To the untrained eye, the landscape teems with verdant health. Broad-leaved cattails have grown so tall in the pond they obscure the view for a moment until one reaches the end of the dock. Dragonflies with blue and orange hues zing in the air; bullfrogs call out sonorously.

"The bullfrogs are bullies," Jeff Depew tells me, after I remark that I like them. "They're invasive and they know no bounds," he continues. "They will pull down ducklings, they will pull down dragonflies in their flying stage, and they voraciously eat any macroinvertebrates  they can eat."

OK … so not so cute.

Depew, a wetland scientist, restoration ecologist and educator, has been studying and teaching courses on wetlands for decades (www.earthdesigns.com). On this particular afternoon, he is leading a wetland exploration course at Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve, one of my favorite Santa Fe oases, located in La Cienega and run by the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.

Wetland scientist Jeff Depew identifies various aquatic critters scooped from the pond during an exploration class at Leonora Curtin Wetlands Preserve.
Wetland scientist Jeff Depew identifies various aquatic critters scooped from the pond during an exploration class at Leonora Curtin Wetlands Preserve. | Julia Goldberg

I've been visiting for years, drawn to the green, marshy landscape and, yes, to see the bullfrogs and visiting mallards.

The preserve's beauty is unquestionable, but its plethora of plants and aquatics also reveal stories of the ancient volcanic geology that created the springs below, and a more contemporary tale of ecological balance between invasive and native species, along with ever-present concerns about the water that feeds the springs.

Ciénegas—deriving from the Spanish word for marsh—are rare. A wetlands action report issued late last year for the New Mexico Environment Department Surface Water Quality Bureau identifies 169 arid-land spring ciénegas in New Mexico, of which only 114 are functioning or restorable. Wetlands such as these, in otherwise dry climates, are considered one of the most rare ecosystems in the Southwest, and one of the most endangered, due to both land use and climate change. For many of its inhabitants—plant and animal alike—they are the sole places that support survival. According to the wetlands action report, these arid-land spring ciénegas provide the only habitats for 10 New Mexico rare and endangered plants, while 23 threatened, endangered or sensitive animals' existence are wholly or partially reliant on them.

We've walked through Leonora Curtin to reach the pond, with Depew identifying plants and creatures and providing historical context along the way. Now we will start our field work, he says, and "see what we can see." Our group is given field equipment: nets, viewers, trays and the like, so we can scoop out water and algae and hunt for, he says, "anything that swims, crawls or wiggles." Depew has been making steady inventory of dragonflies at the pond, marking each species he finds. Once on our knees staring into containers of water, we look at tiny, mobile creatures loosed from the algae as Depew identifies them for us: right-handed snails, leeches, fairy shrimp, damsel flies, mosquito larvae. Less cute than bullfrogs, in my opinion, but also less invasive.

Leonora Curtin Wetlands Preserve.
Leonora Curtin Wetlands Preserve. | Julia Goldberg

Stewardship of the preserve includes intervention into non-native species that can threaten the preserve's ecological balance. Case in point: last year's removal of many of the 35-acre property's Russian olive trees. The trees, Depew says, were planted by the preserve's namesakes. Ethnobotanist Leonora Curtin arrived in New Mexico in the early 20th century, and became focused on plants with medicinal value, many of which are planted and flourishing on the grounds. Her daughter, Leonora Curtin Paloheimo, developed the adjacent Rancho de las Golondrinas. As well-intentioned as the plantings of the Russian olives had been (they provide great shade), they grew invasive, along with the bull thistle and Russian knapweed, sucking water from other plants, such as the majestic cottonwoods on the property. While there are no plans to remove the frogs, DePew says, "allowing them to go unchecked would make a change to the ecosystem." When I ask how they ended up there in the first place, he speculates it was likely through migrating ducks defecating and upchucking them when they landed. Definitely not the cutest origin story I've ever heard.

Unlike other threatened ciénegas, Leonora Curtin remains robust because of its stewardship by the Botanical Gardens and serves as an educational ciénega where others can learn about the role it plays for species. Depew regularly teaches courses at the preserve; upcoming ones include a Sept. 7 course on the New Mexico apple, and a full moon nature walk at Leonora Curtin Oct. 11. Depew describes wetlands such as Leonora Curtin as "vest pocket parks, migratory way stations, postage stamp habitats" because they provide a stop for birds, monarch butterflies and other creatures as they traverse the country. "They are the jewels of the Southwest," he says.

Minus the frogs.

Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve
Open May through October,  Saturday & Sunday, 9 am-3 pm. Free.
49A W Frontage Road, 471-9103