Ruby Lake NWR

When it comes to wetlands, we're accustomed to thinking of those found near our coasts, along rivers, or in the center of the country, in the Great Plains. But the extensive marshlands of Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge are at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Its marshes comprise 17,000 acres of the refuge's 39,928 acres; the balance consists of meadows, grasslands, alkali playa, and shrub-steppe uplands. MBCF funds paid for 75.0% of this life-giving habitat,

Part of Region 8 and established in 1938, the refuge is located in northeast Nevada, serving both the Central and Pacific Flyways. Lying in a valley between the Maverick Springs Range and the Ruby Mountains, it is probably the most remote refuge in the lower 48. Visitors must travel at least 13 miles by gravel road to reach the refuge from any direction, and one access road is impassible in winter. The town of Ely lies to the south; to the north, via Secret Pass, lies Elko. In geologic times past, the land was covered by a 200-foot deep lake; now, two hundred mountain springs provide the region's surface water. In the 19th century, the southern portion of the valley was crossed by the routes of the Pony Express and the Overland Stage and Mail Company; however, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, both services were abandoned almost as soon as they had begun.

The wetlands and surrounding meadows are vital for waterfowl, shorebirds, and waders. Ruby Lake's pristine South Marsh hosts the highest concentration of nesting Canvasbacks in North America; other breeders include White-faced Ibis, Trumpeter Swan, Redhead, Sandhill Crane, and Wilson's Phalarope. In the water itself, the two-inch-long Relict Dace (Relictus solitarius) is the area's only native fish; it is under threat from bass and trout (stocked for sport) as well as hybridization with introduced Speckled Dace.

The uplands are just as special, for birds and mammals alike. Greater Sage-Grouse strut their stuff at leks; Pygmy Rabbits burrow under the sagebrush; Pronghorn Antelope, at one time extirpated, again run free on the refuge. The refuge as a whole supports 225 bird species, per the published checklist, and it is recognized as one of 500 Globally Important Bird Areas in the U.S. by the American Bird Conservancy.

Careful control of the upland vegetation cover is one of the most critical management problems at the NWR, especially as it concerns the grouse. Frequent fires promote invasion by non-native grasses like Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Cheatgrass quickly builds the fuel load, driving a spiral of even more frequent, damaging fires. On the other horn of the dilemma, fire suppression tends to allow succession by woody plants like juniper and pinyon. The trees shade out sagebrush and herbaceous plants, and discourage the grouse. Research indicates that grouse avoid habitat with a canopy cover as little as 4% of the total area. Therefore, while controlled burns are still in the refuge staff's toolbox, cattle grazing is relied on more. In wetter years, haymaking is also employed.

To accomplish its conservation goals, the refuge depends on a variety of partnerships with other organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and National Audubon Society and its local chapter. Ruby Lake hosts a Youth Conservation Corps crew for eight weeks each summer. Finally, Mark Brown's photographic landscapes of the refuge and adjacent Humboldt National Forest are stunning, and they give you a good feel for this wonderful place.

This National Wildlife Refuge profile first appeared in the 3 June 2014 issue of Wingtips.