by Larry Joseph Calloway

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge is coming out of rehab. It’s going cautiously public, without enough money.

A 3,300-square-foot visitor center with a striking view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is under construction at the historic Baca Ranch headquarters. And the long-considered 15-year management plan will become available this month for the final 60 days of public comment.

Called a Comprehensive Conservation Plan, it will propose some trails and roads for wildlife viewing and hunting. A preliminary map shows a one-mile trail at the visitor center taking in North and South Crestone Creeks and two short walking loops taking in Cottonwood Creek.  A horseback trail starts near the Baca Grande Stables. Interpretive viewpoints are marked along the subdivision border and elsewhere. A motor vehicle touring road, with a spur to the old Cottonwood Creek cow camp, follows a dog-leg route between County Road T and Colorado Highway 17.

For 11 years since acquisition of the ranch, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has kept it closed to the public. With added parcels it is now 92,500 acres joining Great Sand Dunes National Park. During the decade the agency, on a limited budget, has studied what it acquired. It has gotten a good start on rehabilitation of a wild environment modified by more than a century of livestock production. This process has been gradual because, for example, if you suddenly eliminate hay fields and grazing, the first opportunists at the door will be non-native plants called “invasive species.”

Ron Garcia, manager of the Baca refuge, discussed some features of the plan and its associated environmental impact statement before they were released. In a mid-August talk, one of several given on summer tours for local residents, he focused on two probably controversial issues:  hunting and bison.

Rifle seasons will be restricted to the center third of the refuge that includes Deadman Creek. Hunting in the north will be limited to bow and black-powder specialists. Big and small game seasons will be observed, but the primary targets for regulated hunting will be elk.

Over-population by elk is an environmental problem on the refuge because they eat streamside willows and cottonwood sprouts. Twelve high-fence “exclosures” have been built to protect riparian areas, but these are only a fraction of the 21 miles of streams in the refuge. The elk population is too dense, and it apparently did not exist during the cattle-growing decades. The number of males is about 40 in 100, while 20 in 100 is normal.

So hunting would help cull the elk. Introducing predator wolves was rejected because the refuge is in the middle of a large agricultural area, Garcia said. A Crestone opponent of hunting confronted the leader of a Salida hunting group during Garcia’s talk, asking the hunter if he would mind shooting propagation-sterilizing darts instead of bullets. He shot down the idea.

The Nature Conservancy keeps about 1700 buffalo on the well-fenced 6,600-acre Medano Ranch, which is to become part of the wildlife refuge. Under the management plan the animals will have to be removed, except for a small group for research purposes. The American bison is a native of the plains, but the thundering herds were only periodic visitors to the San Luis Valley, and they  would “clean up and move on,” according to Garcia. “We don’t want to become a bison refuge,” he said.

Earlier in the summer Garcia put a cow’s skull on a post to illustrate the derivation of the Baca name. Cabeza de Baca (or Vaca) was the full heraldic surname of Jose Maria Baca of New Mexico, the recipient of the 1864 Congressional land grant for which the ranch (appropriated by Colorado Anglos) is named. The bleached skull also symbolized something else (to me): that the era of legendary cattle ranches is history.

The skull-white empty buildings at the ranch headquarters and the silent cattle sales barn down the road will probably attract as many visitors as the wildlife and vistas, and the Fish and Wildlife Service intends to preserve the oldest buildings as historic properties. This is not the main mandate of the agency, charged with enhancing wildlife, but it would be negligence to ignore this resource. Two buildings predating Crestone are adobe, and the design of the visitor center reflects their unique portales.

A permanent exhibit of artifacts offered by Bob Bunker, a self-described cowboy who worked on the ranch for 21 years, will include Clovis points, Basketmaker bone needles as well as typical plains arrowheads. Bunker led one of the summer tours, reciting lore that otherwise would be forgotten. There are indentations, for example, in one early building that he said were rifle portals in case of Indian raids.

Bunker took a group to one of the old cow camps where there was a clapboard house and sorting pens, but not a moo to be heard.  Bunker explained that in the old days each cowboy was responsible for about 1,000 cattle, grazing in the spring on the valley floor and in the mountains in the summer and fed hay at the cow camps in winter. Bunker said he seldom got off his horse during the day and when he rode the high country, “I could go three months and not meet another soul.”

The tour led by biologist Corrina Hanson was about invasive species. These include white tops, Canada thistle, salt cedar, toad flax, cheat grass, bindweed, kosha, and others. One secret weapon against some species has been sheep. If they are moved quickly they will eat only certain leaves and forbs. Cows eat grass.

The refuge, Crestone’s “front yard,” looks dry and boring from a high distance, but it is distinctly divided between the “sand sheet” uplands and the lower wetlands, two rich Darwinian worlds.

Hanson began her tour at the prairie-dog town that flanks Road T and sprawls along both sides of what will be the access road to the visitor center. They are of the Gunnison species that occurs only in this region. In the dry environment of rabbit brush and bunch grass live ground-nesting birds including sparrows and mourning doves. We even saw some burrowing owls. Holes in the ground, nests covered by brush or grass and camouflage are critical for protection in these parts. The predators (besides humans) include an air force of Swainson’s hawks, red tail hawks and surprisingly abundant golden eagles, plus “paws on the ground” of coyotes. Adjoining all this warring life, we saw fields of tall Rocky Mountain bee plants visited by hundreds of hummingbirds.

The refuge’s remote wetlands comprise playas, which are natural ponds, and wet meadows where the six creeks that pour into the refuge from the mountains, some diverted through ditches, settle and sink. Here are the splashiest birds—among them, red wing blackbirds, phalaropes, avocets, Wilson’s snipes, mallard and teal ducks. One green meadow extends uninterrupted for nearly five miles.

We stopped at a placid puddle in a road. It turned out to be a very busy place—tiny salamanders, toads and frogs were going about their business. Sometimes hungry coyotes will slurp the amphibian soup. At a ditch we saw minnows: the Rio Grande sucker and the Rio Grande chub, both rare curiosities for biologists. Some apparently have learned to bypass fish gates, installed for research, by flipping around them through the meadows.

All this wildlife—plus human history, plus camera-friendly vistas—awaits visitors in the areas to be opened under the management plan. That’s the good news. The bad news—it’s political—is that the wait, in Garcia’s words, “may take years.”

In my view this all has to do with the appropriations of Congress, where the west is outnumbered and things like wildlife refuges go unloved and even feared. The federal government may have generously provided millions to buy the ranch (less mineral rights), but nothing has ever been appropriated to staff the resulting Baca refuge. Its three employees—Garcia, Hanson and a maintenance man—are on the budgets of the other San Luis Valley refuges. Hanson doubles as a federally trained law enforcement officer.

“We will rely heavily on volunteers,” Garcia said. Students have been dusting prairie dog burrows to kill plague-carrying fleas. A Texas couple living in a recreational vehicle watch the place in the summer, but they are part of a national program for unpaid retirees. Garcia proposes more pads with hookups for the RV’s of future volunteers.

Summing up, the refuge manager said, “It’s all contingent on adequate resources.” He meant money. The other resources on this fabled Colorado land grant are more than adequate.