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National Park Service policies slowly decimating wildlife on Mojave Preserve


The National Park Service has been implementing the systemic destruction of water sources on the Mojave National Preserve that is leading to long-term declines of wildlife and reducing their distribution across the desert.

The first superintendent, Mary Martin, implemented the removal of over 100 waters sources that had been on the Preserve for 80 years or more. These were developed springs and wells spread water across vast areas of desert via pipeline to cattle water sources, but wildlife had come to rely on these permanent water sources.

Now, the current superintendent, Todd Suess is implementing the new water management plan the calls for the removal or abandonment of over 120 of the 130 man-made drinkers – usually called guzzlers – that were built just for wildlife in the 1950 and 60s. Suess has prevented volunteers from repairing and filling those guzzlers for three years, effectively undoing over 50 years of ongoing wildlife management and mitigation.

The NPS rationale for this policy is simple: These man-made devices are unnatural and should not be in a National Park/Preserve, especially not inside wilderness areas. The NPS didn’t adopt this same policy in regards to other “unnatural” features -- campgrounds, visitor centers, roads, or wells they have made or maintain for the infrastructure of the Preserve and its visitors. But the wildlife water is apparently expendable.

The agency has also violated a number of laws, its own management plan for the Preserve, and the public trust with these actions.

In the original management plan, none of the man-made water sources – including the cattle wells, stock tanks, and extensive pipeline system linking a massive water system together – were to be removed before the importance of this water to native wildlife was evaluated. The guzzlers were not to be abandoned or removed before analyzing the impact their loss would have on wildlife that used these water sources. But none of these things were done. Even other peer-reviewed science that showed how important was to desert wildlife was ever considered. There were no NPS studies done before any water sources were removed or abandoned.

This is not rocket science. You remove an isolated water source, and the local wildlife dies or moves. The species loses access to the habitat once occupied around the water source. Even if this wildlife finds another source of water, the population numbers decline because the habitat is now stressed from more wildlife on the same resources. There is a net decline of the population of all those displaced species. This happened over 100 times with Mary Martin, and it is happening again with Suess.

Hunters still represent the largest number of visitors on the Preserve, people who spend time on the ground and not just drive through. They camp and hike the incredible terrain and marvel at its diverse wildlife. And it is hunters who are noticing the impacts of this water loss. There are fewer coveys of Gambel’s quail, and these birds are no longer being seen in vast areas of the Preserve. They all note that where there are permanent water sources, there are still a lot of quail. Overall, however, numbers have declined dramatically.

In spite of what the anti-hunters will tell you, this isn’t just about species that are hunted. But there are simply few other people out there with historic knowledge. Hunters know that these drinkers are used by over 100 different species of wildlife. Areas that used to teem with life, from buzzing wild bees to cactus wrens, to flickers, and grey fox are now quiet, lifeless places. There aren’t any quail, either. It’s – well – it’s become a desert, a barren desert instead of a desert oasis. That’s what the desert inside the Preserve used to be – an oasis.

Because the NPS didn’t follow its management plan, didn’t do what it promised the public it would do, by documenting the wildlife that used these water sources and the overall populations across the Preserve, we have no idea of the magnitude of the wildlife losses or the shrinkage of the ranges used by species. With only hunters’ anecdotal observations, the NPS staff can deny the impacts.

The NPS has been very good about not following through on any of its promises or even the policies and laws they are supposed to follow. It goes well beyond wildlife.

The cattle water, the facilities, and windmills were never even really considered for national historic status and maintained so visitors could see the ranching heritage that existed in the area before becoming a Preserve. We were told repeatedly that the guzzlers were also being examined for historic status so they could be maintained – not just for their value to wildlife – but also to show an era when simple man-made devices assisted desert wildlife. No historic analysis was ever done on anything relating to water. The cattle water was ripped out. Guzzlers are being abandoned and some will be removed.

Yet, we have been told repeatedly by Suess that if the guzzlers proved to be important for wildlife, all of them (even those inside wilderness) could and would be maintained. The recently approved Water Management clearly says that is simply not an option. It always said that. Suess was just placating the public.

The bias against this man-made water in the Preserve borders on being a vendetta that ignores law, policy, and public promises, and it appears this is a systemic problem within the NPS. No other options – even those within the scope of its policies and laws – were ever considered.

This is sad because the Preserve’s water and man-made water enhancements were mitigating for natural water loses due to drought and groundwater pumping in the desert. It was mitigating for dry springs and wildlife losses elsewhere. The Preserve used to be a desert oasis.

The NPS management of the Preserve desert is an embarrassment of smugness. It shows the deaf ear federal bureaucracies turn to valid public concerns and even peer-reviewed science. We know this water is, was, important to wildlife, but their ideology is more important.


Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

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