March 4, 2005

Response to "Water Fight in the Mojave"

Letters to the Los Angeles Times editor
For the Record editor

Julie Cart's story, "Water Fight in the Mojave," in Friday's California section is a classic example of how The Times only gets half the story and only half right. It is filled with incorrect and mis-information reported without a lick of attribution.

The first mistake is the assumption that the "needs of game animals" are somehow at odds with the needs of "federally protected wildlife," and that hunters' interests are somehow different than other conservationists. It seems to me that hunters are interested in diverse healthy wildlife populations and show that by funding massive programs around the world that benefit all wildlife, not just hunted species. Good management of resources and wild systems benefits all wildlife in that system.

Then we come to the first error of fact: " water holes draw predators that prey on the threatened California desert tortoise." There has never been a single definitive study that shows this is true, and obviously no one who wanted to be quoted saying this was the case. There has been speculation by some biologists this happens, but that speculation is without any correlative science, and certainly without definitive work. In fact, most of the science would tend to suggest that additional water sources would tend to distribute predators at more places, lessening the likelihood that a tortoise would be potential prey.

Then the next paragraph has the next glaring error of fact: "...reverse a long-standing water policy in the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve." There is no policy. It is not stated in the Mojave's management plan. It is not in NEPA or even CEQA. In fact, by agreeing to the permanent capping of wells with the National Park Service Foundation, and moving ahead with those plans, the National Park Service violated its own management plan for the Preserve and NEPA. Both the plan and NEPA require that the NPS evaluate the impacts the removal of water -- in this case over 125 cattle watering sources -- would have on the preserve's wildlife BEFORE the water was removed. The NPS did NOT do that. It did no baseline surveys on wildlife populations around this man-made water and completed no study on impacts water removal would have, good or bad. There was only speculation that it would be a good thing. The NPS was in violation of the law and its own policy when it encouraged the removal of the cattle watering sources in the first place. This has probably led to a dramatic decline in dozens and dozens of different wildlife species, not just hunted species, on the preserve. But it was only the hunter-conservation groups like Safari Club who were concerned about this and immediately filed a protest. If the Times had bothered to ask Center for Biological Diversity lawyers about this, they would have told the papers' reporters that the NPS was in violation for allowing the removal of the wells, pipelines, and stock tanks in the first place before meeting the requirements of NEPA and its own management plan. Safari Club was trying to get the preserve staff to restore only 12 wells out of 125 water sources removed, and trying to do this quickly without a lawsuit to cut wildlife losses.

The next error in fact is about the claim by the 57 scientists who contend that because of groundwater pumping 90 percent of the preserves springs and seeps had been diminished on the preserve. There is no scientific documentation this is true. Only speculation by these 57 scientists. It is just as likely, if we can speculate, that groundwater pumping for human developments in Needles and Newberry Springs, drought, or global warming was the cause for any historic change, and not the modest pumping that supplied cattle (and wildlife) with water. In fact, it is speculative there has been a 90 percent change at all. This is NOT documented by science, it is their seat-of-the-pants belief. Show me the science.

These same scientists bemoan the added water as a huge detriment to wildlife. There are thousands of scientists in all of the Western states who will tell you the opposite, that water added in deserts is a huge boon to all wildlife. They have good science and examples to back up their beliefs, however, not speculation. One of the best examples of how added water has benefited wildlife is -- ironically -- on the Mojave National Preserve. The work was done before it was preserve, of course. The Old Dad Peak/Kelso Mountains complex on the far Western edge of the preserve historically held only a few wandering bighorn sheep. Never more than a dozen according to surveys done through the middle part of the last century. The Department of Fish and Game, working with the Bureau of Land Management, and one of those onerous hunter-conservation groups, the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, put in several man-made water sources. They did this, by the way, before hunting of bighorn sheep was allowed in the state. Today, it is the largest herd of desert bighorns in the state, numbering over 200 animals. This once threatened species (just like the desert tortoise) was brought back by the addition of water. By hunters before there was hunting for sheep. Amazing, huh?.

