SCBS Installs New Big Game Guzzler
By Debbie Miller-Marschke
On October 24, 2020 the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep installed a brand new East Mojave big game guzzler in the Castle Mountains. A guzzler is a man-made water system that captures rainwater, stores it, and the stored water is readily available to the wildlife year round. This was achieved by and through a partnership with an active mining company, Castle Mountain Ventures / Equinox Gold, upon an area that had been already disturbed by mining work. The area was located within the operation zone of the currently active mining property within the Castle Mountains Monument, upon Bureau of Land Management property. This was a monumental accomplishment in light of the Covid-19 restrictions that have thwarted activities in most other wildlife conservation organizations (including government agencies), and SCBS followed through with a safe and successful result.
The Castle Mountains include a historical mining district that has been active for more than 100 years. Mining activity was first recorded on December 19, 1907 by James H. Hart, and brothers Bert and Clark Hitt. They filed a claim for their original discovery, naming the prospect “Oro Belle” by combining both French and Spanish words that translate as “Beautiful Gold.” The ore was easily extracted by free milling, yielding 500 ounces of gold per ton. Naturally, this was the catalyst for the immediate rush that followed; folks began flocking to the area in droves using any means of transportation they could arrange. The nearest supply merchants were located in Searchlight, Nevada. Prospectors transformed a two-tent camp into the boom town of Hart, with a population of 700 by February of 1908. After the initial rush peaked, prospectors fanned out and worked the surrounding landscape but the town began to fade. By 1920, the mining interest switched from gold to industrial clays. As new gold extraction technologies were developed, the area was periodically revisited by various gold mining companies. In 1991, Viceroy Gold Corporation quarried the Oro Belle pit until 2001. Castle Mountain Ventures acquired the active claims in 2012.
Reliable water sources in the Castle Mountains have been an ongoing challenge. The historic town of Hart needed to freight water in by the barrel from the railroad stop at Barnwell until a pipeline was connected north to Malpais Spring, six miles distant. The National Park Service inventoried the Castle Mountain Monument’s water resources during a study in 2016 , documenting the known natural springs or water sources available; none were flowing. In past years SCBS, with the permission of Viceroy Gold, installed a Boss Tank style guzzler in the center of their active mining operations which has been supplying the local bighorn sheep population with a reliable water source. It has been observed that Bighorn Sheep appear to tolerate the activities of an active mining operation very well and enjoy living upon the graded steps of quarries. Other mining operations, such as Specialty Minerals and Mitsubishi in Hesperia, California, and OMYA near Amboy, California, have had dump truck drivers regularly document the presence of bighorn sheep within the active mining zones.
SCBS and Equinox forged a partnership and discussed placement of a new guzzler system to be located on the exterior perimeter of the active operation zone. The groundwork was handled by SCBS Board Member Gary Thomas, and the project had been in the development stages for several years. Initially, SCBS planned on installing the new system in spring of 2020. The onset of Covid 19 brought a temporary shut down of the mining operations and consequently the project was placed on an indefinite hold. I took over as Project Coordinator sometime around May of 2020, poised for the next opportunity to resume work on the project. Discussions with our contact at the mine, Aren Hall (Environmental Manager) , began to gain traction during the summertime. On September 11, 2020, Glenn Sudmeier, Steve Marschke, and I met with Aren Hall at the mine and project site. The area was surveyed; an abundance and variety of vegetation was noted along the slopes of the surrounding landscape. Originally, a two tank system had been planned. The presence of suitable browse and favorable escape terrain suggested that we upgrade our plan to three tanks to accommodate future positive recruitment in the herd. Glenn and Steve re-engineered the footprint plan for the new guzzler. We also scouted potential group campsites. During our visit we spotted five bighorn.
The main challenges for the installation of the guzzler were the rocky nature of the proposed site and the location on a side slope. Normally, SCBS guzzlers do not require extensive excavation for the placement of the Raincatcher system; the “Oro Belle” guzzler was obviously a system that commanded more than hand tools and sweat equity from the volunteers. The use of Equinox’s excavating equipment was discussed with Aren. It was agreed that the Mine would take care of the pre-excavation in advance. During the following weeks, Aren and I communicated by phone and email while the area was prepared with heavy machinery. Steve and I returned to the project site on October 9, 2020 to monitor progress and we saw three enormous class 4 rams in the vicinity of the new guzzler.
The installation schedule began on Thursday October 22, 2020. John Voght traveled to the designated group camp site and placed SCBS project signs on the turnoff point of the paved road. Equinox Gold had arranged the placement of two porta-potties at the group campsite for our convenience.
