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Grassland Restoration at Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area


About Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge

In 2012, philanthropists Eugene and Clare Thaw donated Wind River Ranch in northern New Mexico to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to become Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area (Rio Mora NWR). The only one of its kind, the refuge was developed as a partnership between Denver Zoological Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pueblo of Pojoaque, and New Mexico Highlands University. These partners work together to engage community members in restoring ecosystem function and advancing grassland stewardship.

A centerpiece of Denver Zoo’s Rocky Mountain Great Plains Program, Rio Mora NWR serves as a model and field laboratory for the development of innovative grassland restoration techniques, ecological and cultural bison restoration, community engagement and environmental education, collaborative partnership building, and grassland conservation and management strategies across the Rocky Mountain-Shortgrass prairie interface of New Mexico and Colorado. 


Why Rio Mora?

Rio Mora NWR is a 4,224 acre property in Watrous, New Mexico that is surrounded by a matrix of private and public land within the million acre Rio Mora Watershed.  An example of one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, the shortgrass prairie provides habitat for a variety of native species, is a critical resource for ranching, farming and local communities, and is important social and cultural resource.

Inadequate land use practices, overgrazing, disruption of natural fire regimes, and declines in species that play an especially important role in grassland ecosystems, such as bison and beaver, has degraded grassland ecosystems across western North America. In fact, only ~4% of native pre-European settlement grasslands remain in North America.

Using sound social and ecological science, Denver Zoo is working closely with partners and community members to restore ecosystem function and promote the recovery of native species across the watershed.  These efforts include (1) the reintroduction of bison to the landscape to promote grassland productivity and control invasive species, (2) the promotion habitat for native species through the recovery of riparian habitat through arroyo and river restoration, (3) assessing the impact of restoration of grassland ecosystem processes on plant and animal communities, and (4) engaging local communities and landowners to restore grassland ecosystem process and promote land stewardship.

Denver Zoo and partners have welcomed the challenge and opportunity to restore Rio Mora into a functioning ecosystem through research, restoration and education.  Today, our restoration efforts have enhanced the habitat for native animal and plant species.


The Rio Mora Conservation Approach

Based on sound science, Denver Zoo and partners focus on engaging local communities, building capacity, and influencing conservation policy and management to restore and conserve the grassland ecosystems of the Rio Mora Watershed. Some examples of these approaches include:


In order to expand the availability of water on the landscape, our team has designed and built 350+ rock structures trap sediment to store water in the soil, keep sediment from polluting the Mora River, and promote native habitat recovery.


Bison are ecosystem engineers that co-evolved with grasslands. By re-establishing bison at Rio Mora, we can learn how their foraging, movement and wallowing shape grasslands and effect vegetation and animal communities.


We engage community members in alternative land management practices that conserve water and rangeland resources. If these practices are adopted by neighboring landowners, we can affect the greater landscape within the million-acre watershed. Though hands-on field-based internships, we influence future natural resource managers and the next generation of landowners.


In an effort to expand community engagement in the conservation and restoration of grassland ecosystems, we build the capacity of local students through internships and by supporting students through their undergraduate and graduate degrees in conservation.



Eliza Montoya was hired as an intern at Rio Mora soon after she graduated with a B.S. in Biology from NM Highlands University (NMHU) in March 2014. This northern New Mexico native from Springer hit the ground running by leading a research project exploring how bison grazing effects associated plant and animal communities in shortgrass prairies. She transitioned from an intern to a field technician and as her conservation skills improved, Eliza entered the M.S. Natural Resource Management program at NMHU in January 2015, while working at Rio Mora part-time. 

For her graduate work, she quantified relative volume and water quality in ephemeral pools, and macroinvertebrate community changes in arroyos (drainages) that have been actively restored. Eliza is slated to complete her M.S. by spring 2018.

“My experiences at Rio Mora with the Denver Zoo played a critical role in my success as a researcher and graduate student.  I continue to receive support and mentorship as I navigate this next step in my career as a hydrologist and water scientist.”


Conservation Success at Rio Mora

Highlights of conservation success at Rio Mora include:

  • Overall reduction in soil erosion, raised water tables in arroyos and canyons, induced meander, restored and rehabilitated wetlands, and reintroduced native species in the Mora River.
  • Nurturing the next generation of conservationists by providing STEM and career programming for students from middle to graduate school.
  • Since 2013, over 1,200 grade school children, 700 community members, 9 graduate students, and local landowners representing more than 200 thousand acres used the refuge for education, research and capacity building activities.
  • Serving as a source of scientific information to develop the landscape conservation design needed by USFWS for the management of the Conservation Area.
  • Established Rio Mora as a demonstration site to learn conservation strategies for the benefit of native flora and fauna locally, regionally and internationally. Established a new model of conservation based on partnerships with federal agencies, non-profits, tribal entities and universities Gained the trust of the local community to participate on conservation actions in more than 100,000 acres of grassland habitats.


Conservation cannot be done alone, and Denver Zoo is thankful for our strong network of partners that contribute to the restoration and conservation of Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge. During its tenure at Rio Mora, the Denver Zoo has actively engage with more than 15 local and regional organizations and has been able to serve Native American and Hispanic communities in New Mexico. 



Other key partners include:


How you can help!

Rio Mora NWR needs additional support to continue its mission to restore grassland ecosystem function and promote stewardship across the Mora Watershed. Donations will directly support internship salaries for local students, education programming, and research and restoration costs at Rio Mora.