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See side of refuge most people don’t

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Sevilleta tour goes to remote areas in search of wildlife evidence

Where humans don’t often tread, the elk roam and the bobcats prowl.

Visitors to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge are unlikely to see the creatures up close next week, but they can retrace their steps. Wildlife biologist Jon Erz will lead a “tracks and scat” tour of the expansive refuge, taking guests along arroyos and washes in search of clues left behind by coyotes, Pronghorn, mule deer and maybe even raptors.

The tour is part of the refuge’s monthly series that allows small visitor groups into the refuge near Socorro to learn about everything from wildflowers to geology. The “tracks and scat” tour is billed as “a detective mission to learn who’s been visiting refuge water sources.”

Erz said he’s often heard skepticism from visitors who doubt that there is much wildlife to be found at Sevilleta, a massive central New Mexico refuge at the intersection of four biomes: the Colorado Plateau Shrub Steppe, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Short Grass Prairie and the Montane Coniferous Woodland.

But refuge staff now have a clearer picture of what animals actually roam the land thanks to a series of 35 motion-sensor cameras scattered throughout the grounds. The cameras are set up along game trails and near on-site water sources, including natural springs and the artificial tanks that remain from the property’s ranching days.

The cameras – installed almost three years ago – have spied a Ringtail Cat, shown a coyote chasing a herd of Pronghorn and documented the early stages of an elk giving birth, Erz said. An optional presentation showcasing some of the images will follow next week’s tour.

“Comments coming into the refuge is ‘There’s nothing out there; there’s no wildlife,’ ” Erz said, adding that the drive in from Interstate 25 can be deceptively desolate. “We get that a lot. … That’s one reason why when I came in three years ago, I wanted to set up these motion cameras. There was a lot of debate as to what species were coming in and what the frequency of that use was. It was great.”

Refuge vehicles will carry tour participants to spots that are generally not open to the public, and there will be hiking on uneven terrain. Much of the tour will take place in the higher-elevation piñon-juniper sites and should, at the very least, offer participants fantastic views.

The exploration factor is what makes the refuge’s ongoing tour series so fascinating, said refuge manager Kathy Granillo. The refuge typically hosts one event per month, with more in the fall around the Festival of the Cranes.

“We have a hunt area and a couple trails but most of the refuge is closed to the public, so this is a way to get some people out on the refuge,” Granillo said. “They can go to cool places that hardly anybody gets to see and to get some awareness and get to places on the refuge you just can’t drive to on your own.”

Space is limited for the tour and reservations are required. Participants should dress for the weather and bring a lunch.

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