Guzzlers: Watering Holes for Thirsty Wildlife

  • By Paul Wade, Public Affairs Specialist, Pacific Southwest Regional Office and Kary Schlick, Inyo National Forest, Wildlife Biologist
A volunteer pumps water they hauled into a guzzler tank.

Volunteers haul hundreds of gallons of water during extended dry months to replenish Guzzler tanks. This volunteer pumps water into a half-buried metal tank. (All photos are courtesy of Kary Schlick, USDA Forest Service)

Two volunteers conduct maintenance on a guzzler.

Two volunteers conduct maintenance on a smaller Guzzler tank. Note the difference in sizes, materials, and water apron/tray access.

A man and woman work on a guzzler.

A volunteer husband and wife repair plumbing parts on a Guzzler. Depending on the area, resources available, funding and need for water, Guzzlers can range from this size to semi-truck tank size.

In Owens Valley, California – the “Land of Little Rain” – the U.S. Forest Service and partners are storing and providing water for wildlife in “Guzzlers”. These man-made rain catchment systems capture precipitation in a concrete, plastic or metal apron and then funnel it into a holding tank. Most are designed to blend in with surrounding environments, and many have water storage tanks below ground to minimize the visual impact.

This Owens Valley lies within a rain shadow on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a towering range including the 14,492-foot Mount Whitney. The nearly three million acres of public lands across the valley are critical to species persistence, including that of the migrating birds, bats, and pollinators traveling along an international flyway. In this arid landscape, guzzlers provide water for wildlife and for wildland firefighters during initial attacks.

“We have more than 50 Guzzlers in the valley and an amazing group of staff and volunteer partners that keep these critical life-sustaining resources operational,” said Kary Schlick, a wildlife biologist on the Inyo National Forest.

An emaciated deer and her fawn are caught on a game camera at a Guzzler site.

An emaciated doe, caught on a game camera while visiting a Guzzler site, drinks at the open water tray while her new fawn nurses.

A badger walks up to a Guzzler to get a drink.

A badger walks up to a Guzzler to get a drink.

A bobcat visits a Guzzler and takes a long drink from the water access tray.

A bobcat visits a Guzzler and takes a long drink from the water access tray.

A kit fox gets a close-up photo taken by a game camera mounted at a Guzzler.

A kit fox gets a close-up photo taken by a game camera mounted at a Guzzler.

Guzzlers have been in the valley since the 1950s. They were initially referred to as “bird drinkers” because they were primarily used by upland birds like quail and chukar. In the early 1990s, the drinkers were enlarged and positioned within a mile or two of each other in places lacking natural sources of water to assist mule deer migration and to disperse the herds.

“Agencies strive to provide high quality hunting opportunities and managing Guzzlers helps because they enhance mule deer population health and expand migration routes across California’s deer trophy hunt zones,” said Schlick.  

“Guzzlers feed everything, birds, bugs, and all wildlife,” said self-described local environmentalist and trapper Duane Rossi.   

The importance of Guzzlers is increased during drought. Tom Stephenson, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported summer droughts of 2020 and 2021 likely contributed to poor overwinter condition of deer. Drought years can stress wildlife and contribute to compromised immune systems, spikes of disease in populations, and cause individuals to become more vulnerable to predators, which inflate predation rates. 

In March 2021, the Inyo National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, Bishop Field Office, coordinated their annual Guzzler maintenance campaign to inventory, clean, and refill the numerous watering sources scattered across the interagency boundaries.

“To successfully provide clean, safe, and reliable water for wildlife we partner with the California Deer Association, Eastern Sierra 4x4 Club, the Mule Deer Foundation and local residents,” said Thomas Torres, a wildlife biologist on the Inyo National Forest. 

Although Guzzlers are designed to capitalize on storms, the maintenance team also routinely hauls hundreds of gallons of water along a long, bumpy dirt road (enjoyed mostly by the 4x4 Club) to keep them full. During a drought multiple water haul trips are often required.

“With limited agencies staff, volunteers are our most valuable resource when it comes to monitoring the Guzzlers. Their work helps us focus our maintenance and refilling efforts on Guzzlers with the greatest needs,” said Evan Standifer, a wildlife biologist for BLMs Bishop Field Office.

“I love wildlife and love seeing them healthy,” said Bill Longest, lifelong local volunteer and hunter.   

The thousands of labor hours, and the supplies and equipment needed to maintain the Guzzlers, are paid through grant funding, out-of-pocket and donations by local venues who support the partnership mission. The mutual interest in both wildlife research and ensuring healthy game populations works in unison. 

“We have monitoring cameras at several locations, which provide crucial data on the Guzzlers’ effectiveness and species diversity. Nearly every single day thirsty wildlife was detected enjoying the Guzzlers. In 2021 most visitors were mesocarnivores such as gray fox, kit fox, coyote, bobcat, badger, and to a much lesser extent rodents, birds, and reptiles,” said Schlick.

Who guzzled up all the water in 2021? See for yourself in this game camera video compilation: NOTE: If you want to open this in a separate window please RIGHT CLICK: