Impacts of Climate Change, Not Debatable


Last updated 5/10/2022 at 11:39am

Headlines that climate change is ravaging our desert, triggered the expected reaction of philosophical polarization but also the wrong debate.

For the man who has lived here and devoted his working life to the plants and animals of Anza-Borrego, there should no longer be a debate.

A changing climate is having an impact and instead of worrying about the cause, Mark Jorgensen feels we should be focused on the reality of climate change and what we can do about it.

Jorgensen spent 36 years with state parks and is now retired in Borrego Springs after serving as Superintendent for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. He is recognized internationally as an expert on bighorn sheep and has led efforts to protect them and their habitat.

He is worried less about the causes of climate change than he is about dealing with the impacts.

“When I first heard about climate change, I thought it would be no big deal in the desert. It’s already dry here, and the desert will adapt. But I think I was wrong,” Jorgensen said. “Climate change may be just a cycle, but we still need to deal with the impacts.”

In his mind, man has contributed to those impacts in Anza-Borrego, and that has driven his efforts to help preserve the bighorn.

Jorgensen sees the effects of recent Drought years and increasingly warmer temperatures. Places where there has historically been water are now dry, and both cactus and ocotillo forests that were historically healthy are withering.

State Park environmental scientists are documenting declines of the already few wetlands in the park. Along with that, a whole plant and animal community is threatened that serve as home to amphibians, deer, skunks, coyotes and foxes, bobcats and even mountain lions.

“We need to recognize the reality. Not the why, but the reality and what we can do about it,” Jorgensen said.

He pointed to “countless examples” that have caused harm that no one thought about at the time. That included construction of roads that cut off access to springs, introduction of domestic livestock that required water diversion from the natural sources of wildlife.

“Early cattlemen diverted water away from many natural springs and that took water away from bighorn,” Jorgensen said.

Add Drought, and bighorn sheep numbers plummeted in some areas to less than 25 animals, but thanks to efforts of wildlife managers those populations rebounded to over 175. Throughout the park, bighorn populations have soared from a low of less than 300 to an estimated 900 today.

The key to that population increase was installation in the 1980s of wildlife guzzlers designed to catch and store rainwater in tanks, providing a wildlife drinking source during hotter summer months. But when there is no rain, the 5,000-gallon guzzlers are simply empty tanks and there is no place for bighorn sheep, or other wildlife to drink. Biologists last year found the remains of four bighorn near a guzzler that had no water.

“The wildlife has come to depend on this water, and we let them down,” Jorgensen said. “The public demands we be good stewards of the land. We should focus on local efforts.”

As days get hotter and there is less rainfall, Jorgensen would like to see man step in and assure there is water in the guzzlers. Without it, he is certain that sheep populations will surely dwindle.

“We owe it to the earth, wildlife and plants to do the best we can,” Jorgensen said. “It’s imperative that we double our efforts to keep water flowing to wildlife instead of backing off. It’s not nature taking its course. This is fixing what humans did starting with the Gold Rush.”

The majestic bighorn that are symbols of the park itself, have come to depend on the water provided. In an arid landscape, finding ways to add water to remote guzzlers is an expensive proposition, and the proposal has sparked another debate.

Last year as the region approached the third year of Drought, there was an effort to use U.S. Marine Corp. helicopters to airlift water into the remote guzzlers. It was expensive, costing nearly $500,000.

Anza-Borrego State Park Senior Environmental Scientist Danny McCamish in prior published reports disagreed with Jorgensen on the idea of supplementing their water supply. He expressed concern that the expensive effort of filling guzzlers was only supporting an artificial population created by the remote water tanks.

With limited resources, money spent on keeping guzzlers filled could better be used on much needed park maintenance projects.

When asked for an interview about climate change impacts in Anza-Borrego, McCamish sent the following message.

“Your request has been sent to our media relations office in Sacramento for approval. Once I have approval, I will reach back out to you.”

At press time, there was no response. The Borrego Sun will provide comments when received. In the meantime, Jorgensen said he doesn’t have solutions to the impacts of climate change on a global level.

“At the local level we need to focus on the reduction of water usage because our only source here is underground. It’s recognizing a reality, switching to Solar, reducing the use of fossil fuels and focusing on alternatives,” Jorgensen said.

He summed it up.

“For the bighorn sheep, climate change means less water and a more difficult struggle to survive. It’s imperative that we double efforts to keep water flowing to wildlife instead of backing off,” he said. “The public is not going to stand for parks letting things go to hell. The public loves their parks and wildlife.”

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