December 15, 2005

Mojave guzzler plan calls for continued analysis

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

The top official at the Mojave National Preserve acknowledges that a plan to convert 12 former ranch wells in the park into wildlife watering troughs called guzzlers will demand continued scrutiny to make it successful.

"We will have to study and monitor the proposal over a period of years to determine the success of these artificial water sources," said Larry Whalon, the preserve's interim superintendent.

A newly released environmental assessment, prepared by the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service, calls for converting the 12 wells into guzzlers.

Fish and game's proposal to rehabilitate the wells into guzzlers for mule deer and various game birds could create a dependence on artificial water among these creatures, the department notes.

In turn, this could lead to "an imbalance of the ecosystem," stemming from potential changes in wildlife populations, officials said.

"We will have to examine the positive benefits of guzzlers while looking at their negative aspects," Whalon said. "The environmental assessment is saying that we don't know all the answers. We have to recognize there can be positive and negative results."

The 43-page assessment, available for public comment through Jan. 31, includes fish and game's proposal for guzzlers along with a "no action" alternative and a third option that looks at science-based management of water resources in the 1.6 million-acre park east of Barstow.

According to Whalon, the environmental assessment looks at ways to ensure there is water for wildlife in the vast parkland. "It examines natural and artificial sources," he said. "Fish and game's proposal is compared with other alternatives (to open) a range of options and their effects on wildlife."

The assessment, he said, is not the final word. "It considers the need to obtain more information to adequately define wildlife's water needs," he explained.

"Even though guzzlers may create a dependence for wildlife on artificial water sources, we need to know that through research," Whalon said. "There are positive aspects of dependency, which may allow an increase in wildlife numbers and may allow wildlife to survive during periods of drought."

Among concerns: If the guzzlers are fed from groundwater sources, they could lower the level of groundwater. And if the guzzlers are filled by bringing in water, the groundwater could be polluted.

Fish and game officials said drought conditions over the past decade have increased the urgency to convert the wells, which were installed by cattle ranchers and used until the park service discontinued grazing leases after taking over the preserve in 1994.

Environmentalists are lukewarm over the proposal.

"Guzzlers aren't needed, since there is a lot of natural water in the preserve," said Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist with the Joshua Tree-based Center for Biological Diversity.

"Wildlife has survived for centuries in the east Mojave. It would be better for wildlife to rely on natural water sources."

Barstow environmentalist Peter Burk claims the conversion plan is designed to benefit hunters, who under law can hunt for a variety of wild game in the preserve.

"This is being done for hunters, and increases the likelihood that wildlife using the guzzlers will be targeted," Burk explained. "However, if there was no hunting, the guzzlers would benefit wildlife."

The fish and game department feels the retirement of grazing leases in the preserve over the past five years has hurt wildlife.

"It is critical to wildlife conservation to have many of these historical water sources reactivated," fish and game's proposal states.

According to the park service, six big game guzzlers were installed on several peaks in the east Mojave in the 1970s and 1980s. There also are 133 small game guzzlers in the region.

In addition, there are numerous springs and seeps in the national preserve. Depending on rainfall, these water sources number from 100 to almost 200.

Meanwhile, the Fenner Valley watershed in the east part of the preserve is recharged by rainfall at a rate of 5,000 to 70,000 acre-feet annually, according to the assessment. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

With three desert ecosystems converging in the Mojave National Preserve, plants and wildlife are abundant. There are about 300 species of wildlife, including 206 species of birds and 47 species of mammals.

Hunting of some species, including bighorn sheep and game birds, adds to the imbalance within the ecosystem, fish and game officials said.

The environmental assessment is available in various public libraries, and is posted on Mojave National Preserve's Web site,

Written comments on the proposal will be accepted until Jan. 31. They can be sent by mail or e-mail to Larry Whalon, Mojave National Preserve, 2701 Barstow Road, Barstow CA 92311.