The “natural spring” at Pitts Ranch on the Navajo Nation was a foul, murky puddle amid a harsh, dry landscape when Dan Taylor, BCI’s Water for Wildlife Coordinator, first saw it. Water bubbled gently from the bottom and flowed over the brown and greenish mud and muck. A muddy ribbon led to a very 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.
|The new stock pond at Pitts Ranch © Dan Taylor, BCI|
Ranch hands from the Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture told Taylor that grazing cattle had eaten most of the vegetation and were now drinking the foul water. Taylor and his colleagues began developing a plan for rejuvenating this vital water source to serve not only livestock, but also wildlife, especially bats. This bedraggled little pool 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. And 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.
BCI has worked very productively over the years with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. But millions of Southwestern acres are tribal lands. The roots of BCI’s now-thriving 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 New Mexico. At the workshop, Abeita and Taylor discussed strategies for including Native American ranchers and range managers in their projects.
In June 2010, BCI and a range of partners sponsored the first Livestock Water Developments and Wildlife Workshop for tribal ranchers and wildlife managers. That September Water for Wildlife held a water-restoration workshop at Ruidoso, New Mexico, for government and tribal land managers from five states. That was followed by a series of successful presentations, workshops and projects with tribal partners.
Taylor first visited Pitts Ranch to examine the murky puddle in November 2010. With funding the Newland Foundation and Natural Resources Conservation Service, he and his colleagues, including several from the Navajo Nation, went to work on the spring in April 2011.
As they began to muck out the debris and mud of the water source, they quickly discovered that the “natural spring” wasn’t a spring at all. It was, instead, the outflow of a battered old pipe from a leaking water well that has been capped and abandoned many years earlier. But any source of water is far too precious to be ignored in the Southwestern desert.
The basin was cleared of mud and the clay soil compacted. Clear water was soon flowing from the “spring” into the stock pond, which was redesigned and doubled in size to 40 by 80 feet (12 by 24 meters). The new pond offers not only clean water but a much larger area for bats to drink while in flight.
A too-steep earthen dam at one end of the pond was reconfigured to reduce erosion and a graveled ramp was created to give cattle a single access route to the water. Except for this pathway, the pond and surrounding habitat are being fenced by the Navajo Nation. Without cattle grazing and trampling the area, natural vegetation should recover, providing food and cover for wildlife.
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 in it.
BCI Members can read the whole story of BCI’s efforts to help restore Native American water in the Summer 2012 issue of BATS magazine.