Like me, you probably have your special places—the places you go to see your favorite animals in nature. As Defenders’ new Federal Lands Policy Analyst, I am privileged to be helping protect wildlife and their habitat on our public lands … including some of my own favorites.
While huge expanses of the public domain are available for wildlife watching, one of my favorite places is among the smallest—the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Mexico. A former horse ranch, the Rio Mora encompasses about 4,600 acres and was just designated as a refuge in 2012.
For its size, the Rio Mora Refuge hosts an amazing array of animal and plant species, such as cacti and cottonwoods, tiger salamanders, canyon tree frogs, collared lizards, peregrine and prairie falcons, a variety of owls, Gunnison’s prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, bobcats, black bears, and mountain lions. The land sits in a transition zone between the high plains prairie to the east and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west, with large swaths of open grasslands, patches of pinion-juniper forest, and the Mora River meandering through canyon cliffs. And now, a herd of American bison also calls the Refuge home.
Native Americans have led efforts to restore bison in the American West. At the Rio Mora Refuge, Native Americans of the Pueblo Pojoaque own and manage the bison herd with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This arrangement is part of a unique partnership within our public lands system. The Service now owns the land, the Pueblo takes care of the bison, New Mexico Highlands University conducts research and restoration at the Refuge, and the Denver Zoo helps manage the Refuge and the bison, and also leads educational and conservation programs. My husband, Rich Reading, is the Vice President for Conservation at the Denver Zoo, so this place occupies a large area in both of our hearts.
Recently, Rich and I had the honor of attending a ceremonial buffalo dance presented by Pueblo Pojoaque on the Refuge to give thanks for the partnership. The event brought representatives of all the groups involved, and it was truly a day of celebration.
Not much beats sitting (at a safe distance) and witnessing bison graze, fight, and love against a wide-open landscape and an endless sky. It delights me to the core every visit. The U.S. government and other “buffalo hunters” nearly slaughtered these animals to extinction. The range-wide population declined from approximately 30 million to a just few hundred animals in the late 1800s. What a treat to see the results of over 100 years of bison recovery that has grown the wild herds to 20,000-30,000. And how fortunate we are to own public lands and to have a say in how they are used and managed, including reintroduction of one of the great symbols of our country.
The Rio Mora Refuge story is a win-win-win-win for people and organizations that care about our lands, our cultures, and our wildlife.
Lauren McCain is a Federal Lands Policy Analyst at Defenders of Wildlife