As a child, during our annual Texas pilgrimage from Houston to El Paso on Interstate 10, the brown expanse seemed to go on forever, especially once we crossed the Pecos River. Fortunately, my parents believed in stopping periodically to let me throw rocks and burn off some of the energy that I had stored up while sitting behind the back seat amongst the ice chest and luggage.
Sometimes we would pull out near an old spring or creek where there might be a few trees standing in defiance of the rocky surroundings. It became evident, even then, that most of the sparse development in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas was near accessible water.
I was just passing through, of course, but for those hardy souls who were trying to make a living out there, the proximity of water was as big a part of supporting the delicate balance of life in the desert as anything.
By 1960, the last wild desert bighorn sheep in Texas was gone. Decades of unregulated hunting and disease from domestic sheep were more than enough to finish off the last of the population in Texas. In the nearly 60 years since then, reintroduction efforts have helped the sheep slowly make their way back into the Trans-Pecos fauna. Providing accessible water has played a pivotal role.
At Black Gap Wildlife Management Area just east of Big Bend National Park, bighorn sheep must contend with the challenges of the Chihuahuan Desert: weather and habitat. The Rio Grande River borders one side, but the remaining land has relatively few dependable natural water sources in the form of scattered springs and seasonal, natural watering holes. As attempts have been made to nurture the sheep population, habitat managers have sought to help by adding additional drinking opportunities.
Natural Resource Specialist Travis Smith has played an integral role at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Black Gap for 11 years and knows the fickle nature of the area’s moisture all too well. “From what I have been told by some of the older landowners in this area, guzzlers were being put in sometime in the ’50s. Header dams were being put in before that in the ’30s and ’40s to help with domestic livestock production.”
A header dam is formed by blocking off a natural path of water runoff by piling dirt, rocks, or other natural material to make an impromptu water tank—a crude but effective and inexpensive method. A guzzler, on the other hand, is essentially an inverted roof with a gutter running down the center that funnels rainwater into storage tanks that hold 2,500 gallons or more. The tanks, in turn, feed a reservoir controlled by a float valve that provides an area from which animals can drink.
The water needs to be where the sheep feel at home. In addition to adequate food sources, good sheep habitat in the Trans-Pecos has terrain for easy escape and excellent sight lines of predators—lots of rocks and abrupt elevation changes, often far from the nearest road or even on the side of a mountain. More often than not, helicopters are used to deliver supplies and workers to the site. At close to $1,000 per hour, costs can quickly rise.
Fortunately, the Texas Bighorn Society (TBS), a private conservation group of wildlife enthusiasts particularly devoted to desert bighorn sheep, has stepped in and provided support. This group donates not only supplies but also labor. These water sources get their biggest boost of the year around March, during an annual work project led by TBS working in conjunction with TPWD to target optimal locations.
Travis points out, “The guzzlers were originally constructed for mule deer and bighorn sheep but do benefit all animals: quail, songbirds, reptiles, and predators. We have tried to place water sources within 2 miles of each other, or closer, so that if an animal is exactly between two guzzlers it only has a maximum of 1 mile to travel to get water.” When I asked Travis about collateral benefits to gamebirds, he pointed out, “Not only are guzzlers a source of water, but they are also a source of food for quail, in that with water comes insects and seeds.”
Not far from Black Gap, also in Southeastern Brewster County, Bonnie McKinney, the wildlife coordinator for El Carmen Land and Conservation Company, oversees the use of a smaller device that she refers to as a “quail condo.” A sort of miniature guzzler with two 15-gallon storage tanks, these add a set of touch valves for water access, which are enclosed in a cube of heavy hog wire, allowing birds to drink with at least a little peace of mind. Bonnie appreciates the transformative nature of condos, saying, “The beauty of the quail condo is that you may have some great quail habitat but no water available nearby. Adding the condos in these areas provides a permanent water source and opens up a lot more quail habitat, as well as providing water sources for other birds like dove and small mammals, such as ground squirrels. Both scaled and Gambel’s quail use them. We also use a high-protein seed block as a supplemental food source.”
Because of its precious nature in such arid locations, added water extends benefits across the spectrum of flora and fauna. Though plenty of life goes on without constant standing water, adding it reveals startling diversity. Insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds all eventually find it. Sul Ross University’s Borderlands Research Institute in Alpine, Texas, recently completed a pilot study using trail cameras to look at the biodiversity of guzzler use. Preliminary data showed 16 different bird species along with mule deer, pronghorn, and desert bighorn frequenting the water.
As decisions are made about utilization of our natural re-sources by those who care about habitat, there is satisfaction in knowing that crucial water sources will be well trodden by not only upland birds but by many species of wildlife in the future.
Originally published in Volume 8, Number 6 (October-November 2020) of Covey Rise.
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