BGG 25 - A cultural and historical review
BGG 25 will be 30 years old next year. What is BGG 25 ? It is "Big-Game Guzzler number 25". More precisely it is a artificial water source meant to help out the desert bighorn sheep. It is the 25th artificial water source installed by the Society For The Conservation Of Desert Bighorn Sheep. It was installed in the Newberry mountains in 1986.
Much has happened since then in our culture and in technical knowledge. In world events things like the end of the Cold War, the rise of China, and 9/11 occured. Much as happened in my own life. When it was installed I was married and had two little girls and now I'm a grandfather.
So let’s start our history lessons at the very beginning. In 1986 I had been hiking and exploring the Newberry mountains 4 or 5 days a month for six years and had not seen a single desert bighorn sheep there. At that time the sheep population was much smaller and I did not use binoculars or spotting scopes. There really wasn’t anybody that could teach me anything in depth about desert big horn sheep in the Barstow area. I was isolated in a pre-Internet world. But I knew they were there because I could read sign. From time to time I would talk with the people in the Barstow BLM office which at the time employed 3 or 4 people. Now the land these three or four people covered is maintained by two separate agencies and 50 to 75 people. Times have changed. One day they told me about this water project that the Department of Fish and game and a volunteer organization were puting in the Newberry mountains and they needed some information as to where would be a good place to do this. They thought that I might have some input for this project. First thing we have to notice here is the Department of Fish and game is no more. It is now the California Department of Fish and wildlife. And yes it was changed because they were embarrassed by the word game. It is associated with hunting and this organization no longer want to emphasize or be openly associated with hunting. This reveals a huge change in our society since BBG 25 was built, and not just in a particular government agency.
So anyway, after some three-way communications, (there were no cell phones or answering machines at that time), I was told to wait at the end of a paved road out in the desert and I would get picked up by a helicopter so I could show them some possible sites for this water project. So at the appointed day and time I was waiting there. A helicopter landed and one person got out. I would later get to know and learn much from the legendary Dick Weaver. But now I had never met or talked with any of these people. And with some very basic communications done with the helicopter blades still turning, I climbed in and we took off into the Newberry mountains. I gave them three or four possible sites and they later selected one of them.
This helicopter ride would be all but impossible now. If it were attempted it would take probably more than a year of preparation due to the growth of bureaucracy. At the time most people would describe the Newberry mountains as a wilderness however in the language and culture of the time this meant a place where very few people went and there were no rules, no clocks, and no hassles.
Now in our modern environmental/urban culture people understand the word wilderness as a legal definition and a place with exact boundaries that cynically could be described as a bureaucratic paradise or hell depending on your point of view. Of course the Newberry mountains now has this new legal and cultural definition applied to it. In all of this one can see that our culture has gone through many changes and the mountains very little.
Except perhaps for the rock quarry, which paid for BBG 25 as their mitigation project which in retrospect was a very small price to pay when you consider the tonnage of rock extracted.
During the installation of this guzzler I was there. It was strange to see 70 or 80 people back in this canyon working away. Until that time I was probably one of the few people that had ever been there and maybe the only one during historic times. It was a long walk back in this canyon and there were no minerals of any value or any springs. A year or two before the placement of this guzzler there was a tremendous thunderstorm that made the wash suitable for vehicle traffic. Prior that it would’ve been impossible to drive there. After the guzzler was built I became the caretaker which carried the title of the area captain.
The construction of this guzzler is such that it depends on rainwater to fill it up. The water is stopped temporarily by a small dam and then piped to three tanks which store the water. From there it goes to a float valve assembly which fills a small watering trough. Over the years this mechanism had its share of problems. Leaking pipes, stuck float valves, and freeze breaks. All of which I had to report or fix myself. One of the first jobs the area captain has to do is to lay out two or three transects. Typically these are squares or rectangles staked out in the ground, perhaps something like a 10’ x 10’ foot square. The purpose of these is to count the piles of sheep pellets on them twice a year to gauge when and how many sheep are using this particular guzzler. The Newberry guzzler was unique in that it went unused by bighorn sheep for about 20 years. However, an array of other wildlife use the water. Finally, when the desert bighorn sheep started using BGG 25. they used it intensely.
The idea of using transects and droppings looks very quaint and interesting now. It depended on the old and ancient tradition of reading sign to do science. Nowadays when we want to understand what kind of use a guzzler is getting we use a trail camera. This technology has come a long ways fast. In 2008 I bought my first digital trail camera and it’s first use was on BGG 25. It could hold about 135 pictures and I was amazed by how many pictures it could contain. The last one I bought in 2014 had the ability to take one picture every second for almost two months. And it had the ability to take pictures at night in infrared and could be programmed to suit your needs in still images or motion pictures as well as other improvements. The amount of information and knowledge gained with this technology is absolutely mind-boggling. This information age technology has changed the culture of the scientific and hunting community's immensely, and not everybody is aware of how much. Another interesting change that happened to BGG 25 is the addition of satellite telemetry for monitoring tank water level. When BGG 25 went in there was no Internet, and satellite access was limited to large corporations and the military and was very expensive. Now with the right encryption you can get on the net and look at the water level in these tanks in real time. If it is slowly and steadily going down we know that we have a leak. If it drops off rapidly and then stops we know that the sheep are drinking the water. Again this is part of that information age that BGG 25 is now part of.
This guzzler as well as many others have provided for the desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife now for over 30 years, and has delivered a wealth of benefits to the wildlife by replacing springs that have dried up or are no longer available to wildlife due to human intervention such as the original Newberry Springs. It has also delivered a wealth of knowledge and information that the Department of Fish and Game (Wildlife) and the Society for Conservation Of Bighorn Sheep are putting to good use. With the effort and knowledge derived from many people and organizations the society has recently developed a new and innovative guzzler system or as they call it now "water for wildlife system", that is far more dependable and wildlife friendly than the old system. It is the brainchild of my good friend Glenn Sudmeier. This new system he developed is a tremendous technological advancement in desert wildlife management. It will enrich both wildlife and humanity for decades to come. It seems like anybody that remembers putting in BGG 25 is now somewhat like Rip van Winkle living in a culture and technology very different than the one they started out in. And no doubt the people installing these new guzzlers, that is "water for wildlife system", will in time find themselves as a Rip van Winkle character outliving their culture and the technology they’re comfortable with. So while we human beings are dealing with so many changes in our society the desert bighorn are as they always have been. Whether the water is there artificially or natural their behavior is the same. After getting a drink of water they might butt heads for a while or perhaps they are there to give a new lamb it’s first drink of water. So in spite of the turmoil of our time and culture, with a little bit of effort we can make their presence a little more comfortable and their future a little more secure
By Carlos Gallinger