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Water Shortage Creates Desperate Situations for Wildlife in US West - 2002-05-26

Fire managers remain on high alert as one of the worst droughts in a century is gripping wide regions of the western United States, from New Mexico to Montana. Last week, three wildfires forced the evacuations of thousands of people in northern Arizona. National Forests across the west have imposed campfire restrictions, and many cities are forcing their residents to conserve water. The water shortage has also created a desperate situation for wildlife across the west.

Deborah Lester is spending her Saturday afternoon pounding metal fence posts on the Flying M Ranch, an hour's drive from Flagstaff.

Ms. Lester has the tall, broad-shouldered look of a farm girl and sports a bright red baseball cap that reads "cowgirl". She's one of a group of volunteers setting up water tanks and fencing across a 200,000-hectare swath of northern Arizona. The tanks will eventually provide water to hundreds of elk, deer, antelope, and even cattle. "I mean, they gotta drink, and in this kind of drought, you've gotta bring the water to them and take care of them, because they will suffer if we don't do something out here," she says.

The tanks are going up adjacent to dozens of watering holes that dot the landscape of the 36,000-hectare ranch.

Driving his 1973 flat bed pick-up truck across a dry, dusty lake bed, ranch owner Jack Metzger says those watering holes have become dangerous places. "When the water level gets lower and lower and lower, the bottom gets just like bubble gum. And an animal even a person can't get out of it. It's deadly," he says.

At one watering hole, Mr. Metzger points to the skull and rib cage of an adult elk protruding from the mud around the water's edge. "He got trapped in the bog the mud here," he says. "None of us could walk across this. You'd be trapped up to your waist in mud."

Trapped, the elk slowly starved to death. So now, Mr. Metzger and the six other volunteers are creating an alternate source of water for the wildlife that roam this vast high plain. They've moved a 13,000-liter water tank from the ranch headquarters to the watering hole. Once the tank is in place, they'll pump the water from the existing watering hole into the tank. That tank will supply a 1,500-liter trough the animals will drink from.

It seems like a lot of work to go through for what are supposed to be wild animals, but back in his pick-up, Mr. Metzger says animals have learned to depend on many of these man-made watering holes, so he feels a responsibility when they dry up. "We've added, we being mankind, a lot of artificial water sources," he says. "So for us to say "let the wildlife fend for themselves" in a drought year, would be about as cold hearted as we could be, because we're morally responsible to take care of these animals. And we all have to do it."

They go through the process of setting up water tanks twice on this Saturday. That's in addition to the two they set up the previous weekend and the two more they'll build tomorrow. When that's done, volunteers will build temporary fences around the original watering holes, to keep more animals from getting stuck. And if animals do get stuck, it'll be volunteers who try to pull them out. But it won't be long before the watering holes are pumped completely dry. And when that happens, more volunteers will be needed for the round-the-clock effort to haul water from other sources to keep the tanks filled.

The project is directed by the Diablo Trust, a public-private land management group based in Flagstaff. Rick Miller of the Arizona Game and Fish Department works with the Trust. He warned a group of volunteers this spring that all their efforts might not be enough. "There are some things that we can't do. Even with your help, we can't haul enough water to avoid loss of wildlife. We're going to lose wildlife. Even with your help, we can't even get to all the highest priority sites. It's a big area, and there are places that are worse than Flagstaff," he says.

Mr. Miller says the situation has already reached a critical stage. And it's likely to stay that way for some time. In northern Arizona, the next significant moisture usually doesn't come until monsoon season, around the 4th of July.