Sevilleta is a huge refuge…230,000 acres extending from the bosque along the Rio Grande to the Gila Mountains. It contains four ecological habitats where distinct group of plants and animals live in interdependent relationships. Sevilleta was at one time a Spanish land grant, then ceded to the US government in the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, and later taken over by Socorro County. The County sold it as a ranch, and it remained in private hands for 30 years. With efforts by The Nature Conservancy, it became a wildlife refuge in 1973 and is now administered by the US Fish and Wildlife.
Sevilleta mainly consists of prairie and desert grasslands, the most threatened and least protected habitat on earth. This type of grassland in New Mexico, western Texas, eastern Arizona, and northern Mexico has black and blue grammas and alkali sacaton among other grasses. With climate change and increasing temperatures, creosote shrub is beginning to crowd out this shortgrass prairie. The Chihuahuan Desert shrub is allotropic, meaning it has the ability to inhibit other plants from growing around it.
From Albuquerque, you will find the entrance 45 miles south at mile marker 169. There is an informative visitor center open Wednesday thru Saturday. Trail maps for the many trails can be found at the visitor center or on the Refuge’s website. The Nature Loop is 1.1 miles round trip and you might see quail, jack rabbits, and coyote. The Mesa View trail is 3.8 miles round trip. Pronghorn antelope, mule deer, golden eagle, black-throated sparrows, and meadowlarks can be found there. The Ladrones Vista Trail is 1.9 miles and connects the other two trails.
A project at Sevilleta sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife ecology branch has been to transition the Mexican grey wolf from captive-breeding programs to independence in the wild. There are eight-year recovery goals for both the US (320 wolves in the wild) and Mexico (200 wolves in the wild). The US now has 200 wolves living singly or in packs, many in the Gila National Forest.
Researchers from the UNM Biology Department’s Long Term Ecologic Research (LTER) program have been engaged in many types of studies at Sevilleta since 1988. One ongoing study has been on evolutionary response by bees to environmental changes. Since 2002, native bees have been trapped between March and October and studied to look for genetic changes and other signs of bee fitness. So far, 325 species have been studied and one-third show decreased fitness, one-third are stable, and one-third appear to have adapted to tolerate climate change better.
Biocrust stabilizes the soil, and this, too, is researched, with a site exploring how to better mitigate extreme drought in grasslands. As we expect increased heat and delayed precipitation, what effect will this have on critical soil microorganisms? What might be the best inoculum to restore grassland soil in the future?
These and other on-site research areas are not open to the public, but you can read about their studies on the UNM LTER website.
Last winter, my husband Roger and I packed up a cooler of snacks and thermoses of hot chai, bundled up in our long johns, scarves and mittens, and headed south from Albuquerque on I-25 to the Mountainair exit. Just a tiny bit east and north of the exit on Route 116 is the Bernardo section of the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex. This place of refuge for migratory cranes and snow geese has saved our sanity through those first winters of COVID. We met each time with different friends, masked and social distanced and shared the cacophonous thrill of the evening fly-in. The sunset never failed to paint the distant hills in layers of pink and deep purple, lighting the reflections of the cranes in the water. There’s no better way to be together than in the fresh air, surrounded by such views and such volume.
We discovered Bernardo just last year after enjoying Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for many years. The Bosque is wonderful, but Bernardo is only 53 miles south from Albuquerque rather than 90. It’s also more compact, with a 3-mile, one-way loop road that takes you past fields planted for the cranes and geese and offers two stops at lookouts above the fields. Many birds feast there during the day and then make the short flight to the water at the far end of the loop for the night. Others fly in from miles away. We like to meander down the road, stopping for photos of mule deer or spotting an eagle now and then, all awash in the lengthening shadows and gold of the descending sun.
About 45 minutes before sunset, the intense action begins. Flocks of 20 or 30 birds appear one after the other, heading toward the marsh. They circle and then gracefully drift down to settle in the icy water, all the while announcing their presence with their lovely trumpeting call. Just when you think there couldn’t be more, small black dots appear on the horizon. When it’s almost completely dark, sometimes there is a rush of wings and raucous honking as the snow geese fly in to take what’s left of the marsh. One night, as the sun sank behind the hills, we turned around to the sight of a huge full moon rising in the east, bathed in the last pink and orange of the sunset. We looked at one another with a sigh of awe and wonder.
If you would like more information on the Ladd S. Gordon Complex, you can call (505) 864-9187. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish website provides a flyer with a simple map and description of the area.
Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, like Sevilleta, is a refuge under the auspices of the US Fish and Wildlife, five miles south of downtown Albuquerque at 7851 2nd Street SW. It is unique in that it is a refuge in an urban area. The land was once Isleta Pueblo land, then a dairy farm, and in 2012 the 570 acres were purchased by the federal government to become a wildlife refuge. Recently its 10th anniversary was celebrated by opening a visitor center focused on education and habitat conservation and restoration.
A group of 40 different local partners collaborated to create a Backyard Wildlife Guide with an incredible amount of information. People throughout our area are encouraged to deliberately create spaces for plants and animals. The website has a step-by-step guide. Among the planning principles are providing water year-round for plants and animals, selecting plants which pollinate from early spring into fall for food, developing shelter by leaving brush and dead limbs around, and practicing wildlife gardening. While the title of the program says ‘backyard,’ the purpose is to create as many spaces in an urban area as possible for wildlife, be they homes, apartment balconies, businesses, or churches, on public or private land. Completed projects are certified at three different levels. So far, 200 people have completed the program for a total of 78 acres across the city now qualifying as refuge.
The west side of the refuge is bosque along the Rio Grande which is part of the City Open Space. There are 3 miles of hiking trials, with some undergoing renovation. People (and dogs on a six-foot leash) are welcome as long as they stay on the trails so as not to disturb the wildlife. There are plans to expand these trails to a total of 10 miles and to build wetlands.
Wildlife currently seen at the refuge includes many species of migrating birds, raptors, dragonflies, damselflies, coyotes, badgers, racoons, skunks, and porcupines. As their habitats are restored, more wildlife will come.