Feathered Snow Storms and Singing Trees: What It’s Like to Live and Work on a Wildlife Refuge

A national wildlife refuge is a designation for certain protected areas that are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These public lands and waters are set aside to conserve America’s wild animals and plants. On top of that, they provide enjoyment and beauty, and they demonstrate shared American values that support protecting and respecting living things.

—‘Celebrating National Wildlife Refuges’, U.S. Department of the Interior blog post

A breathtaking sunset ignites the sky in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, NM

I slip in my headphones and do one last leg swing as I pass the brown road sign marking the entrance to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge’s Tour Loop. I take a deep breath, shake out my arms. Even though the elevation here is about 3,000 ft. less than Flagstaff’s lung-taxing 7,000, I’m already not feeling it—I doubt this is going to be a good run. I start walking faster; maybe I can at least get the blood pumping so the start won’t make my legs complain for the finish. Ahead, I have three gravelly routes to choose from. Left would take me immediately past the snow geese’s favorite open water spot. Right would lead me to more open waters, bordered by both cattails and a sturdy boardwalk for easier waterfowl viewing. Or I could go straight, towards the John P. Taylor Memorial Trail, with its salt grass savannah and restored cottonwood forest. I glance over to the left. It’s Sunday, which means that the refuge’s regular birders are joined by an additional weekend crowd. I see five or six cars parked right next to the snow geese viewing spot, the vehicle owners gathering at different points along the water’s edge to photograph these resting migrators. I open my Nike run app and begin jogging straight as I press the large yellow START button, towards the restored cottonwood forest. Hopefully I can avoid some of the tourist traffic for the first mile or two. 

The Chupadera Mountains lie to the West, and the San Pascual Mountains to the East, of Bosque del Apache NWR
The Boardwalk Trail

A couple minutes and one rapid breath too many into the run, I pass by the section of open field on the right where I saw a flock of wild turkeys last Autumn. It was almost surreal, their graceful bodies weaving and bobbing through the tall grass like golden waves in the sunset lighting. This January is my second time living and working on the refuge—last September I did other restoration work with different conservation crewmates. But the refuge looks so different now. In the Fall, there were only a few small open areas of water. This winter, these tinier areas are mostly dried up and there are several much larger flooded areas instead. This is because each season, refuge employees operate gates and ditches to move water from the river into fields and marshes. The point is to mimic the natural flooding cycles of the historic Rio Grande to create wetland habitats; when Spanish settlers came to the area in the 16th century, they sadly not only replaced the Piro Indian settlements and farming methods, but also unfortunately brought with them their own new farming methods that messed up the river’s natural cycles. Their farming systems, which redirected the Rio Grande’s water flow towards their dams and irrigation ditches, left river water levels replete and inhabitable for wildlife. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the Civilian Conservation Corps started to undertake efforts to restore the floodplains to their proper wildlife habitat conditions, and, even then it took nine more years before the refuge became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1939. Today, as the largest remaining wetland complex in the state, the refuge annually floods much of its land, creating consistent resting habitat for the thousands of migrating waterfowl that visit during their southbound journey. 

Wild Turkeys in golden hour lighting, sighted at Bosque in the Autumn

Just ahead I get to another fork in the road and have two options: if I go straight I’ll reach the Taylor Memorial Trailhead, situated next to a private access gate. I unlock this gate every morning, as it grants me and my crew mates access to the non-public areas of the refuge where we do our conservation work. We spent our last eight-day work cycle sawing thinner branches off of Cottonwood, Coyote Willow, and Goodings Willow, and tying these tree poles into bundles which we left in the river to soak. In a few days we will begin our last work cycle for the project. It is our third week here, and our last set of off days. Soon, we will begin our last work days for the project, in which we will plant the soaked bundles along a different section of the newly re-routed river. By the time we finish, our planted trees will comprise the groundwork for a new forest habitat for the refuge’s many resident species. 

