Kevin Cobble

Former Refuge Manager: Bosque Del Apache

Natl. Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico

But today there are just a few families and hikers enjoying a shaded picnic spot in the summer heat.

We met Kevin Cobble near the visitor center of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) on a July afternoon in 2019. A scattering of clouds is drifting through the vivid blue skies above us.

 

In November, when the first sandhill cranes and snow geese arrive at their winter home, large crowds of avid birders and photographers with their massive lenses, tripods and binoculars, will sweep into the refuge in celebration and wonder.  But today there are just a few families and hikers enjoying a shaded picnic spot in the summer heat. 

 

Kevin was a 10-year-old Boy Scout when he first came to Bosque Del Apache, and he retains that scouting visage after 40 years of work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service; his tall, upright form poised for both adventure and responsibility.  At the photographer’s request, he wades unflappably into the muddy, flowing waters of the river channel, denim jeans soaked to the knees, as comfortably as we might stroll along a city sidewalk. 

©Christi Bode

As he talks about his 6 years as Refuge Manager, (2012-18) it is apparent that he knows this land’s history, ecology, human connections and rhythms deeply. There is one phrase he uses frequently when asked to describe the challenges of his management tenure: ‘response to change’. For it happens that he arrived as Refuge Manager at the confluence of the many consequences of climate change in this already fragile landscape.

According to the World Resources Institute, New Mexico is the most water stressed state in the entire US, already using more than 80% of available water. Kevin explains that the Bosque Del Apache NWR was created to mimic the flooding Rio Grande in order to provide a safe haven for wintering Sandhill Cranes. The biggest change he had to take care of as a manager concerns the combined effects of drought, climate change and water management. “We had to change our programs to make a better fit with a smaller water supply.  We had to manage for endangered species such as the silvery minnow and the NM jumping meadow mouse as well as for the geese and cranes while in a period of prolonged drought exacerbated by climate change.”

BdelA flyout_John Olson.jpg

©Gary Garton

WATER

He explains that there have been various changes in water availability and use since the 1939 opening of the refuge. At first  they used to flood much of the refuge almost year-round.  Later managers worked more on soil management, trying to mimic the river which had a natural cycle of flooding from winter when the birds were here into the spring runoff period.  This allowed native plants whose seeds had been in the soil all along to begin to grow, providing a lot of native food for the birds.  The refuge now produces about 2 million pounds of native food. 

 

To further conserve water, the NWR started a major salt cedar removal program, digging out this non-native, highly invasive species for several reasons. “It is a heavy water user, competing with native species such as cottonwoods and willows.  Its growth also creates a degraded, poorer ecosystem, a sort of biological desert where native plants don’t grow.  To date, the NWR has cleared over 4000 acres of salt cedar, with an estimated water savings of 6000 acre-feet per year.” 

 

In addition, managing food crops for the avian visitors also had to become more water wise. In addition to encouraging native plants, “we had had a 1200-acre cooperative farming program where farmers would grow mostly corn to feed the wildlife and also grow cash crops such as alfalfa as compensation.  But we had to eliminate that program due to the need for water for wildlife programs. With reduced water due to long term climate change, the old program wasn’t sustainable.” Now NWR staff grow about 200-300 acres of food for the birds, which also allows them to make decisions about water use for endangered animals without having to worry about water to sustain the farm partners. “If we had to let our crops go without water for a while to support endangered species, we could, giving us more management flexibility.   Alongside this, we have looked at growing different, more water wise crops than we once did, to save more water.” 


Looking to the future, Kevin explains that low water years are getting more and more frequent.

2018 was an extremely difficult year, when reservoirs up and down the watershed were empty. We expect there will be more years like that. We have good water rights, but we are at the bottom of the chain, and if there is no water in the river, we are all in trouble.

Predictions are for less available water as both summers and winters are warmer than before. “People all along the river are doing what we can to reduce our water footprint, looking at the river as a whole.”

©Danny Hancock

©Robert H. Dunn

WILDLIFE

But, Kevin explains, the area has seen even more changes.  “I have noticed that winters in central New Mexico are not as cold as they used to be. Javelinas used to be located only along the southern border with Mexico.  We never saw them here before 30 years ago. But now they are heavily established on the refuge. They travel in herds of 50 to 60 animals. This is relatively recent and dramatic, going from zero to the most abundant large mammal!  We are also seeing coatimundis moving north, and expect they will arrive here soon from Central America.”

 

He also has noticed changes in migratory patterns. “Cranes and geese are coming two to three weeks later and leaving two to three weeks earlier than they used to. This reduces the amount of food we need to provide.” He also wonders: with warmer winter temperatures in Wisconsin, will cranes even continue to come south to New Mexico?

javelina_Danny Hancock.jpg

©Danny Hancock

INCREASING SUSTAINABILITY

But, Kevin explains, the area has seen even more changes.  “I have noticed that winters in central New Mexico are not as cold as they used to be. Javelinas used to be located only along the southern border with Mexico.  We never saw them here before 30 years ago. But now they are heavily established on the refuge. They travel in herds of 50 to 60 animals. This is relatively recent and dramatic, going from zero to the most abundant large mammal!  We are also seeing coatimundis moving north, and expect they will arrive here soon from Central America.”

 

He also has noticed changes in migratory patterns. “Cranes and geese are coming two to three weeks later and leaving two to three weeks earlier than they used to. This reduces the amount of food we need to provide.” He also wonders: with warmer winter temperatures in Wisconsin, will cranes even continue to come south to New Mexico?

FIRE DANGER

Along with drought comes the threat of fire. Kevin explains “There used to be major fires every 10-20 years along the bosque. But in the last three years, we had three major fires in or near the refuge.” Here again, good management practices can help. Construction of fire breaks helped fire fighters stop the 9,000 acre Tiffany fire in 2017 at the southern border of the refuge. He also notes that replacing flammable salt cedar with native riparian ecosystems will help reduce fire losses.

MULTIPLE BENEFITS

of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Multiple benefits of the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

“This is the biggest wetland area on the entire Rio Grande, right on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert. It attracts bird watchers from around the world. The refuge brings 200,000 visitors a year to Socorro, which is a poor county in a poor state.  The NWR generates $20 million in annual economic benefits for the county. The Festival of The Cranes is the single largest event in the county, with 6,000 people attending.” This event is hosted by the Friends of the Bosque Del Apache NWR group, which then uses funds raised to provide the refuge needed items such as the solar panels mentioned above, supplementing the tightening annual federal budget. Kevin says the lessons of sustainability learned here can be adapted by people in the entire state, from adding wind and solar to LED light bulbs and electric vehicles.  They add up!

 

The rift valley of the Rio Grande has the feel of the west’s wide-open spaces at the Bosque Del Apache.  In the orange glow of the sunset, the Chupadera mountains loom to the west in silhouette, rugged and dark.  Kevin reflects “ This refuge is unique and beloved.  It affects people in spiritual ways, with its animals, birds, sunsets and the rugged beauty of the desert and river landscape.  Its emotional impact draws people from everywhere.  The Friends of Bosque del Apache group has members from every single state! It is a rare place in nature, to enjoy, love and to protect. I can talk about it all day, and think about it all day. And water drives is all. No water, nothing."

Water drives it all. No water, nothing.

©Christi Bode

Kevin's suggestions

for supporting our community food system:

  • Join the Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR
  • Volunteer & donate to organizations protecting the Rio Grande Corridor
    • Save our Bosque Task Force
    • The Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust
  • Buy locally grown & produced foods
  • Reduce meat consumption 
  • Install water efficient fixtures & appliances

Kevin's Bio

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