When one thinks of a city, wildlife is likely to be the last thing in the mind’s image. But the Albuquerque Backyard Refuge program aims to change that by increasing the presence of wildlife in the city by empowering residents to create sanctuaries for the living creatures who are native to the land. 

Through the program, citizens transform their patios, balconies and lawns into diverse environments teeming with life. Residents whose yards meet the standards of the program can apply to certify their spaces as a backyard refuge.

“The goal is to create a mosaic of habitats across the city,” said Laurel Ladwig, the program’s director and a graduate from UNM with a master’s in geography.



The program also seeks to combat the urban heat island effect, a temperature discrepancy between urban and non-urban areas, which has plagued Albuquerque over the past year, according to an article in the Albuquerque Journal.

The program has 127 individuals as well as a number of local businesses participating, according to Ladwig. Participants who certify their yards receive a sign to display, which marks the property as a wildlife refuge and helps advertise the program to others in the neighborhood.

The UNM University Club became involved in the program in fall 2021, working with Ladwig to transform the property they manage, according to Monica Lopez, the special events coordinator for the University Club.

“The ABQ Backyard Refuge team was able to provide the club with plants that help us deter squirrels and rabbits, since they can be problematic for a venue like ours and created a habitat that encourages other wildlife to thrive,” Lopez said via email. “We love that they were able to help us find a creative and environmentally safe solution for our situation.”

Brian Anderson, a volunteer for the Albuquerque Open Space Visitors Center and participant in the program, counted roughly 24 different species of birds at his house after participating in the recent Great Backyard Bird Count. For Anderson, his backyard habitat is a sanctuary.

“It’s kind of coexisting with what was here already and supporting what may have been displaced,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of peaceful and entertaining and it’s definitely good for you.”

Laura Burkemper, a research scientist at the Center for Stable Isotopes, certified her yard late last year but began her backyard transformation around 2020 when she turned to gardening due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her backyard has become a source of entertainment and education. Since she began, she has found herself noticing more wildlife throughout her day.

“It makes you pay attention more and gets you out of your own head,” Burkemper said.

Mary Anne Santos Newhall, a dance historian and retired professor emeritus from UNM’s dance program, first heard about the program in February 2020. She said during lockdown, she felt a connection with the world at large through the birds that came to visit her and that spending time in her yard and the solace it brings “has been such a gift.”

“One of the beautiful things about it too is that it not only increases our wildlife community, but it also creates a community within Albuquerque, and I think that’s really wonderful,” Newhall said.

Burkemper has planted native grasses and created a pollinator bed filled with penstemon and other flowering plants that attract bees. She also keeps plenty of water sources in her yard to maintain the required habitat conditions, inviting a range of wildlife to come enjoy the resources.

“I’ve got three bird baths, and the little birds that come to the bird baths are hilarious,” Burkemper said. “They’re always bouncing around and some are very defensive of the water and they’re trying to shoo the other birds away but other ones just don’t care.”

Residents interested in getting involved can go to abqbackyardrefuge.org to access educational materials and get started certifying their space.

Liam DeBonis is the copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at copychief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @LiamDebonis