New Mexico Conservation Summary

Lying at the juncture of four major ecoregions — the Western Great Plains, Colorado Plateau, Southern Rocky Mountains, and the Chihuahuan Desert with its imbedded Madrean Sky Islands — New Mexico encompasses an exceptional diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Large landscapes extend from the desert grasslands and scrub of basin floors to alpine meadow. These expanses of relatively intact habitat are home to distinctive residents, such as Mexican gray wolves, aplomado falcons, Jemez Mountains salamanders, and the Holy Ghost ipomopsis. Through the state run five major rivers, the Rio Grande, Pecos, Gila, San Juan and Canadian. Their waters feed three continental-scale basins of the Colorado, Rio Grande and Mississippi, and support a diverse aquatic fauna. In the southwest quadrant of the state, the Gila River and the adjacent San Francisco and Mimbres River watersheds form one of the largest wild river complexes in the West, with extensive native riparian forests and fisheries. The Rio Grande and Pecos drain the middle of the state. Although now controlled and modified, these rivers still support the largest remaining cottonwood groves on the rivers as a whole, and are the home of twelve imperiled native fish, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

Individual ranges of the Southern Rocky Mountains form a backbone down the center of the state. At high elevations, subalpine and mixed conifer forests characteristic of northern reaches of the Rockies are found. At lower elevations, some of the largest old-growth stands of pinyon-juniper woodlands in the Southwest occur. These woodlands are a locus for a diverse suite of plant and animal species, including pinyon jays, gray vireos, Oscura Mountain chipmunks, and Organ Mountains pincushion cactus. To the east of the mountains lie expanses of shortgrass prairie interspersed with large areas of shinoak sand scrub that are home to the imperiled lesser prairie-chicken and sand dune lizard. To the south, shortgrass prairie gives way to semi-desert grasslands and creosote scrub of the Chihuahuan Desert. While these semi-arid ecosystems have been heavily degraded elsewhere in their range, New Mexico still supports world-class examples of semi-desert grasslands. Here, native fauna and flora thrive, and ecosystems processes including fire are still largely intact. Similarly, many plant and animal species that have the center of their distribution in the Sierra Madre of Mexico find safe harbors among the many montane “sky islands” that dot the desert.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Conservation of this unique suite of ecosystems and species requires a unique set of partnerships among private and public interests. For example, Natural Heritage New Mexico has recently embarked on a collaborative project through the Landowner Incentive Program to work with ranchers and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat in eastern New Mexico. This project will complement the extensive work of The Nature Conservancy in the shinoak ecosystem. Elsewhere, the Department of Defense has been working with Natural Heritage New Mexico to sustainably manage biodiversity conservation on the large tracts of desert, grasslands and woodlands under their stewardship. The Nature Conservancy has invested significant resources in developing landowner conservation easements, preserve acquisition, and joint management ventures with the U.S. Forest Service in the Gila, San Francisco, and Mimbres river watersheds to ensure the long-term integrity of this wild river network. In addition to protection, restoration of New Mexico’s rivers has become a major focus for collaborative projects among state, federal and NGOs including environmental and user groups.


The most significant challenges that lie ahead for maintaining New Mexico’s biodiversity are in the realm of water and energy use. A broad coalition of organizations and agencies have come together to restore the Rio Grande riparian ecosystem, but issues of environmental use of the available water remain unresolved. As the country looks to increase reserves of domestic fossil fuels supplemented by industrial-scale wind and solar energy harvesting, New Mexico’s flora, fauna and wildland landscapes are at risk of degradation. To overcome these challenges will require the commitment among all stakeholders to find solutions. For its part, Natural Heritage New Mexico will continue to provide the science and biodiversity information needed to resolve conflicts and support informed decision making.

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