On-line Book

Book Cover
Fauna Series No. 6








Life History





Fauna of the National Parks — No. 6
The Bighorn of Death Valley
National Park Service Arrowhead


The research covered by this report, though centered on the bighorn, inevitably points toward many interrelated fields of ecological investigation. These include the wild burro, the fluctuating and vulnerable water supplies of Death Valley, and the needs and aspirations of man himself.

Our work with the bighorn has been of sufficient scope to provide much data significant to an understanding of the Death Valley environment, and to its protection. However, it represents only the beginning of the work that can be accomplished. It indicates many additional lines of research that promise to yield useful results. Such research can lead toward management and interpretive programs designed to accomplish a twofold objective: (a) To help the bighorn of the Southwest deserts to survive mankind at the flood, and (b) to help mankind more fully to comprehend and enjoy the beauty of form and of desert adaptation presented by the bighorn and his way of life.

Our related wildlife water survey presents far-reaching opportunities for taking research findings off the shelf and translating them into a firm program of wildlife interpretation and management.

Further research will be required to determine the exact ecological impact of the feral burro on all the park biota. While our work has proved the burro to be much less of a villain with respect to the bighorn than had been feared in earlier years, it has not suggested that, from an ecological standpoint, he is a desirable part of the Death Valley biota. If, for example, a small herd should be maintained to provide historical atmosphere, a firm management program would be required to avoid serious ecological consequences.

The ecological role of the deer, in relation not only to the bighorn but to various desert shrubs, is a subject barely investigated so far. The condition of some of these shrubs under present deer-browsing pressure indicates in turn the need for a better understanding of the possible role of the larger predators in holding the deer within the carrying capacity of their range.

As in many other areas of the National Park System, more information will be needed to assure the survival of normal numbers of various predatory species in the region, particularly in centers of habitat occupied by inholdings.

Research accomplished over the past 8 years on the interrelationships between bighorn, burros, forage, water, and humans, has stimulated much interest. The information thus gained already is being reflected in interpretation and protection programs. Much more can be accomplished by following various leads opened up by this preliminary research. The resulting increased comprehension in turn helps to create attitudes of overall responsibility for conservation over and above individual interpretive and protection assignments.

Further research along the various lines indicated could provide additional material for the Service's regular programs of inservice training in conservation conducted for its personnel. Since the impact of human visitation will tend to increase each year, as forecasts of increasing visitation become reality, further research can provide much-needed periodic measurements and evaluations of this impact on the ecology, in turn making possible the necessary offsetting precautions.

In this severely arid region, water is the keynote of the research program, to which geology, archeology, botany, and zoology contribute and relate. Human occupation of Death Valley has resulted in the development of some new water sources, offsetting in part the usurpation of some old ones. Mining activities have been specially productive of both these results. An expanded research program should include studies of the various ecological effects of mining operations, with the objective of determining how these may be so carried out as to result in the least harm and to convey the maximum benefits to the natural biota.

The boundary of the monument does not afford complete ecological protection because it does not include the entire Panamint biota. The ecological difficulty of attempting to preserve half a biota is too well known to require elaboration of this point.

In view of the apparent inability of bighorn permanently to coexist with man at their ancestral watering places, it appears obvious that protection of the animals will require that all possible avenues be explored for preventing nonessential penetration of their domain by powered vehicles of any kind. Similarly, camping and some other forms of human use, if extended into areas where bighorn now range, would be inimical to their continued welfare.

The possibility needs to be taken into account that camping or construction near spring areas not already in such use could bring far-reaching consequences, for the withdrawal of a spring from bighorn use means not only the loss of water, but, as with Navel, Twin, and Blackwater Springs, it can mean the loss, along with each spring, of hundreds of square miles of bighorn range as well. Navel Spring is on the verge of no longer being an acceptable area for bighorn. Similarly, unless research can point the way toward effective ecological countermeasures, mill-site claims on Blackwater and Twin Springs could be the first step toward possible eventual extermination of the Tucki Mountain herd.

Obviously, further research needs and opportunities with respect to the Death Valley biota are sufficient to fully occupy an ecologist, or a team of ecologists, of broad experience in various related fields of wildlife research and management, for an indefinite period. However, in advance of this needed team approach, enough already has been learned from studies so far completed to materially enhance the effectiveness of the protection program for the monument.

The future status of the bighorn is inexorably tied to the attitude of man toward the natural world in which he lives. The nature of this attitude may determine the quality as well as the quantity of encroachment with which the entire world community of living things will have to contend—whether, as Aldo Leopold expressed it, man continues to consider himself the conqueror of the living world or attains the wisdom to become a fellow citizen in it, sharing with other creatures the rights and privileges of living. Death Valley National Monument and other units of the National Park System are regarded by many research workers as outdoor laboratories or classrooms where man can obtain, through the scientific study of these natural areas, a more complete understanding of America's lands and environments everywhere, and develop ways of living ever more harmoniously on these lands.

The present piece of research is but a first step in what is hoped will be a continuing, overall program of ecological investigation of Death Valley as an entity. But returning to the bighorn, our last recommendation is this: If we want to insure the future of the bighorn in Death Valley, we, the human occupants, must decide at what point we are willing to discipline our own ecological use of the valley; to what extent we are willing to share with other living things the privilege of enjoyment of the vast distances, the isolated oases, the miracle of a desert spring—curbing to some necessary extent the human tendency, normal elsewhere, to consume the environment, so that we may maintain the unique natural values of this area as a place of special enjoyment and of scientific study—a permanent haven for the bighorn and for ourselves.

top of page Top

Last Modified: Thurs, May 16 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home