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The Refuge took its name from Spanish explorers, who called the area“Bosque del Apache,” or “woods of the Apache.” Although the Apachedid roam through this area, the earliest permanent inhabitants werePuebloans, who began populating the area some 1,500 years ago. Some of their dwellings can be visited today, including the settlement of SanPascualito, the ruins of which suggest there were almost 40 rooms and Akiva—a room used by Pueblo peoples for religious or political purposes.
The Spanish began exploring this area in the late 16th century, encountering many difficulties. Apart from attacks by the Apaches, they found the terrain in southern New Mexico forbidding. One 90-mile span between Las Cruces and Bosque del Apache was particularly grueling, often taking up to a week to travel—without water or land suitable for grazing. Accordingly, this stretch became known as “Jornada del Muerto,” loosely translated as “Journey of the Dead Man.”
Heading north on the Jornada del Muerto, the Spanish explorers’first respite from the arid land would be the Bosque region. With grassland and water—the Bosque is split by the Rio Grande—the area was a welcome relief and offered much in the way of wildlife. It became a key stop on the “El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro” (“theRoyal Road of the Interior”), which connected Mexico City and “NewSpain’s” capital city, Santa Fe.
This route persisted and expanded, even as control of “New Spain” shifted from Spain to Mexico and then to the United States. In 1846, the U.S. Government commissioned a survey of New Mexico. The expedition’s topographical artist, Lt. James Abert, offered a terse description of the day spent in the Bosque, “We got some golden-winged woodpeckers and butcherbirds, ‘Lanins Borealis,’ besides killing two large swans, ‘Cygnus Americanus,’ that proved to be very fat.” His lone drawing from the Bosque features two sandhill cranes. Such reports suggest wildlife was still plentiful in the region during the mid-19thcentury, but the references to hunting presaged the difficulties to come.
As human activity—hunting and otherwise—increased in this area, so did damage to land, the water supply, and the wildlife. Farmlands were overgrazed; the Rio Grande was diverted repeatedly across the state, reducing its water flow; and animals were hunted to the point many species disappeared from the Middle Rio Grande Valley region entirely.
Such trends were not limited to just New Mexico. Indeed, the extinction of many birds and the loss of much bird habitat prompted Congress to pass the “Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929.” This Act established the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, which approved the purchase of land for the purpose of providing bird sanctuaries. Although the onset of the Great Depression proved to be an obstacle for securing funding, these difficulties were overcome by president Franklin Roosevelt’s inspired choice to lead the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey.
Jay Norwood Darling—nickname “Ding”—might seem an unlikely candidate to be selected Director of the organization. He was a cartoonist by trade and an anti-New Deal Republican by politics. But he was a conservationist—often incorporating environmental concerns into his cartoons—and he agreed to take the post.
He held the position for less than two years, but upon accepting the position, Ding pushed for the passage of the“Duck Stamp Act.” This legislation required hunters to purchase a stamp (good for one year) prior to hunting waterfowl, with funds from the stamp purchases going to migratory bird conservation efforts.
Following the bill’s passage, Ding hastily prepared sketches that could be used as working models for the stamps. The PR Director of the Bureau, however, believed the drafts to be final, and he took them to the Bureau of Engraving, which selected one and began printing. Darling was not happy to learn that printing was in progress, and to the end of his career, he regretted what he perceived as the lack of grandeur in the finished product.
Whatever the original design’s flaws, the first Duck Stamp took flight, and more than 600,000 stamps were sold at a dollar apiece, raising much-needed funds for wetlands conservation. Some of those funds were used in 1936 to undertake a survey of the Bosque region and,upon finding it suitable for a migratory bird habitat, the agency approved the purchase of the land. Three years later, PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order creating the Apachedel Bosque National Wildlife Refuge.
The Refuge staff (which numbered two!) faced a daunting task: cataloging the existing species in the protected area, while also conserving, managing, and (where appropriate) restoring resources.Moreover, their initial explorations found the once-rich land to be“almost a biological wasteland.” They were going to need help.
Help came in the form of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), aNew Deal Program that stationed some 200 men at Bosque beginning in 1939. These men were instrumental in building the Refuge’sinfrastructure. Over a period of more than two years, they planted crops to attract migratory birds; dug drainage channels; built roads; and planted crops that would attract and sustain wildlife.
With the onset of World War II and the need for young men to enlist in the military, the CCC was terminated, and the Bosque Refuge, according to the Refuge Manager, went into “strictly maintenance” for several years.
