Yellowstone bison, © Steven Lopez

Small Refuge, Big Impact: Wildlife Conservation on the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge

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

4 Responses to “Small Refuge, Big Impact: Wildlife Conservation on the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge”

  1. Heidy Breed

    Save these beautyfull animal! They have the right to take care off!

  2. Jim N.

    I would normally say that Mankind has done so much harm to this continent. However as of recently I no longer feel that way. I now feel like telling the truth white-man has done his damnedest to destroy this continent. I thank those who are trying to stop any more damage from happening. However it is to little to late. I will no longer hold my tongue.
    Had white-man never set foot on this continent I would not have to write this comment as there would be more bison than you could count well not easily. there would be many more wolves more coyotes along with all species of animal and plants. Your response would probably be progress, medicine, technology, so on and so on. All things in nature would be in balance. I say there would be less sickness, no rich no poor. No air, water, land pollution no toxic waste, no nuclear waste. No intercity slums no prejudices and most of all NO minorities everyone is Equal. No illegal aliens, no drug problems no alcoholics. Healthier lifestyle no obesity. There would be no climate change, no urban sprawl, no animal human conflicts. The no list just keeps growing. I could go on and on. Oh yea Being that I am of mixed blood I would not be here to make this list and that would be alright too. It is not that I don’t want to be here because I halfway enjoy life. It is that I don’t know how to be a Native American. My parents did their best to raise me right to voice my thoughts when I saw things that just are not right. But that is where my problem starts I adopted when I was really young I was raised as if I were their own and I thank them for that. However I was raised white therefore I am torn between two worlds. When I was young I knew that I was adopted and it didn’t matter to me. Now that they are both gone I have found myself growing more and more interested almost as if AI were being pulled in the direction of my unknown Native American being the older I get the more I see how white man has ruined this country and how little they care. There are times that I wish that I were full-blooded Indian seeing what white-man has done upsets me to the point that I have started to hate them. To the point that I want to join Idle No More. As I stated earlier I will no longer hold my tongue.

  3. Louise Jackson

    I too have Indian blood American as well as from India. I am also Irish. I am very proud of my Indian heritage, and it saddens me to see the destruction of our land and animals. I am so happy to see that the bison and wolves are doing so well. It is upsetting to find out wolves are in danger of being taken off the endangered list. I believe that this would be detrimental to them, in essence it would become opened season on them. Then we will be back on the endangered list once more and they might not make a come back this. It would be tragic to never see a wild wolf or hear it’s song on the wind again. I hope and pray that this does not happen to them.

  4. Jenny Badua

    I don’t entirely disagree with your analysis of the horrendous ecological impact that Europeans have had on the American continent. European people once lived in harmony with nature before they were Christianized and before the age of Kings and the age of factories and forming metal. They lived in small villages and worshipped nature. This is the most natural way for humans to live, not isolated in cubicles no matter how lavish the lifestyle. We went to sleep with the sun and awoke with the sun. Europeans lost their way a long time ago. Many European American people are trying hard to rediscover their true roots. Paganism is the fastest growing religion out there. It is truly sad that so much was destroyed. The land can restore itself eventually, but it may not happen until humans have gone extinct.

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