With the Southwest drying up, water guzzlers placed throughout the San Juan Mountains for wildlife are becoming ever more important.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service, in partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (then the Division of Wildlife) started to place water guzzlers on the landscape for big game as well as some bird species.
“They’re really important,” said Brandy Richardson with the Forest Service in Pagosa Springs. “They provide a valuable source of water for wildlife of all types, especially in areas where water is limited.”
Decades ago, these agencies used fiberglass guzzlers, some of which had to be helicoptered into remote areas, while others could be brought in by vehicle and assembled on-site.
Essentially, a catchment structure captures snowmelt and rain, and then stores that water in tanks. The water then can be accessed by elk, deer and mountain lions, as well as a wide range of bird species.
Throughout the San Juan National Forest, there are nearly 70 water guzzlers placed in select areas, Richardson said.
The old, burly fiberglass guzzlers could hold anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water, depending, of course, on how much snowmelt and rain there are in a given year to be stored, she said.
But in recent years, the Forest Service has been chipping away at replacing guzzlers throughout the forest with new models that are lighter, more weather resistant and easier to manage.
The new model has two separate guzzlers side by side that can store up to 1,000 gallons all told. The updated structures also make it easier for wildlife to access the water, and also more effectively keep smaller animals from falling in.
“There’s a ramp they can walk down into and drink, rather than stick their head into a hole like the old style,” Richardson said.
Many of the original guzzlers were placed with the assistance of oil and gas companies looking to offset the impacts of their developments. As a result, a good number of guzzlers are found throughout the HD Mountains.
But, for the most part, the guzzlers were placed in strategic areas based on habitat. The Forest Service has not installed many watering holes in new locations over the years, and is instead replacing the old models with the new.
“(The guzzlers) are scattered all over the forest,” Richardson said.
Brad Weinmeister with CPW said the agency has undertaken a couple of water guzzler construction projects over the years. Typically, wildlife officials tend to look for areas with good habitat, forage, forest cover and space – but no water.
“(When) the thing that’s limiting is water, something like a guzzler makes sense,” he said. “It makes it more complete (the habitat) for those animals. And by doing that, we get use in areas where maybe we don’t have wildlife.”
Several issues have to be considered when installing a guzzler, Weinmeister said.
For one, placing a source of water in an area where water is limited is likely to draw a number of animals to one, concentrated area, which raises concern about diseases spreading among different species.
And, Weinmeister said it’s fair to assume predators, such as mountain lions, would take advantage of the watering hole, lurking in the shadows for prey, such as elk, deer and desert bighorn sheep.
(Nothing prohibits hunters from staking out near water guzzlers, an occurrence public land managers say does happen.)
Michael Remke, forest ecologist with Mountain Studies Institute but speaking on his own behalf, said water guzzlers have a complex history in the West.
In northern Arizona, for instance, Remke said as Merriam’s elk were killed to extinction, and Rocky Mountain elk were introduced, guzzlers became critical because the larger animal needed more water in an area that lacks surface water.
Attempts to reach the Arizona Game and Fish Department were unsuccessful.
But Remke said several other external factors have created the need to offer water to wildlife.
Livestock such as cattle, Remke said, have altered natural surface springs, and these domestic animals can compete for water with wildlife in water-scarce areas, therefore creating a need for water guzzlers.
And, he said, surface water and groundwater use across the western U.S. has depleted many aquifers, which has lowered the base flow of and degraded many natural springs, furthering the need for human-made watering holes.
And on top of all this, a prolonged drought struck the Southwest.
“So are guzzlers critical? Yes. Are they likely a needed reality given climate change? Yes,” Remke said.
“But also I think they are a Band-Aid for some of our compounding issues ... and I think we need to also prioritize spring restoration and protection, more progressive perspectives on range management, and also considerations for the impacts some of our water-use activities have on groundwater and ecosystem services.”
Indeed, even while Weinmeister praises the use of water guzzlers, he said the severe and prolonged drought in the region poses an even greater risk to wildlife, namely the loss of vegetation and food sources.
“Water (for wildlife) is important, but I think even more important with the drought is the foliage has degraded so much,” he said. “That’s major and widespread.”