Baca wildlife refuge opens visitor center

A wildlife refuge, and the thriving, vibrant ecosystem it houses, were opened to the public for the first time. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

A dragonfly buzzes across a meadow at the grand opening of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Contact Station​.

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge is finally open to the public, 12 years after it was created.

The refuge held a reception Friday to celebrate the opening of its new Visitor Contact Station.

"What we have here is an intact landscape, which is unusual," said Sharon Vaughn, project leader for the Baca Refuge. "It hasn't been heavily modified or engineered."

Sharon Vaughn, Project Leader for Baca National Wildlife Refuge, gathers a tour group.

The refuge, which covers 92,500 acres south and west of Crestone, is by far the largest of the three wildlife refuges that constitute the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge protects diverse landscapes including riparian corridors, grasslands, wet meadows, and dry lakebeds called playas.

It provides robust habitats for an array of animal species, including elk, coyotes, snakes, badgers, and a rare colony of the Gunnison's Prairie Dog.

Refuge officials also recently published a "Comprehensive Conservation Plan," a complex report on the resources present in the refuge that also functions as a guiding document for future plans.

"We're planning on adding interpretive trails and an auto tour route," said Refuge Manager Ron Garcia. "But that's all down the road. Developing those is dependent on manpower and funding."

Ron Garcia, Refuge Manager, explains invasive species to guests.

Elk hunting will also be allowed on the refuge, though regulations to manage hunting are yet to be established. In the meantime, Garcia said, the refuge will host free bi-weekly tours led by members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The tours, which typically take three to four hours, are built around themes like invasive species, water management, biological monitoring, and the history of the ranches that preceded the refuge.

"We consider opening the office and Visitor Contact Station the first step in our ability to provide the public with quality wildlife-dependent opportunities," said Garcia.

The Visitor Contact Station replaces an old ranch house that had been used as office space for the refuge.

"It was OK, but it was infested with bugs," said Tim Armstrong, president of the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges, a non-profit volunteer group that helps visitors connect with the refuges. Currently the refuge has only three paid employees.

"This is a tremendous resource for the Valley," said Armstrong. "But it's really short-staffed. We'd like to recruit more members."

The goal of the refuge is not to return the area to a pre-European settlement Eden, said Scott Miller, wildlife biologist for the San Luis Valley Refuge Complex.

Scott Miller, Wildlife Biologist for the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, discusses native species.

"It's to manage the resources here as well as possible with current conditions," said Miller. "We want to maintain the habitats so they function as naturally as they can even though we're using some artificial means to do it."

Cattle grazing, haying, and mowing are all employed to manage the habitats in the refuge, though only as part of targeted and limited efforts to achieve specific goals, such as removing dead grass that allows invasive species to thrive, said Miller.

Elk hunting will also help manage the plant and animal life on the refuge, said Garcia.

"We're not trying to bring the numbers of elk down, necessarily," said Garcia. "We want to help disperse the herds and keep them from spending too much time in sensitive areas."

Fences are utilized to manage the movement of wildlife and livestock, said Garcia.

"I did a lot of fencing this summer," said April Miller, 16, of Alamosa, who spent the past 10 weeks working at the refuge as part of the National Parks Service's Youth Conservation Corps. "We did trail maintenance and built a footbridge for horses. I learned I don't like barbed wire."

The experience was unique, said Miller.

"I got to be in places other people can't go. I felt pretty special."

Youth Conservation Corps member Amanda Miller, 16, of Alamosa, talks with guests.

Armstrong is excited that the public now has an opportunity to experience the refuge.

"A lot of people are so curious about the Baca because it's been private land for so long," said Armstrong.

The refuge will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

"The rule of thumb is: if the gate's open, we're there."

The entrance to the refuge is 10 miles east of Highway 17 on Saguache County Road T. Visitors interested in a tour can call the refuge at 256-5527.

"Many people view these refuges as just duck farms," said Armstrong. "But they're so much more than that. It's a place for people to get out and enjoy nature, really very close to Alamosa."

A dragonfly perches on a stalk of grass.

A bee collects pollen from a Rocky Mountain beeplant.