Banner

Flora

Geology

Reptiles

Birds

Mammals


The Trans-Pecos region of Texas is well known as containing spectacular areas for scientific field research and educational field trips. Researchers are well aware of the breathtaking views to be found in Big Bend National Park. Similar attributes attract investigators to Big Bend Ranch State Park, Black Gap and Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management areas, and the Davis Mountains. Both the Hueco and Franklin mountains, in extreme West Texas, also attract considerable attention. view, Indio Ranch

Most scientific investigations in the Trans-Pecos are conducted within the boundaries of the aforementioned reserves—national and state parks—due to the inaccessibility of most natural areas in the region that are privately owned. The Trans-Pecos would hold much more scientific research and educational potential if more lands were accessible to investigators.

An accessible place which is not so well known is the Indio Mountains Research Station, more commonly known as "Indio Ranch", located in southeastern Hudspeth County, about 26 miles southwest of Van Horn. Indio Ranch presently contains about 38,000 acres owned and managed by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

The Ranch lies in southern Hudspeth County north of the Rio Grande near the Culberson County border. It encompasses most of the Indio Mountains, the southern spur of the Eagle Mountains, which are separated from the adjacent Sierra de Pilares of Mexico by the Rio Grande. It is managed by UTEP and is available to institutions, organizations, and individuals conducting legitimate scientific investigations. While the UTEP faculty and outreach personnel are the principle users of Indio Ranch, its facilities are available, on a fee basis, after approval by the Indio Mountains Coordination Committee.

A wealth of natural resources is available for research. The rules for research projects, the physical setting, and the known biota are given in a pdf file, Biotic Resources of Indio Mountains Research Station.

The Ranch was originally owned by Frank B. Cotton, a Boston industrialist. During the early 20th century, Frank gave the state of Texas a portion of his land holdings to establish a Texas educational endowment. The Cotton Trust endowment was subsequently transferred to the Texas College of Mines (now UTEP) in the 1930s.

The property, originally consisting of alternate-section segments in southern Hudspeth and Culberson counties, was made contiguous during the 1980s by exchanges with private land owners. In 1987, UTEP President, Haskell Monroe, proposed that the Cotton Trust lands be managed with emphasis on research and instruction for the biological and geological sciences. In November of 1991, current UTEP President, Diana Natalicio, approved basic mission, organization, and goals statements for the Indio Mountains Research Station.

Until 1992, the Research Station lands were managed by the University of Texas System Lands Office, which continues to control mineral and surface rights to the property. During 1992, however, the Lands Office assigned management responsibilities directly to UTEP, and the University is clearly challenged to develop and enhance the Station as an educational and research asset.

Even at current levels of development, Indio Ranch will continue to grow in usage, absolute value, and usefulness. In the context of UTEP's increasing commitments to the regional research and education opportunities in the environmental sciences, the Station's land will add a dimension of uniqueness unavailable to any other institution on either side of the Rio Grande.

Indio Ranch's significance was recently increased by the addition of a doctoral program in environmental Science and Engineering, and Biological Sciences at UTEP. UTEP's control of Indio Ranch guarantees continued access to Chihuahuan Desert environments and to the natural resources occurring there.

Administrative oversight is performed by the UTEP Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Vice President for Finance and Administration, with direct supervision by the UTEP Dean of Science, Director, and an advisory coordinating committee made up of UTEP faculty and administrative staff. UTEP today,Overview of Ranch Headquarters with Indio Ranch as its primary field research resource, is a member of the Chihuahuan Desert Biosphere Reserve Technical Group. This organization links the Biosphere Reserves of Mapimí (Mexico), Big Bend National Park (Texas), and the Jornada Experimental Range (New Mexico). IMRS is also a member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations.

Overview of the Indio Ranch Research Station Headquarters. Photograph by J. Johnson.

To date, Indio Ranch has been utilized primarily by the UTEP faculty and by field classes from UTEP and El Paso Community College (EPCC). However, faculty and students from the University of New Mexico have visited Indio Ranch each spring for the last 10 years to study rodent densities, plant populations, and ground litter decomposition rates. Recently, formal advertising and word-of-mouth comments have brought an expanded number of researchers and field trip visitors from other universities and organizations to Indio Ranch. Presently, the usage fees, which are needed to maintain the facilities, are $6.50 per person per night. Groups on field trips are allowed one complimentary person (faculty/TA's) for every 10 students. It is recommended that individual researchers wanting to use Indio Ranch's facilities should add usage fees to any grant proposals submitted supporting their activities. Non-UTEP graduate students with no funding should inquire about possible fee waivers.

Indio Ranch is also an excellent venue for educational field trips because of its isolated location and undeveloped Chihuahuan Desert habitat. The academic disciplines particularly suited for activities on the Station grounds are animal and plant ecology, physiological ecology, biosystematics, ecotoxicology, paleontology, sedimentation, structural geology, geomorphology, and archaeology.

Ongoing projects at the Station are examining various aspects of reptilian population ecology, reptile and mammal metabolic rates, rattlesnake venom component analysis, biosystematics, terrestrial and aquatic arthropod ecology, and plant surveys. The many anthropological sites indicative of past hunting and gathering activities of indigenous people have also attracted investigators.

Presently, the only structural facilities are found at the centrally located Indio Mountains Research Station headquarters. Water and electricity are available in the ranch house laboratory and connected cooking facility. The recently constructed NSF-funded dorm (bunk beds) and toilet/shower building can comfortably service up to 28 persons at one time, and many tent sites are available for those persons wanting a more camping atmosphere. The laboratory is composed of three separate rooms that can accommodate both individual researchers and large field trips. Some research equipment is available, but it is recommended that researchers and field trip personnel bring their own equipment. A new weather station is located near the laboratory building.

