December 6, 2019

A Symbolic Gift

How Some of the Zoo’s Animals Helped Celebrate an Important Conservation Partnership

By Stefan Ekernas, Rocky Mountain/Great Plains Program Director


For more than eight years, Denver Zoo, the Pueblo of Pojoaque, and partners have worked closely to restore bison and native biodiversity and ecosystem function at Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in Watrous, New Mexico. Recently, on National Bison Day, we had the opportunity to celebrate this important partnership by presenting our friends at the Pueblo of Pojoaque with a unique gift—dozens of feathers from our blue-and-gold and green-winged macaws for ceremonial use.

The gift of macaw feathers is culturally significant to many Pueblo communities in northern New Mexico who have practiced macaw husbandry for more than 1,000 years. Macaws and other parrot species were live-traded and brought from Central and South America to aviaries in New Mexico, where they were bred and cared for, and their feathers were used in ceremonies. Parrots feature in Pueblo hieroglyphs, and archeologists have uncovered aviaries and macaw remains dating back to 900 AD. Today, Pueblo of Pojoaque women use these feathers during ceremonies celebrating winter and summer feast.

Denver Zoo strives to build collaborative, diverse partnerships that bring complementary perspectives, skills, and resources needed to solve complex challenges facing wildlife. For nearly eight years, our Field Conservation Department has been a part of a unique partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife, New Mexico Highlands University, and the Pueblo of Pojoaque working to promote the restoration and conservation of native biodiversity in the short-grass prairie of Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Mexico.

As part of this collective work, the Pueblo of Pojoaque manage bison at the refuge to promote their role as a cultural touchstone and an ecological restoration tool across the region. The American bison, which were driven to near extinction in the late 1800s, play a keystone role in promoting vegetation growth, species diversity, and ecological integrity in grassland ecosystems. The large herds of bison that once roamed the prairies played an important social, economic, and cultural role in many Native American communities across the West.

At Rio Mora, the Pueblo of Pojoaque work with partners to blend cutting-edge scientific practices with traditional ecological knowledge to manage the bison to both promote their restorative impact on the landscape and provide opportunities for their community to practice cultural traditions. Furthermore, the Pueblo of Pojoaque play an important role in the collective efforts at Rio Mora to build the capacity of students in STEM through active participation in field-based programming, which in 2019 reached 390 middle and high school students. Through interacting with this iconic and charismatic species, students have a chance to apply STEM to solve real world conservation challenges and contribute to the data needed to guide effective conservation. Together, we are constructing a capacity building pipeline to foster the next generation of land stewards.

The partnership at Rio Mora is a model for how diverse partners can work together to achieve conservation success. It requires mutual respect, trust, and a shared vision to ensure the long-term conservation of important wildlife and ecosystems. Denver Zoo is grateful to be a part of the partnership at Rio Mora and are especially thankful for the valuable role and contribution the Pueblo of Pojoaque make to our collective conservation effort. As partners we can achieve more together than alone; these feathers are a physical manifestation of that principle.

Learn more about our work in the Rocky Mountains/Great Plains region and what you can do to help protect wildlife locally and around the world.


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