By Published On: August 9, 2023

Along the Rio Grande, Farms are the Future for Wetland Birds

Story and photos by Sarah Keller

This article was originally published in 2016. Although many of the people featured in this article are now in different positions and work for different organizations, we think that now is as good a time as any to celebrate the importance of their work—and the Middle Rio Grande—for migratory waterbirds.

This year, Johnny Pack protected his land along the Rio Grande with a conservation easement. After invasive salt cedar was removed, sunflowers regenerated in a wet meadow where ducks and songbirds find food and cover.

Fifteen years ago Johnny Pack sat across a table from three men who were about to buy his share of 500 verdant acres along the Rio Grande. Pack grew up farming and ranching in eastern New Mexico and had dreamed of starting a farm with three college buddies from nearby Socorro. In the 1980s, they bought a parcel that once yielded corn and melons but had become overrun with salt cedar. A losing battle against the invasive and thirsty shrub, along with unexpected life turns kept the friends from working the land. So Pack, who like so many in rural central New Mexico found himself land rich and cash poor, was happy to sell.

As he readied a pen to finalize the deal, Pack asked the buyers how they would use the land. He’d heard through the grapevine that it would be used for hunting. The buyers admitted it would become a storage facility for old oil tanks instead. When Pack thought of his neighbor with three young kids suddenly living next to an industrial site, he couldn’t bring himself to sign.

“I just sat there and said, ‘Life isn’t fair,’” he said, looking out toward the rocky Magdalena Mountains and his land’s riverside cottonwood forest, or bosque. “I just couldn’t do it.”

Instead he went to work replacing the salt cedars with native vegetation. Now, after more than a decade of restoration, many of the noxious shrubs have yielded to a meadow of sunflowers and new cottonwood plantings that serves as a haven for ducks when the river floods. Deer and elk have returned, along with foxes, coyotes, and bear.

For over a decade, Johnny Pack has worked to remove invasive salt cedar on his property, to the right of the fence. It once looked like the other side, where the weed forms an impenetrable wall choking out native plants. While Pack and his conservation partners still have more restoration work ahead, removing the thirsty shrub has helped improve the floodplain’s wetland habitat.

Pack lights up when he talks about the wildlife and his plans for the property. “I just can’t tell you how much I like coming out here and seeing deer.” Four months ago, Pack and his college buddies signed a conservation easement that lets them rest easy that ducks and deer will always have a place there.

By choosing to conserve their property, landowners like Pack are making positive ecological impacts on the Rio Grande basin in central New Mexico, and beyond. The Middle Rio Grande is an important migratory stop for birds traveling the vast Central Flyway from Canada’s boreal forest, through the Rocky Mountain states and the Great Plains, into Texas and Mexico. The Middle Rio Grande is also an overwintering ground for 18,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes, 200,000 ducks (especially Northern Pintails), plus tens of thousands of other shorebirds and waterbirds like White-faced Ibis and American Avocets. With as much as 93 percent of the Middle Rio Grande’s wetlands lost since 1918, every remaining parcel has the potential to make a big difference for bird conservation.

That’s inspired National Wildlife Refuge and State Wildlife Area managers and biologists in the Middle Rio Grande to find common cause with agricultural communities outside their refuge borders, working with local land trusts and private landowners to facilitate easements and habitat restoration.

“We only have so many state and federally managed areas, and they only have so much water,” said Kelli Stone, an Albuquerque-based migratory bird biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “So private lands are the key. Having the connection to the private landowners, I think that’s really where it’s at in the future.”

Each year, managers at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex grow over a million pounds of corn and alfalfa. In the winter, the flooded farm fields support wetland birds and prevent them from damaging crops on the valley’s private farms.

In the past, the Middle Rio Grande’s wetland ecosystem thrived on big spring floods that spilled onto land like Pack’s. As the Southwest’s farms and cities have flourished on the control and diversion of the Rio Grande’s water, those floods have become rare. The river south of Albuquerque has gone dry most irrigation seasons since 1996; invasive plants like salt cedar, russian olive, and siberian elm have encroached on riparian habitat; and a decade of crushing drought is pressuring both wetlands and water users.

