Tuesday, May 1, 2018 — The Mojave National Preserve released its Management Plan for Developed Water Sources on March 20 along with the environmental assessment of the plan’s impacts, effectively laying the groundwork for the abandonment or removal of well over 100 historic man-made water sources and developed springs used by wildlife.
The howls from the sporting conservation community, which had been restoring and maintaining the water sources for over 50 years, were immediate.
These wildlife enthusiasts have been down this road before on the Preserve, when its second superintendent, Mary Martin, directed the removal and destruction of historic cattle water sources that had served wildlife for over 75 years. This was a direct violation of the Preserve’s own management plan that called for the evaluation of the impacts that water removal would have on wildlife before they were removed.
That evaluation never happened, but over 100 water sources that benefitted wildlife were removed that time around.
Now, this document lists four alternatives for action within the plan, but all four would lead to the loss of all but two or three of the developed water sources within designated wilderness areas. It would also lead to the loss of dozens of water sources outside of wilderness.
The impacts on wildlife this would cause within the Preserve are dismissed and not addressed in any detail in the plan, calling the impacts “localized and small,” without any supporting documentation, especially for the 130 small game drinkers or guzzlers.
The public had a 30-day window (until April 19) to comment on the plan, which was recently extended to May 19. (More information and copies of the plan are available on the Preserve website at this direct address: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/moja_waterplan_ea.) There was a public hearing held Friday, April 27, in Barstow that was attended by about 30 hunter-conservationists who confronted the park service staff on the plan. There was also some back-pedaling at the meeting.
Todd Suess, Mojave National Preserve superintendent, insisted that removal of man-made water for wildlife on Preserve’s desert land would not happen until studies called for in the plan were complete and proved that they were not serving their intended function.
“We’re not proposing removal [of any water sources] without knowing what’s going on,” said Suess. In fact, Suess insisted that if the studies, required in plan, showed that all of the water sources were important to wildlife and should be maintained, including all 130 small game guzzlers and the handful of big game drinkers, he would “be OK with that.”
“This final plan plainly says that the past 50 years of work developing and maintaining these water sources for wildlife is being abandoned. There is no option to keep them,” said Cliff McDonald, waving a copy of the document. McDonald is the President of Water for Wildlife, a group of hunter-volunteers who have restored and maintained small guzzlers throughout the Mojave Desert and Eastern Sierra Nevada for the past decade.
“The only four options in the plan call for the removal or abandonment of most of the guzzlers,” said McDonald. “There is no option to continue to maintain all of them.”
But Suess said the plan was not “final” suggesting a future version of this “preliminary” document could have other options than the four listed in the current document.
If this was indeed a preliminary draft, none of the Preserve staff could give an adequate answer why the plan’s four options were even included in this “preliminary” document before the science could justify any of the options. And how was there a preferred option that abandoned or removed most of the small game guzzlers?
The NPS staff had bureaucratic explanations that, frankly, didn’t make sense.
Wasn’t it getting the cart before the horse? Why not do the science first, and then come up with a plan and a variety of options based on science instead of releasing a plan with a preferred option even before we know if that is really the “preferred” or best alternative. No adequate answers were given by Preserve staff to these questions.
Debra Hughson, the Preserve’s lead scientist, said that if the public was interested in having another option added to the Plan that would mandate the Preserve continue to allow maintenance and upkeep of all water sources, they should submit that in their comments.
She said that full maintenance of all man-made water was one of the options the Preserve staff considered but dismissed, leaving only the four options that would lead to removal and abandonment of most of the small game guzzlers.
However, the plan dismisses the importance of small game guzzlers without further analysis (abandonment and/or removal to varying degrees is called for in all four options). Yet, the staff must have recognized the guzzlers were likely to be important to wildlife because there is a study planned and being implemented now that would document their importance or lack of importance to wildlife. The idea of maintenance of all guzzlers was not considered, according to the plan. It was dismissed without comment.
What the water management plan did dismiss as not being warranted for study was the impact the reduction of wildlife water sources would have on small game and upland bird hunting on the Preserve, dismissing the impacts as insignificant. Yet, how would a reduction of bird and small game populations – if that is proven to be the case with guzzler removal – not be a detriment to hunting?
There were no adequate answers or explanations given as to why the plan basically dismissed 130 small game guzzlers and their impacts on wildlife or hunting.
“I think it will be proven essential that we keep and maintain all of the water sources on the Preserve,” said McDonald. “That should have been an option in this plan.”
But it is more than the hunter-conservation community that is upset. Behind the scenes, the Department of Fish and Wildlife field staff is seething over the NPS’ plan. These are the scientists who are watching decades of their water development work and resulting successes in wildlife protection and mitigation for natural water source losses across the desert being dismantled.
The official DFW statement from Jordan Traverso, Sacramento-based information chief, hinted at the outrage, but was restrained.
“Natural and reliable surface water sources are not always available in the current desert environment,” she said Saturday. “The Department has worked with many partners over the years, including the NPS, to establish and document the importance of reliable water sources for wildlife. Across the California desert and since the early 1950s, wildlife water developments have provided this basic necessity to support and stabilize desert wildlife populations.
“While wilderness protection would guide land managers toward keeping a natural and undeveloped landscape, the wildlife that live in these landscapes deal with the reality of the anthropogenic changes imposed upon them. Though they offer protection, large and wild spaces alone do not necessarily ensure that a viable wildlife population can be maintained in perpetuity given some of those changes on the landscape.
“As wildlife managers, we look forward to collaborating with land managing agencies to ensure that wildlife and the habitat needs they require are secured when making changes to available resources within the landscape.”
But it is the hunting conservation groups feel betrayed all the way around. Their decades-long conservation efforts to restore and update these man-made guzzlers, spring developments, and the conversion of cattle water to wildlife water on the Preserve are set to be abandoned or destroyed.
