Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge Catch it in Late Summer
Last updated on Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Ladrone Mountain from the Silver Creek Divide. Photo by the Author.
In the thousands of vehicles that travel Interstate 25 between Las Cruces and Albuquerque every day, some occupants have noticed a new highway sign for the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, which spans the Rio Grande a few miles north of Socorro. Not as well-known or accessible as its more famous neighbor to the south, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge , Sevilleta nevertheless occupies a special place in the hierarchy of protected lands due to its stark beauty, diversity, and research activity.
Its origins lie in a communal land grant of the Spanish village of La Joya, lost by its heirs to taxes, a familiar story in New Mexico. The land was purchased by the Campbell family and later conveyed to the Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy then donated the land to the United States. Since 1973, the land has been protected under the auspices of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The refuge is closed to the public most of the time, but once a year in late summer the refuge hosts an Open House in conjunction with the community of La Joya. During that time controlled access is granted and guided tours are provided for exploring Sevilleta. Educational and research groups may also obtain a permit to access the refuge by contacting the manager.
Us non-research types found that we could register through the Socorro Chamber of Commerce for guided tours of the east side of the refuge in the morning, and of the west side of the refuge that afternoon. After meeting at the La Joya gymnasium (community center) for breakfast, our USFWS guide led us north to Highway 60. We traveled east for several miles and then took a turn south on dusty dirt roads leading back to the refuge. A sign cautioned us to watch for Box Turtles along the way.
Photo by the Author.
Our first stop was at the foot of the Los Pinos Mountains, where a herd of pronghorn antelope scampered away on the plain below us. Above, we spotted Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that have migrated from the Manzano Mountains north of Sevilleta. Marta, our guide, also took this opportunity to tell us more about the refuge. Sevilleta is about 230,000 acres in size, ranging from the wetlands riparian environment of the Rio Grande to towering mountain ridges. Within its boundaries lie four major biomes: Chihuahuan Desert, Great Plains short grassland prairie, pinon juniper woodland and Colorado Plateau shrub steppe.
Our morning goal was a hike to a freshwater spring near the southeastern edge of the refuge, so we continued our drive. After reaching a designated parking area, we hiked along an arroyo for about a half-mile to Cibola Springs, a pleasant and surprising oasis in this otherwise arid portion of the refuge.
After the hike, we drove past temporary research stations to reach La Joya. The tour included lunch, which we consumed during a slide presentation and talk from the agency employee charged with caring for the Mexican wolves, or lobos, that are held at Sevilleta. The wolves are penned in a canyon of the Los Pinos Mountains in preparation for their re-introduction to the Blue Range Primitive Area on the New Mexico-Arizona border in Catron County. The main objective is to foster wild behavior in captive wolves by isolating them from human contact to the extent possible. The wolf recovery plan calls for a self-sustaining population of 100 wolves by 2005.
After lunch we met our guides, geology professors from New Mexico Tech, for our trip to the west side of the refuge. Their original plan was to drive west on the refuge, up the Rio Salado, but frequent thunderstorms had made the normally dry riverbed impassable. Instead, we drove from La Joya to Alamillo on Interstate 25 and entered the refuge there.
After engaging the four-wheel drive (mandatory for this tour), we followed dirt roads for a few miles before turning into dry, but soft, drainages leading to the Silver Creek divide. From there, we used Silver Creek to its confluence with the Rio Salado as our wilderness highway. Stopped by the wet and wild Rio Salado, we enjoyed a spectacular view of the Sierra Ladrones, or Mountain of Thieves, while our guides talked about the local geology.
A true "island in the sky", the mountain rises almost 4,000 feet above the surrounding terrain to an elevation of 9,176 feet and supports 201 wildlife species within its Wilderness Study Area. The Sierra Ladrones are so named for their historical use as a hideaway for Apache and Navaho Indians who used to advantage the mountain’s steep canyons and absolute ruggedness to hide the bounty of their plunder. Visibility extends up to 100 miles, so its tall peaks served as lookout points as well. Nearby, in 1881, the U.S. cavalry fought a deadly battle with a band of Warm Springs Apaches under the leadership of Nana. Legends also speak of buried Civil War cannons, lost treasure, lost mines, and desperado hideouts. The range no longer is a robber’s roost, but if you are fortunate, you might steal a glance at a Desert Bighorn Sheep. Geologically speaking, our guides described the mountain as an anomaly. That is, they could not explain its presence.
Too soon, our visit was over and we had to leave. Our hosts were anxious to get back to work. Some of the chief research projects, besides the Mexican Wolf Reintroduction, are connected to Long Term Ecological Research, a network of environmental sites and studies funded by the National Science Foundation. Subjects of research include hantavirus, weather, soil and vegetation. Although the University of New Mexico has a significant role, university students from all over the country vie to conduct research at Sevilleta.
New funding may eventually mean the improvement of research and staff facilities at Sevilleta, a visitors center, and an apparent commitment to make parts of the refuge more accessible to the public. In the meantime, watch for the Open House held in late summer each year. Sevilleta also offers limited access tours in conjunction with the Bosque Del Apache Festival of the Cranes in the fall. You can find out more information by contacting the Socorro Chamber of Commerce.