Habitat management – two simple words that encompass a myriad of very complex processes and procedures, plans, research, and constant vigilance, all of which being anything but simple! As you likely know, much year-round effort goes into preparing the fields and marshes at Bosque del Apache to meet the needs of the various species of flora and fauna that reside here, either permanently or during different seasons of the year.

This month we’ll hear from two refuge staff members, Tommy Rosales and Ed Sprigg, as they discuss just two of the many land management techniques utilized at Bosque del Apache – the farming program and population management.

In our Winter 2022 Bosque Watch newsletter (released to our whole family of Friends), we welcomed Tomas (Tommy) Rosales, new Facilities Operations Supervisor.  We were excited to welcome Tommy who joined the refuge staff in October 2021. He is a third-generation farmer in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, part of the Rosales family that is famous for the excellence of their chile crops.

As mentioned in the Winter 2022 Bosque Watch edition, Tommy grew up locally, farming and deeply loving the land. He also has sixteen years’ experience with the Bureau of Reclamation, doing habitat restoration and construction. In that role, Tommy worked closely with the community and also with Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, part of NM State Game and Fish (with whom the refuge collaborates in growing corn for our wintering waterfowl).

When we interviewed Tommy in January, he said that his top goal is “to have a topnotch farm on the refuge with plenty of food for the wildlife (especially our winter flock of sandhill cranes) which will serve them well and also keep them from feeding on surrounding private properties, making local farmers unhappy.”  At that time, Tommy was reviewing proper crop rotations, optimal placement for crops, infrastructure improvements, and planting with water conservation in mind.  We recently caught up with Tommy to see how the farm plan is taking shape.  Here is his update:

Bosque del Apache Farm Update

by Tommy Rosales

Tommy Rosales utilizes the new 8 row ripper, funded by Friends, to manage the refuge farm program

We have been busy with farming, preparing grounds, and finishing up with plowing. I made the decision to rip and plow all the fields that were not in production to help remove dried weeds – this will make ground preparation easier.  We currently have the laser in operation. We are first readying the corn and clover fields for planting, hopefully by the end of May or first week of June. We plan to plant approximately 125 acres of corn and 75 acres of white clover.  We grow corn to feed our wintering flock, and the clover is a quick “nitrogen fixer” for next year’s planting.

We’ve started irrigating the existing triticale fields on March 9th. Water from our canals has been in very short supply, so we have used water from the refurbished underground wells (funded by Friends donors).  Having that well water has been critical.  We started on the second irrigation on April 13th, and all our fields are greening up nicely.

New tractor, funded by Friends donations

We are delaying planned fertilizing, as fertilizer prices are sky high right now! We hope to start some fertilizing before we plant the corn.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to add fertilizer during irrigation of all crops.

We have on loan a mini excavator from a South Dakota refuge to aid in cleaning out the irrigation ditches that haven’t been used in quite a while. For now, we’re cleaning and hoping to do some repairs on irrigation ditches, and these will need to be replaced in the future.

As you can see, we’ve been quite busy, and so far things are looking promising.  I will report our progress this summer and we hope to have plenty of food for our winter flock this autumn!  Having an excellent food source is key to sustaining the flock on the refuge and keeping our surrounding farming community happy!

Maintaining a Healthy Rio Grande Turkey Population at Bosque del Apache NWR

Article by Ed Sprigg

Male turkey shows off for a hen on the refuge | Photo by John Olson

It’s no secret that Bosque del Apache NWR is a haven to over 400 species of birds in addition to the hundreds of other species that call the Refuge home. What many may not realize is that our management activities are not limited to the welfare of migrating birds who spend their winters with us. In fact, we have a list of guiding principles called Biological Priorities that influence our management decisions. These focus on water use and quality monitoring, waterfowl and waterbird management, improving management for federally listed and candidate species, and invasive plant species treatment and monitoring. To achieve the goals associated with these Biological Priorities we must take an holistic approach to Refuge management. For example, creating additional New Mexico meadow jumping mouse habitat sends reverberations throughout the refuge. The entire system benefits. This means sometimes we must manage species outside of our Biological Priorities for the continued prosperity of the waterfowl, waterbirds, and federally listed and candidate species that receive the bulk of our resources. A perfect example of this is the Rio Grande turkey that is found on the Refuge.

In the late 1800’s turkey populations were at an all time low across the country. Around the turn of the 20th century reintroduction efforts began. In 1939 New Mexico started transplanting turkeys around state with the first batch of 10 birds released at Animas Peak near Lordsburg. Fast forward to 1975, Bosque del Apache received 7 Rio Grande wild turkeys and another 19 in 1983 to establish a sustainable and huntable population of Rio Grande turkeys throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. Since then, the Refuge has been a source for transplants donating 110 turkeys to various locations across New Mexico. The state continues wild turkey transplants to this day to bolster turkey numbers in their native historic range and to improve genetics in isolated population areas.

Some complications of turkey management are they are subjected to boom/bust cycles in their population, and recruitment is typically low; 100 hens produce, on average, 11 toms. Annual mortality rates can be 30% to 55%, with most mortality occurring the first year of life, much of this likely due to predation. When turkeys enter a population boom, we must watch their numbers closely to ensure there are no disease outbreaks that could spread to other species throughout the Refuge. As we continue to improve habitat conditions on the Refuge, this can induce a population increase. The Refuge has been experiencing one of these population booms the last couple of years. Wild turkey saw peak population numbers in 2021 at 537 individuals. A number this high is a concern for both the health of the turkey and for all other avian species that utilize the Refuge. Based on the body of available research and 34 years of survey data on the Refuge, we should support between 200 and 330 individuals in our managed units without adverse effects. Less than 200 individuals, we may begin to see genetic bottlenecking or low recruitment. Conversely, as the population increases over 330 the risk of disease transmission between turkeys and to other birds increases.

A turkey with POX | Photo by USFWS

Our current population on the Refuge sits right around 360 wild turkeys. At this level we need to consider management options to prevent further increases in population. We have done this in the past through both youth turkey hunts and serving as a source for transplant operations. Rio Grande wild turkey from Bosque del Apache NWR have sourced populations at the Bernardo State Game Refuge (1983, 1990), Black River Recreation Area (1983, 1993), and the Rio Grande south of Los Lunas (1983, 1993) providing a diverse stock of genetics to these burgeoning flocks. In 2008 the Refuge began offering youth turkey hunt opportunities for population management. These hunts take place in the Spring and allow youth 17 and under to take up to two bearded turkeys per hunt. If managed properly, Spring hunts typically do not have long-term impacts on population numbers but serve to keep the population in check and reduce the extremity of population fluctuations. Research indicates a Spring harvest of up to 30% of adult toms leaves enough for effective breeding and quality hunting the following season. Our harvest numbers since 2008 have been well under that 30% threshold which is indicated in the substantial increase in population over the last 14 years. With the myriad of conditions that impact any species’ population growth such as habitat and climatic conditions, sex ratios, and predation we cannot claim unequivocally that hunting has benefitted the turkeys but can say for certain, their population has not been negatively impacted by holding annual youth turkey hunts.

Conscientious turkey management benefits both the local community and our migratory birds who call the Refuge home. As we continue our turkey surveys every year to monitor population trends on the Refuge, we can make more informed decisions about how sourcing transplant activities and providing youth turkey hunts will impact the flock as well as other management actions across the refuge. Our goal is to maintain a healthy, robust population to ensure outdoor enthusiasts of all types can enjoy the Rio Grande wild turkey population at Bosque del Apache NWR.