Wildlife and Habitat

Baca wetland Joe Zinn

The purpose of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge is to restore, enhance, and maintain habitats for wildlife plans and fish species that are native to the San Luis Valley.


Baca Refuge was established to help protect water resources in the San Luis Valley, the fragile great sand dunes ecosystem and some of the most important ecological, cultural, and wildlife resources of the Valley.  Water is the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley. The runoff from the surrounding mountains and ground water flows are crucial to the many land uses in the Valley. These waters create a network of riparian corridors and wetlands that break up large expanses of desert and upland habitats, resulting in high plant diversity. This habitat combination creates tremendous foraging and nesting opportunities for a variety of bird species and resident wildlife. 


Upland Shrublands

Shrublands are the most common natural habitat on the San Luis Valley floor. Many of the plants are drought resistant and tolerant of high soil salinity. Shrubs dominate the landscape of primarily rubber rabbitbrush, greasewood, and four-wing saltbush. Native grasses in this habitat include Indian rice grass, alkali sacaton, and blue grama.  

Common wildlife species include Brewer’s sparrow, mourning dove, western meadowlark, and loggerhead shrike. Some grassland areas support rare grassland-dependent species such as the burrowing owl and long-billed curlew. Two globally vulnerable subspecies of small mammals, the silky pocket mouse, and the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, are also grassland dependent; and one globally vulnerable subspecies of butterfly, the sandhill skipper. This subspecies of the butterfly lives only in the San Luis Valley. Elk and pronghorn are abundant on uplands and other habitat types of the refuge.


Wet Meadow Wetlands

Wetlands include wet meadows, seasonal wetlands, and semipermanent wetlands. Wet meadows on Baca Refuge are mostly dominated by sedge and baltic rush. These wet meadows offer tremendous foraging and nesting opportunities to a variety of wetland birds including, Wilson’s phalarope, sora, and Virginia rail, white-faced ibis, American avocet, Wilson’s snipe, and numerous species of waterfowl. In addition, these wet meadows provide habitat for a variety of rare or unique amphibian species such as northern leopard frog and Plains spadefoot toad.


Playa Wetlands 

Playa wetlands are the largest wetland type on Baca Refuge. The playas are most likely found in the western portions along the historic Saguache and San Luis Creek drainages and at the terminal reaches of streams originating in the Sangre de Cristo range. These wetlands have an intermittent water schedule.   

In recent years, this habitat has remained mostly dry with only small portions receiving water and only for a short time.  During wetter years, playas fill during spring with runoff and occasionally again in late summer by thunderstorms. When the playas receive water, the fleeting nature of these wetlands adds to their uniqueness and high productivity. The drying and wetting cycle cause a burst of invertebrates, a valuable food resource for numerous bird species. 

Plant species in the playas range from common spikerush and three square bulrush, which occur in areas where water is present for only 1 to 3 months, to horned pondweed and hardstem bulrush in areas where water lasts more than 3 months. Mud flats are also present in areas where soil salts are less abundant.  Wilson’s phalarope, American avocet, white-faced ibis, and black-necked stilt regularly use this habitat when water is present. Several species of amphibians such as chorus frog, Northern leopard frog, and Great Plains toad are also found when the playas have water.  


Riparian Habitats 

The Refuge has a variety of woody and non-woody riparian habitats along the six creeks flowing onto it from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This habitat, a very small percentage of the overall Refuge landscape, contains some of the richest species diversity of any of the other habitat types. 

Woody riparian habitats contain primarily narrowleaf cottonwood with an understory of coyote willow and some peach-leaf willow. Non-woody riparian areas are dominated by sedges, rushes, and native grasses. Many birds such as the American kestrel, great horned owl, northern flicker, American robin, yellow warbler, and Bullock's oriole can be seen regularly using the riparian areas. In addition, a unique native fish community exists in the perennial portions of Crestone Creek. Four of the six native fish include the Rio Grande sucker (state endangered), Rio Grande chub (state species of concern), fathead minnow, and longnose dace are found in this creek.