Borderlands Research Institute Celebrates 15 Years of Conservation Research in the Trans-Pecos


BRI Director Louis A. Harveson stands in front of the cactus garden on the Sul Ross State University campus

Dr. Louis A. Harveson, founder and director of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, reflects on 15 years of wildlife conservation research in the Trans-Pecos.

The 2022-2023 academic year marks the 15-year anniversary for Borderlands Research Institute (BRI), which was launched at Sul Ross State University (SRSU) in the fall of 2007. Since then, the organization has been a key player in collaborative wildlife research in the Trans-Pecos while offering meaningful graduate projects for students enrolled in the Natural Resource Management program at Sul Ross.

The mission of the Borderlands Research Institute is to conserve the natural resources of the Chihuahuan Desert Borderlands through research, education, and outreach.

A major component of that mission entails supporting graduate students as they work on various wildlife and habitat projects. Wildlife studies cover many species, including , mule deer, pronghorn, kit foxes, black bears, mountain lions, grassland birds, hummingbirds, small mammals and more. Research also includes the study of wildlife habitat, livestock, and rangeland relationships.

The goal of these projects is to learn more about the wildlife in the Big Bend region, including about their diets, factors influencing their survival, the boundaries of their range, habitat selection, and inter-species overlap.

Fifteen years ago, there weren’t any organizations dedicated to this kind of work in the Trans-Pecos.

Dr. Louis A. Harveson, who is the Dan Allen Hughes, Jr., Endowed Director and founder of BRI, as well as the newly appointed Associate Provost of Research and Development at Sul Ross, recalls seeing an opportunity for this type of institute at the university when he was a new hire almost 25 years ago.

Harveson first arrived to teach in the Natural Resource Management program at Sul Ross as a young PhD graduate of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute based in South Texas.

“Of all places in the state, the Trans-Pecos, with its intense variety of wildlife and vast landscapes, makes for the most compelling outdoor research laboratory,” Harveson said. “I was inspired by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute model and began thinking about what the possibilities might be for a similar organization in West Texas.”

Sul Ross State University is surrounded by significant state managed lands, including Elephant Mountain and Black Gap wildlife management areas and Big Bend Ranch State Park—Texas’s largest state-managed park, plus Big Bend National Park along the border. But most importantly, ranchers have been actively managing large tracts of ranchlands for livestock production and hunting for many generations. There was clearly a need for science-based wildlife and land management research dedicated to this region.

“All the ingredients were here to build a successful wildlife research organization,” Harveson said.

With the support of the administration at Sul Ross State University, the Borderlands Research Institute was born. It was a natural expansion of long-lasting partnerships between private landowners, the Natural Resource Management program at Sul Ross, and cooperating state, federal, and non-governmental organizations that were already in place.

Since then, those relationships have blossomed.

Chairman of the BRI advisory board Dan Allen Hughes, Jr., has been involved since day one. What attracted him to the organization was its ability to address important wildlife issues at the landowner level. Other parts of Texas had resources available to landowners regarding wildlife and habitat management, and there was a need for that in West Texas.

Hughes grew up as an active hunter and outdoorsman all over Texas, and has held leadership positions in a variety of organizations, including as Chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

His family stewards a ranch in West Texas in Culberson County, and while developing a management program for the wildlife there, he wondered what the home range was for mule deer bucks. No one in West Texas had a clear answer.

Enter the Borderlands Research Institute. BRI researchers conducted one of their earliest studies on mule deer, using the latest technology in tracking collars to follow the animals for five years. The results showed a much larger home range than was expected, approximately 15,000 acres on average for adult males. Some bucks would roam for as many as 20 to 30 miles before returning to their home base.

“It all comes back to BRI doing studies that have never been done in the Trans-Pecos,” Hughes said.

The record of sound, peer-reviewed research established by BRI, as well as the organization’s successful growth trajectory, prompted Sul Ross State University to appoint Harveson as Associate Provost of Research and Development, a campus-wide position. The position promotes, facilitates, and supports research, education, scholarly work, creative services, outreach activities and external funding relevant to the research centers and institutes at Sul Ross.

Dr. J. Carlos Hernandez, SRSU Interim President, praised the work of BRI, saying, “The BRI encompasses so much of what makes Sul Ross State University unique. Their research has an impact outside of West Texas, from the environment to the economy and beyond. The recent appointment of BRI’s director, Dr. Louis Harveson, to Associate Provost of Research and Development, is indicative of the value we see in the institute’s work.”

BRI staff has grown from a couple of professors in the beginning, to now include a handful of post-doc researchers, four endowed positions, support staff, and a communications team. Collectively, they produce multiple research papers, newsletters, scientific publications and reports each year.

“Our whole purpose is to share data with landowners and land managers about how wildlife and landscapes are most effectively conserved and managed,” Harveson said.

The transparency with which the organization operates and its emphasis on outreach has helped BRI gain its reputation.

“A lot of people know BRI; it’s very well respected. Biologists, ranchers, conservationists recognize the good work BRI has done with Trans-Pecos wildlife, and they appreciate the value of science-based research to guide management decisions,” Hughes said.

BRI has grown to support 20-25 research projects annually and has graduated 100 master’s degree candidates so far. Of those, many have found employment with state and federal resource agencies, ranches, and as private consultants. Conservatively, these graduates now influence management decisions on over 31 million acres in Texas.

To celebrate its 15-year anniversary, the Borderlands Research Institute will be sharing spotlights on its top achievements and research projects over the next academic calendar year. The celebration will culminate with a museum exhibit of research photos and memorabilia at the Museum of the Big Bend on the Alpine campus of Sul Ross State University in the summer of 2023, details to be announced.  Follow Borderlands Research Institute on social media for more anniversary highlights.