VERNAL — As Utah's drought continues to impact wildlife and livestock in eastern Utah, state wildlife crews are working to complete a series of 16 new man-made pools designed to capture precipitation in the Book Cliffs area and provide water to passing animals that would otherwise struggle with the low reservoir and stream levels.
The overhaul in the region includes a massive 7,200-square-foot structure, referred to as a "mega" guzzler, that's about 15 times the size of a normal guzzler — something that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has installed in various remote locations across the state. The idea is that wildlife and livestock will be able to survive in some of the driest parts of Utah, especially during the prolonged drought.
Most of the division's guzzlers consist of a 1,800-gallon storage tank and a 480-square-foot metal apron. They are designed to collect and hold rain and snow in areas where there isn't much available water, then have an easy access point from which animals can drink. A regular tank requires about 6 inches of precipitation to fill up.
As a part of the summer project, crews last month installed five tanks for the "mega" guzzler in the Book Cliffs range to enhance water supply. Unlike the conventional guzzler, the structure needs about 2 inches of rain to fill, because of its ability to collect more water. The installation of the large guzzler's apron is expected to be completed by the end of September.
The "mega" guzzler's location is so remote that the division used a helicopter to drop off supplies to workers. Pat Rainbolt, the division's northeast region habitat manager, said the Bureau of Land Management constructed a similar guzzler in the area in 1988 but it was last functional over 20 years ago.
There's a reason why the division focused its attention on the Book Cliffs. Rainbolt explains that it's a "crucial" summer range for big game animals and also for livestock that graze in the area.
Deer, however, have struggled to survive during the drought. For instance, state wildlife biologists said Friday they captured 27 deer fawns in the Book Cliffs this spring and placed GPS collars on them to track movement and survival rates among the species in the area. All but five died throughout the summer — most to causes attributed to the drought in some fashion.
"Due to the drought conditions, there hasn't been enough available feed, water or shelter for all the different animals that depend on the 800,000-acre Book Cliffs area," Rainbolt said, in a statement Friday.
Though the Green River cuts through the region, it isn't extremely close to any of the state's reservoirs. And despite recent rain and flooding, the Utah Division of Water Resources reports that the closest reservoirs to its west and north — Huntington North, Joe's Valley, Millsite, Red Fleet, Scofield, Starvation and Steinaker — are anywhere from 10% to 66% full. Most of those are about 40% full or less.
The U.S. Drought Monitor still lists about 98.8% of Utah in at least an "extreme" drought. The Book Cliffs area remains in a mixture of "extreme" and "exceptional" drought, just to paint a picture of the drought's ongoing impact on the region this summer.
State biologists, earlier this year, compiled a presentation on what the drought means for deer statewide. They pointed out that droughts result in less food availability with less nutritional value for deer, which makes them weaker and more susceptible to predation if they don't die of other causes. They calculated the state's deer population fell from an estimated 376,450 in 2018 to 314,850 at the end of 2020 because of the drought. Areas in southern and eastern Utah were where the drops were seen most.
Due to the drought conditions, there hasn't been enough available feed, water or shelter for all the different animals that depend on the 800,000-acre Book Cliffs area.
–Pat Rainbolt, northeast region habitat manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Interestingly enough, elk fared better over the summer study than the 27 fawns that were tracked. Biologists collared 30 newly-born elk calves in the Book Cliffs and only five died — mostly due to predation. Nevertheless, the guzzlers aim to provide both deer, elk and other wildlife species enough water need to survive.
Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Commissioner Craig Buttars pointed out that the guzzlers can be used for livestock grazing in the area as well, which is why he praised the project.
"Projects like this are a crucial component of successfully balancing the needs of Utah's wildlife and livestock alike," he said, in a statement. "Providing resources for feed, water and habitat enhancement supports optimal conditions for all species who inhabit the area."
In all, there are 774 guzzlers across the state, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The division states that it installed 33 new water guzzlers between July 2020 and last month. Crews also repaired 18 of the existing guzzlers during that time.
Faith Heaton Jolley, a division spokeswoman, said they don't disclose the exact location of the guzzlers due to past incidents of vandalism — officials even found someone stole materials from one guzzler in Washington County back in March — and also the possibility that it would attract more hunters to the location, which might "dissuade some wildlife from using them."