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Fauna Series No. 6








Life History





Fauna of the National Parks — No. 6
The Bighorn of Death Valley
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If the present comfortably optimistic statistics of the Death Valley bighorn population could be projected with undiminished clarity into the predictable future, this report would be justified in no other recommendation than to leave things as they are. Unfortunately, the picture grows dim with projection and things cannot be left as they are.

The opening paragraph of the summary of the 1955 census report reads as follows:

While the figures themselves look good there is no room for complacency in the picture. The census disclosed jeep tracks in every canyon. The pressure is increasing. Our own observations are buttressed by figures given in Time magazine, July 25, 1955, in an article ominously listed on the cover, "American Desert, the Air-conditioned Frontier." I say "ominous" from the point of view of preserving any part of the desert in its primitive state. One quotation alone will point out what I mean: "[since 1940] on California's Mojave Desert the population has soared from 32,000 to 147,000, an increase of 360% in 15 years.

The traffic counters on the monument highways and the jeep tracks in the canyons fit Death Valley into the picture, dominated by the probability that the population of the United States will be doubled in 40 years. ("From Mankind at the Flood," July—September 1955 issue, National Parks Magazine.)

If the present status of existing water and food supplies could be maintained with no more human and exotic encroachment of any kind the bighorns' future undoubtedly would be assured, but the pressure described in 1955 is increasing everywhere on the desert more rapidly than ever.

Four years ago dozens of lots could be bought for taxes in Beatty, Nev., 11 miles from the monument boundary; today none can. And a minor land boom is in progress at Lathrop Wells, 29 miles north of Death Valley Junction. Both of these happenings indicate the general trend in the desert.

The demand for accommodations at all resorts in the region has reached an alltime high. The overflow of campers during the 1958 Christmas holidays was unprecedented, with more campers in undesignated areas than at any other time on record with the exception of the Death Valley 49'ers celebrations. Today we find evidence of prolonged camping at Willow Creek, Virgin Spring, Rhodes Well (3-1/2 miles northeast of Jubilee Pass), Navel Spring, and Daylight Spring (in Daylight Pass), to name only a few.

Three of these areas, Willow, Virgin, and Navel Springs, are ancestral and current strongholds of the bighorn, and the other two once were but have been completely diverted to human use, one by the National Park Service on behalf of the visiting public and the other by mining interests.

Willow Creek and Virgin Spring apparently were divested of bighorn rights by prospectors during the depression and have but recently regained a semblance of their former populations.

The population of the Navel Spring area met distress during the summer of 1958 as described in our notes:

August 27, 1958. It was 119° yesterday. In the morning we went to see how much work has been done since yesterday. Navel Spring will never look the same. Some of the mesquites have been bulldozed out and the floor of the little canyon entrance to the spring has been cleared and leveled. Work not completed, evidently. Timbers for shoring piled around.

However, the two half-drums for the sheep were full of water, with fresh tracks of recent, but slight, use.

The two-car-wide newly graded road, visible from Highway 190, is an open invitation for anyone to drive up to Navel Spring, to camp beside the water, or to wait at the water to try to force the sheep to come close enough for photography.

Navel Spring is Government owned, but a private company has water rights there. This development represents a definite encroachment into the bighorn domain and emphasizes the general nature of the competition between bighorn and human use.

This construction work was being done within 100 feet of the only water available to the Navel herd, during several weeks of the hottest and driest part of the summer when access to water is imperative for lamb survival. A later report from one of the miners engaged in the work indicated that "for the first 3 or 4 weeks we saw about 75 head altogether. They'd come and stand up on top and watch and maybe they'd come on down to drink, real spooky, and maybe they wouldn't. And finally they quit coming altogether."

Navel Spring is the one permanent water source for the entire Paleomesa, Red Amphitheater, Furnace Creek, and Big Wash area, as well as the recently included Pyramid Peak extension of the monument boundary. If extensive visitor encroachment should complete the encroachment already begun for the purpose of diverting water for human use, the inclusion of Pyramid Peak in the monument for bighorn protection could become futile.

This fact is incontrovertible: We have in Death Valley no record of continued bilateral utilization of spring areas by both man and bighorn. What Adrey Borell wrote in 1935 must be repeated here: that he had "talked with many prospectors and miners about sheep and every one of them had the same answer: 'There were quite a few sheep when we first came here, but us just being here, what with blasting and all, we hardly see them anymore'." (Borell, 1935.)

On the 4th of April 1956, we talked with a Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who for 3 years in the thirties had operated a mill at Virgin Spring. During the entire time, they "saw sheep on the ridges and mountains above the spring, looking down, but they never came to water."

And in 1958 at Navel Spring "after 3 or 4 weeks they didn't come any more."

Navel Spring is not an isolated case. During the progress of this survey, comparable developments have taken place at Keane Spring, Grapevine Mountains, Tin Mountain, Skidoo, and Trail Canyon.

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