June 15, 2006

Watering holes get new look


Mojave Preserve management, wildlife scientists, environmentalists and sporting groups are actually coming together over the issue of water in the Mojave National Preserve. The result is going to be good things for wildlife.

All of these different groups have been embroiled in a battle over the deactivation of more than 130 different water sources connected to the former cattle operations on the preserve. All of those water sources also supported a vast network of desert wildlife.

Wildlife and hunting groups were outraged the National Park Service violated its management plan and promises made during the drafting of this plan to study the impact shutting off these water sources would have on wildlife before the valves were turned off.

Wildlife biologists who have seen species expand their ranges and populations when water was added to desert mountain ranges said the losses caused by the former park superintendent's demand the water be shut off were likely very significant. But because the promised research on the preserve was never done, no one could actually put numbers on wildlife losses or measure the decrease in range and habitat usage.

Cliff McDonald, a Needles hunter and wildlife activist, and the Safari Club led a drive to restore just 12 of the original wells on the preserve for wildlife use. The preserve staff prepared an environmental assessment that would have allowed that to occur, but everyone involved agreed there was inadequate, comprehensive scientific data to support adding or removing the water.

Lawsuits were threatened on both sides of the debate, and then the park superintendent left. In an amazing transformation, people started talking again, wanting to work together and solve obvious problems, get answers to honest questions and move forward.

The Park Service has proposed a comprehensive study to look at "added water" in the desert and its effect and importance. And professional wildlife biologists from all over the West are enthused about the research because it would involve before and after measurements and data gathering. The research project and the well reactivation have been rolled together. Sort of.

"It's not that the 12 wells idea is dead," said Larry Whalon, chief of resources for the preserve. "But we're not going to hold ourselves to those 12 locations."

The research will determine the best places to put water and then measure the effects once the water is in.

For the first time, we'll really know with scientific certainty the effect adding water has on desert environments and wildlife populations in those environments.

"This has the potential to demonstrate the importance -- or lack thereof -- of water sources on this type in desert ecosystems," said Dr. Vern Bleich, Department of Fish and Game bighorn sheep biologist.