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Group questions effect of bosque habitat restoration on birds

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — The combination of environmental remediation and wide, accessible trails through the bosque in Rio Rancho might be a little too much of a good thing.

That’s according to Hawks Aloft Executive Director Gail Garber of Rio Rancho. She said for bird watchers, and the birds themselves, the human interference and lack of suitable nest sites and food for many birds has decreased the local avian population.

“A low level of disturbance doesn’t cause much problem when there is a dense understory,” she said.

But recent projects have removed invasive species, such as the salt cedar and Russian olive trees, and there are wide trails along the west side of the river, which encourage people to walk and bring their dogs, she said. The dogs that are walked off-leash are especially problematic for the birds, she said.

The relatively low density of birds in the area is not primarily caused by drought, she contended. There are about 270 species of birds that can be found throughout the bosque, including the mourning dove, black-chinned hummingbird and the bushtit, along with birds of prey, like the great horned owl and coopers hawks.

“Imagine if you are a bird that weighs 50 grams, with people and dogs everywhere and nowhere to hide and no food,” she said.

She pointed to a study, done by Hawks Aloft, which showed that the density of birds declined from 2004 to 2007, then snapped back, only to decline again from 2008 to 2012. She noted that, in 2005, there was a poor sunflower crop — which had been a staple for the birds — but relatively low use of the trails by the public. The vegetation came back in 2006 and 2007, she said, and bird density in the area increased significantly in 2008 as a result.

But then a wide crusher fine loop trail was built in 2008 and people started using the trails in great numbers. Another factor, she said, was the removal of invasive plants and widened trails in the following years. The worst effects were probably in the Willow Creek bosque area, which is the northernmost Rio Rancho bosque trail system, she said.

Garber suggested some Russian olive trees could have been left behind for the birds. She said the bosque in the Village of Corrales has an example of an area that is left as “a nature preserve,” with no benches or restrooms, and that area enjoys a great variety of birds.

“It is a place for wildlife, where humans are the visitors,” she said.

The report came out around the same time as the City of Albuquerque began holding public meetings on a $2.9 million trail improvement program, the Rio Grande Vision Plan, which would include a number of wide trails and removal of invasive species.

That will likely lead to a decline in birds in much the same way and for the same reasons as it has in Rio Rancho, according to Garber. She suggested that Albuquerque spend its money instead on an education program to take all the children from local elementary schools on field trips to study biology in the bosque.

“There are already a number of trails. If they want to increase the general visitation to the bosque and knowledge of the bosque and the riparian forest, rather than an urban park, let’s create a group of educated local people,” she said.

Not everyone agrees with Garber’s assessment.

Ann Bagley, who has been an active member of the Friends of Rio Rancho Open Space since 2000, agreed that the Willow Creek bosque area is sparsely wooded area with very few birds, but she said it isn’t clear why that is.

It could be runoff from a now-defunct dairy, something to do with Rio Rancho’s waste treatment system or even the National Guard station, which is miles away, she said.

“It’s not from taking out the salt cedar and Russian olives,” she said.

She added that the invasive species were taken out as money was available and pointed out that getting those projects rolling is no easy task.

“I think (Garber) needs to know more about it before she talks about it,” she said. “Leaving non-native plants that suck off all the water is not a good idea. … We do the best we can.”

Jay Hart, who runs Rio Rancho’s parks and recreation department, said in addition to concerns about wildlife, the city is also trying to provide opportunities for recreation and minimize fire danger.

“While many areas of the bosque surrounding Rio Rancho have experienced wildfires and loss of wildlife habitat over the last few years due to drought-related conditions, Rio Rancho has not lost acreage to wildfire. (That is) mainly due to being proactive in controlling invasive overgrowth of non-native plant species,” he said.

“(And) the trail system has been very effective in concentrating and directing public activity and helping to protect other areas of the bosque. The presence of responsible bosque visitors has a positive effect on the bosque by acting as eyes and ears to report problems such as fires. It has been the experience of city staff that people who visit the Rio Rancho bosque area take a great deal of pride in keeping the bosque safe, clean and free of fires.”

He also addressed concerns about off-leash dogs, saying that people who visit the bosque are supposed to keep their pets on leashes at all times, but that is a difficult rule to enforce.

“Lastly, the meandering of the river channel has helped to create new sandbars with vegetation such as new cottonwoods and willows,” Hart said. “This has created more densely forested habitat areas of the bosque in the Rio Rancho area with less human activity. As these areas mature, more areas for wildlife habitat should be created, which could lead to an increase in wildlife such as birds.”