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It’s been a dry spring and summer across the American West. With 75% of the region in “severe drought“, and a quarter of that reaching “exceptional” drought conditions—characterized by extreme fire risk, water emergencies, and widespread loss of both crops and pasture, according to NOAA—wildlife are feeling the pinch. On Antelope Island, wildlife biologists are considering drastic action: Flying fresh water to the island’s wild inhabitants via helicopter.
Antelope Island, the largest of ten islands in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, is home to mule deer, pronghorn, bison, and a herd of bighorn sheep. It’s the sheep that have biologists most concerned: The current herd of about 30 is new to the island, introduced in January 2020 after the previous bighorn population was completely wiped out by a mystery respiratory disease. Like most bighorn, the new population prefers to stay in higher, steeper terrain. Unfortunately that’s the part of Antelope Island where the freshwater is disappearing the fastest. A few years ago, the park installed a water tank to keep island’s bison herd through especially dry summers, but it isn’t in a part of the island frequented by bighorn. The herd has used “guzzlers“, manmade catchments for rain and snow that provide drinking water for wildlife, but at this point in the drought even those are dry.
Beyond last year’s reintroduction the sheep haven’t needed any water help from humans past the guzzlers so far. (“This is something new to us out here,” David Bates, biologist for the DWR, told Salt Lake’s KSL news.) Besides making this summer unprecedented even for the desert, that means Antelope Island State Park and the state Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) don’t have a ready-made plan to draw on when it comes to figuring out how to airlift a large amount of freshwater. If the sheep need it, though, they’ll make it happen.