Today, all cooking is done on Coleman-type stoves and refrigeration is by ice chests. The cook shack, although small, is well equipped with the utensils, pots, and pans necessary to support at least 30 persons. Actually, the primitive environment at Indio Ranch house has a favorable ambiance, at least for persons that enjoy outdoor or crude living conditions.

The terrain of the Indio Mountains Research Center is primarily a mixture of mountainous outcrops, bajadas, and arroyos that slope northeast toward the usually dry Green River and southwest to the Rio Grande. Presently, the property has no Rio Grande frontage, although river access is possible through an agreement with surrounding landowners. UTEP is also negotiating a land trade for some land adjacent to the river.

Elevation ranges from about 900 m near the Rio Grande to near 1600 m at several higher peaks. A perennial water flow, originating at Squaw Spring and flowing for a few hundred meters along Squaw Creek, is an important resource for desert wetland studies.

Although long since abandoned as a cattle ranch, remnant earthen cattle tanks are still found in several locations, and many of them still collect water during the summer rainy season. Also located on the Station are at least three abandoned mines and several old prospect pits--the last mining lease expired in 1986. These sites are historically interesting and have also become important microhabitats for certain wild animals.

Indio Ranch is geologically complex. The eastern slopes of the Indio Mountains are primarily Cretaceous limestone with complex overthrusting and sharp ridges. The western slopes contain gently tilted Permian conglomerates, sandstones, and shales. The southwestern portion of the property also exhibits traces of Tertiary volcanism, complete with basalts, pumice, and ashfall layers. Salts and gypsum occur there as well, and clay and gravel beds are found in portions of the property nearest the Rio Grande.

Vegetation of Indio Ranch is typical Chihuahuan Desert scrubland (Creosote-Lechuguilla-Ocotillo-Yucca associations) and Tabosa-Black Grama desert grassland. However, plant associations vary with elevation and slope. The flora is strongly influenced by the Rio Grande corridor, through which plant species, otherwise characteristic of the Big Bend region, ascend into the Rio Grande Valley. Superimposed upon this pattern are remnants of widespread desert grasslands, probably infiltrators from the more typical Chihuahuan grassland areas that flank the Indio Mountains to the north. A floral inventory has documented about 375 species, although the overall floral diversity is expected to be closer to 500 species.

The animal life is a typical Chihuahuan Desert and desert grassland fauna. Desert invertebrates are abundant, especially insects and spiders. However, only ants, aquatic macroarthropods, and scorpions have been surveyed to any great extent. Squaw Spring is an especially interesting site because of the community of aquatic insects living there. Several species of dragonflies reproduce in the spring's water and fly throughout Indio Ranch in search of flying insects, their primary food source. Also notable is the enormous number of Yellow Paper Wasps. Although not necessarily aggressive, they can be quite bothersome to researchers and students alike.

To date, a total of 26 mammal species have been recorded on Indio Ranch. Large mammals include Mule Deer, Collared Peccary, Mountain Lion, Ringtails, Coyotes, and Gray Foxes. Smaller mammals, like rodents and rabbits, are common, and recently a Desert Shrew was found in a pitfall trap near the ranch house. Bats are plentiful and are frequently found roosting in many of the caves and abandoned mine shafts that are found on Indio Ranch. Pallid Bats consistently use the ranch house during summer months for night roosts—as many as 30 at one time have been observed. Birds are less well known, although random observations have listed about 70 species of an expected list of at least 200 resident and migrant forms.

Reptiles are also abundant throughout the Station, with several species of lizards and three species of rattlesnakes being frequently encountered. Thirty-six species of reptiles have thus far been recorded. The Texas Lyre Snake, a state-protected species, lives in higher elevations of Indio Ranch, and recent searches have revealed populations of Gray-banded Kingsnakes and Short-lined Skinks, the latter being a new county record for Texas.

Because of the dry environment, few amphibians occur in most areas of the Station, although Red-spotted Toads are commonly observed in the rocky arroyos, especially during the summer rainy season. Five species of amphibians have been found to date. More amphibians, especially spadefoot toads and Tiger Salamanders, will probably be found as additional areas of Indio Ranch are surveyed. The greatest challenge to conducting field work on Indio Ranch is the system of rugged and continually eroding dirt roads. Much of the Station has road access, but the need to maintain them is ongoing, especially after violent summer rainstorms which tend to wash out the roads that pass through many arroyos.

There is a contract to grade the primary road annually, but the possibility of occasional dig-outs after heavy rains does exist. A few years ago, it took me 8 hours to travel approximately 3 miles from the ranch house to the upper ridge of the Indio Mountains. In any case, high-clearance vehicles are required to reach the ranch house and 4X4s are a necessity for persons wanting full access to all areas of the Station. Indio Mountains Research Station holds tremendous potential as a natural laboratory for teaching, research, and as an outreach center for nature-minded organizations. Anyone who is interested in gaining access to Indio Ranch for legitimate academic reasons or for a tour should contact Dr. Jerry D. Johnson (915) 747-6984, Director, e-mail jjohnson@utep.edu.

rule

The above information is slightly altered from an article that appeared in the March 2000 issue of Chihuahuan Desert Discovery, a publication of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. The author is Dr. Jerry D. Johnson.

Last Update: 10 Sep 2010

To Top

Bottom banner