Locals celebrate diversity of wildlife at Las Vegas refuge

Jun. 8—LAS VEGAS, N.M. — Wildlife biologist Mari Quillman happily spent her Saturday morning outside the visitor center of the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, training a spotting scope on various birds for visitors.

"That's an American avocet," she said, mildly surprised, turning to a long-legged, long-billed bird stalking around the shoreline of a nearby lake.

"There's just an amazing collection of species here," she said — a rarity more people will be able to appreciate this year, thanks to the long-awaited reopening of the refuge's visitor center.

On Saturday, a large crowd of local families and travelers turned out to celebrate the visitor center's reopening with a Summer Fest replete with free snacks and lunch, a mariachi performance and tours around a four-mile drivable loop generally closed to the public.

Although the refuge remained open from sunrise to sunset, the visitor center initially closed about four years ago because of the coronavirus pandemic and remained closed for renovations until March, visitor services manager Alyssa Lu said. Renovations included the restructuring of the inside of the small visitor center, installation of new exhibits and replacement of the air conditioning system, she said.

Exhibits attracting attention Saturday included a display of animal skulls and a lineup of bird eggs, from a Black-chinned hummingbird's egg the size of a pinky nail to the large, oblong egg of a Canada goose.

Meanwhile, visitors on Saturday morning spotted not only birds but a badger and multiple newborn elk within a few miles of the visitor center.

The refuge was established in 1965 as a rest stop for migratory birds along the Central Flyway, a bird migration route crossing the Great Plains, but it is also home to a 300-strong herd of elk in addition to species such as prairie dogs, coyotes and pronghorn.

What makes the refuge special is that its 8,670 acres encompass transitional ecosystems where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains meet the rolling short-grass prairie, Lu said. The refuge also has five playa lakes, rain-fed lakes that seasonally fill up with precipitation.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff farm two large areas within the refuge to specifically produce food for migratory birds, creating a safe haven for the birds to recuperate, Lue added.

"There is a lot of reduction in natural water areas that they can utilize, but if we create pockets of refuges on the flyways, it actually creates a path they can stop and utilize as they continue on, so we're just essentially ensuring that they have the spots they need to survive," she said.

Cheryl Burlett, a 37-year resident of Las Vegas, said the refuge's focus on aiding wildlife rather than serving the public has made it "a special place," but she also appreciates the center's unfolding emphasis on more public engagement.

"Through the pandemic, this whole place really had shut down, and I think people missed it," she said while manning a spotting scope Saturday.

Kathy Dowty, another volunteer with Friends of Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, called the refuge "one of the main reasons" she moved to Las Vegas, N.M., from Reno, Nev., two and half years ago.

"This place was unbelievable to me. I am fascinated with the transition between the mountains and the plains," Dowty said. "I'm a nurse by trade; I should've been a wildlife biologist, so this is my second dream come true."