In a nutshell, the plan is an assault on all wildlife within the preserve and spells out the agency’s vision of “wilderness.” That vision comes at the expense of all desert wildlife and virtually all the other mandates called for in the Preserve’s management plan. Those who have battled through the 233 pages of “bias and hypocrisy” have pointed out major flaws common to all alternatives.
McDonald was outraged by the lack of common sense in the NPS proposal. He pointed out that the 68 big and small game guzzlers within wilderness occupy less than 3/4s of an acre total ground space of the 804,000 acres of wilderness within the Preserve, but the Preserve staff believes that 3/4 acre impacts “wilderness character” to the detriment of the designation.
“The impact is on one one-millionth of the Preserve’s wilderness. One millionth! How is that impact of the wildness an issue?” asked McDonald. “Don’t the benefits of this water for desert wildlife outweigh the impacts?”
Ironically, even Suess has admitted to DFW staff that the Wilderness Act doesn’t mandate the removal or abandonment of these historic structures to comply with the wilderness designation. In fact, on nearby Bureau of Land Management Lands, also designated wilderness, maintenance and even construction of new guzzlers have been allowed because of the value to wildlife.
According to opponents of the water plan, the hypocrisy comes in when you realize the plan’s alternatives continue to allow at least two big game drinkers within the preserve’s wilderness because of their documented importance to bighorn sheep, but somehow decided the other wildlife drinkers have no importance.
Yet, the National Park Service has done no assessment to evaluate the impact the removal of the other 66 man-made drinkers in wilderness will have on all wildlife that currently use those water sources. It has been determined — apparently by “fiat and lots of hypocrisy” — that quasi-pristine wilderness is more important than wildlife. Ironically, most of the guzzlers would not be removed or their footprint restored, they would simply remain and allowed to decay until non-functional. So, theoretically, the negative impacts will still exist — they just won’t serve an important wildlife function any longer. This is simply insane.
The NPS staff is also mandated to protect and maintain historic sites throughout the Preserve, and most of these guzzlers were made in the 50s, as part of a concerted effort by the state DFW to create and enhance water sources for wildlife, even then recognizing the important to mitigate for urban sprawl and loss of historic natural water sources. There has been no effort by Preserve staff to document the historic value of these guzzlers, as required by law, and their historic status has been used as an excuse to end their restoration and maintenance three years ago. This ban on maintenance was initiated so the park service could determine if they were “historic structures” or not and how to proceed. This determination was supposed to be rolled into the water management plan. But it’s not there.
Suess blamed lack of funding as to why the effort to determine the historic status of guzzlers has not been completed. But the water plan came to conclusions that small game guzzlers were not important in wilderness – and most other not important outside of wilderness – to restore and maintain them. So they must not have been history structures.
Ironically, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has now obstructed the gathering of data that would show the importance of water for the Preserve’s wildlife. Eight years into a comprehensive deer study on the Preserve, the CDFW removed its financial support of the project when it was entering a phase when the importance of man-made water sources would be evaluated and tested by turning on and off some of these sources and measuring impacts. The reason support was removed according to the Sacramento bureaucrats: It wasn’t a high priority. But the top, politically-appointed brass, in the state DFW aren’t champions of hunting – the director of the agency doesn’t eat meat.
The hits just keep coming. The water plan says there are 311 natural springs on the Preserve. Somehow that number has increased in this period of drought from a list of 101 that were found to hold year-around water in the 2008 NPS survey of springs. Many of the 175 suspected springs checked during those surveys proved to be dry or seasonal water sources.
So, how has the number of springs increased?
Is that a fabrication that includes historic (now dry) springs, seasonal seeps, and tenejas? Who knows? Is the number included to make the Preserve seem awash in natural water?
It’s not. It’s a desert and barren of wildlife where there is not available water. Sadly, that includes most of the Preserve’s lands. Where there’s water, the Preserve is a wildlife oasis.
So what is this water removal plan really all about?
That is the mammoth in the creosote that no one is talking about:
Fundamentally, it is about the bias the NPS staff has against the Preserve’s number one visitor: Hunters. Hunters still make up the bulk of the visitation on the Preserve. Hunters are the only volunteers trying to maintain this desert wildlife water since that job was abandoned by the California DFW and never even attempted by the federal land management agencies, like the NPS.
Hunters (and cattle ranchers) are the only reason there is the diversity and quantity of wildlife there is on the Preserve. Over 350 species of birds and mammals have been documented on the man-made water. (So, no, it’s not only about the seven species of wildlife that may be hunted in the desert, as many Preserve staff apparently believe.) Preserving and adding water in desert is a good thing for all wildlife, and it is a means of mitigating for what has been lost through human activity elsewhere in the Mojave Desert.
But it still sticks in the craw of the National Park Service staff that hunting was allowed on the vast property, and they are willing to sacrifice the Preserve’s wildlife to try to reduce or eliminate the number of hunters. They are willing to abandon 75 years of solid conservation efforts to bring the deer and desert sheep herds back. They are willing to dramatically reduce the numbers and diversity of birds and small mammals for their agenda.
That is certainly how it seems. There is no other explanation for this insanity. They all know the Wilderness Act doesn’t mandate actions this extreme. There is simply no other explanation, although they vehemently deny this in public.
Hopefully, enough people will get their federal representatives involved. Maybe then Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of Interior, will hear about this outrageous proposal and have it quietly withdrawn because it clearly violates Interior policy about cooperation with state game agency efforts and a recent policy to enhance recreational opportunities — like hunting — where appropriate.
The NPS staff got away with illegally ripping out the cattle/wildlife water and seriously impacted the Preserves wildlife populations over a decade ago. That can’t happen again.