Sandhill cranes wade in shallow water before taking flight from roost. Bosque Del Apache NWR, New Mexico
refuge |ˈrefˌyo͞oj, -ˌyo͞oZH|
a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble
Bosque Del Apache national Wildlife Refuge is known as one of our top birding locations for the thousands of sandhill cranes, ducks, snow geese and other waterfowl that winter here. The Rio Grande flows through it, riparian refuge in a parched landscape on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Long before it was designated by Congress, the Rio Grande ran wild, spilling over its banks during the summer monsoon, creating marshes and tall grasses that were refuge for migrating waterfowl. Today, the river is controlled and developed to its banks for much of its length, so we have to help the birds by recreating the flooded marshes that give waterfowl a place to roost and protection from predators. I remember my first morning standing on the observation deck that overlooks the wetlands; it was about 8 degrees fahrenheit with a slight breeze and folks were pouring in to the refuge for a spot on the observation deck and lining the banks, whispering in hushed, excited tones. It was freezing cold and exhilarating and I was completely unprepared for the explosion of tens of thousands of snow geese against a backdrop of a brilliant orange and blue sunrise. Each time I came back I was stunned, somehow not completely ready.
Snow Geese lift off en-masse from one of the grain fields in Bosque Del Apache NWR, New Mexico
Grain is planted for the birds too, and there’s a wonderful driving loop with turnouts, observation decks, and plenty of places to experience wildlife in fields, meadows, marshes, and cottonwood gallery forests. People, mostly American stakeholders who own a deed to these public lands develop a rhythm with the birds. Up way before dawn to follow the whole frenzy of early morning activity, rest back in nearby Soccorro in mid-day, back in the refuge until well past sunset, roost back in town. Birders are one of the highest spending outdoor user groups, contributing some $32 Billion to the US economy annually. The refuge is vital for the birds, and very good for birders, photographers, and local economies. The roughly 27,000 sandhill cranes here are the Rocky Mountain Population that migrates between Bosque Del Apache NWR and throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where they disperse for breeding season. Of the fifteen crane species in the world, sandhills are the least threatened (The other fourteen species are declining), largely because of several stronghold stopover sites that enable them to continue migrations that have lasted for millions of years.
Thousands of ducks take flight from a passing bald eagle while thousands of sandhill cranes watch unfazed. Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado.
From Bosque, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane Population catches a south wind one day in February and follow the Rio Grande River north to Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The high desert valley ringed by the Sangre De Cristo and San Juan Mountain Ranges holds a promise of wetlands, grain, and refuge for the most important stopover on their 1,000 mile migration. Here, in a valley that’s almost wholly converted to irrigated potato farms, the refuge floods fields and plants barley and alfalfa for cranes. They stay from early-mid February to late March, fueling up for the remainder of their migration. It’s the single most important stopover site for Rocky Mountain sandhills, and with winter mountain snowpack declining steadily, a climate change “new normal”, water for cranes is no guarantee. Similar to Bosque, the communities of Monte Vista and Alamosa thrive during spring crane season, when these harbingers of spring arrive, bringing eco-tourists to witness the spectacle. To be inspired.
Buddy Jacoby “shoots” sandhill cranes with camera and lens during our spring photo workshop.
Water scarcity on a warming planet, in an already arid west promises to challenge our commitment to save a little water and habitat for wildlife. Ancient migrations, refuge, and sustainability all hang in the balance. But there’s something more, this question of our cultural values, once answered, is challenged again. Most of us agree that we should try to do our part for wildlife, and extinction is wholly unacceptable. Migrate or die is applicable with these cranes because neither Yellowstone’s harsh winters nor Bosque’s searing desert summer can sustain our Rocky Mountain sandhills. As I write these words, a militia is occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon’s arid sagebrush landscape, a critical riparian area for waterfowl and yes, migrating sandhill cranes. These militia folks, “sagebrush rebels” holding a refuge hostage at the point of a gun, running roughshod over sensitive habitat, have no regard for wildlife, our public lands, and the people, stakeholders who celebrate our natural heritage. Our conservation values are strained, challenged by an ideology that rejects President Teddy Roosevelt’s vision to protect one of the most important refuges in a system of 534 US wildlife refuges. Our public lands have a face, a long beak, and a red skin patch on the top of its head. They are the first occupiers of this riparian refuge in a parched land, with an unmistakable rolling bugle call, heard a thousand feet overhead. I interviewed Monte Vista naturalist John Rawinski for the Sage Spirit book, and in a long conversation about habitat lost and tenuously protected, John asked the most important question: “Who speaks for cranes today?” We’ve never needed refuge more than right now.
Sandhill cranes in the working landscape at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado.
“If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose — the emblem of the national wildlife refuges. You may meet it by the side of a road crossing miles of flat prairie in the Middle West, or in the hot deserts of the Southwest. You may meet it by some mountain lake, or as you push your boat through the winding salty creeks of a coastal march. Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization. Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live.” Rachel Carson