Still, progress was apparent. According to Robyn Harrison’s Bosque del Apache: A Brief History, the identification, and cataloging of bird species was “everyone’s responsibility,” apparently suggesting visitors could contribute to the cataloging with their own bird identifications. And while the once-prevalent sandhill crane numbered only in the dozens, the Refuge did manage to catalog 191 bird species in the Bosque.
Over the years, the staff at Bosque worked to recreate the type of environment produced when the Rio Grande was less irrigated and more vigorous, moving water from fields to marshes to ponds and back to the river. The terrain gradually became more hospitable to birds and other wildlife.
Today, 371 separate bird species have been identified in the Bosque, with species counts ranging from six bald eagles to more than 10,000sandhill cranes and to almost 50,000 snow geese. Similar growth has occurred in other species. According to the latest count (in2007), the Refuge includes 73 mammalian species; 12 amphibian species; 56 reptilian species; and 23 species of fish, including the extremely rare Rio Grande silvery minnow. The quantity and diversity of these populations make it a prime location for wildlife watchers and conservationists. With the help of conservationists and the government, the Bosque had, in the course of six decades, arisen,
Phoenix-like, from the desert dust.
Visiting Bosque del Apache
There are numerous activities awaiting visitors: hiking trails, guided tours, and the opportunity to hunt, fish, and even bullfrog. But the Bosque’s main attraction—the feather in its cap, so to speak—are the opportunities to watch large and diverse flocks of birds.
About 25 percent of the Bosque’s birds are year-round residents, a group that includes the greater roadrunner, which is the State Bird of New Mexico. The remaining birds are migratory, most of which either travel through the Bosque on their way to somewhere else or who spend particular months/seasons in the Refuge.
With these travel patterns in mind, human visitors to the Bosquewill find birds most numerous during the winter months. And while the Refuge is a large place (more than 50,000 acres), the wetlands that form the heart of the Bosque are ringed by a 12-mile road with numerous pull-offs. The pull-offs allow visitors to get within a hundred yards or so of the flocks, but most visitors will want binoculars or if photographing the birds, a telephoto lens.
During daylight hours, the 12-mile loop is the best way to see the birds. In the ponds, mallard ducks are highly visible, although they tend to paddle away from humans who approach the water.
The snow geese and the sandhill cranes, which often gather in the same marshes, are less alarmed by human presence. They eat grass, shrubs, seeds, and tubers, with the cranes also snatching up the occasional invertebrate or small vertebrate.
The sandhill crane is a particular delight to watch. Standing up to four-feet tall—with a six-foot wingspan—and numbering more than10,000, they are the most visible of the birds in the Bosque and perhaps the most active. Their feeding periods are occasionally interrupted by a dance—one characterized by head-bowing, wing-spreading, hopping, calling, and even tossing small objects about with their beaks. Although scientists note that some of these dances are for pure joy, many of the dances are part of the courting process. Interestingly, following the courting process, cranes mate for life.
As impressive as these mid-day displays can be, dawn and dusk are the best times for birdwatching. Again, the most intriguing birds are the sandhill cranes, which sleep while standing on one leg with their heads tucked into their chests. Among the flock, several of the birds forgo sleep and stand sentry (on both legs)for the entire group, calling out warnings when danger approaches.
As dawn breaks, the birds stir; a few groups of sandhill cranes, snow geese, sparrows, or wrens fly off in groups of four or five. And then an entire flock takes off en masse, a truly wonderful sight. Where do they fly? To the Bosque’s marshes and fields, where they will spend much of the day eating, socializing, and disporting.
At dusk, the sunrise performance unfolds in reverse. The birds nibble their last bites of the day; then, in unison and with much squawking, they take off as one, returning to their roosting pools. They will sleep the night, awake at dawn, and begin the cycle anew.
It is a broad cycle that tourists seem to emulate. Spurred by the call to temporarily migrate, some 200,000 humans flock to the Bosqueeach year, drawn by the beauty of the Wildlife Refuge, the birds that live there, and the call for conservation.
The Wildlife Refuge is open to visitors year-round from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset. The Bosque del ApacheVisitor Center is open from 8 am-4 pm daily from September 1 through May 31. During the summer months, it is open Thursday-Monday, from 8 am-4 pm. It is closed on major holidays. Additional information can be found on the Bosque website: https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Bosque_del_Apache/.