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Front Page » August 1, 2002 » Local News » Drought conditions, water shortage impacting wildlife her...
Published 4,821 days ago

Drought conditions, water shortage impacting wildlife herds across state

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Staff reporter

Scarce vegetation and dry streambeds force Utah's wildlife to struggle to survive the negative impacts created by drought. With less than normal spring or summer rainfall and insufficient amounts of snowpack the last several years, little water and vegetation remain for wildlife species to utilize. Although limited efforts can be made to protect the species, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources vows to do everything in the agency's power to reduce the loss of animals.

Severe drought conditions have led Carbon County residents to participate in conservation efforts in order to save water. Many citizens feel that, through conservation, the resource will be available to water users in the future. However, many residents do not think about the animals who need the valuable liquid.

By simply looking at choking vegetation desperately seeking water, yet receiving little moisture, Utahns can clearly see that the state is suffering from severe drought conditions. What many residents do not see, however, is the suffering which is currently effecting the Utah wildlife.

According to the United States Geological Society, a drought is a condition of moisture deficit sufficient to have an adverse effect on vegetation, animals and man across a sizeable area. The factors are definitely in effect throughout Castle Valley and Utah.

As proof that the drought is impacting Utah wildlife, the United States Bureau of Land Management recently announced that 52 wild horses were found dead at the King Top management area near Ecks Knoll west of Fillmore. The cause of the wild horses' death was determined to be dehydration.

The Ecks Knoll water trough is the only water source available to this herd and it appears that the entire herd died at this site.

Although the herd would frequently drink from Ecks Knoll reservoir, the water source was not available because the storage reservoir is currently dry due to the drought. The pipe supplying water to the trough is believed to have a leak or the float in the holding tank malfunctioned because the system contained 20,000 gallons when it was checked.

The holding tank is one of many located across the state that supply wildlife with drinking water. Although the cause of the horses death was due to a malfunction in the watering system, it is apparent that little natural water is available to wildlife.

Because the existing conditions are impacting animals so severely, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recently released a response for the agency's employees and the public to refer to in order to aid wildlife in surviving the current drought.

In response to the drought conditions, the DWR stressed that the state agency's main concern is the welfare of Utah wildlife.

"We are concerned about drought impacts on revenue to the division and our ability to carry out division programs that benefit wildlife. We want to emphasize the quality of time spent recreating outdoors, regardless of whether drought is ongoing. We should encourage participation in hunting and angling among those who enjoy participating in these sports," pointed out the DWR news release.

The release explained in detail the impacts that the drought has caused to various species of wildlife.

For instance, big game species such as mule deer, elk, pronghorn and bison herds appear to reflect the impact of prolonged drought and deteriorating range conditions through winter kill and reduced production of young.

It seems as if the mule deer productivity has seen a significant decrease.

According to the DWR, estimated statewide deer population numbers have decreased from about 10,000 animals for the first time in several years after steadily increasing since the winter of 1992-93. Most of the decreases have occurred in the southern and eastern management units.

The main problems facing the big game wildlife include the lack of vegetation and natural water in the surrounding areas. The lack of sufficient spring and summer rainfall for the last several years has resulted in the poor conditions.

The DWR has determined that a strong competition is currently underway between livestock and wildlife because of the reduced amount of forage. Due to the situation, grazing permits will likely be reduced in number.

Limited water sources have also led to problems for Utah wildlife. Because resources are scarce, animals have been concentrating around a single water source, increasing the transmission of various diseases such as blue-tongue virus in mule deer.

Upland game and waterfowl are also experiencing the negatively impacts of Utah's drought. Weather affects production either through a direct impact on reproductive success or indirectly through forage production.

According to the DWR, extreme weather conditions like temperature and precipitation, generally have a detrimental effect on wildlife reproduction. However, not all species are influenced in the same way.

"Drought invariably results in a drying up of many natural wetlands and water levels, decreasing water quality in managed marshes. Extensive drought in waterfowl production areas always results in population declines due to the loss and degradation of nesting and brood-rearing habitat," indicated the state wildlife agency.

The DWR predicted that waterfowl habitats not associated with the Great Salt Lake will continue to be adversely affected by drought in three basic ways, reduced inflows, increased evaporation, and reduced water quality.

The anticipated impacts will be less in spring-fed marshes than in water sources dependent upon surface flows.

"A prolonged drought may cause severe losses of fish in many streams, lakes and reservoirs. Much of this loss is not preventable and angling quality may be temporarily reduced. At present, the impacts have not grown to severe levels in most locations and angling opportunities remain very good," pointed out the DWR report.

Fish suffer from lower than normal water levels in streams, rivers and lakes in a variety of ways.

One negative, often fatal effect low water levels have on fish is that the temperature tends to rise, thus decreasing the dissolved oxygen content and leading to suffocation in the fish.

Low water levels in populated or industrialized areas can also cause pollutants to soar beyond tolerance levels, also resulting in the loss of fish.

As water levels continue to decrease, the fish carrying capacity also drops.

Anglers have found that the situation offers excellent fishing success.

In many locations across the state, angling limits have been raised to compensate for the expected loss of fish due to the drought.

Carbon and Emery County anglers are reminded, however, to consult the fishing proclamation before heading for the waterways to ensure that proper limits are taken.

The majority of Utah residents are aware of the dangers to wildlife associated with drought conditions, but citizens often wonder what the public can do to aid the creatures.

The DWR has developed several plans to reduce the number of wildlife lost during a drought.

One plan recommends reducing hatchery production and fish distribution schedules to compensate for drought conditions.

In addition, the wildlife division emphasized the importance for anglers to participate in successful fishing opportunities. Despite drought conditions, the fishing success stories continue to rise.

Livestock grazing permits have been cut in size and are expected to continue to decrease.

Drought conditions have forced the reduction and the division indicated that more forage will remain in place for wildlife to utilize as a result of cutting the permits.

Water development systems installed across Utah for wildlife will be maintained in good working order, explained the DWR.

The state agency is prepared to haul water in critical situations if necessary to provide wildlife with the much needed resource.

In conclusion, the DWR admitted that little can be done to significantly alter the impact of extreme drought on wildlife populations in the state.

But management efforts should focus on diminishing or avoiding human-caused disturbances that further stress wildlife populations whose status is already tenuous.

Although current conditions have led residents to worry about the eventual outcome, drought is no stranger to Utah.

In fact, citizens have faced and survived drought conditions throughout the state's history.

One severe drought plagued the entire nation in 1934. The drought will remain in history books because the situation occurred during the depression era.

During the 1934 incident, conditions in Utah were so bad that historians have said even the grasshoppers were starving.

The drought had such a negative impact on Utahns that the federal government was forced to send aid to the suffering population.

But the federal aid did not offer much relief for the average citizen in Utah. Therefore, Utahns responded to the problem with local conservation efforts. The 1934 situation became so severe that groups of people felt rituals like rain dances and ceremonies could bring relief to the suffering land.

No rituals have been performed in connection with the current drought, but residents in Castle Valley and across the state are implementing similar conservation measures. Citizens can also assist the DWR's efforts to alleviate the impacts on Utah's wildlife.

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