Do mule deer in Mojave National Preserve need more water? It may seem like a silly question. After all, it’s a desert—doesn’t everything need more water? Scientists at Mojave National Preserve are working with the California Department of Fish & Game (CDFG) and researchers at the University of Nevada-Reno to answer this question, and a few others.
Why Mule Deer?
Mule deer are native to many parts of the Mojave Desert. While anecdotal evidence from early residents suggests that a population of mule deer may have occupied piñon-juniper and sagebrush habitats in what is now Mojave National Preserve, it is unclear whether they historically occupied the area. Whatever the case, in 1948, in order to expand nearby populations, CDFG released nine bucks and 31 does into the New York and Providence mountains. Today, Mojave National Preserve encompasses one of the most significant habitats for mule deer in the Mojave Desert. Hunting of this mule deer population started in 1955 and continues to this day.
Cattle have grazed in the Mojave Desert for over 100 years. In the desert, ranchers use a system of wells to provide water for animals as they are moved between various areas of forage to avoid over-utilization and maximize livestock production. When the wells are turned on through the use of windmills, pumps, generators, and so forth, water fills into a watering trough or other similar basin. The watering troughs remain filled as long as the wells are turned on. Troughs are allowed to go dry when not in use.
With the establishment of Mojave National Preserve in 1994, hunting of mule deer (and other wildlife) continued to be permitted in accordance with CDFG regulations. Cattle ranching and grazing, too, continued to be permitted. Since then, several ranchers have willingly sold their lands and grazing rights, and their grazing allotments have been retired. These ranchers had the right to remove their personal property, including range improvements such as fences, water tanks, pipelines and windmills. The wells that were constructed to provide water for cattle were shut off.
While annual buck kill data show a slight upward trend since 2001, some long-time residents and observers believe that mule deer and other wildlife populations had declined since cattle watering systems were shut down. Reduced grazing pressure, dramatic differences in annual precipitation and loss of water distribution systems for livestock are all factors that may be affecting deer populations. In 2004, CDFG, in cooperation with Safari Club International, Quail Unlimited, the California Deer Association, the Mule Deer Foundation, Desert Wildlife Unlimited, and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, proposed to retrofit or reactivate 12 retired ranching wells to provide water for deer and other wildlife.
Before issuing a special use permit for CDFG’s proposal, the National Park Service undertook an environmental assessment (EA) to address wildlife water needs in Mojave National Preserve. Both natural and artificial water sources in the preserve were considered. The CDFG proposal was assessed in comparison with other alternatives (including “no action” and “science-based management”) in order to determine the range of effects of each on wildlife and the surrounding natural and cultural environment. Ultimately, the EA process concluded with a proposal to complete long-term scientific studies prior to approving CDFG’s proposal. It advocated an increased knowledge in the use of natural springs by wildlife in Mojave Natural Preserve in order to determine the existence and extent of need for artificial water sources.
The links below provide further information on the project’s timeline, schedule, and background information, including documentation of its legislative and management history.