Our extraordinary Project Cook, Rodger Lopez, arrived at camp on Friday afternoon and began setting up. Roger erected a large canopy, which boasted lights powered by a generator, and several banquet tables. Rodger provided the volunteer crew with breakfast and dinners during the project, complete with “touchless” serving protocols and masked/ gloved food preparation to comply with Covid safety measures.
He was assisted by his son Steven VandarGriff and Steven’s fiancée Arianna Cerventes. Our wholehearted “thanks” goes to our cooks for providing us with delicious meals and for the extra measures taken to keep us all safe.
Project volunteers began to roll in and set up their camps during the latter part of Friday, October 23. Jeff Crouse and Jenny Hinojosa, driving the SCBS Big Red truck, arrived with the SCBS tools and a trailer with two Raincatcher tanks. Frank Rorabaugh arrived with a second trailer with the additional Raincatcher tank. On Saturday morning, mine representatives Aren Hall and Ralph McCullers arrived at the SCBS group campsite to give us a mine safety briefing. Topics of discussion included the wearing of face coverings, working around active excavation equipment, general safety, and the need for escorts while traveling within the mine property. After having our temperatures taken at the front gate, the volunteers were allowed to caravan with an escort through the active mine to the project location.
Saturday’s weather was perfect for a guzzler installation. This was a relief because just one week prior, temperatures were hot and uncomfortable. Upon our arrival, the work site exploded with activity and the volunteers split into two work teams. The largest group headed uphill to work on the rain mat. The Mine had rough graded the area with heavy machinery, and the SCBS crew handled the finish work. The surface was raked of rocks, and an outer perimeter of sand bags was constructed to create a lip. The Hypalon mat was unfurled and stretched across the site, overlapping the sand bag edges “like the crust of a home made pie”(quoting Glenn Sudmeier). Then the crew scattered, returning with sizable rocks which were placed on the rain mat and covering the edges. Due to the fact that this work site was fairly rocky, the volunteers did not need to venture far from the rain mat to find what was needed.
Meanwhile, the Raincatcher tank crew prepared for the placement of the tanks. Ralph McCullers, an Equinox employee, operated a backhoe to assist in fine tuning the area while SCBS volunteers used hand tools to manipulate the edges of the hole until it was deemed satisfactory. The floor surface was painstakingly leveled, using measurement tools and a 2 x 4 wooden stud as a guide. Next the trailers with the Raincatcher tanks were staged next to the hole, and Ralph used the backhoe to lift them off the trailers. The crew used ropes to assist in guiding the tanks into place, and Ralph skillfully set the tanks into place. Three 2300 gallon Raincatcher tanks were placed in a row “like babies in a nursery” (quoting Sudmeier again).
A really tasty deli style box lunch was provided to everyone by Equinox, which was welcomed by all. There were several sandwich selections to suit any taste, with chips and soft batch cookies. The work on the rain mat had been completed, so after lunch we focused on burying the tanks and completing the plumbing. Zach Thomas and Frank Rorabaugh had made great progress on the plumbing. There was much back filling to be done, and the crew did not finish the task on Saturday. All of the work that was achieved on Saturday was captured on film and documented by SCBS member volunteer David Hawxhurst. David edited and produced a wonderful video for us, which is recommended viewing for all SCBS volunteers and fans. You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1lx3mlvjTo . SCBS member Monte Hammer also made a video, which is a complementary companion to Hawxhurst’s work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Dvf3FtvrLA (or search Oro Belle guzzler on You Tube). The crew returned to camp, where Rodger had dinner waiting for us. Everyone received a door prize as a thank you for participating. Special thanks to project participant Mignon Slentz, who provided her own handcrafted artwork which was included in the disbursed door prizes.
The crew returned to the project site on Sunday to finish burying the tanks and placement of the artificial rock shade covers over the drinker openings. I applied my artist abilities, spray painting the shade covers with camouflaging using natural colors observed in the surrounding landscape. Much backfilling was needed between the excavated hillside and the tanks that the crew could not completely cover the tanks, leaving a small percentage uncovered. This was inconsequential because within a few days of the project, Equinox used their machinery to complete the job to our specifications perfectly. SCBS departed from the site of the newest guzzler, the “Oro Belle”, with the system in working order and ready for water. There was possible rain in the forecast for the following Monday, but the storm did not bless the guzzler with precipitation. Equinox took the initiative to haul water to Oro Belle before Thanksgiving, and the guzzler was ready for sheep. On January 11, 2021 Equinox reported that the sheep have found the guzzler, spotting 10 bighorn in the vicinity and telltale hoof prints all around the drinker!
Special thanks are in order: