It was a bittersweet moment at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday, as supervisory biologist John Vradenburg and the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge received respective refuge awards from the National Wildlife Refuge Association.
Vradenburg, who has been senior biologist at Bosque for nine years, won the 2015 Refuge Employee of the Year Award. Coincidentally, the local Friends Group also won the Molly Krival Refuge Friends Group of the Year Award this year. Both were celebrated at a lunch reception at the refuge with Refuge Association President David Houghton, Refuge System Chief Cynthia Martinez, Deputy Regional Director Joy Nicholopoulos, Refuge Manager Kevin Cobble and about 50 invited guests.
So why bittersweet? John recently accepted a new job at Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, so he and his family are leaving Bosque in July. And, that means Friends of the Bosque Executive Director Leigh Ann Vradenburg, his wife, will be leaving too.
The first award went to John, who got a little choked up when accepting the honor.
Martinez noted John’s long list of achievements, and described him as a Refuge System employee who has taken biological management ‘to the next level.’
“It’s a great honor for me to spend the day with you,” she said.
John has been instrumental in leading the refuge’s wetland water management, which benefits the millions of greater Sandhill cranes, snow geese and other waterfowl that utilize the refuge during migration seasons. He has also led land management efforts that have benefitted two endangered species found on the refuge: the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and the southwestern willow flycatcher.
Houghton commended John’s ability to not only provide outstanding science-based management at the refuge, but also to explain the sometimes complex conservation efforts to the surrounding community.
“Your work here is exemplary,” Houghton said, before handing John a glass engraved plaque, along with letters of commendation from Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, who were unable to attend. Rep. Steve Pearce, who also was in Washington, DC and unable to attend, sent District Director Barbara Romero, who read a personal letter from the congressman and noted that she has long enjoyed spending time at Bosque del Apache with her family.
After John received his award, the Friends of the Bosque del Apache had a moment in the spotlight.
“You rock!” said Martinez, who noted that Leigh Ann has been a rising star among Friends leaders, strengthening both the Friends of Bosque and also mentoring other Friends Groups regionally and nationally. She also commended the Friends board of directors, led by Paul White, for winning the national award.
“There is so much we cannot do without our Friends, so thank you,” she said.
Friends of the Bosque is credited with building up the annual Festival of the Cranes birding and outdoor photography fest into a major tourism event that draws thousands of visitors to Bosque each year and has become one of the largest economic drivers in the county.
“This is a successful refuge because of the Friends,” Nicholopoulos said, noting the outstanding leadership of the board, and Leigh Ann, that has resulted in a significant local economic boost, as well as community goodwill toward the refuge.
Houghton took a moment to acknowledge the namesake of the Friends Group of the Year Award, the late Molly Krival, who he said was a pioneer in the Friends movement.
“To win the Molly Krival award is a big deal, because she was a big deal,” he said.
The Refuge Awards were formally announced in March. Receptions for Refuge Manager of the Year Tom Kerr and Volunteer of the Year Wiley ‘Dub’ Lyon will take place later this summer and fall.
The annual awards recognize excellence among refuge system staff, volunteers and Friends Groups who demonstrate outstanding leadership and conservation success on America’s national wildlife refuges. Click here to read more about this year’s winners!