June 28, 2005

Hunters fight for desert 'guzzlers'

By Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

BARSTOW - A simmering battle over desert water tanks once used by range cattle is pitting hunting and wildlife groups against environmentalists.

Hunters of big and small game in the Mojave National Preserve claim it is vital to retain artificial watering sites in a 600,000-acre area in Lanfair Valley, near Needles, but two environmental groups say the water holes actually will harm wildlife.

Scores of hunters, wildlife advocates and conservationists gathered here Monday to include their views in an environmental assessment being prepared by the National Park Service.

"The assessment will outline our proposal to convert 12 former ranch wells into guzzlers over a three-year period," said Larry Whalon, the preserve's chief of resources.

Comments will be accepted on the plan until Oct. 31 at the preserve's headquarters at 2701 Barstow Road, in Barstow.

Hunters want to turn the wells into artificial water sites called "wildlife drinkers" or "guzzlers" to provide water for the preserve's mule deer, bighorn sheep and game birds. But environmentalists claim the park's exising 133 guzzlers are sufficient.

A decision by the Park Service to convert the former wells into artificial watering sites prompted a lawsuit by two environmental groups in March.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility went to court to block the plan, claiming it would harm wildlife and violated Park Service policy.

The two groups contend the additional drinkers or guzzlers would dry up natural springs and wetlands, attract predatory ravens, and sustain non-native burros.

The Park Service reversed course, and blocked conversion of the ranch wells until environmental issues are reviewed.

"Congress allows carefully-managed hunting in the preserve, but this proposal to uncap the ranch wells is a game farm concept ... (and) an attempt to manipulate the web of life," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"Bighorn sheep have lived in the east Mojave a lot longer than artificial water sites. They have survived because of natural springs and riparian areas, and we would like to focus on the restoration of springs and streams."

Ken Schwartz, spokesman for the 50,000-member Safari Club International, said artificial water sources provide water for a wide variety of animals and birds, not just game creatures.

"This issue is about conservation, and protecting wildlife," he said. "It's not just an issue of game animals. Some of these water sources are known to provide water for as many as 90 desert animals. Of those, only 10 or 12 were allowed to be hunted."

Lifelong hunter Cliff McDonald of Needles said the water sites are vital for all wildlife in the 1.6-million-acre national preserve. "There are about 113 guzzlers for small animals in the east Mojave but none for large animals," he said.

"In a 20-square-mile area in Lanfair Valley, there is no year-round water (for big game)."

Wells in the east Mojave were capped off four to five years ago when land was transferred from private ranchers to the national preserve.

"All of the casings still exist at the 12 ranch wells, and we want to recap them," said Needles City Councilman Pat Murch. "This will provide a guaranteed water source for wildlife. It's not a hunters' issue, it's a wildlife issue."

Andrew Pauli state wildlife biologist from Apple Valley, said various volunteer groups ranging from Quail Unlimited to the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep assist the California Fish and Game Department in well maintenance.

But well closings are compounding the problem to sustain desert wildlife. "About 125 water sources, many fed by pipes from a major well, have been shut off the past five years," Pauli said.