Though it was established in 1937, the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell was virtually unknown to the public, said Steve Alvarez, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who has worked at the 24,536-acre wildlife sanctuary since 2001.
That all changed in the mid 2000s, when the refuge’s spacious visitor center opened.
“It changed the whole face of the refuge for public use,” said Alvarez, who shares the titles of outdoor recreation planner and volunteer coordinator.
The visitor’s center is named for the late U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Skeen, who served southeast New Mexico in Congress from 1981 and 2003. Along with the center, Alvarez said an outreach group called the Friends of Bitter Lake has increased the visibility of the refuge, which is a haven for migratory birds and other wildlife, ranging from squiggly fish the size of your pinky nail to leaping pronghorns.
The nonprofit group is most known for organizing the Dragonfly Festival, which started in 2001, the first year Alvarez began working at the refuge.
Before the visitor center opened, Alvarez said there wasn’t a place to hold the festival on site.
In the early days, he said, the festival was held 7 miles to the west in the Roswell Mall parking lot. Festival goers were shuttled over to the refuge to actually see the dragonflies.
Another early project for the volunteer group was building a butterfly trail, Alvarez said.
The visitor center includes several exhibits that highlight some of the fauna and flora in the refuge, including prairie grasses, birds and foxes.
The center also serves as the refuge’s headquarters and houses a Nature Store that sells everything from books, to T-shirts to coffee mugs.
Asked how many square feet the center occupies, Alvarez said he wasn’t sure, but Doug Welp, volunteer and member of the Friends of Bitter Lake, guessed it is around 5,000 square feet.
Alvarez said the refuge is unique for a variety of reasons.
“We are in the middle of the desert, but we have a natural spring, shallow marshes and around 70 sinkholes,” he said.
Besides the more than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies, the most in the world, Alvarez said there are between 40 to 50 species of mammals.
“One day you can drive out here and see a pronghorn running across the road. The next day you can see a bald eagle,” he said. “People don’t realize how much is out here.”
Then there is the Bitter Lake itself, which is a salty, playa lake. The Pecos River flows through the refuge on its western side.
Welp said the Friends of Bitter Lake has close to 80 paid members. Along with individual memberships, the nonprofit raises money through donations.
The biggest money maker for the group, he said, is the Nature Store, where he was working behind the counter on Friday.
There are several ways nature lovers like Welp can volunteer at the refuge, including trail maintenance, plantings, bird banding, migratory bird counts, planning special events and youth education.
Those interested in volunteering should call Alvarez at 575-622-6755.
Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or email@example.com.