The oldest wildlife refuge in Texas

Alice’s Note: This story first appeared in my blog The Bright Lights of Muleshoe on December 7, 2010. The refuge was celebrating their 75 anniversary that year with an open house and special programs. Since then the refuge has been complexed with Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Grulla National Wildlife Refuge, making the total combined acreage 18,000 overseen by Muleshoe manager Jude Smith.

By Alice Liles

One of Muleshoe’s sometimes overlooked claims to fame is the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1935 to provide a wintering area for migratory waterfowl and sandhill cranes.
The refuge, located 20 miles south of town on Highway 214, celebrated its 75th anniversary this past Saturday with activities to entertain and enlighten visitors about the history, purpose, and successes of the refuge.


The morning started with coffee, doughnuts, and a sandhill crane counting contest. Jamie Grey from Littlefield won with an estimate of 15,500 cranes; the official estimate was 17,500. Many more cranes will winter here as the season progresses. Guest lecturers presented information on local history including the Buffalo Soldiers who traveled this area, grassland management and weed control, prairie chickens, and even refuge-inspired ceramics.


I arrived in time for a two-hour tour of the refuge and rode with Jude Smith, a wildlife biologist who has been with the refuge for ten years, first as resident biologist and now as manager. His affection for the place was evident as he named the lakes and pointed out all the things done to control the salt cedar and mesquite and to encourage the native grasses for the benefit of the wildlife that call the refuge home: 350 species of birds; 50 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and 25 different mammals. Smith was encouraged by the response to the open house. After counting those who registered plus the people who showed up later in the afternoon to drive around and watch the cranes come in to roost, about 300 visitors enjoyed seeing what the refuge has to offer. He says they plan to establish yearly events in the future. Let me share with you some of the things I saw on my tour that day.
White Lake, like the other two larger lakes, is a saline lake. The water comes from underground springs and may start out the day dry, and by the middle of the afternoon will have standing water. And of course, when we finally have rain, the lakes also fill up with rain water.
Prairie dogs were out and about that day, graciously posing for pictures as they are wont to do.  The prairie dog town is very popular and enjoys lots of traffic from people coming to see them as well as the cranes, as their town is located on the road that leads to the crane viewing area.


Controlled burns, which try to mimic natural fires, are used to renew ungrazed land and to reduce, but not eliminate, mesquite.
Salt cedar is not native to the area and takes water and moisture away from native grasses, making it an undesirable plant. The refuge managers are also using controlled burns in the battle against it. Here you see blackened trunks of the salt cedar.


This levee, built from 1938-42 by hand by the WPA separates the Upper and Lower Paul’s Lake, named after the Paul brothers who owned the property when it was purchased in 1935 to become the refuge. On occasions water has been high enough to spill over the causeway (not shown) from one lake to the other.
The viewing stand and public restroom are located on Lower Paul’s Lake where many of the cranes come in to roost.
Note the salt build-up on the tree stumps and in the dry lake bed, typical of the water areas in the refuge.

Taking pictures of the cranes is somewhat addictive-I’m always thinking the next shot will be even better than the last, but I picked this one for a last glimpse of the big birds who spend their winters with us in Bailey County.

Photos by Alice Liles

I encourage you to visit the national refuge. It is ours, after all, and not everyone can say that.
Since this story was written, the refuge suffered through a drought but Smith told me the animal and bird population didn’t seem to suffer and all are doing well. More study has been added tracking the movements of the sandhill cranes. A new program called the Playa Lake Festival has been designed to teach third and fifth-grade students about the water shed, water cycles, playa lakes, the recharge system, reptiles, and other animals. Recently, a pollinator program has also been added. Smith said he had received feedback that these programs seem to have a positive effect on students’ state test scores. But maybe the best part was seeing the kids’ delight and surprise when meeting bugs and snakes they had never personally experienced in our cell-phone obsessed digital world.
To see all the color pictures of the refuge, go to www.aliceliles.com
For more information about the refuge, go to www.fws.gov/refuge/muleshoe/

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