Nature lovers get glimpse of Sevilleta's varied wildlife

Posted: Friday, November 05, 2004

SEVILLETA NATIONAL WILD-LIFE REFUGE, N.M. As it eases itself down behind the Ladron Mountains, the sun leaves a golden blaze that backlights swarthy storm clouds, clings to dust stirred up by a twilight wind, plays tag with the random thunderbolt and brings a blush to the face of the opposite Los Pinos Mountains.

From the gold in the west to the pink in the east, the whole world seems to be lying about exposed to view.

''The first thing I noticed when I came to Sevilleta was the hugeness of the scale of the landscape,'' Kim King-Wrenn said. ''It stretches all the way across the valley, from one mountain range to the other.

''And the light, the way it plays on the land, you can see all the colors and the textures.''

King-Wrenn is the +outdoor+ recreation planner with the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, a 230,000-acre nature preserve and environmental research center about 50 miles south of Albuquerque.

On this day late in August, she, several other refuge employees, a University of New Mexico researcher and three visiting journalists are on the refuge, standing in prairie grass between the Ladrons and the ridges of Los Pinos.

This part of the refuge actually most of the refuge is usually closed to the public. But standing here on such a beautiful evening would feel like a privilege even if access was easy.

King-Wrenn came to Sevilleta two years ago after working at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a small refuge 5,834 land acres, 25,700 boundary-water acres on Hatteras Island off the coast of North Carolina.

Sevilleta is a whole new world to her.

''I was amazed at the tremendous variety of life here plants, cacti, wildlife, grassland birds,'' she said. ''The scale of the land is vast and overwhelming, but some of the most interesting things are the small things that you have to get out of your car to find. Like kangaroo rats.''

Kangaroo rats are 9 to 10 inches long if you count a 6-inch tail.

''We have two kinds of kangaroo rats here, banner-tailed and Merriam's,'' King-Wrenn said. ''They are so active. They build these little burrows and move seeds around. They're little. But they are a big part of the ecology here.''

Sevilleta is home to badger, deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, pronghorn antelope and a variety of snakes and birds. All in all, there are 89 mammals, 73 amphibian and reptile species, 225 birds and 1,200 plants that we know of.

Since 1995, the refuge has played a role in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program. Six holding pens at the refuge house wolves before they are turned into the wild.

Don't count on seeing the wolves, however. The whole idea of the wolves being at the refuge is to prepare them for life in the wilderness by limiting their contact with humans.

''They only see people about once a week,'' King-Wrenn said. ''The number of wolves here varies from about seven to 14. They come here from zoos. We feed them roadkill deer and elk.''

Students and scientists from all around the world come to study at UNM's Long Term Ecological Research program, which is housed at the refuge. Since 1988, this program has been researching ecological responses to climate changes.

You could not find a better place than Sevilleta to do that kind of research because the refuge embraces four major types of ecological habitats Chihuahuan desert, Great Plains shortgrass prairie, pinon-juniper woodland and Colorado Plateau shrub steppe.

At one time, this vast and varied land was part of the Spanish La Joya Land Grant.

After New Mexico became part of the United States, the grant was sold to Gen. Thomas Campbell, a businessman who raised cattle there.

Campbell's descendants decided they wanted the property to be preserved in its natural state, so in 1973 they passed the land to the Nature Conservancy, which, in turn, donated it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In December 1973, it was designated the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

For more than 30 years, its main goals have been to preserve and protect wildlife including endangered species and to promote legitimate environmental research.

But for those fortunate enough to spend a little time there, it's just amazing to look at.

Back in that prairie grass in August, King-Wrenn looked toward a big rock formation that sits on the refuge's northern boundary.

''That's Black Butte,'' she said. ''It's a volcanic remnant. It's all tan and green grasses when you're up close. But from a distance, it's always black. It's a fantastic landmark.''

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