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Owyhee bighorns get a safe source of water

October 20, 2006

Owyhee bighorns get a safe source of water

Even with the Owyhee Reservoir nearby, bighorn sheep can have a hard time finding safe drinking water.
But with help from state and federal agencies, sportsmen and irrigation districts, they will have a new year-round water source.

Crews are installing a "guzzler" today in the Leslie Gulch area of the Owyhee canyons in southeast Oregon.

The Leslie Gulch bighorns are Oregon’s most viewable bighorn population and often are found among Leslie Gulch’s world-class red rocks. The area is about a two-hour drive from the Treasure Valley.

"Visitors to Owyhee Canyon country are always delighted when they see bighorn sheep," said wildlife habitat biologist Scott Torland, with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The guzzler project will help ensure that future generations also have the opportunity to encounter bighorn sheep in southeastern Oregon."

The guzzler consists of a collection mat, an 1,800-gallon plastic storage tank, and a small trough from which bighorns can drink. Two similar guzzlers were installed in May.

The guzzlers provide additional fresh water for the third-oldest herd of California bighorn sheep in Oregon, a native species reintroduced to the area in 1965.

Although the herd grew to nearly 300 sheep in the early 1990s, monitoring by Oregon Fish and Wildlife shows the herd has since dwindled to just more than 100.

Studies show the two main causes of the herd’s decline are contaminated drinking water and mountain lion predation.

When prolonged summer heat sets in, blue-green algae begin to grow in water in the upper Owyhee Reservoir and in the streams and small seeps used by the sheep. As the algae decays, it releases a toxin that can be fatal to animals.

Guzzlers on saddles and ridges provide a permanent water source and reduce the need for bighorn sheep to travel to drainage bottoms to reach water, which in turn reduces opportunities for predators and poachers.

Fencing and the use of natural barriers around the guzzlers restrict use by feral animals and livestock.

Today’s guzzler installation was the third of several planned for the area.

The projects will be accomplished thanks to staff and financial support from U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, ODFW, Gem and Owyhee irrigation districts and volunteers from both the Oregon and Idaho Chapters of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. Cesco Equipment Company loaned a backhoe for the project.
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October 23, 2006

More "Guzzlers" Installed on Oregon/Idaho Border

By Michelle DeGrand

Crews of volunteers and Oregon and Idaho state workers spent the weekend installing the third of 12 planned "guzzlers" to be placed on ridges above the Owyhee Reservoir.

When the reservoir is lowered each summer, blue-green algae blooms and can cause massive die-offs in warm-blooded animals, including the already struggling bighorn sheep populations.

"The reservoir is our responsibility and we realize that when we do the summer draw downs that this is what's creating the problem with the blue-green algae so therefore we're rectifying the situation with these guzzlers," said Bureau of Reclamation staffer Gretchen Fitzgerald, who was in Oregon Friday to help install the newest guzzler.

The Bureau of Reclamation has ponied up funding for the troughs and given man hours to help install them alongside volunteers from several wildlife groups like the Wild Turkey Federation and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.

Lloyd Oldenburg is a member of FNAWS, but he also is a retired state wildlife manager, and has installed many guzzlers over the years.

"I think I was involved in my first one in Idaho about 30 years ago," he said, "You're talking about a very dry part of the world and the animals have to make a trek from the top of the mountain down to the reservoir to get water."

That trek alone is a dangerous one. Not only do the animals expend tremendous amounts of energy to make the trip, but they also run into predators waiting for them along the way. Add to that the toxic algae problems in recent years, and the bighorns were in potential trouble.

Photojournalists with the Bureau of Reclamation's Public Affairs Department captured the work on film. They also talked with the volunteers, many of whom have had their hands on a number of guzzler installations.

"I thought this would be a good way to enhance the herds out here because the herds have been hurting because of some of the die-offs we've had and the predators," volunteer with the Turkey Federation Dave Steiefvater told Dave Walsh with the Bureau of Rec.

But the project needs to work to be worth it. After several years of study in other states and monitoring on the two guzzlers installed last year, Bureau officials can confidently say that guzzlers do work.

"They are working and that's why we initiated 12 for the future," Fitzgerald said, "Animals are visiting the site and on other projects in other states they've set up infrared cameras and nighttime cameras and equipment to monitor the sites and see what other critters are visiting the site and they've had success."

And those other critters are also reaping benefits from the mile-high guzzlers. Oldenburg remembers guzzlers he helped install in eastern Idaho several years ago.

"The first thing that we observed was there were deer, there were elk, there was every kind of critter that lives out on the desert was in there getting water just about right away," he said, "you name it and if it lives out there in the wild they're going to benefit from this water."

And for avid volunteers like Steiefvater, knowing that their hard work reaches even farther is worth every shovelful of dirt.

"It's rewarding because you get to see the wildlife have a little better chance of making it," he said, "It's part of my way of returning some of the benefits I've had over the years of being an outdoorsman."

However, the constant creep of the algae each year could mean a whole lot more work for volunteers in the future.

"I imagine there is ongoing research on the blue-green algae," said Fitzgerald, "[but] I don't know that we'll ever be able to fix the problem."

She said global warming could contribute to a growing blue-green algae problem for years to come. That makes the plan to get a dozen guzzlers in now that much more important.
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