The “natural spring” at Pitts Ranch on the Navajo Nation looked a lot like a foul, murky puddle in the middle of a harsh, dry landscape. The bedraggled little pool of standing water and livestock-trampled mud was perhaps 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter and studded with two battered wooden posts and a length of rusty pipe. Water bubbled gently from the bottom and flowed over the brown and greenish mud and muck. A muddy ribbon trailed some 300 feet (90 meters) to an uninviting stock pond. And that seemed to be the only year-round water source for miles around on these tribal lands in western New Mexico.
My companions, ranch hands Harry Lynch and Taylor-Sky Hoskie of the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture (NNDA), told me that until recently this area was covered with tall, native grasses. Cattle ate most of the vegetation, they said, and were now drinking the foul water which might explain why young bulls had lost more than 20 percent of their weight since being moved into this pasture.
After examining this uninviting site, my colleagues and I began developing a plan for rejuvenating this vital water source for wildlife, especially bats, as well as livestock. This beleaguered site would soon become a showcase of what BCI and its Native American partners can accomplish. It is now a rare oasis for cattle and many of the Navajo Nation’s 19 bat species, as well as pronghorn antelope, mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, ducks and even the occasional mountain lion.
BCI’s Water for Wildlife Program has been working with a wide array of partners since 2004 to ensure that bats can find a safe place for a drink of water in the semiarid American West. With natural water sources becoming increasingly scarce, water troughs and stock ponds built for livestock have become an essential resource for bats and other wildlife. But since they weren’t designed with wildlife in mind, livestock water sources rarely include escape options for bats, birds and other animals that can become trapped and frequently drown.
Probably nowhere in the United States is the water issue more urgent than in the Southwest, where bat diversity is great, water is in short supply and climate change is most pronounced. Vast stretches of Southwestern states are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Water for Wildlife has always worked very productively with these two federal agencies, as well as the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But millions of acres more than a fourth of Arizona, for example are tribal lands. The Navajo Nation alone, which sprawls across 26,000 square miles (67,000 square kilometers) of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is bigger than West Virginia.
The roots of our Native American partnerships reach back to 2007, when Bureau of Indian Affairs biologist Lawrence Abeita, a member of the Kewa Pueblo, attended a Water for Wildlife workshop in Socorro, New Mexico. Abeita and I discussed strategies for including Native American ranchers and range managers in our efforts.
Those plans finally bore fruit in June 2010, when Abeita and Glenn Harper of Santa Ana Pueblo helped organize the first Livestock Water Developments and Wildlife Workshop for tribal ranchers and wildlife managers. The session at Santa Ana, sponsored by the Pueblo, the BIA and BCI, drew 30 participants from eight reservations in Arizona and New Mexico.
That same year, we began expanding the scope of Water for Wildlife to include the restoration of natural springs, wetlands and other natural water sources and associated habitats. We held our first water-restoration workshop at Ruidoso, New Mexico, in September 2010 for government and tribal land managers from five states. It was conducted with the Center for Wetland and Stream Restoration (CWSR) and led by Forest Service biologist Tom Biebighauser of Kentucky, a national expert on wetland and pooled-water restoration.
The following month, I outlined restoration techniques for wetlands, springs and stock ponds as an invited speaker at the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture (NNDA) Conference in Window Rock, Arizona.
Then in May of 2011, BCI, the CWSR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated for a workshop on Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation for 25 resource managers from seven tribes.
Amid all these activities, Ivan Bicenti, an NNDA range manager responsible for more than a million acres of tribal rangeland, invited me to visit a badly degraded spring at a place called Pitts Ranch. So I made the trip to New Mexico in November 2010 and developed a plan.
With funding from the New-Land Foundation and Natural Resources Conservation Service and the invaluable assistance of Biebighauser plus several NNDA ranch hands, we went to work in April 2011.
As we began to muck out the debris and mud of the water source, we discovered that our “natural spring” was actually the outflow of a battered old pipe from a leaking water well that had been capped and abandoned many years earlier. But any source of water is far too precious to be ignored in the Southwestern desert.
With the mud removed, our big mobile excavator compacted the clay soil to keep water from seeping back into the ground. Clear water was soon flowing from the “spring” into the stock pond. After chasing away several bulls that had rushed in to enjoy the clean water, we used the excavator to expand the pond and add habitat features little bays, coves and islands to the shoreline.
We excavated the basin, compacted the clay soil and opened a new path for the clear water to fill the pond. Now doubled in size to 40 by 80 feet (12 by 24 meters), the pond offers a much larger area for bats to drink while in flight and also stores much more water as a hedge against drought. Thus ended the first day.
Early the next morning, we used the excavator to reduce and smooth the slope of a steep-sided earthen dam at the stock pond. Such ponds often include dams that are much larger and steeper than necessary. These not only look unnatural but can also worsen erosion and attract burrowing animals.
As a final, critical touch, we spread a 20 x 50-foot (6 x 15-meter) layer of geotextile cloth and covered it with 20 tons of crushed rock to create a graveled ramp that gives cattle access to the water. Except for this pathway, the pond and surrounding habitat will be fenced by the NNDA. Without cattle grazing and trampling the area, natural vegetation should recover, providing food and cover for wildlife.
The notorious Navajo winds were beginning to blow by the time we spread native grass seed on the exposed soil, covered it with straw mulch and said goodbye to our partners and Pitts Ranch. We left behind an outstanding example of what can be accomplished through collaborations. Clean and reliable water will slake the thirst of cattle, bats and other wildlife in this harsh environment.
“Water projects on the Navajo Nation are few and far between,” says Ivan Bicenti. “That’s why our partnership with Bat Conservation International is so important to the Tribal Ranch Program. Without that partnership, neither wildlife nor livestock would have the quantity and quality of water that they now enjoy.”
And this is only the beginning. As news of projects such as the Pitts Ranch stock pond spread, many tribes across the Southwest are reaching out to BCI’s Water for Wildlife Program. It’s a big desert, and there are a lot of thirsty bats.
DAN TAYLOR is Coordinator of Bat Conservation International’s Water for Wildlife Program.