Established last year, 570–acre Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge is five miles from downtown Albuquerque. It joins numerous refuges along a beleaguered river.

Formed in the Rockies, the Rio Grande wriggles through southern Colorado, bisects New Mexico and draws the Texas–Mexico borderline before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Along its 1,896 miles, refuges are working valiantly to conserve ecological health in a droughtstricken region where even Rio Grande cottonwoods, the hardy arboreal icon of the Southwest, are dying of thirst.

“The drought is affecting all components of the floodplain and the wildlife that depend on those habitats, including river, forests, wetlands, savannas and croplands,” says John Vradenburg, a biologist at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache Refuge, which straddles the river.

With a drastically reduced water table, invasive species like salt cedar—whose roots go deeper than native vegetation and which put salt into soil so little else can grow—are spreading. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the wetlands and croplands that attract tens of thousands of birds—ducks, geese and sandhill cranes— each autumn.

Many of those birds nest closer to the Rio Grande headwaters, where refuges are similarly challenged.

“We have to carefully prioritize nesting areas, and it’s hard to manage wetlands when the soil profile is parched,” says Mike Blenden, project leader at Colorado’s San Luis Valley Refuge Complex. “We use water as early as February, when Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes pass through on their migration. But we then have to be careful with nesting species like cinnamon teal and Wilson’s phalaropes, which arrive right after the cranes, not to create wetland habitat that cannot be sustained, wasting the birds’ energy if it dries up and their nests fail a few weeks after they come.”

“What will we do if this is the new normal?”

The complex includes Monte Vista and Alamosa Refuges, which often sustain just 25 percent of the wetland habitat they once did.

“Since 2002, we’ve seen groundwater levels drop from a chronic lack of recharge and precipitation,” Blenden says. “To some degree, these cycles may be normal, but, with the specter of climate change, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What will we do if this is the new normal?’

In south Texas, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge faces similar issues. With more than 500 documented bird species, the refuge’s 100–plus tracts form an important wildlife corridor along the river’s final 275 miles. “We see the refuge as a string of pearls in an area that has been primarily converted for agriculture, industry and development,” says refuge manager Bryan Winton.

Many of the pearls were blemished after a 2010 tropical storm necessitated reservoir releases that flooded many refuge units just as salt cedar— relatively new to south Texas—was germinating. Now, the invasive plant can exploit drought conditions that leave natives high and dry. Refuge staff has been working to eradicate infestations, but it is hardly a matter of a little weeding. “We have so many units,” Winton says, “and some of these trees are now 15 feet tall.”

Additionally, local residents don’t seem to appreciate the ecological and economic importance of the native plant community—even though the habitat it creates is a global draw for birders.

“Birding is the number one visitor use here, and birders contribute a lot to the local economy when they come,” says Winton. “Yet, local nurseries don’t even sell some of the important native plants because they have spines and thorns, which I suspect makes them less desirable for landscape purposes.”

If educating the public is crucial to addressing Rio Grande issues, new Valle de Oro Refuge is poised to help. It is within easy distance of 60 percent of New Mexico’s population.

Ben Ikenson is a New Mexico–based freelance writer.