FLAGSTAFF – Ed Jahrke drives his big white pickup along a winding, bumpy dirt and gravel road into the Coconino National Forest. He is the program manager of the habitat deployment program at the Arizona Game & Fish Department, and on this day works with contractors to finish a system to collect and store stormwater so that wildlife can access when needed.
“The need to provide water for wildlife is more important than ever,” Jahrke said.
Before this year’s profuse monsoon storms, Arizona’s drought conditions steadily worsened. In early July, most of the state experienced extreme to exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor† As of mid-October, most of the state is listed as “abnormally dry” or “moderate drought” — but the past 20 years of below-average rainfall has created great need for water conservation.
Jahrke and his team hope to have this water collection system, located just a few miles east of Flagstaff, ready in time for the expected winter rains in December and January.
About 3,000 watersheds have been built in Arizona for over 75 years and many require repair or replacement.
“We started building these in the 1940s and 1950s,” Jahrke said, adding that they were originally built by quail hunters who wanted to ensure enough water for the popular game bird. Eventually, Game & Fish began working with the hunters, as the watersheds attracted other types of wildlife, including deer, bobcats, and bighorn sheep.
Many of these watersheds were created by the US Forest Service, but they were never maintained, Jarhke said.
“They had to spend all their budget fighting fires,” he said, leaving the difficult task of maintaining the watersheds to dedicated volunteers.
The Flagstaff project will replace a rusted old 3,000-gallon tank that the Forest Service built in the 1980s. Jahrke said they went to the agency five years ago to redevelop it.
“We’ll pay the bill, we’ll do the work, just give us the paperwork to do it,” he said.
The new system will have a 48-by-36-foot catchment area, which will drain into a 15,000-gallon system of white polyethylene tanks that feed the water into a separate animal drinking tank. The drinking tank isn’t huge – it would hardly be a suitable jacuzzi for two people – but it’s enough to keep wildlife alive in dry times.
“Animals will smell that drink from miles away,” Jahrke said.
A dedication to wildlife
Jahrke’s background in construction made him the right person for the position he now holds, but it was a passion and respect for fish and wildlife that led him to Game & Fish.
Jahrke moved to Arizona in 1980, where he worked in the show horse industry and as a stonemason. On weekends, he went fly fishing and became “addicted.” One day, while fishing in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in eastern Arizona, he met a Forest Service biologist who told Jahrke that he needed a physics degree to follow a similar path. Jahrke went to night school shortly afterwards.
One of his first jobs after graduation was as a native fish biologist working for the Game & Fish Mesa office, which he called his “dream job.” But one day, while collecting data, while he and his team were drifting down a river in a canoe, they came across a Ford Bronco that had been abandoned in the water and had transmission fluid leaking.
Jahrke thought to himself, “I must have a gun and a badge for myself.”
He was accepted into the wildlife management program and trained for law enforcement, but was eventually asked to go into administration. His desire to conserve and protect wildlife led him to his current position as Game & Fish Habitat Implementation Program Manager, overseeing projects such as this redesigned forest watershed outside Flagstaff.
“The nice thing about what I do is that when we finish a project, it immediately benefits nature,” Jahrke said. “I love the work I do.”
Wildlife often arrives shortly after construction is complete — and sometimes even earlier. Despite all the construction work, a herd of moose has already visited the new building. Jahrke said moose are naturally curious animals, so it’s no surprise they aren’t startled by the large machinery, parked trucks and materials on the site, or the exposed holding tanks.
Jahrke believes that the endangered California condors are one of the most important species to benefit from the watersheds. More water means more reliable animal populations, and more animals means more carcasses for the condors and other scavengers.
Several studies were done before any groundwork was made in this watershed to ensure that the natural habitat would not be harmed. The watersheds are an essential resource for animals to use, but only when they need it, Jahrke said.
“If we get a lot of fluids, they tend not to use them,” he said, adding that wildlife like travel isn’t tied to a small, man-made watering hole.
Even with the significant payouts from the water collection systems, paying for them is a challenge. Game & Fish receives no government funding for this program.
A costly undertaking
Much of the money for these watersheds comes from the Fish and Wildlife Service, federal grants, and from hunting license sales and auctions. Public donations also help.
Most of that money is spent on one activity: transporting water. It can cost from anywhere hundreds to thousands of dollars for each water supply depending on where it goes, the amount of water and where that water comes from.
“It’s become a bigger problem as the drought continues,” Jahrke said. That’s why he’s trying to reduce the amount of water that’s transported — from a 3,000-gallon system to 15,000 gallons. If the winter rains and snow produce enough to fill the 15,000-gallon system, Jahrke said, then the water will hold until the monsoon returns.
The drought has forced many of the watersheds to be filled in recent years, especially during the hot, dry summer months. That means truckloads of water being displaced by helicopter or flown into the watersheds scattered throughout the Arizona wilderness. Meeting those demands takes more than just money, it takes volunteers to adopt an “Adopt-A-Catchment”.
Fish & Game gets help with monitoring and maintaining watersheds through the Adopt-A-Catchment Program† It encourages volunteers to routinely check water levels, clean gutters and collection points, and perform light maintenance or repairs.
Tom Mackin, 75 years young, as he described it, is one of those dedicated volunteers. He has been retired for 14 years and has been volunteering ever since.
Mackin built an appreciation for wildlife growing up on a dairy farm. “I just love being outside,” he says. “I think I’ve found out that I work on solar energy.”
He started out as a hunter education instructor, but the need for water in the Southwest piqued his interest.
Jahrke estimates that Mackin transported nearly half a million gallons of water in his volunteer years.
“It’s amazing how committed our volunteers are. We can’t thank those people enough,” he said.
For Mackin, too, the satisfaction of having a positive impact on wildlife is worth the effort.
“Water is the key” to the entire ecosystem, he said. “It makes my heart feel good to see hundreds of birds, squirrels, rabbits and other animals taking advantage of the water.”