Volunteering for the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn

goHUNT with 2% for Conservation and founder of Sitka Gear. All photo credits: Jillian Sanford

As a passionate bowhunter who loves the outdoors, I pride myself in the volunteer work and conservation organizations that I am involved with such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. After recently volunteering for the first time with my local conservation organization, the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn (FDB), I found that this organization is filled with individuals who advocate for Nevada’s state species in a positive and impactful way by providing vital water development projects and much more. Personally, I love the fact that people all over southern Nevada—and some even as far as Montana—can come together to work hard towards helping conserve and ensure the survival of our state species for the long haul. It was an eye-opening experience and I will definitely contribute my time to for another project in the future.

Conservation comes first 

The project I volunteered for was the Big Bertha guzzler build in the Mormon Mountains, which was a humbling experience that, to me, defines what being a conservationist and hunter truly is about. One important aspect that individuals often forget about or are unaware of is that conservation comes first. Without the conservation of our public lands, waters, and wildlife hunting would not be a lifestyle that we are able to live.

It was amazing to witness the number of people and support—both young and old (the youngest being 13)—who helped with this guzzler build. This community and its hard work are important to the continuity of desert bighorn sheep in southern Nevada because the outdoorsman who started this organization in 1964 needs young men and women to pass the torch on to another generation one day.

Big Bertha guzzler project

Moving water tanks into place

FDB volunteers working together to move the water tanks into place. 

On May 11, 2019, we worked on the most recent guzzler project (Big Bertha), which is a water development project that provides a water source for 67+ species, including the desert bighorn within the Mormon Mountains. Weeks prior to the main build, important supplies and gear were flown up in slings to assure that the main build went smoothly and everything we needed to complete the build would be up there. This guzzler project was a great one to be a part of because Sitka Gear and a crew from 2% for Conservation came from Montana and Utah to experience what the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn does for the desert bighorn. This is a perfect example of how dedicated conservationists value wildlife throughout the entire country and how vital volunteers are to these conservation organizations because, without these hardworking volunteers, FBD projects would be put on hold. With help from over 40 volunteers that day as well as the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) staff, FDB was able to build another guzzler in a remote location within the Mormon Mountains to give these animals a better chance of survival during the hot southern Nevada summers.

Teamwork makes the dream work

FDB metal apron build

80' x 40' metal apron being painted to blend in with surrounding vegetation

Water development projects, more commonly known as guzzlers, are made out of metal, fiberglass or other suitable materials and are built in areas where there is not enough water to support wildlife. There are two main differences in any water development project: the way precipitation is caught and how the water is stored and made available to the wildlife. The apron structure collects rainwater or snowmelt and stores it in tanks. From the tanks, water flows from piping into the drinker (which is about the size of a four-wheeler), which must be cemented into the ground along with rocks to help prevent erosion. While guzzlers are built to primarily benefit big game and upland bird species, they also provide a valuable source of water for wildlife of all types and sizes.

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The projects are constructed in one day and FDB usually has around 40 dedicated volunteers along with NDOW staff like there was for the Big Bertha build. Estimates vary for the cost of these projects but can reach up to $25,000 when factoring in materials, transportation and volunteer hours.

Big Bertha drinker

FDB drinker set in place with concrete and rocks to prevent erosion

For over 55 years, FDB has been “unselfishly dedicated to the welfare and conservation of the desert bighorn and Nevada’s wildlife.” FDB has been constructing life-saving water projects in southern Nevada to sustain desert bighorn sheep as well as 67 other species through volunteer work and financial support. Fueled 100% by volunteers, FDB organizes manpower, materials, equipment and time for the betterment of Nevada’s state animal and other wildlife species. By working with NDOW, FDB helps with “trap and transplants,” migration studies and, of course, water development projects which all contribute to conservation efforts throughout southern Nevada. 

NDOW helicopter

NDOW helicopter preparing to fly volunteers back to the meeting point 

“Trap and transplants” are a restoration effort to restore bighorn sheep in areas in which their populations have been devastated by disease and starvation. This type of project consists of capturing and relocating bighorn sheep, resulting in the return of their population in areas that were previously impacted by massive die-offs. This is another vital project that the FDB and its volunteers contribute their time to.

One disease that is particularly devastating to Nevada's bighorn sheep herds is pneumonia. Dr. Peregrine Wolff, State Wildlife Veterinarian says, "The only sure way to make a firm diagnosis is to test samples from all tissues while testing for all pathogens, especially those that we know have caused pneumonia. Unfortunately, taking samples with cotton swabs or through blood samples is not enough. This situation requires that we complete a full necropsy on at least one sick adult and perhaps a couple that are young of the year." NDOW continues to coordinate its sampling efforts with biologists from the National Park Service in order to help prevent pneumonia.

Why is volunteering important?

Sitka Gear and 2% for Conservation crew

With help from NDOW and the Wild Sheep Foundation, FDB is able to create reliable water sources for many species of wildlife. Without their help, bighorn sheep populations will drop tremendously and would possibly pave the way towards adding the desert bighorn sheep to the Endangered Species List. Without the help from volunteers and financial support from donors that support causes like this one, desert bighorn sheep populations would still be diminishing and leading Nevada’s state species into an abyss that has taken a lot of hard work to pull them out. Back in 1964, when FDB was founded in Las Vegas, Nevada, there was a dwindling population of 2,000 desert bighorn sheep in southern Nevada; now there is an estimation of over 12,000 bighorn sheep. With the help from volunteers, generous donors, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the guidance of the founding members (who are invested in the conservation of our native wildlife) there are also now more than 125 guzzlers up on the dry mountains of Nevada, creating a beneficial impact on many species—most importantly the desert bighorn sheep.

Get involved

The importance of volunteering for your local conservation organization is vital to the survival of wildlife. It’s easy to get involved just like I did. Conservation has to come before hunting. This is exactly what the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn Sheep stands for, the conservation of the desert bighorn because without the meaningful guzzler projects and traps and transplants, hunting bighorn sheep in southern Nevada would not be possible. If the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn is important to you, too, click here to get involved in the next project. Or, find one that you want to volunteer within your local community.

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