A place to play, ponder and protect

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Some of nature’s most beautiful creatures can be seen at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in New Mexico and the eighth largest refuge in the United Sates.

Pronghorn antelope make their home there as do deer, elk, bighorn desert sheep, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and many others, as well as all sorts of migratory birds and ducks.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: This mountain lion is part of a new exhibit at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center. There are 89 species of mammals at the refuge.

The refuge is a hiker’s dream with a diversity of biomes, including Chihuahuan desert, Great Plains short grassland prairie, piñon juniper woodland and Colorado plateau shrub steppe.

The short-grass prairie extends out from the wetland areas and bosque along the river, rising to mesas, cliffs, canyon and other land formations on the 230,000 acres of the refuge.

It is 15 miles deep and 30 miles wide, about 400 square miles, and is located just north of Bernardo.

The Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center is literally right off Interstate 25 at exit 169 south of Belen.

“It’s named after Seville, little Seville,” said Kathy Granillo, refuge manager. “Because when the Spanish came here in the 1600s, they thought the area and the villages of the Native Americans reminded them of the countryside around Seville (Spain).”

The refuge was established 40 years ago, and used to be a cattle ranch with 40 wells. It has several natural springs and 14 wells are still in operation providing wildlife with extra water sources.

The visitor center was built 12 years ago, and is 70 percent solar powered with five large solar panels on the roof that generate credits with the local utility company.

There are three trails around the center with hiker access Monday through Saturday.

Photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge staff have set up 35 motion-sensitive cameras at various locations around the refuge to study the habits of local wildlife. The black bears are entertaining with their antics at the water tanks.

A three-mile trail takes you up on the mesa and provides great views of the Sierra Ladrones, Los Pinos Mountains and the river valley. One is a paved path, distancing less than a quarter of a mile, that loops around the visitor center, and the other is a mile long and goes off to the south in an arroyo then comes back up to the top of the mesa, ending back at the center, said Jeannine Kimble, visitor services manager.

“The plants and the wildlife here are just amazing,” Kimble said.

This year, Granillo and Kimble designed a wonderful exhibit room with mounted displays, including a large cougar, pronghorn antelope, wolf, coyote and several other wildlife creatures in natural setting constructions they designed.

“A lot of the public hasn’t had an opportunity to come out and see them yet,” Kimble said, “but the feedback we’ve gotten has all been positive.”

Sevilleta offers free monthly tours with a reservation, that include geology tours, migratory bird tours, tracks and scat, plant identification, wild flowers and wildlife viewing tours.

On Friday, April 26, Sevilleta will host a tour of native plants, “Please Rain On Me,” with Judith Phillips, a local expert and author.

“She’s wonderful,” Granillo said. “She’s written lots of books on xeric landscaping and identification of native plants.”

On May 4, a guided tour will celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. This tour is already full, but on June 18 there is a summer raptor tour.

The raptor tour will look for wild and free-flying birds on the refuge, and also have live birds outside the visitor center so people can get up close to these majestic birds and take photographs, said Kimble.

Every October Sevilleta celebrates Refuge Day with several activities, including tours, exhibitors and guest speakers, a photo contest and a highlight of the winning wildlife posters created by local elementary students in Sevilleta’s poster contest with participating local schools.

In San Lorenzo Canyon you can drive or hike around the canyon and view sandstone formations and cliffs, but it is advised to come in high clearance vehicles and a 4-wheel-drive if you want to drive the full length of the rugged road.

The rest of Sevilleta isn’t open to the public because it was established to preserve the processes of the prevailing ecosystems and to encourage research and environmental education, but the San Lorenzo Canyon is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management as a primitive recreation area that offers year-around access and opportunities to camp and picnic, as well as hike.

“The refuge system stresses that recreation related to wildlife is really important,” said Granillo. “We try to offer as much as we can with wildlife viewing, hunting and photography.”

Neighboring La Joya State Game Refuge and the wetlands areas down along the river is home to a variety of water fowl. It is open year-around for birding and wildlife viewing.

There are 35 motion-activated cameras stationed at various locations around the refuge for research and to capture the habits of wildlife.

“We get some truly amazing photos,” Granillo said. “The Piños Mountains have black bears in them, and our black bears are really funny. They love to get in the water and take little soaks in the drinkers. We’ve got great photos of the mother bears with their cubs coming to the drinkers.”

There are 89 species of mammals, 251 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians, 58 species of reptiles and more than 1,200 species of plants on the refuge, said Kimble.

“We have a lot of diversity here,” she said. “So, when the public comes out and participates in a program, they’re able to see things they might not have seen before.”

Pronghorn and Rocky Mountain bighorns from the Manzano Mountains can be seen on the east side, and the refuge has implemented a prairie dog reintroduction program with animals captured by Prairie Dog Pals rescue workers helping the city of Albuquerque with their removal, Granillo said.

Visitors might also see oryx, a nonnative antelope from Africa brought in to the White Sands Missile Range by Game and Fish for hunters many years ago. They have since spread as far north as Sevilleta.

“We don’t want them on the refuge,” Granillo said. “But they are pretty darn spectacular looking animals, and people enjoy seeing them.”

Education programs are available for the region’s school population, and the Amigos de la Sevilleta offer a transportation scholarship to bring school children from Valencia and Socorro counties to the refuge.

“A of couple weeks ago, I had a total of 137 seventh-graders over three days from a middle school in Socorro to come out and learn a little bit about biomes,” Kimble said. “At the end of March, it’ll really start picking up … April is usually my biggest education month.

“Conveying a conservation message to the public is extremely important.”

The refuge will celebrate its 40th anniversary on December 28, and festivities are to be announced.

The Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge gate is opened from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the visitor center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

For more information about the refuge’s programs and tours, go to its Facebook page, or call 864-4021. The website is, http://fws.gov/southwest/refuges/newmex/sevilleta

“If you just Google it, it comes up pretty easily,” Granillo said.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.