Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) sits unassumingly in the middle of near-nowhere in southern New Mexico. The landscape here is that of an idyllic river valley cutting its way through the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert – truly a refuge in the middle of the harsh desert.
Established in 1939, Bosque provides critical wetlands habitat, protection, and food for thousands of migrating waterfowl as well as a variety of wildlife. During the annual migration, the refuge is also a mecca, of sorts, for birders and wildlife photographers who visit here to see and photograph Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, and Sandhill Cranes who spend time here resting and feeding in the ponds and wetlands along the Middle Rio Grande River.
Due to the seasonal influx of migrating birds, birders and photographers, alike, also flock to the refuge. A huge draw for these human visitors is ‘Blast-off,’ which happens each morning at dawn when Snow Geese take off by the thousands in search of fields in which to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of Sandhill cranes watch this display from the same ponds. Then, seemingly one-by-one, the Cranes also leave the safety of the water for the same reason.
In addition to the cranes and geese, the refuge is home to many species of wildlife such as duck, hawk, eagle, raven, quail, and coot, along with mammals like mule deer, coyote, javelina and jackrabbit.
Evenings at the refuge are simply splendid, highlighted by explosions of soft orange, pinks and blues in the glow of sunset. Silhouettes of Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing, or dancing for each other on the glassy surface of the pond can be striking.
Conservation and Resource Management at the Refuge
The National Wildlife Refuge System manages a network of lands and waters set aside to conserve, protect, and enhance America’s fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.
Following the establishment of Florida’s Pelican Island as the first National Wildlife Refuge in 1903, the System has grown to encompass more than 566 National Wildlife Refuges spanning approximately 100 million acres of land and 750 million acres of oceans in the United States. Wildlife Refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish. Fifty-nine Refuges have been established with a primary purpose of conserving threatened or endangered species.
Various tools are utilized to manage the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for the benefit of wildlife. These tools include prescribed burning, exotic plant control, moist soil management, farming, and water level manipulation. The refuge uses gates and dams to flood and drain certain wetlands on seasonal schedules. Lowering water levels in marshes to create moist fields promotes the growth of native marsh plants. Marsh management is rotated so that varied habitats are always available. Dry impoundments are discarded or burned, then re-flooded, to allow natural marsh plants to grow. When mature marsh conditions are reached, the cycle is repeated. Wildlife foods grown this way include smartweed, millets, chufa, bulrush, and sedges.
Irrigation canals ensure critical water flow. Daily monitoring, mowing, and clearing keeps them functioning. Controlling the water enables refuge staff to manage the habitat. Throughout the refuge, a network of small canals connects different “moist soil units” with the region’s main water supply, which is a 57-mile canal that runs along the river. Each moist-soil unit can be flooded or drained as needed to grow the best mix of wetland plants to feed migrating birds. With wetland plants hearty and thriving, a great diversity of native wildlife — from prowling coyotes to year-round and migratory birds – continue to live in and around the wetlands.
National Wildlife Refuge vs. National Park
All of this human help may sound odd to those of you who are used to visiting our National Parks. Typically, National Parks are mostly left alone by its managers, especially with regard to the manipulation of wildlife and their habitat. You won’t see trenches being built at Yosemite National Park so as to help with the cultivation of food for birds.
“to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
While each organization’s mission statement sounds similar at first glance, it is critical to understand that the National Parks are generally for the people to enjoy while visiting an area set aside for conservation, whereas a Wildlife Refuge exists to assist wildlife and its habitat while also allowing people to enjoy the areas as a secondary purpose.
More on Backcountry Journeys’ Bosque Del Apache Photo Tour
Sound interesting, but want to see more? The following video is courtesy of Backcountry Journeys’ fabulous photo guide, Russell Graves.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.