was really great and educational. It sounds like you guys are doing a fantastic job there.

TESKE: Well, you’re welcome. Thank you.

HOWELL: Chris Teske is a physical scientist who works on abandoned mine land cleanup projects in New Mexico. We have photos of the area and the cleanup on our website, BLM.gov

I’m David Howell, thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you out there To the ground.

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