Waterfowl disappearing from New Mexico

Posted at: 02/07/2013 9:02 PM
Updated at: 02/08/2013 4:07 PM
By: Tom Joles, KOB Eyewitness News 4

For waterfowl, like many of us, it's survival of the fittest. But as these birds migrate every year, they're finding fewer and fewer places to get their feathers wet.

“Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic drying out of the environment,” New Mexico Game and Fish Department Pilot Tom Sandom said. “Little lakes and ponds and riparian areas where we've had lots of birds in before have gradually dried out, and in some parts of the state now they are totally try. So of course, if you have no water, you have no birds.”

Sansom knows what he's talking about. He's been flying for the Game and Fish Department for 32 years. And these days he’s flying in a special observation plane - Highly maneuverable with a great view.

“You have the ability to see out the front as you would almost a helicopter,” he said. “In some ways it's better.”

KOB Eyewitness News 4 flew with Sansom for several weeks. KOB 4’s Tom Joles took a turn in the front, where a real expert usuallt sits.

Mark Watson is a habitat specialist and a waterfowl counter with the department.

Every state in the country does waterfowl surveys, and in New Mexico Sansom and Watson are it. They said the number of waterfowl has been decreasing, and the trend started long before the drought.

"Over the last couple hundred years, North America has lost half or more of its wetlands," Watson said.

They said humans have been filling it in, and building on it. And now, there's another threat.

“We'll there's a couple lakes McAlister and Maxwell, normally we have a lot of water in the playa lakes and they've been gradually drying up and this year they're totally dry,” Watson said.

“Maxwell used to have 4 or 5 or 8 thousand birds,” Watson said.

Now, there are none. So where are the waterfowl going when their part-time home dries up – they follow the water.

The largest number of waterfowl was found at the largest body of water in the state - Elephant Butte. It still has a lot of water, but is shrinking too.

“It was once called Elephant Butte marsh and we still call it that,” Watson said.

Watson said it once held a bunch of water and tens of thousands of ducks, but the Department of Interior's Federal Bureau of Reclamation has been dredged the river channel to drain water out to send to Texas as part of a compact.

By law, Texas gets its water, but where does that leave the waterfowl. Again, they'll be forced to follow the water as long as there's water to follow.