Connecting the Corridor for Wildlife – Places & People of the Middle Rio Grande Corridor, New Mexico

At its recent Management Board meeting, the IWJV and partners were introduced to the places and people that connect the Middle Rio Grande Corridor for wildlife. Here's a quick snap shot of some of the incredible places we visited:

For thousands of years, the Rio Grande was a wild and unpredictable river. Melting snow from the mountains would fill the river with water each spring until it overflowed its banks and flooded the land around it. Flood waters forced the river to take new paths, forming new ponds and marshes in the fertile floodplain that provided lush habitats for wildlife.  

Human settlers altered the river, its flows and the surrounding land and the once-grand river was reduced to a shallow stream. Floodplain marshes dried up, plants died, and wildlife – especially the migratory birds – disappeared. That is, until conservation-minded people started restoring and protecting habitats in the area, resulting in today’s corridor of refuges, wildlife management areas, and private lands that provide important habitat for migratory birds, big game, and a host of other wildlife and plants.

Located 95 miles south of Albuquerque, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is one of the crown jewels of the NWR system in the southwest. The refuge was established in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and is comprised of 57,331 acres of forested wetlands, emergent wetlands, and associated uplands that serve as critical stopover for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl, sandhill cranes, other waterbirds, shorebirds and neotropical migrants. Today, water in and around the refuge is managed and moved through the use of gates and ditches to mimic natural flooding cycles and restore wetlands. Habitat for year-round and migratory wildlife has recovered and provides a home for spectacular wildlife.

Forty miles upstream and four private lands conservation easements later, the Rio Grande flows through the center of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge and is an important source of water that creates an oasis for wildlife in the arid landscape. Sevilleta is one of the largest refuges in the NWR system in the lower 48 states. The 230,000-acre refuge includes four different biomes that intersect and support a wide array of biological diversity including hundreds of species of birds, 80 species of mammals, 58 species of reptiles, 15 species of amphibians, and more than 1,200 species of plants. In contrast to Bosque del Apache NWR, Sevilleta is managed as nearly as possible in its natural state.

Adjacent to Sevilleta NWR sits another key private land conservation easement. La Joya Farms is a privately funded venture to preserve a substantial section of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. It focuses on several sources of revenue including that earned from farming and ranching operations, hunting opportunities, ecotourism development, as well as assisting with various projects in nearby communities to further farm development and preservation of the Rio Grande Bosque. An enormous number of wintering geese, ducks, sandhill cranes, as well as migrating shorebirds and passerines can be found in the Bosque and farm fields at various times throughout the year. La Joya Farms has worked with several agencies and organizations including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Socorro Soil and Water Conservation District, Save Our Bosque Task Force, Rio Grande Return, and the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust in the ongoing collaborative effort to preserve this important ecological area for generations to come.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) also manages a critical component of the corridor with nearly 6,000 acres of wildlife habitat across four Wildlife Management Areas in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, comprising the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex. Together with Bosque del Apache NWR to the south, the state’s wildlife management areas in the corridor feed half of the waterbirds that winter in the Middle Rio Grande Basin. NMDGF is planning and implementing conservation efforts to restore and enhance wildlife and fish habitat across these Wildlife Management Areas. Efforts are also underway to improve public access and outdoor recreation opportunities. Projects focus on wetland and riparian areas as well as upland habitats. NMDGF is also working to cooperate with various state, federal, and non-profit partners to achieve management goals.

Bernardo Wildlife Management Area

Travelling another 46 miles upstream, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is situated on a former dairy farm, just a few miles south of New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area. The role of this urban refuge is to create a conservation stewardship legacy by working with community partners to establish a 21st century conservation ethic and reconnect people, especially young people, to the natural world. The new refuge was established as a result of the partnership efforts of many in the community that recognized the importance of having a wildlife refuge in this urban setting. Valle de Oro offers a unique environmental education and recreation opportunity in a highly populated area while promoting a wildlife conservation message.

A key partner for private lands conservation in the corridor, the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust (RGALT) is a grassroots organization founded by local farmers and conservationists to address the loss of farmland and water rights in the Middle Rio Grande. The founding goals were to provide private landowners a voluntary option to protect their lands and water in perpetuity through the use of conservation easements. Agricultural return flows are an important source of water for the Rio Grande wetland complexes, and flood irrigation provides groundwater recharge as well as important spring and fall foraging habitat for migratory birds. RGALT’s goals have been modified to include the riparian floodplain of the Rio Grande and its tributaries.

The Save Our Bosque Task Force works to preserve, protect, and enhance the Rio Grande and its adjoining riparian area while enhancing recreation, advance habitat restoration, and provide environmental education and community outreach in the Middle Rio Grande. The task force plays a unique role in respecting the traditions and cultures of the region in pursuit of a naturally functioning riparian ecosystem within the confines of current infrastructure and political limitations.

Rio Grande Return works to protect and restore the diverse wetlands and traditional agricultural lands within the historic floodplain of the Rio Grande and its tributaries upon which thousands of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and fish depend. The organization recognizes and appreciates how the sacred waters of the river support wildlife and human communities alike. Rio Grande Return has convened public, private, and tribal partnerships to achieve wetland habitat restoration objectives in the Middle Rio Grande corridor that provide ecological services benefitting wildlife and local communities as well.