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75th Anniversary 512 X 219What do the Golden Gate Bridge, comedian Bill Cosby, the Appalachian Trail and Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge have in common?

All four were “born” in 1937.  For 75 years, the 24,536-acre Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge has served an important role as home to thousands of migratory birds, myriad dragonfly and damselfly species, and many unique residents including the Koster’s spring snail and Pecos puzzle sunflower.

Originally designated the Carlsbad Bird Refuge in 1935, at first glance, Bitter Lake Refuge appears as a desolate, barren landscape dotted by occasional sumps, sparse grasses and shrubs.  Upon closer examination, visitors realize that the geologic features, bubbling springs and unique desert wildlife make the refuge a true oasis. In fact, several designations -- Globally Important Bird Area, National Natural Landmark and Ramsar International Wetland of Importance -- pay homage to the tremendous value of this transitional area between the Chihuahuan Desert and Southern Great Plains.

Situated along the flood plain of the winding Pecos River, Bitter Lake Refuge is dotted by sinkholes created by groundwater from the Roswell Artesian Aquifer dissolving the gypsum deposits in the soils above.  That same aquifer bubbles to the surface along the refuge’s western edge, providing water and habitat for several resident threatened and endangered invertebrate, fish and plant species.  The river itself has undergone many changes including a recent oxbow re-connect that is showing encouraging signs for use by the threatened Pecos bluntnose shiner.

The refuge’s namesake, Bitter Lake, is a large playa which early explorers to the region deemed “bitter” because of its alkaline appearance. Little did they realize that the lake and similar waters support a wonderful diversity of creatures including a marine algae (Bataphora spp.) normally found only in lagoons along the Gulf of Mexico.

The original office, quarters and garages were all built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the late 1930s.  In fact, the CCC, which was based from a permanent camp situated on the refuge, built many of the water control structures, delivery systems and impoundments, several of which are still intact and in use today.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, like many rural refuges, was and continues to be a source for “social” events.  Years ago town folk attended the annual carp fry sponsored by the refuge. In fact, the refuge was a major freshwater fishery in the area as a result of past wetland management practices that held deep water in the impoundments.

Salt cedar control and eradication has become a major focus in the last couple of decades.  A Recovery Act project (2009) funded large-scale removal, and the replanting of native cottonwood and willow trees shows encouraging benefits.  Salt cedar control efforts continue today and an on-going songbird banding project will measure bird responses to the changes in vegetation structure.

Not to be overlooked are the numerous dragonfly and damselfly species (Odonates) that call the refuge home. In fact, more than 100 species are documented here, giving the refuge one of the most diverse populations in North America.  The annual September Dragonfly Festival celebrates this unusual but wonderful assemblage.

Over the course of refuge history, 18 managers, numerous staff and many volunteers including a Friends Group have witnessed the ebb and flow of the refuge processes.  Currently, a severe drought which started in the spring of 2011 is stressing the habitat and wildlife that exists here. But as Dr. James Montgomery, who in 2003 won the national refuge volunteer award and still regularly studies and monitors sandhill cranes, small mammals and terns, recently commented “although this is the toughest drought that I have seen, these natural hardships have shaped the character of the refuge for so long, and you just have to wait out the cycles." 
Page Photo Credits — Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge's 75th Anniversary logo/USFWS, Dragonfly species/USFWS, All photos courtesy of USFWS unless otherwise noted.
Last Updated: Mar 04, 2013
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