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Muddy Waters: WSF, Bergara Funding Helps Create Epic Water Project

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Nevada is the driest state in the union, and Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and the Muddy Mountains within its boundaries, is the driest in the state. The Muddy’s are also home to one of the southwest's largest desert bighorn sheep populations. 
Extreme drought conditions in recent years significantly stressed the local herds and inspired hunter-conservationists to act. 

Building a water guzzler in Nevada's Muddy Mountains for desert bighorn sheep.

Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) matched a $30,000 grant from Spanish gunmaker Bergara to help fund a special guzzler project in the Muddy Mountains. The project also received funding from the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), WSF Affiliates Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, Nevada Bighorn Unlimited Fallon, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited-Reno, and Meadow Valley Wildlife Unlimited.

"Guzzlers" are engineered devices designed to capture and hold water, dispensing it into drinking troughs that entice desert bighorn sheep and other animals. In desert regions, accessible water is often limited to short seasons.  Periods of drought usually align with the late stages of lamb gestation and can impact survival of newborn desert sheep lambs. Guzzlers play a vital role in bridging critical water deficits during such times.

"Successful wild sheep conservation is both preemptive and responsive. A drought-related die-off in 2020 sadly made clear the need for this modern-day water guzzler," said WSF Marketing & Communications Director Keith Balfourd. "The Muddy Mountains support one of the largest populations of desert sheep in Nevada."


Balfourd, pictured below at Phase 1 of construction last January, said this undertaking is the largest guzzler ever built for water collection and distribution in Nevada’s history. The remote location required helicopter transport of all tools, equipment, materials, and manpower to complete the guzzlers. The structure itself has a 100’ X 150’ apron that captures and directs water to eight 2,300-gallon tanks.

Volunteers breaking rock for desert sheep water guzzler project in Nevada.

"The guzzler is now active. On the first installation in late January 2024, we capped the four tanks and got rain afterward, and we didn't lose much water. Now that all the tanks are in place and the drinkers are going, it's ready for wildlife," said Clint Bentley, Past President of Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn and newly-elected WSF Board member.
Conserving the water caught by the guzzlers is a major concern addressed with careful design. "We design these newer guzzlers with a minimal water surface on the drinkers (only about four square feet) to minimize evaporation. We can't afford to lose much water, and are doing well in that regard. This guzzler has two drinkers to help spread the sheep out a little bit when they come in for a drink," Bentley said.
Clint Bentley on the site of Nevada's latest water guzzler project.

Technology has also enhanced the monitoring process by using satellite-linked technology. "We can check this guzzler's water levels remotely, which saves a lot of time and lets us know when situations are critical," Bentley said.

Knowing the average daily water intake of desert bighorns, biologists can calculate how long water in the tanks will last by monitoring herd visitation through remote game cameras. Because of this herd's historic success, surplus Muddy Mountain desert sheep are sometimes captured and moved to other locations with suitable habitats.

That, however, is more than just a factor of raw numbers; a disease-free source herd is needed. The Muddy Mountains desert bighorn herd is a highly strategic herd because it has been free of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, the deadly respiratory pathogen that plagues bighorn sheep in many areas around the West.  The 2020 die-off was not a disease event but a direct effect of drought.

Joe Bennett (pictured below), NDOW's Southern Region Game Supervisor, said one of the worst days in his career was when he was on a helicopter survey around a guzzler at the height of the drought and saw dead sheep. Having that perspective makes him excited about this project because he said it will make a real, positive difference for this herd. "This is a great project, and we appreciate the NGOs that stepped up to help and to all the volunteers that came out to work. And we appreciate the Bureau of Land Management for their cooperation on ths project, which will greatly benefit desert bighorn sheep in the now and the future." 

That support was felt during the drought when WSF and other organizations contributed to emergency water drops at guzzlers in crucial areas. In 2020-21, wildlife officials brought out more than 140,000 gallons on behalf of desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

Several areas have received enough rain at this point to decrease drought to moderate levels, but even in good years, the area teeters on the brink. This guzzler stores up hope for wildlife in the Muddy Mountains, as only two inches of rain can fill all eight of the tanks at the site.

Overhead view of the Muddy Mountains water guzzler site

Nevada's desert sheep population is around 7,000, and water development projects such as this new guzzler are helping secure their future. Hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts will benefit for generations to come from this investment in Nevada's official state animal, the desert bighorn sheep.
Contributing Author: Chester Moore is an award-winning wildlife journalist and lifelong hunter from Texas. He operates the Higher Calling Wildlife® blog and podcast and contributes to many outdoors publications.
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