Great Escapes in the Great Basin
At one time, wildlife at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Nevada was anything but a first priority. The remote refuge was a recreational wonderland for about 30,000 boaters a year, and water skiers were often a more common site across the open water of the desert marsh than the waterfowl it was established to protect. In fact at one point a section of the marsh was pumped dry to maintain sufficient depths for boating in another section.
But all that has changed. Now the motorboat season and engine size are strictly regulated—the result of a lawsuit and a U.S. District Court ruling that prioritized the interests of wildlife over the interests of boaters.
Not a lake, but rather a vast open-water marsh, the 37,632-acre refuge includes 17,000 acres of wetlands with bulrush and grass-covered islands. Like neighboring Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, some 100 miles to the east in Utah, Ruby Lake NWR is a Great Basin oasis that depends on a fresh supply of water. The water comes from over 150 springs at the base of the Ruby Mountain range on the western edge of the refuge. The watershed is closed, so all water entering the marsh is clean and pure. The water that gushes from a cave behind refuge headquarters is so clean that it needs no treatment before being piped to the office and residences.
Ruby Valley is actually a basin within the basin that once contained 300,000-acre and 200-foot deep Franklin Lake. Ruby Lake is one of two wetland remnants of that ancient lake. It is said that early settlers misnamed the valley in the notion that red garnet stones they found scattered about were rubies.
By Executive Order in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Ruby Lake NWR. Twenty percent of the refuge was apportioned from public land, and the remainder was purchased with the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund for slightly over $200,000 (about $7 per acre). The refuge habitat was recognized for its importance for ducks, geese, grouse, sandhill cranes, and shorebirds.
Waterfowl & Wildlife
Of special interest are the canvasback and redhead nesting areas in the prolific bulrush of the South Marsh, a natural depression at the south end of the refuge. This area has the highest canvasback nesting density of anywhere in North America. During the years of flood and drought extremes, breeding birds were forced to nest elsewhere and managers were concerned about their success with limited wetlands.
Among the other waterfowl species that nest in the marsh are Canada geese, trumpeter swans, gadwalls, lesser scaups, and cinnamon and blue-winged teals. Migrating waterfowl stop at the refuge beginning in mid-August, but most are gone by October because, unlike Fish Springs' marshes, most of Ruby Lake's marshes freeze during the winter.
Migration appears to be cause for a decline in resident trumpeter swan populations. Established in the 1950s with transplants from Montana's Red Rock Lakes NWR, the birds are now apparently joining flocks that travel to nesting areas farther north.
Western, eared, and pied-bill grebes are refuge nesters, as are great blue herons, American bitterns, and black-crowned night herons. Refuge biologist Jeff Mackay spotted the refuge's first little blue heron in 1993.
Mackay would like to see more shorebirds, but he knows how susceptible they are to fluxuating water levels. Impressive numbers arrive only when melting snows flood the shallow playas. Because they depend less on shallow water for feeding, long-billed curlews, killdeer, and common snipe are common. Abundant prey, supported by both marsh and uplands, attract red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, and prairie falcons.
Despite the harsh winters, some 60 bird species are tallied in the Christmas bird counts. Resident species include the rather scarce sage grouse, horned larks, black-billed magpies, and bushtits. A total of 207 bird species are recorded on the year-round refuge bird list.
Mule deer are the most common big mammals. Pronghorn antelope, introduced into the valley by the state of Nevada in 1988, are seen only occasionally. The abundance of coyotes, according to Mackay, is probably due to plentiful prey, including blacktail jackrabbits, which are hunted by the raptors as well.
Mackay surmises that coyote predation is the reason that sandhill cranes do not fledge their colts at Ruby Lake. In 1992, 17 juvenile birds never made it to flight stage. One colt was fledged in 1994 for the first time in 9 years. The parent birds maintained a territory close to refuge headquarters, which, Mackay thinks, afforded protection from predators.
In 1995 Mackay began a radio-telemetry project to monitor the whereabouts of sandhill crane colts. Tiny transmitters attached to the birds' legs emit homing signals and enable Mackay to investigate losses and identify the causes. The research will be used to justify appropriate control measures for later implementation. The project is modeled after one conducted at Malheur NWR in Oregon, where, surprisingly, mink were a major predator; along with coyotes, owls, and eagles.
Large-mouth bass were introduced in the South Marsh in 1932. By the 1940s, Ruby Lake NWR was recognized as one of the top 10 bass-fishing locations in the United States. The bass flourished while the relict dace, a fish native to northeast Nevada and once abundant in the marsh, declined precipitously. Now the bass have declined as well.
A fisherman from Elko, Nevada, blames the loss of "fabulous" fishing on wildlife biologists who wanted to get rid of the fish because, as he said, "They don't consider fish to be wildlife."
Overfishing, however, was the main culprit, says former refuge manager Dan Pennington, exacerbated by several severe droughts and cold winters. Mackay reports that more rain and changes in the state fishing regulations to facilitate maturation of bass are helping to bring the population back.
Anglers used to account for more than 90 percent of the 50,000 annual refuge visitors, and they still account for 70 percent of the current 10,000 annual visitors. Wildlife observation and photography draws the second biggest group. Selected dike roads are open for observation, and a county road offers over 15 miles of refuge viewing. Seasonal hunting is permitted for only migratory birds, including ducks, geese, coots, common moorhens, and common snipe.
Interior vs. Defenders of Wildlife
Fishermen were particularly upset during the 1970s, when an influx in recreational boaters caused a sharp decline in fishing productivity. Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization, and refuge biologists had other concerns with the speedboats—harm to nesting ducks and the destruction of submerged vegetation.
Refuge biologists developed regulations that restricted motorboats before August 1 and limited motor horsepower to 10 or lower after August 1. The Interior Department issued regulations instead that moved the restricted date to July 1 and placed no limit on horsepower.
Defenders went to court over this regulation, won a restraining order against the DOI, and sued again after DOI still failed to limit horsepower. Eventually they won a permanent injunction against DOI. The biologists' original regulations were adopted in 1977, and have been in effect ever since.
Forging a Better Refuge
To establish a higher quality waterfowl habitat, the refuge has embarked on the first phase of an improvement project for one of several areas that were diked by the post-World War II Civilian Conservation Corps.
The East Marsh was divided by a new dike for better water control and reconfigured to create island and open-water areas.
Besides limited water-level control and prescribed burns, the other principal management tool employed at Ruby Lake is grazing by domestic animals—a practice strongly defended by Pennington. The main advantage, he says, is that domestic animals can be used on an "as needed" basis. In addition, grazing reduces the need for and postpones the need for burning. Light grazing also prevents grass matting which, he says, is useless to any species.
From I-80 at Wells: US-93 south, right on NV-229, left turn on County Road 767 to Ruby Valley, approximately 35 miles to refuge (mostly gravel road).
From I-80 at Elko: NV-227 toward Lamoille, south on NV-228 through Jiggs, left fork (gravel road) through Harrison Pass (impassable in winter), right on County Road 767 to refuge.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication