SAN ANTONIO — Bill Trujillo first noticed the growing traffic to the Bosque del Apache back in the mid 1980s — birdwatchers looking for a place to pitch their tent or park their RV.
“They were just looking for a place to stop and go to the refuge,” Trujillo said.
He persuaded his mom, Jackie, to clear some space on the property she owns on N.M. 1 just north of the refuge boundary, and the Bosque Bird Watchers RV Park was born.
Al and Dottie Brockway couldn’t be happier. Retired and living the life of itinerant bird watchers, they set up housekeeping for at least a few weeks at the Trujillos’ park every year. “I love to hear the sandhills fly over,” Dottie said as she sat in the RV’s spacious living room one recent fall afternoon.
Up the road in Socorro, Ravi Bhasker couldn’t be happier, either. As mayor of the small riverside college town since 1990, Bhasker has watched as the Bosque del Apache’s lure has grown, turning the wildlife refuge into a potent economic engine.
Winter is the big season at the refuge, with more than 10,000 sandhill cranes and even more snow geese, along with a huge variety of waterfowl that take up residence at the 57,331-acre refuge.
Spread across the floor of the Rio Grande Valley, the refuge sees some 350 species of birds, plus reptiles, amphibians, insects and 30-odd kinds of mammals.
The Bosque del Apache’s primary purpose is just what its name — “refuge” — implies. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service funds and maintains it as a home for birds and other creatures that over the years have found it increasingly difficult to find space in a human-altered environment.
“We have an established purpose, which is habitat,” said Aaron Mize, the refuge’s assistant manager.
By that measure, the central New Mexico sandhill crane flock represents a long-term success.
Refuge officials estimate that fewer than two dozen sandhill cranes wintered at the Bosque del Apache in 1941. Created in the 1930s by the U.S. government in an attempt to address the problem, the wildlife refuge is now home to more than 10,000 of the birds each winter.
To support that work, the Fish and Wildlife Service spends $2.3 million each year on refuge operations. In addition, 47 volunteers contributed 29,660 hours to refuge operations last year.
While habitat still drives the refuge management, tourism, especially among the bird watching set, has become a pleasant side benefit for Socorro and San Antonio, the closest communities to the refuge. The refuge sees 166,000 visitors per year, according to Mize.
A new federal survey, based on interviews with Bosque del Apache visitors and made public in October, found that refuge visitors contribute $7.4 million per year to the local economy. Visitors tend to be affluent, with median incomes between $75,000 and $100,000, according to the survey. And they seem to like the Bosque del Apache a lot, with many making 8-hour visits to the refuge.
“The economic impact is significant,” said Bhasker.
Bhasker, who also owns motels in Socorro, said November and December are his biggest months for bosque visitation, with lots of bird watchers from Arizona and Texas making the trek. At the motels, he has to adjust to his visitors’ need for an early breakfast before getting out to see the birds at dawn.
The upcoming Festival of the Cranes, which begins Tuesday and runs through Nov. 20, is the area’s biggest draw.
It began as the “Bosque Fall Festival” in 1988, and has grown ever since. Last year, organizers reported 6,000 festival visitors. The event has outgrown the space available at the refuge, and events have now spread out across the region, including in Socorro and San Antonio as well as at neighboring wildlife refuges and Elephant Butte Reservoir on the Rio Grande to the south.
The festival is a high point of the season at the Trujillos’ RV park.
“These people come from all over America,” Bill Trujillo said, “and they love their birds.”