Each bundle, which comprised ten tree poles held together by twine, was left in the river to soak for about one week before planting
Each tree pole was planted in holes dug 6-8 ft. deep, such that the tree could reach the ground water to establish

Instead of going towards our work site, I veer left, headed into an eight mile section of the nature loop. Here, there are views of sprawling fields on the left side of the road, and continuous groves of trees on the right. I hug the left edge, my strides landing just where the gravel meets the grass, so that cars may easily pass me. Sure enough, every few minutes a vehicle meanders by on my right, slowly making its way down the gravel tour loop. Four miles into my run, I look to my left and notice a flock of several hundred sandhill cranes resting like statues in the field to my left. Groups of cars are pulled over and long camera lenses poke out of passenger or driver door windows to capture the perfect shot. It’s getting windy but I push ahead, flurried gusts of chilled air patting my cheeks and stinging my face as my legs mechanically charge forward. My rubber soles pound the crushed rock as I go. I am now on the other side of the loop, facing the late afternoon sun as it sinks lower towards the ground with evening creeping closer. Several sandhill silhouettes momentarily merge with the pre-golden hour ball, their shadows briefly plastering dark, elegant shapes over my path as they glide across the sky. 

Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes speckle a field gray on Bosque’s Tour Loop
Five Sandhill Cranes enjoy the refuge’s flooded open waters

I really didn’t expect to go this far, but before I know it I am eight miles into the run and at the snow geese’s popular resting spot. I end the run here, slowing to a walk so that I can join the feathered creatures’ many paparazzi to snap close-ups of this magnificent migratory respite scene. I walk the rest of the loop back to the intersection where I started and turn right, passing the kiosk and nature loop road entrance back onto the main scenic road. It’s time to head towards the bunkhouse where my crew mates and I sleep every night—soon, sunset will come, and these thousands of white, bobbing bodies will move spots. I always hear them before I see them: a swarm of honking birds swelling over my head like a massive, undulating thought cloud. It’s no wonder that National Geographic refers to their flight pattern as “a snowstorm of white birds”. Some use the sun to estimate time, but to me, these geese are the refuge’s natural clock: I can always estimate the time of day at the refuge by whether the geese are at their water spot. If it’s the early morning when we first start work, the water’s surface is open and empty. Mid-morning, and they start to arrive, dotting the water in white, bobbing 3D pop-up shapes. Noon and afternoon and the water is covered—no surface area is left unreserved by these waterfowl—and just after sunset the water is empty again, reflecting the gray Sky in the sun’s absence as these thousands of birds move to another resting spot for the night.

A scatter of snow geese at their favorite spot among Bosque’s waters
A feathered snowstorm—the snow geese in flight
Empty waters reflect a gray Sky just after sunset in the snow geese’s absence

Bosque is an important wintering spot for sandhill cranes, geese, shorebirds, and ducks, but it is also a haven for all kinds of other wildlife. Last week our car headlights illuminated the dark tips of a bobcat’s pointed ears, pinning them visible for just a moment longer before they blended into the dusk. And a couple of mornings ago we saw a mountain lion, North America’s largest member of the cat family, according to the National Park Service. This fact came as no surprise to me after seeing this magnificent crepuscular creature cross the road. It reached the other side in three bounds, its massive paws barely touching the ground before sailing forward in unison again to propel it forward and farther away from the noise of other big Cats (these ones the heavy machinery that drill holes to plant our trees).

A rattlesnake rests under the shade of a picnic table

I have also seen coyotes ambivalently trot down the roads just parallel to where we work; packs of javelinas grunting as they travel the refuge’s back roads; families of mule deer drinking water amidst the riparian vegetation; jack rabbits hopping through the Desert Arboretum gardens; and rattlesnakes nestling among the cool metal curves of the picnic tables near the visitor center, all in broad daylight. Flora abounds too, my favorite being the cottonwoods. I love both the silvery sapling groves and the thick, massive grandparent trees whose tips sometimes sing from their resident avian performers. I also love the willows —whose thin and pliable red trunks easily bend and sway in the slightest breeze—and the creosote bushes, sprinkling their damp, ashy scent over the sandy dirt hills.

