Home News Local News Friends of Bitter Lake helps make the refuge accessible

Friends of Bitter Lake helps make the refuge accessible

Every year the dragonfly festival has a number of activities, from a water flow demonstration to explain aquifers and habitats, to craft projects to help kids get more excited about the beauty of Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge. The fishing pond is set up every year giving kids a chance to catch a fish while they're enjoying the festival. This year's dragonfly festival will be Sept. 9 all day at the refuge. (Submitted Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

The Friends of Bitter Lake serves to educate and to build communication between the community and the wildlife refuge located northeast of town. Steve Alvarez serves as a liaison between the refuge and the Friends.

“Friends of Bitter Lake is a citizen’s group, it’s a non-profit organization,” Alvarez said. “I’m a federal employee for Fish and Wildlife Service stationed here at Bitter Lake. My role here is Public Use Specialist and I wear many hats. I’m the main coordinator for the Dragonfly Festival and I’m the liaison between the service and Friends.”
Friends of Bitter Lake has been around almost 20 years.
“Jim Masters is the president of Friends of Bitter Lake,” Alvarez said. “They started around 2000/2001 as a friends group. Many were part of an Audubon group that disbanded. A lot of members wanted to still support conservation so they formed the Friends of Bitter Lake.
One of the main goals is to teach locals about the refuge.
“There are over 500 refuges around the country,” Alvarez said. “Many are related to migration, they’re on flyways, and they tend to get high volumes of migratory birds such as water fowl, cranes, song birds and the like. But there’s also refuges for endangered crocodiles and manatees, and they don’t need to be on the flyway. They still belong to the refuge system.
“Most refuges are waterfowl units, but this one has a real rich biology. Because of our location, we’re in between the Chihuahuan desert and the grassland prairie, and we’re at an aquifer where the water’s coming out so it’s a magnet to all kinds of species.”
One of the purposes of the friends groups is to be a voice for the refuge in the community.
“What they want to do is show the community that this is a biologically rich area,” Alvarez said. “They wanted to do something different. There are a lot of festivals at refuges around the country, ducks, cranes and swans are common. So they chose the dragonfly. We have an unusually high number of dragonflies here.
“The dragonfly worked well because it’s an indicator of a diverse, healthy habitat. They would use that to tell everybody about things like the fact that we have over 350 kinds of birds, we have various endangered species, We’re one of the most important wetlands in the state of New Mexico.”
The Friends wanted to get the adults in Roswell to learn more about the refuge, so they went through the kids and set up a dragonfly poster contest.
“This year we had about 800 entries,” Alvarez said. “They used to put the winning artwork on a billboard, but that’s gotten pricey. This year’s winner is Joshua Dodson, he’s a third grade home school student.”
Alvarez appreciates the art that kids submit, for its originality and beauty, but also for its long term benefit.
“It’s good to see the kids who submit art for our contest every year maintain their interest,” he said. “It happens quite a lot. Jim Masters, our Friends’ president, entered a national program where kids drew a duck and entered it in a contest. He showed me that picture one time. It’s clear that it impacted him and was part of why he’s doing what he does now.”
The turnout is impressive.
“We average from 1,000 to 1,500 people at the festival,” Alvarez said. “The town gets really excited when we start gearing up for it now. We looked for volunteers that are skilled at dragonfly identification. They end up taking vans out for a two-hour tour. The other tour is a wildlife tour. The biologist leads them.”
The migrations have started a tradition.
“In the fall we’ll get about 25,000 cranes, about 30,000 snow geese,” Alvarez said. “A lot of locals come in and park just to see the birds.”
Each visit to Bitter Lakes Wildlife Refuge is a new experience.

“You start driving through here,” he said, “and for a few days it may be dry and you won’t see anything, then you come back and you see several tarantulas crossing the road, or you may hear a rattlesnake or the sound of a bald eagle flying by. It’ll always surprise you.”
What makes Bitter Lakes unique is the combined habitats that it rests among.
“Between the Chihuahuan desert and the grasslands we have two big vegetation realms that change,” Alvarez said. “Then you’ve got the springs that provide all different kinds of habitat. We’ve got artesian springs, sinkholes, the Pecos River, Bitter Lake and the marsh. People don’t realize when they’re driving through just how diverse this refuge is.”
This diversity of habitat has created a diversity of species, this makes the dragonfly the perfect emissary.
“That’s why there are so many different kinds of dragonflies,” he said. “We have species that can only live in fresh water, and others that thrive in the marsh. The dragonflies really show our diversity.”
The refuge has far more than its impressive dragonfly habitats.
“Noel’s amphipod only lives here, it’s a type of shrimp. The Pecos Sunflower is an endangered sunflower that only lives along the Pecos River in the watershed. You don’t see that sunflower blooming anywhere else.
“We’re like a lot of refuges in the country, but at the same time our biology kills what most can offer. We’ve become a fairly known refuge in the system, and it’s connected to the dragonflies. John Hudson from Alaska is coming down for the dragonfly festival.”
Hudson is a fish biologist, aquatic entomologist and co-author of Dragonflies of Alaska.
Alvarez is grateful for the variety of people who help out.
“We have people who come out here to volunteer for a while, then they fade away,” he said, “but they always come back for the Dragonfly Festival. The Friends of Bitter Lake and the volunteer program are not the same. Without both of them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do about things like community outreach and education.”
This year’s dragonfly festival will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 9. There is no charge for entry, but there will be fundraising opportunities available for those who can donate.
“Suzi Flynt makes a quilt for a drawing for the refuge,” Alvarez said. “A company donated free binoculars. There’s a gun safe with a gift inside. These are raffled to help pay for the festival. Tickets range from $1 to $5 depending on which raffle it is.”
The night before the festival promises to be fascinating as well.
“There will be a presentation in the auditorium at 6:30 on Friday, Sept. 8,” he said. “The guy will be presenting on Rattlesnakes of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. After that, the Roswell Astronomy Club will be set up outside beginning at 7:30 to do some stargazing. Normally, we don’t allow people into the refuge after dark, but for the presentation we will. Without the city lights the night sky out here is phenomenal.”
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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