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Students Explore Alternative Way To Provide Water for Wildlife, Livestock

LIGON RANCH, N.M. - Socorro County 4-H members are lending a hand with an innovative project to furnish water for livestock and wildlife.



Socorro County 4-H members Frank Alguire and Colton Card install posts for a fence that will protect grass seeds from wildlife. The two are part of a group working on a project that is using a new approach to provide water for wildlife and livestock on ranches. (12/23/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

The project, at a silt-filled earthen water tank at the Ligon Ranch, is a chance for 4-H and FFA members and other students at nearby Socorro High School to learn about topics ranging from wildlife habitats to sophisticated global positioning system (GPS) equipment.

For sophomore Jacob Finch, it's a chance to add to his knowledge of range plants. Finch already has some expertise: He took second place last summer in range management competition at the State 4-H Conference at New Mexico State University.

"I want to learn about the grasses, what's healthy for cows and wildlife to eat," he said.

Junior Billy Pound is looking forward to learning more about wildlife in the area.

"I'd like to know how many there are of each species," he said. He's also interested in learning more about using GPS equipment. "That would be cool."

High-tech equipment gave way to raw horsepower during a December field trip to the ranch as four-wheel-drive pickups crawled across rugged muddy and snowpacked terrain to reach the project site northwest of Magdalena. Students and New Mexico State Land Office representatives, along with Tom Dean, program director for the Socorro County Cooperative Extension Service, planned to set up a water storage tank and work on fence lines around the earthen tank. It was the fourth day the group had worked on the project.

"Our goal for the Extension Service is to provide education for the youth," Dean said, while steering the lead pickup. The State Land Office, meanwhile, is looking for another way to deal with silted-in tanks and care for wildlife.

"The question is, can you rehabilitate the tanks and provide water to livestock and wildlife?" asked Michael Quintana, range conservationist for the State Land Office, as Dean's truck squeezed through a gate better suited for cattle.

The group arrived at the earthen tank, a low point among the evergreen-checkered hills. At the junction of several arroyos, the tank was a natural choice many years ago for the rancher who scooped out a depression large enough to collect occasional runoff. But the runoff carried soil that filled the low area over the years, and the tank doesn't collect much water these days. Generally, such a tank would have to be bulldozed free of silt, a costly process. But this project uses an alternative.

A French drain has been built at the bottom of the depression. It leads to a pipeline that will be connected to the 550-gallon storage tank loaded on one of the pickups. Attached to the storage tank will be a wildlife drinker, a metal trough to provide water to wild animals as well as livestock. The project is on about two acres of state land.

Quintana said having students working and learning at the ranch makes sense.

"Since the mission (of the State Land Office) is to provide funds from state lands to educate children, what better way than to involve kids?" Quintana said. The project is being funded by the State Land Office's Land Maintenance Fund.

Some students broke out shovels and pickaxes to level a base for the storage tank while others dug post holes for a fence around the depression. It already had been cleared of water-hogging salt cedar and would be seeded with native grasses. Dean said the grasses, as well as shrubs like fourwing saltbush and Apache plume, will help to slow runoff and cause some silt to be deposited before it reaches the low part of the tank.

Strong-smelling mothballs will be placed at regular intervals along the fence to ward off wildlife that otherwise may jump or knock down the fence.

"Those mothballs really do the trick," said Willie Lucero, Socorro District resource manager for the State Land Office. As grass and shrubs become established, creating a micro-habitat, Lucero expects to see more wildlife in the area, such as quail, deer, rabbits, reptiles and raptors.

Measuring the experiment's results will be the students' responsibility when they visit the site every three months during the next two years. They will study plants and wildlife by counting animal droppings and recording data at specific locations. Students will photograph the site from GPS-determined locations to track the build-up of silt and study satellite imagery that will be taken twice a year. A PowerPoint presentation will be prepared for a class at Socorro High, and the findings will be passed on to the Extension office where it will be used to help answer range-related questions and for other uses.

Another goal is to use the site as an example for other ranchers to consider. They will be invited to tour and evaluate the demonstration site.

Pound, whose family ranches nearby, said the approach is opposite of what normally would be done. Providing water to animals is a bigger challenge than providing feed at his family's ranch, so the priority must be on keeping dirt tanks clear for water, rather than looking for ways to grow more grass. But he wants to follow the progress of the project.

"I want to see if the grasses actually pick up and see if the tank project is actually catching water," he said.

Finch, who worked for four weeks last summer at the Ligon Ranch helping build fences and brand calves, also intends to stay involved.

"I think that's a good spot for establishing all the grasses," he said. "Plus, it helps out the rancher, taking out all that salt cedar."

The students can benefit regardless of the outcome of the project, through their involvement, Dean said.

"They get a chance to do some hands-on management practices. They're learning vital work skills. They're the ones who will be doing the research and collecting the data."

Being involved throughout the project will give the students a unique perspective as they analyze the progress. Already, they are making good observations and asking important questions, Dean said.

"They're noticing things out there. They've been really inquisitive," Dean said. "I think they're going to teach us the most."

For more information, contact Dean at (505) 835-0610 or Quintana at (505) 827-5734.