The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 84: Sheep Watering Holes

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Some desert big horn sheep are getting thirsty; are we going to have to ruin a wilderness to save them? This week on The WildeBeat; Sheep Watering Holes.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number eighty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Even if they don't know the specifics, most people get that a wilderness is a place that hasn't been modernized. One part of the Wilderness Act, the law that established the protection of wilderness areas in the U.S., describes it as a place, "without permanent improvements or human habitation." So does it ruin a wilderness to build something there that's supposed to save it? This isn't an easy question for anyone to answer. We've done a few shows about the fun of exploring a desert wilderness, and recently, in our edition number eighty one, we talked specifically about visiting the Sheephole Valley Wilderness. I talked to Steve Tabor, an experienced desert guide.

STEVE TABOR: ...I've actually been there several times. That place has become a bone of contention since because of game guzzlers that the California Department of Fish and Game wants to put in there. These are essentially watering troughs for big horn sheep.

STEVE: A watering trough doesn't sound like much of a problem, but that's a pretty simplistic description of the proposal. I got a better description from Dan Abbe. He's the wilderness specialist for the Bureau of Land Management responsible for the Sheephole Valley Wilderness. Dan said that there are already quite a few guzzlers around the Mojave Desert in non-wilderness areas.

DAN ABBE: Right now the current technology and the current design that would be used for this particular site is a subterranean tank. The tank is about a ten thousand gallon capacity fiberglass tank that's buried under ground so that you don't actually see anything above ground. And then there's also a drinker, which is fed by the tank and the drinker is also subterranean. It's basically a vault that the big horn sheep would walk down into to get to the water, and again that would be at ground level and below ground level so the visual impact would be limited.

STEVE: How does water get into these tanks?

DAN ABBE: ...a diversion structure which is made out of local materials; rocks as well as cement. And that goes across a desert wash or a drainage... So the idea is that the water that normally goes down these washes and runs into the desert would be diverted into a storage tank and therefore, ...the evaporation rate is eliminated, ...and in some cases we have in the past gone in and added water to some of these storage tanks to ensure that the big horn sheep have reliable water source.

STEVE: So the most obvious surface feature, besides the point where the sheep enters the area to drink, would be the water capture structure across the stream bed?

DAN ABBE: That's correct, ...So you're most likely to see any development as you walk up the wash, you may see the diversion dam but again it would sort of blend-in to the natural environment. You might also see some of the piping that comes from the diversion dam and then runs along the side of the wash eventually down into the tank itself... So we have tried to mitigate some of the impact to wilderness by incorporating a design that's less visually intrusive.

STEVE: So these guzzlers are for the sake of big horn sheep. ...What do they do for water now?

DAN ABBE: ...So the idea behind artificial water sources is to provide a reliable, year-round water source to ensure that the sheep can survive in that particular area or mountain range. As far as what sheep did in the past, ...the ability of sheep to move around the desert and inter-mingle with other herds in other areas has been limited because of the amount of human development and habitat fragmentation.

STEVE: Several groups are fighting this plan. One of them is the California Wilderness Coalition. Brent Schoradt is their deputy policy director.

BRENT SCHORADT: ...The B-L-M, I guess for the last several years, has been proposing damming a desert wash in the Sheephole Valley Wilderness, and using a road that now is a hiking trail, basically using their trucks and motorized equipment to first of all build a dam in the desert wash... And they're proposing to build this permanent structure, this dam, with the road to provide water for big horn sheep. And our whole message on this is, look, dams and roads are not appropriate for designated wilderness areas. These are areas that have been set aside for permanent protection for future generations. In fact, permanent man-made structures are prohibited by the wilderness act, and really we think that the folks that go out and enjoy the wilderness will have their experience impacted negatively by a dam and the road construction.

STEVE: I asked Dan Abbe how they could justify building roads into a wilderness.

DAN ABBE: ...There's sort of a misconception that we would actually be building roads... We're not planning on taking a bulldozer in to grade the road so that vehicles have easy access to the area. Basically, ...we would limit California Fish and Game's access to the area, they would have to use the existing route of travel ...and with no improvements to the road itself.

STEVE: There's an argument that recent vehicle use on a piece of desert land sort of invites more vehicle use, even if it's a posted, vehicle area.

DAN ABBE: That has been an argument and there is definitely anecdotal information that supports the argument that if individuals see vehicle tracks going off into the desert or into a wilderness area, they perceive that as a road and therefore follow those vehicle tracks, or that route. The B-L-M has been fairly aggressive in the past, through the use of S-C-A, Student Conservation Association restoration crews in placing visual barriers as well as hard barriers, and doing educational work with the public in general to try to mitigate vehicle intrusions in wilderness... So as a casual driver would drive by that particular route they wouldn't necessarily notice or recognize it as or a road.

STEVE: But Brent doesn't think this is good enough.

BRENT SCHORADT: Well I can attest to the fact that we visited this site back in October of two thousand and five... So we saw the big wide track tires in the desert sand, and then inside of the track tires we saw A-T-V tracks... And we've already seen that occur even before this project has been approved... and we think it's a clear violation of why these areas have been set aside for permanent protection.

STEVE: ...The problem is that the sheep population is endangered by their inability to migrate, and if providing them water there is the solution that fish and game has, and you don't approve of their solution for doing that, do you have a counter proposal?

BRENT SCHORADT: Well, I think one counter-proposal, initially when this project was brought forth, was ...under the premise that there was an emergency, and that there was drought conditions in the desert, that we needed to get water for the big horn sheep immediately... There's no reason why the B-L-M can't protect the wilderness, and protect the big horn sheep, by providing temporary water sources where they're needed in drought situations that wouldn't permanently degrade the wilderness. ...the B-L-M is saying that habitat has been fragmented over the years, but they're not doing anything to provide more habitat. They're proposing providing more water, but if the habitat is still fragmented in the best case, do they propose, without providing new habitat, how do they propose that the big horn sheep are going to be better off with this guzzler?

STEVE: As climate changes, and human development fragments wilderness areas, this kind of issue is probably coming to a wilderness area near you. How will we keep a place habitable for the wildlife that have lived there as long as anybody can remember? What do you think about the plan to put big game guzzlers into this desert Wilderness? Is this a necessity, or a travesty? We'd like to hear your comments. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to information about the Sheephole Valley Wilderness, and about the California Wilderness Coalition's campaign, on our web site.

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Next time -- a remote wilderness gets closer.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please help assure future editions of this free service; just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number eighty four. Thank you for listening.

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