Ecologist and Landowners Champion Wildlife and Human Values

Story and photos by Sarah Keller for the Intermountain West Joint Venture

For retired refuge ecologist Gina Dello Russo, private landowners are important allies for restoring the Rio Grande’s floodplain.

Dello Russo, a fifth-generation New Mexican, had a hand in most of the Bosque del Apache Refuge projects. For nearly 20 years, she’s also worked to help private landowners benefit from the habitat restoration lessons learned on the refuge and elsewhere.

In 1996, when Gina Dello Russo starting working as an ecologist at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the landscape there looked drastically different. Instead of cottonwood forests and open wetlands, impenetrable green walls of invasive salt cedar choked the Rio Grande valley refuge.

In the years since, refuge staff and volunteers have used bulldozers, prescribed burns and flooding to beat back the stubborn shrub. They’ve removed a total of 4,500 acres of this invasive weed since restoration first began in the mid-1980s, and replanted diverse forests with cottonwoods and willows. Elsewhere on the refuge, they’ve transformed salt cedar-choked fields into seasonal wetlands that resonate with the calls of up 14,000 Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes and other water birds overwintering on the refuge.

When Dello Russo first started at Bosque del Apache, she worked with biologist John Taylor, who pioneered many of the salt cedar removal techniques used today. Dello Russo knew it would be a challenge when Taylor asked her to oversee work on the portion of the Rio Grande’s floodplain that still sees active overflow from the river. Historically, that floodplain was covered with native cottonwood forests, which are adapted to seasonal flooding. But today, the Rio Grande is heavily regulated with dams and levees, leaving the river scant opportunities to spill its banks. Riparian forests have suffered from the decline in seasonal flooding, and invasive species have moved in.

Since the floodplain’s health relies on large-scale river management policies well beyond the control of a wildlife refuge, Dello Russo realized that focusing on the refuge wouldn’t be enough to protect it. Just outside of Bosque del Apache, 17,000 acres of active floodplain remained on private land. Dello Russo recognized that the health of the larger riparian ecosystem depended on that floodplain remaining as intact as possible. If too much of it became developed, that could lead to more flood control, and the loss of what little riparian forest remained. So Dello Russo asked for and received permission to work outside of the refuge, an unusual move at the time.

In 1999 Dello Russo, along with the non-profit Save Our Bosque Task Force and the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, began talking to landowners interested in conservation easements and habitat restoration. She met families like the Rhodes, who wanted to remove salt cedar on 550-acres, and the Gonzales family, who wanted to restore and protect a 50-acre riparian forest beloved by their father. Since then, the partners have developed a restoration plan for a stretch of the Middle Rio Grande near Bosque del Apache, and helped landowners in the region protect 1,500 acres of floodplain with conservation easements.

Since Bosque del Apache and surrounding lands sit on an increasingly fragmented pinch point on the Central Flyway migratory route, these projects have a far-reaching influence. By protecting stopover and wintering habitat used by migrating birds, they have a positive impact on the health of bird populations that nest to the north, or overwinter to the south. Photo of sandhill cranes by Larry Kruckenberg.

Dello Russo retired from Bosque del Apache in 2013, but she continues to advise private landowners and local government as a conservation planner. The work inspires her because, while each landowner has different goals, they share the desire to see it conserved for future generations. Dello Russo, with her many colleagues that work on this stretch of river, has spent their careers helping landowner’s see their property’s potential as part of the broader ecosystem. She says with a smile, “we make an impressive team.”

“There are so many landowners that have a passion for their land now that I don’t think they had 10 or 20 years ago,” says Dello Russo. “I think we’ve really affected a positive change in how our community and landowners feel about the Rio Grande, and that’s worth a lot.”

Check out all the stories in IWJV’s Summer 2017 Newsletter:

Community at Rio Grand Headwaters Keeps Water Flowing

How One Doctor is Cultivating Conservation

Ecologist and Landowners Champion Wildlife and Human Values

Refuge Manager Sees Urbanites As Crucial for Conservation

“Quiet Leader” Receives Award for Impactful Partnerships