Now come the big factual errors in the story:

1) There is no direct evidence that capping any wells has rejuvenated the preserves natural water sites. This is speculation. And the statement is made without attribution in the story. We could speculate that the wetter seasons this year and last year are responsible for any increase in spring flow over the short term, too. And in fact, that has far more credibility.

2) There is no evidence of a deer herd increase. The NPS did no population surveys before the water was removed and none after the water was removed. They were supposed to do this before removing the 125 water sources, but they didn't. The "increase" is interpolated from the Department of Fish and Game's deer harvest figures over the past several hunting seasons. Survey hunters and they will all tell you they are seeing fewer deer in fewer places, but that they have become more successful because the deer have fewer places to water. Like any smart predator, hunters are focusing their efforts around those remaining water sources and killing more deer.

3) Of the 133 small game guzzlers and six big game guzzlers, over 3/4s are out of desert tortoise habitat. Of the 1/4 that are in desert tortoise habitat, tortoise remains have been found in 1/3 of those. That is a far smaller number than quoted in the LA Times story, which makes them all sound like death traps. Also, the implication that because remains are found in a guzzler that the guzzler is somehow the reason for the tortoises death is, at best, speculative. Correlation is not causation. Department of Fish and Game research, actual science, suggests very few of the tortoises in guzzlers died as a result of the guzzler. Just as DFG research suggests that tortoise shells found with bullet holes were almost never killed by those bullets. The shells were shot postmortem, long after the tortoises were dead. But there are "scientists" that continue to insist that shooting is a major cause of tortoise deaths. This is a lie.

4) There is no scientific evidence that water sources attract more ravens, increasing desert tortoise deaths. None. In fact, other scientists speculate that the more water sources you have, the less impacts predators have on wildlife. The problem is that there are about 100 times more ravens now than there were just 25 years ago. That is attributed to desert communities that provide food (garbage) in great quantities. Ravens also eat baby tortoises, and 100 times more eat 100 times more babies. You do the math. A lot of scientists believe ravens are the crux of the tortoise decline. Bulldozing all desert communities from Barstow to Yucca Valley to Lancaster would probably alleviate the raven increase.

Most of the 21-page complaint talks about the supposed impacts of man-made water on desert tortoises. The reality is that all 12 of the wells proposed for retrofitting are above the elevations inhabited by tortoises on the preserve. Isn't this whole argument is moot? Why didn't the Times reporter, ask this question?

The NPS staff could indeed suggest that it needs to remove all of the cattle water and the guzzlers on the preserve because this is "unnatural manipulation" of the habitat -- and that is not their charge. But the staff IS required by law and their own preserve policy to document the impacts water removal would have on the preserve's existing wildlife resources. They did not do that -- and that was ILLEGAL.

Conversely, the NPS is ALSO required to protect and enhance the cultural heritage on the preserve. Cattle ranching and guzzlers have been a huge part of the preserve for 100 years or more, and the historic windmills and cattle troughs are wonderful symbols of that history. The fact that they also help wildlife is a bonus. Yet, the NPS wants to rip them all out. Couldn't the NPS recognize the wildlife benefits and direct visitors to these cultural heritage sites to see desert wildlife? The small game guzzlers are ideal places to watch wildlife in the spring and summer, when there is no hunting on the preserve, and many of us believe the guzzlers should be preserved for their historic AND wildlife values. The NPS staff has never considered that a valid argument.

The impact removing 125-plus water sources has had on preserve wildlife is profound. The cultural loss is significant. It is more than quail and deer and hunters that have suffered.

Instead of portraying Paul Hoffman as another of the Bush-administration bad guy who's trying to destroy American's wildlife heritage, the reality the LA Times couldn't or refused to see is that Hoffman is trying to compensate for a NPS staff that hates the fact that hunting is allowed in the Mojave Preserve and was willing to violate the law and destroy wildlife to try to make the preserve less appealing to hunters. Hoffman was trying to avert a Safari Club lawsuit and protect desert wildlife. And he's the villain?

I realize this is far too long for you to run as a letter, but I hope you will at least research and correct the factual errors.


Jim Matthews
San Bernardino, Calif.