Wildlife & Habitat

Mule deer doe in snowfall / USFWS

The Rio Grande may seem tame now, but for thousands of years, it was a wild and unpredictable river. Every spring, melting snow from the mountains filled the river with water until it overflowed its banks – flooding the land around it.

In the summer, heavy rains swelled the river even more. Sometimes, the overflowing water was so powerful that the entire path of the river changed. New ponds and marshes formed in the old riverbed.  In these fertile river floodplains, all kinds of lush vegetation grew—providing plentiful food sources for wildlife.

Majestic birds like sandhill cranes migrated here to spend the winter feasting on nutritious grasses like chufa and millet. Other animals thrived amid the cottonwood forests and shrublands.

The big river attracted humans too. More than 700 years ago, Piro Indians built settlements of mud and stone houses along the river. They hunted and gathered food along the riverbanks, and they learned to farm the bottomlands. Life was good along the Rio Grande—for a while.

Then Spanish colonists arrived, following the river northward. Their horses, wagons, cattle and sheep trampled a rutted, dusty road. As more people moved in, they created ranches, farms, and towns that replaced the Piro and their pueblos.

These new settlers started to change the Rio Grande. A river that overflowed and dug new routes every season was a problem – especially if your house got flooded… or your crops washed away!

People started building dams and irrigation ditches to manage the flow of the river and divert water for crops, livestock, and homes. Taming the wild Rio Grande was great for people—but not great for wildlife. The once-grand river shrank to a shallow stream.

Without a flooding river, the floodplain marshes dried up. Chufa and millet and other plants that grew in the wetlands started to disappear. When their food supply disappeared, the region’s wildlife – especially its migratory birds -- started to disappear too.

But many people thought the wildlife and habitats along the river here were worth preserving. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps began working to restore the floodplains in the Bosque del Apache area as wildlife habitat. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge as part of a national system of lands dedicated to wildlife protection.

Today, the refuge staff at Bosque del Apache manages water to create wetlands, just like when the river ran wild. These seasonal wetlands re-create the exact types of habitats that year-round and migratory wildlife need to thrive. Using gates and ditches, refuge workers move water from the river through fields, marshes and ponds… and then back to the river to mimic natural flooding cycles.

And so once again, the Rio Grande and its wetlands provide food and homes for some of America’s most spectacular wildlife…as well as places where thousands of people – visitors like you -- can see and enjoy the natural world.