The presence or lack of free surface waters often governs the ability of wildlife species to utilize particular geographic locations, as many game and non-game wildlife species must have access to free water during part or all of their annual biologic and or reproductive life cycles. Most water development projects on western rangelands are designed to provide water to domestic livestock, although some developments are created specifically for wildlife. In some cases, a natural water source may have served the needs of area wildlife over time, but may not be sufficient to meet the needs of large domestic animals or of concentrated groups of domestic animals.
The answer to this situation has been to construct water developments throughout the arid and semi-arid west. However, there is increasing public concern that livestock water developments on public lands in Idaho and adjacent western states provide very limited value, if any, to resident or transient wildlife species. Yet water development proposals presented to the public for approval frequently indicate that a major factor for project authorization is that of providing benefits for wildlife.
Another major justification for livestock water developments has been that of providing for habitat improvement. While some benefits may occur to resident or migratory wildlife species through the construction of particular types of water developments, there is growing concern that the overall ecological impacts of water developments do not justify their construction and placement within natural habitats. Another source of public dissatisfaction with agency management regarding water developments and other range “improvements” is the failure of agencies to actually carry out management actions that meet stated objectives for wildlife.
While agency personnel and livestock permittees may be annoyed with the increasing public scrutiny of their actions, we must remember that the public has a vested interest in the responsible and sustainable management of public lands. As livestock grazing is the most widespread human activity occurring on our public lands today, it thus receives the lion’s share of public concern and requests for accountability.
This report has introduced and discussed impacts associated with water developments within natural habitats, including impacts to natural hydrologic functions, erosion concerns, impacts to native plant community values, and impacts to wildlife habitat values. This report has presented and discussed many wildlife issues relating directly to livestock developments - including a lack of wildlife cover/predation issues, wildlife access, the availability of water for wildlife, and has discussed design and safety issues associated with wildlife escape mechanisms. This report has provided the reader/viewer with many graphic figures representing failures of western land management and livestock interests to properly construct or maintain water developments for the benefit of wildlife. Although this report has not presented issues associated with costs or cost benefit analyses; it is worth noting that many of the locations documented by this report have been constructed partially if not wholly with public tax dollars.
It is unfortunate that while paper management plans often sound quite plausible - there are no guarantees that the management action will ever be properly implemented at the field level, or that it will ever result in promised range “improvement.” Respected range scientists have recommended many types of management actions over the years - generally designed to maximize livestock production without seriously decimating our rangeland resources. Yet agency management plans calling for water developments and other improvements don’t reveal to the public the wide variety of cautions and use recommendations that professional range scientists have also made regarding stocking rates, distances to water, water for wildlife, escapes for wildlife, etc. Nor do management proposals or plans typically (if at all) attempt to identify or adequately analyze the impacts that may result from the construction or implementation of new range “improvements.”
Water developments comprise a disproportionate number of the projects that are proposed to alleviate livestock over-use and other range problems - yet often result in transferring the same type of impacts to a new or perhaps previously un-impacted location. Rather than attempt to address stocking rates, suitability or capability issues, sustainability in arid landscapes, and other concerns as recommended by respected range scientists as well as increasingly by ecologists, agencies and permittees alike still rush to fund increased numbers of range “improvements.” The conservation community increasingly views these actions as little more than desperate attempts to force rangelands to support uses and levels of uses that natural (and even seeded) habitats are incapable of supporting.
Regardless of our political or otherwise philosophical positions over the presence of domestic livestock on public lands, there is no plausible excuse to continue denying the fact that livestock water developments create specific, observable, measurable, and in many cases extremely widespread impacts to wildlife and native plant community values. These same developments also create serious impediments to recreational and scenic values of our western rangelands. Impacts range from minor inconvenience to the traveling and recreating public to the annual drowning of thousands of our native wildlife species. There is irrefutable, readily documentable evidence of the impacts created by range “improvements” in the form of water developments for livestock all across our western rangelands. These impacts have been largely ignored, glossed over, or otherwise unaddressed in public land management. And, as the conservation community believes, represent a very serious violation of the trust placed in our land managers by the American public at large.
Within the past few months a few agencies have begun to request that wildlife escapes be placed in troughs following public outcry over the drowning deaths of hundreds of birds and other wildlife species on BLM lands in Idaho. However - the concern has yet to be proven effective at the field level. As of the final printing date of this report - dozens of Idaho troughs sit without escapes for wildlife - and wildlife are still drowning. And escapes devices are only one of the critical wildlife issues associated with livestock water developments.
It is seriously hoped that this report will assist in bringing more public attention to the myriad issues associated with water developments on public lands - ranging from square miles of denuded landscapes to the drowning of our federally protected migratory birds and other wildlife species. This report is intended to serve the dual purposes of documentation and education - to assist in bringing critical issues regarding water developments and wildlife to the attention of the American public at large as well as to the attention of our public land managers and public lands users. And of course, it is hoped that once becoming more aware of the widespread and serious import of the issues documented within this report - that we (collectively) will attempt to do something about the deplorable conditions of, or associated with, the majority of livestock water developments on our arid and semi-arid western lands.
It is certainly well past time for all of us to join forces in assuring that thousands of our declining wildlife species do not continue to drown in troughs where thoughtless or careless management has failed to install adequate safety devices. It is also time for all of us to become more involved in public lands management - in assuring that all multiple resource uses and values are fairly represented in public lands management proposals, in assuring that our vital native ecosystems are cared for more responsibly.