Conservation crews like mine at the American Conservation Experience come in spring, fall, and winter to work on Bosque del Apache NWR. The area of conservation that the work falls under is restoration, which, contrary to popular belief, does not mean to restore an area to a previously undisturbed state. This is a common misconception, the New Mexico Invasive Species Strike Team Lead Ed Spriggs tells me: “Restoration is more about diversity management rather than restoring an ecosystem to a previous undisturbed state; the latter is actually impossible to do. One must accept that invasive species are here to stay, and so it’s not about eradicating the species but instead about keeping the species at bay so that native species can proliferate over them. So we look at how the environment has changed over time, and manage for biodiversity in the context of the current state”. 

My crew walks through a field of refuge sunflowers to survey a grove of tamarisk for chemical treatment

Ed, who has coordinated invasive species management on New Mexico Wildlife Refuges since 2016, explains to me that each refuge has biological priorities which its management focuses on, and that conservation crews like mine are brought in to further progress towards achieving these priorities. Many refuges focus on bird preservation, which makes sense to me after reading that “the origin of the National Wildlife Refuge System is steeped in a tradition of protecting migratory birds, so many refuges have been established along the four major bird migration routes, or flyaways” (USFWS). But refuges often have other biological priorities. For example, one of San Andres NWR’s focuses is on Rocky Mountain Bighorn populations, and Sevilleta NWR has prairie dogs as a biological priority.

Refuge birds circle the moon just after sunset

True, several of Bosque’s biological priorities are birds, especially the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-billed cuckoo. But Bosque, too, has other priorities besides birds, including the very special New Mexican Meadow Jumping Mouse. This species, which is endemic to New Mexico, Arizona, and some of Colorado, has been designated as ‘endangered’ since 2014. Most of its remaining habitat lies on federal and state land, especially in Bosque. This is because the mouse is a habitat specialist, and likes the moist riparian vegetation areas found along Bosque’s streams. It is no doubt that this species is a biological priority for the refuge—Ed told me that this season, only 6 mice were observed with camera traps, whereas last year a small but slightly more encouraging number of 26 was reported.

Bosque’s latest restoration project started in 2016, with bulldozing and Burn Area Restoration (BAR) to control invasive species. After BAR, it takes about two to three years for invasives to grow back, and then these are further treated mechanically, with herbicide interventions. This is where my crew came in last Fall—we did a lot of mechanical removal of the invasive tamarisk (salt cedar) species via herbicide treatment. “The hope is to be able to say that we started with a salt cedar monoculture, and then ten years later we have a more diverse growth of plants with a small percentage, less than 2% for example, of remaining invasive species cover,” Ed explains. This herbicide work, in combination with our work seeding native grasslands, helped create more habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed cuckoo species. We also cut down willows to create more jumping mouse habitat (Bosque’s goal is to restore 50 acres of mouse habitat, and they had already achieved 30 acres so far when I arrived).

Storm clouds move in over the fields surrounding the tour loop

However, even though it was easy to visually understand our progress (such as by looking at the number of plants we treated with herbicide, or the acres of willow we cut down), a measurable impact on species will not be so immediate. Ed concludes our chat by reminding me that “restoration takes time. The target species to protect will likely not be able to wholly use the areas being restored for ten to fifteen years, but getting invasives like salt cedar out opens up areas to provide that habitat for the future”. To me, though, experiencing the refuge’s vibrant diversity of flora and fauna species up-close was enough to make our restoration work feel impactful, even if the overall end results weren’t measurable yet. Bosque del Apache deserves its definition as a National Wildlife Refuge, not just because it does an extraordinary job conserving America’s wild animals and plants, but because the enjoyment and beauty that it provides inspires a striking urgency to protect and respect all living things.

The sun sets after a long day on the refuge

The history of Bosque del Apache NWR and it’s flooding system is courtesy of Bosque’s Refuge Bulletin

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