Originally designated the Carlsbad Bird Refuge in 1935, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge first appears as a desolate, barren landscape dotted by occasional stumps, sparse grasses and shrubs. Upon closer examination the various geologic features, bubbling springs and unique desert wildlife make the refuge a true oasis.
Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains in southeast New Mexico, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system. Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the 24,563-acre refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the southwestern desert. The refuge’s namesake, Bitter Lake, is a large playa lake which early explorers to the region deemed “bitter” because of its white alkaline salty 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 refuge supports approximately 1,200 acres of wetlands that include more than 70 sinkholes, large moist-soil managed impoundments, riverine habitats, ciénegas, and fresh to brackish springs.
The wetlands attract more than 26,000 sandhill cranes, more than 50,000 snow geese and ducks during migration, as well as a variety of wading birds shorebirds such as great blue herons, egrets, white faced ibis, snowy plovers, least terns, black-necked stilts, and avocets.
Situated along the floodplain of the winding Pecos River, the refuge is dotted by sinkholes created by groundwater from paleozoic aquifers dissolving the gypsum deposits in the soils above. Water bubbles to the surface along the refuge’s western edge from the San Andreas limestone formation, providing water and habitat for several resident threatened and endangered invertebrate, fish, and plant species. The Pecos River itself has undergone many changes including a New Mexico River Ecosystem Initiative project that reconnected an old oxbow to improve water quality; improve habitat for the threatened Pecos bluntnose shiner; attract more birds, mammals, reptiles, fish; and remove invasive plants like saltcedar.
Several significant designations honor Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It is recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area, offering vital habitat and refuge for over 350 species of birds; as a
The early foundation of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge was built by hard working young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the late 1930s as part of a Depression-era public works program initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that worked to rebuild and conserve our nation’s public lands. The CCC camp built the original office, quarters, garages, levees, water control structures, water delivery systems, and impoundments, several of which are still intact and in use today.
The mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, the restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Everywas created for a special purpose. Some were created to protect migratory birds, others to protect threatened or endangered species or unique habitats, while others fulfill another special purpose. Refuges are special places where wildlife comes first. All activities allowed on refuges must be evaluated to make sure each activity will not conflict with the reason the refuge was founded.
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife by protecting the wetlands that are important for these species.
Additional laws direct refuge activities like the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which identifies the refuge for use as an inviolate sanctuary. The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Act uses money from Duck Stamp sales to purchase refuge lands. Many lands purchased with Duck Stamp funds were defined as inviolate sanctuaries. These lands, under most circumstances, must be at least partially closed to migratory bird hunting to allow birds a place of refuge and protection.
The Refuge Recreation Act identifies the refuge as being suitable for incidental fish and wildlife-orientated recreational development, the protection of natural resources, and the conservation of threatened and endangered species such as the Pecos sunflower, Pecos gambusia, Noel’s amphipod, and Koster’s springsnail.
In addition, the Wilderness Act of 1964 helps maintain wilderness as a naturally functioning ecosystem on the northern portion of the refuge, the 9,621-acre Salt Creek Wilderness.
October 3, 1937 – The refuge is established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a refuge feeding and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.
October 23, 1970 – Congress designates part of Salt Creek as wilderness, declaring that the area should remain undeveloped and unimpaired for future generations.
August 1980 – The refuge receives theDesignation through the National Park Service for its conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources. Bitter Lake is one of 12 sites in New Mexico, and one of 602 sites nationally, to have this distinction.
1999 – Audubon New Mexico and the National Audubon Society designate Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge a Globally Important Bird Area, which recognizes the national and global importance protecting and conserving the habitats that migratory birds heavily depend on.
2008 – The refuge is internationally recognized as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. This is a treaty that promotes wetland conservation throughout the world. The refuge is recognized as the first Ramsar site in New Mexico, the second Ramsar site in the entire Chihuahuan Desert Ecoregion, and one of the handful of Ramsar sites in the Interior West.