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Borderlands Research Institute Marks 15 Years of Cutting-Edge Science for West Texas Wildlife

Borderlands Research Institute 2
Photo courtesy Borderland Research Institute
Borderlands Research Institute researchers release a mule deer during a translocation project.

Now celebrating 15 years, Alpine's Borderlands Research Institute fuses scientific rigor with practical conservation.

It's at the heart of what residents and visitors alike treasure about this place. The desert-mountain country of the Trans-Pecos is Texas at its wildest, and, in recent years, efforts have surged to understand and safeguard its singular natural heritage. The Borderlands Research Institute, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary, is central to the effort.

The BRI was launched at Sul Ross State University in Alpine in 2007. It offers students unique opportunities, and responsibilities, and it's become a magnet for aspiring ecologists. What sets the organization apart is an unusual fusion – of scientific rigor and practical application. The BRI is doing cutting-edge research on West Texas wildlife, and West Texas ecosystems. But that research is always linked to conserving those wild resources. The BRI is influencing conservation across the state.

Justin French earned a master's with the BRI in 2015, before completing a PhD at Texas A&M. He returned in 2020, to become the BRI's big game specialist.

“We know what role we're trying to play,” French said. “We know what our lane is, and we know who we're on the same highway with. That goes a long way. The people who are here want to be here because of that.”

French said he was a youthful “deer dork” attending wildlife conferences when the BRI first appeared on his radar. It was clear to him the BRI was a dynamic organization, doing hands-on work with big animals – pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep. But when he began his studies here, French learned that the motivations at BRI went beyond a fascination with these impressive animals.

All the projects, he learned, were aimed at preserving and restoring these creatures. The research was designed to give landowners, and agencies like Texas Parks & Wildlife, practical tools for conserving West Texas wildlife.

It was that niche Sul Ross's Dr. Louis Harveson was seeking to fill when he founded the BRI.

“It's the vision,” BRI staffer Carlos Gonzalez said, “and it's the team. And both of those have been led by Doc Harveson. I've never had a morning that I didn't want to be at the office, and that translates to our partners, and our students.”

Raised on a cattle ranch in Mexico, Gonzalez had his first encounter with the BRI at 15, when he joined a friend for summer research in the Big Bend. He'd planned on becoming a vet – but the summer outing changed his trajectory. Like French, Gonzalez completed a master's here, and a PhD at A&M. He joined the BRI staff in 2018.

Both men have witnessed the BRI's growth, and its expanding impact. There are nine staffers today – half of whom are researchers. Those biologists teach undergraduate courses. And they typically oversee 20 master's students each year.

The master's projects aren't simply academic – each is applicable to a wildlife-conservation priority.

“Every single study, every single student we have on board, everything they do has a consequence on the ground for conservation of the Chihuahuan Desert,” Gonzalez said.” It's a big deal, what they've got going on.”

One ongoing focus has been pronghorn – those iconic grasslands creatures. The early 2000s witnessed an alarming decline in pronghorn populations here, and to strengthen their numbers, wildlife managers relocated animals from the Panhandle. They'd assumed it took about three weeks for pronghorn to acclimate to their new home. But in recent research, a BRI master's student discovered the adjustment takes six months. Those findings will change how relocated pronghorn are monitored.

Knowing their findings will shape the actions of biologists, and the fate of wild animals, puts students “under pressure,” Gonzalez said. But as professional training, it's hard to beat.

Just this semester, two BRI grads were hired as county biologists with Texas Parks & Wildlife. There are typically a hundred applicants for those positions, Gonzalez said.

“That speaks very highly of the program,” Gonzalez said, “and the work that the students are doing. It's also showing how our partners are liking what we're producing, from the student side to the research side to the application of what we do.”

The two hires aren't outliers. The BRI has graduated more than a hundred master's students. As county biologists alone, those grads are now influencing wildlife management on more than 30 million acres in Texas – an area larger than the state of Mississippi.

Borderlands Research Institute
Photo courtesy of Borderland Research Institute
Borderlands Research Institute graduate assistants take the measurements of a pronghorn fawn in the field. Trans-Pecos pronghorn population plummeted in the early 2000s. Understanding that decline, and reversing it, have been BRI priorities since the institute's inception.

Since the BRI launched, the field itself has undergone a transformation – driven by technology.

“I wouldn't have thought data would be the sexy part of the job,” French said, “but it actually gets to be kind of fun. One of the cool things on the science side is that we're really living through a revolution in wildlife science.”

Conserving wildlife often means conserving and restoring habitat. To understand the resources and habitats animals use, scientists rely on tracking technology. Early BRI researchers placed battery-powered VHF transmitters on wildlife, which allowed them to record an animal's location a couple times a week. Now they're using GPS devices that transmit data continuously, and remotely. The devices get lighter each year – and are being used to study smaller and smaller creatures.

Gonzalez studied quail here in grad school. Now, he's supervising a master's student researching the same birds.

“He has collected more data in a week than I would do in three months,” Gonzalez said. “It's crazy the amount of data that we can gather now because of technology. In 10 years, it's been a revolution.”

The amount of data generated is immense, and organizing it is a job in itself. French said the BRI now trains its aspiring biologists to be computer programmers as well. But the GPS data, combined with technologies like satellite imagery, is a powerful tool in conservation. And as the data accumulates, BRI researchers are getting a perspective on West Texas that scientists have never had before. They're able to understand long-term changes in the health of habitats here – and how that impacts wildlife.

The BRI works closely with Texas Parks & Wildlife. But assisting private landowners is at the core of what they do. They're working with ranchers across the Trans-Pecos to improve and restore habitat, in support of native wildlife. And there's a binational dimension to their work. The BRI hosts graduate students from Chihuahua for weeklong visits several times a year, and BRI students collaborate and train with Mexican colleagues.

Far West Texas doesn't lack for enthusiasts – its wild places and wild creatures are well-loved. But it does need defenders, and advocates. In its research, and as a training ground for aspiring biologists, Alpine's Borderlands Research Institute is doing that work.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.