Protecting the habitat for migratory birds

February 28, 2012

The tens of thousands of migratory birds that populate the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico have Dennis Vicente to thank, in part, for the their meals of millet, nut grass, sprangletop and other plants and seeds that sustain them throughout the year.

Vicente, a member of refuge management staff, works to restore degraded habitats that provide protection for migratory birds and endangered species. He builds water-control structures, such as levees and gates, essential to creation of wetlands, and plants trees and crops as part of the habitat restoration and rehabilitation. He also bulldozes firebreaks, and designs, builds and maintains observation blinds, viewing decks and boardwalks for visitors to witness the glories of nature without disturbing the wildlife.

Vicente’s sees himself as a “wetlands artist,” working to “carefully sculpt the earth and paint it with just enough water to create a masterpiece of habitat that is irresistible to my fans—the thousands of birds that call Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge home.”

“We must do our work to restore habitat for wildlife with the least disturbance to Mother Earth as possible, if there is going to be a healthy world for all of our grandchildren to enjoy,” said Vicente.

Bosque del Apache, straddling the middle Rio Grande River, is one of 500 refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was started in 1939 for sandhill cranes and now shelters snow geese as well. But many other birds and water fowl make their homes in the river bottom. About 11,000 acres of the refuge are maintained, with another 46,000 acres comprised of desert wilderness made up of arid foothills and mesas.


Dennis Vicente, maintenance work leader  at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (John Bush/Bosque del Apache NWR)

Deputy Refuge Manager Aaron Mize said Vicente recreates the marshes that have been destroyed over time, “playing” with hydrology and understanding how water floods the landscape, what elevation the water enters from and how to hold water in the landscape.

“It’s not just a science, it’s an art,” Mize said.

Vicente also on occasion gives visitors tours of Bosque del Apache, Spanish for “woods of the Apache.”

“We show them our refuge and what it entails to keep it going, and how we manipulate the fields for the cranes and the snow geese in the water, and how we manipulate water for our wetlands,” Vicente said. “We’re proud of it and the work we do.”

When building marshes, Vicente sits down with his workers to figure out what bulldozers, road graders and compactors the project will require. Sometimes, workers use laser transmitters to determine when the ground is level, and programmable instruments to determine where to put in slopes at designated intervals.

The refuge also hosts co-op farmers who profit from growing crops, mainly alfalfa, on three-quarters of their land, but must plant corn on the other quarter. The corn serves as supplemental feed for the cranes and geese.

In the winter, Vicente said refuge workers knock down a certain amount of corn for cranes because the birds won’t go into standing corn unless they’re starving. They fear run-ins bobcats, coyotes or other predators.

In addition to his work at Bosque, Vincente is a heavy equipment instructor for workers in four states, and he has shared his expertise with other refuges and hatcheries in the Southwest, including helping the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge build desert bighorn sheep enclosures.

Vincente was born on a Navajo Reservation and went to a boarding school for Native American children from age six until he graduated high school. He has done stints as a radar technician in the Army and as a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.

Vicente’s love of the land is evident. His outdoor activities do not stop when his refuge work is done. Instead, he heads for the wilderness to fish or hunt small game.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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