Water Drops Saving Nevada’s Desert Bighorns

Nevada is a facing an intense drought.

Southern Nevada in particular is in the grips of one of the worst droughts in decades, along with much of the Western United States.

While researching the drought for a series of articles on about its impact on wildlife, I noticed something.

The area I photographed this beautiful desert bighorn in Jan. 2020 for our Sheep Scrapbook Project was facing some of the worse conditions. Having a love for that part of the world, I dug deeper.

A desert bighorn ram (with an ear tag) photographed by the author in Nevada in 2020.

What I found out is the drought conditions are so bad in fact, officials with the Nevada Department of Wildlife are dropping water from helicopters to “guzzlers” set in the desert for bighorns and other wildlife.

Guzzlers collect water from rain and concentrate it in a water trough for animals to use during particularly arid conditions.

The following are my questions about the project and answers from Doug Nielsen, Public Affairs/Conservation Education Supervisor with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

A herd of bighorns at a guzzler. (Photo Courtesy Nevada Department of Wildlife)

(Chester Moore) How much water was brought to the guzzlers?

(Doug Nielsen) Between June 2 and July 14, the department hauled 71,846 gallons of water to 20 different water developments or guzzlers. Most of those are in the extreme Southern Nevada area, but a couple are near Tonopah in the Central part of the state.  In 2020, that number was 167,000 gallons and it was distributed among 30 guzzlers.

How was the water put into the individual guzzlers?

Basically, the water is ferried by helicopters using a Bambi Bucket like those used to fight wildland fires. The helicopter pilot dips the bucket into a portable water storage tank and then flies the water into the remotely located guzzler. At the guzzler, the pilot drops the water into a fol-da-tank and from there it is pumped into the storage tank of the guzzler. In past years the water was dropped onto an apron, but this new method saves water and is much more efficient.

A water drop at a guzzler in the southern Nevada desert. (Photo Courtesy Nevada Department of Wildlife)

How many sheep in the area could potentially be impacted?

The hardest hit area at the time was the Muddy Mountain-Black Mountain complex. Between the two ranges there are approximately 900 sheep, the largest concentration of sheep in the state.

A big desert bighorn ram visits a guzzler. (Photo Courtesy Nevada Department of Wildlife)

How does this drought compare to the 1996 drought there and the ones in 01-02 timeframe?

I spoke with Pat Cummings, field biologist in the Southern Region, and he said the two years of severe back-to-back drought are far worse than that of 1996. We had no monsoonal weather flow in 2019 or 2020, and any other rain storms were almost nonexistent. Though we had some monsoonal moisture in July, he said it is premature to consider Southern Nevada as being out of the drought. Some recharge of the water developments and springs has taken place, but there are still areas of significant concern. Those include the Hiko, Specter, Bare and McCullough mountain ranges.

In 2020 we went 240 days without measurable precipitation. So far in 2021, we have had only 13 days with rain and 2.8 inches of rain.

(Thanks to Doug for providing us with the great information and photos.)

This is the U.S. Drought Monitor’s drought map as of Aug. 12. You can see most of the West is in extreme drought. The dark red portions are considered “significant drought” which is above the extreme phase. Get full details here.

This is truly a monumental conservation effort and if the drought in Nevada continues, more water drops will certainly be necessary. Desert bighorns can drink up to a gallon a day and then you factor in other wildlife’s water demands and you can see the tremendous problem drought is causing in the wild lands of the American west.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife is doing all they can to conserve wild sheep under these challenging conditions as are other states facing similar scenarios.

We can do our part by supporting groups that offer support like The Wild Sheep Foundation and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited who help support sheep through funding, research and manpower efforts that aid state, federal and tribal agencies.

These are special animals and during this trying time all of who have a heart for them need to do our part to ensure their survival in all areas.

Chester Moore

2 thoughts on “Water Drops Saving Nevada’s Desert Bighorns”

Leave a Reply