December 8, 2009 – Water Sources

Water is scarce in the northern Bighorn Basin. We are surrounded by mountains on virtually all sides, and we are really in the rain shadow of each of these mountains. As I alluded to in my previous post, this is a problem as there isn’t a whole lot of water available on the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range. Why is this a problem? The obvious reason is that it isn’t great for the horses if there isn’t much water for them, especially given the summer temperatures we can get here. The reason that is very important right now, though, is that having few sources of water over the PMWHR tends to cause the horses to spend the majority of their time in the summer in the areas with available water. This in turn can lead to the overgrazing of certain areas while the horses spend little or no time grazing in areas lacking water. This type of situation isn’t uncommon in wild horse areas. Overgrazing isn’t necessarily the big issue, grazing distribution is. Water availability is often the cause of this. At this time, this is what the distribution of water sources in the PMWHR looks like: (Please click on the map for a larger version.)

These are the major water sources on the PMWHR. At the top are the most familiar water sources. These are only available in the summer, and Krueger’s Pond is the only one that tends to have reliable water available through the warm seasons. The others small ponds up there can have a little water available later, though, depending on summer precipitation patterns.

In the middle of the PMWHR are the Burnt Timber and Sykes Ridge water developments. The Burnt Timber development was an old water catchment that had been in disrepair but was upgraded with two new guzzlers by the BLM in 2007. The Sykes Ridge development actually consists of a catchment tank that feeds into a trough. The trough must be manually filled up with water through a spigot there. Those of us who know where it is try to keep some water in there, but it’s not an optimal situation.

The other water sources are in the lowlands. Layout Creek is a primary water source for the horses living in and around Mustang Flats. The Park Service actually has a watering area in the creek built for the horses, but they’ll often be seen watering at other areas along the creek as well. Down south is Crooked Creek Bay; this is where the Park Service entrance to the PMWHR is. West of there are Sykes Springs and Cottonwood Springs, these are important watering areas for the Dryhead horses living in the lower Sykes Ridge area.

Notice that the best available water is in the little area at the top of the PMWHR as well as in the lower end of the PMWHR. The mid-slope, which is the largest area of the PMWHR, is lacking in water. These areas get use when there is snow on the ground, but they aren’t getting as much use as they could while the upper and lower elevation areas receive too much use. In response to this pattern, the BLM outlined plans in the new PMWHR Herd Management Area Plan (HMAP) to make the grazing distribution of the horses more uniform by making water sources more uniform. The plan was released in May, but I understand legal action prevented the projects, such as the water developments, from being installed this year. However, in talking with the BLM recently, I was happy to learn that there are plans to install the developments next spring.

So where will there be water with the new water developments? Here’s a map showing the proposed sites, which are the red dots, along with the existing water sources described above. There are plans to do minor improvements on existing ponds, potholes, and the like; but I want to focus on the guzzlers, which we’ll get to down below. (Please click on the map for a larger version.)

As can be seen, these new water developments are concentrated largely in the mid-slope. Again, this is so that the horses don’t concentrate in small areas but instead spread out. Recall back to an earlier post in the Management Series that discussed the calculation of Appropriate Management Level. AML takes grazing into consideration, and having more uniform grazing can allow for an increase in AML.

So what do these guzzlers look like? The BLM’s got some purchased, and I went and took some photographs of them. Below are 3 guzzlers together. Each site will have one to two guzzlers.

At the end of them is the area where water is available for drinking. This area is constructed so virtually any wildlife can safely get to water. These guzzlers will definitely benefit the other wildlife of the PMWHR along with the wild horses; Bighorn Sheep are sometimes spotted at the Burnt Timber guzzler.

The guzzlers are pretty big with a capacity of 1800 gallons. They are also very resilient and require very little maintenance. This is what they look like inside.

As I mentioned above, the Burnt Timber water development was upgraded with guzzlers a couple years ago. It gives an idea of what they look like installed, though the new ones will be less conspicuous as they will have new catchment aprons; the one below still has its original one.

So in the back you can see the apron, it is the black square on the ground. Water collects there and then runs down to the two guzzlers through underground pipes.

Notice how when installed, the guzzlers are buried so that the watering area is just above ground.

We often associate management with actions that are directly related to the wild horses, like roundups. However, range improvement projects, like the development of new water sources, are another method of wild horse management. These types of projects focus on maximizing the population size that the land can carry. Still, though, the land can only carry so many horses; and so actions that focus on population management are sometimes needed. In the next posts in the management series, we’ll start talking about population management strategies.

I’m frequently heard saying that it’s only fair to scrutinize a management strategy’s effects on the horses if we ask the same questions of the alternatives. With that said, I think it would be useful if some of the questions you may have are shared with me, so that we can go through management strategies by comparing their effects. Please write a comment here with any questions you may be able to think of, or feel free to use the PMWMC contact form by clicking here. These are very relevant topics right now, and I think they are well worth understanding.

Published in: on December 8, 2009 at 3:34 pm  Comments (14)