RANDALL COUNTY, TX (KFDA) - Drive a bit west – about 10 miles -- out of Canyon on U.S. Highway 60 and hang a quick left at Umbarger.
That's where you'll likely find a hidden Texas Panhandle treasure known as Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. As Melanie Hartman, a wildlife biologist who serves on the staff at Buffalo Lake, said, "You either know about this place, or you don't."
So, what's to know about Buffalo Lake?
It's going through a transition, according to two of the National Parks Service staff members who work there.
One of the major projects that's been on-going at the refuge has been the eradication of salt cedars, the invasive – and amazingly thirsty – plants introduced to the place to help protect the soil from wind erosion.
"The salt cedars have harmed the health of the lake," said Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager Jude Smith. "The plant grew quickly and did very well," he said. "Now we're trying to get rid of it."
The problem with the salt cedar, Smith said, is the volume of water it consumes while invading other plant life. Melanie Hartman, a wildlife biologist assigned to Buffalo Lake, agreed, saying that the plant "became very well-established over the 30 or 40 years. It now encroaches on the native grasses."
Much like what's happened along the Canadian River/Lake Meredith watershed in Hutchinson County, the salt cedar has swallowed huge quantities of water intended for other uses, such as recreation and to attract wetland wildlife.
Smith said a single plant consumes as much as 120 to 300 gallons of water daily. "That's per tree," Smith said, noting that a single tree can "drink" as much as 9,000 gallons a month. "It starves out other plants and its height shades out everything else. Plus it changes the soil chemistry," he said.
Hartman has been leading the salt cedar eradication effort by poisoning the plants. She said the effort has "improved the health of the lake." She said the poisoning involves the application of an herbicide; the dead plants are then mulched. Hartman noted also that the area was subject to a controlled burn to get rid of much of the dead brush.
Buffalo Lake today covers about 200 acres on the 7,664-acre refuge, which is home to about dozens of migratory bird species, reptiles and amphibians and various mammal species. The lake used to cover about 1,800 acres, said Smith.
Among the birds that migrate to Buffalo Lake annually, Hartman noted, are bald eagles and golden eagles, which spend the winter months – from November to mid-March – preying on smaller birds and the assorted animals that inhabit the refuge.
Other predatory animals include bobcats, coyotes and raccoons, Smith and Hartman said; Smith noted that the raccoons are known to be voracious "omnivores."
Buffalo Lake is part of a huge network of more than 500 such refuges throughout the United States. It is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service; the agencies also run the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuges, comprising a little more than 6,000 acres.
Smith recalled how the Interior Department replaced an earthen dam with a more modern dam in 1992. To do so, the lake had to be drained, with the water released down Tierra Blanca Creek. Declining water tables decreased the flow of spring water into the lake when the new dam was completed, Smith said.
Greater-than-normal precipitation in 2015 helped put more water back into the lake, Smith said, but he projects that unless we get significant rain this spring and early summer, the lake could be dry again by July.
Smith noted that Buffalo Lake used to attract recreational users who would take their boats onto the water. With the water levels so depleted from their historic levels, he said, those days appear to be gone.
From the 1930s until the late 1970s, Smith said, the refuge was "well-known for its lake," but he said the water dried up as the water table receded because of increased agricultural production and the declining rainfall levels across the Panhandle and over the Tierra Blanca Creek watershed.
"We also didn't have Lake Meredith back then," he said. Smith – a Clovis, N.M. native who's worked at Buffalo Lake for 13 years -- joked about a "conspiracy theory" that reportedly made the rounds that suggested Lake Meredith was created in 1965 because the Interior Department "wanted to get rid of" Buffalo Lake.
Smith and Hartman see a good future for Buffalo Lake, as long as the migratory birds keeping
coming and the animals that frequent the area around the lake continue to flourish. As Smith said, "The public perception of the lake changed in the 1970s and 1980s."
Still, the public remains quite interested in the wildlife refuge. Hartman said Buffalo Lake continues to draw 5,000 to 10,000 visitors each year. "That's what we know of," she said, adding that "some visitors don't bother to sign in."