Still, many birds on the Central Flyway must pass through the Middle Rio Grande or overwinter there. With the system’s natural hydrology so altered, wetland species depend on irrigated farm fields — or on public lands that are irrigated much like farms — because they mimic wetlands. But public protected areas won’t be enough if wetlands continue to decline.

When migrants or overwintering birds don’t find the food they need, they lack the energy reserves for successful nesting.

“Some areas have been quite fragmented, so part of the vision is to add some continuity so there’s not just a pocket of habitat here and a pocket there,” said Alan Hamilton, wetlands coordinator for Ducks Unlimited. But that work takes buy-in from everyone overseeing wetlands, including federal and local agencies, private landowners, and tribal governments.

Hamilton is also the New Mexico Conservation Partnership Chair for the Intermountain West Joint Venture. The Intermountain West Joint Venture partnership works to foster that essential collaboration between stakeholders, such as the many entities that oversee wetlands. Leaders like Hamilton advocate for and connect wildlife needs with key habitat actions that lead to high-impact, landscape-scale conservation.

While the Rio Grande’s natural flow is heavily altered, its floodplain cottonwood forest continues to provide crucial wildlife habitat. It also serves as a green oasis for the 40 percent of New Mexicans who live within the Middle Rio Grande. Until the creation of Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Albuquerque’s South Valley neighborhood lacked sanctioned access to the river.

When Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge hired Gina Dello Russo as an ecologist in 1996, her boss asked her to work on the refuge’s active floodplain. It was a daunting mission because the floodplain’s health depends heavily on large-scale river policies and infrastructure that are out of the refuge’s control. But Dello Russo, a fifth-generation resident of the valley, knew the floodplain had a lot of undeveloped land that, like Pack’s, was at risk of conversion into residential or industrial uses. She saw an opportunity to work with landowners interested in protecting and restoring some of the remaining 17,000 acres of naturally functioning floodplain near Bosque del Apache.

Throughout her 18-year career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gina Dello Russo promoted and implemented native habitat restoration on private lands by working with numerous local and regional partners.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants have been crucial to the work. Those grants encourage public-private partnerships by requiring match funding from non-federal sources. In the Middle Rio Grande, private landowners have provided that match through the value of their conservation easements. That makes it possible to secure grants that cover the cost of the easement transaction, plus fund restoration work on public and private lands. Through participating in a NAWCA grant, landowners make conservation impacts that ripple throughout the ecosystem.

“The landowners we work with are not wealthy people,” said Cecilia Rosacker, the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust’s executive director. Rosacker has worked closely with Dello Russo, Hamilton and landowners on NAWCA grants. “They are people who love their land, who appreciate the value it brings not just to their family, but their community, and the whole landscape.”

Eighty-nine miles north of Bosque del Apache, Albuquerque’s new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is also finding conservation success by reaching beyond refuge boundaries. In 2011, when residents of the city’s South Valley heard that a 570-acre dairy farm was going up for sale, they worried it would become a housing development or a new industrial facility. So the community started organizing to turn the old dairy into a refuge.

As the largest undeveloped property in Bernalillo County’s historic floodplain, the dairy farm is also an important part of the Central Flyway. It bridges the gap for birds as they travel between Monte Vista and Alamosa national wildlife refuges in Colorado, New Mexico’s Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, and Bosque del Apache and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuges. In 2012, over a dozen partners raised the $18.5 million necessary to buy the farm. Half of that funding was non-federal and included a $500,000 NAWCA grant matched by farmers and other landowners participating in Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust–led conservation easements.

Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge’s manager, Jennifer Owen-White, has asked for community input on how the former dairy farm should be restored to native floodplain and upland habitat.

Over the last three years, Valle de Oro’s manager, Jennifer Owen-White, has overseen a planning process that’s asked the community to help decide how to manage and restore the former farm. Many projects will blur the lines between the refuge’s borders and the South Valley. It’s all part of the big-picture perspective that wetland conservationists have in the Middle Rio Grande, where communities and landowners are integral to success.

“One thing we know here is that you can’t take people out of the equation,” said Owen-White. “You really have to think about the way people interact with the environment, the power that people have to make decisions, and just the plain fact that the health of our environment depends on the actions of our people.”