When mule deer or antelope take a drink in Utah's desert, the water may be courtesy of the same technology that catapults satellites into space.
Hercules Corp. has donated more than 100 rocket motor cases to the Division of Wildlife Resources since 1978 in a program aimed at making water available to animals in otherwise inhospitable areas.Jay Roberson, upland game program coordinator for the division, said that by using the so-called "guzzlers" in desert areas that receive only 6-8 inches of rain a year, biologists can capture water that otherwise would evaporate. They then could open land that wildlife may avoid otherwise in favor of land along streams or springs.
"They've opened up millions of acres," he said, adding that the tanks also nourish animals seen by "non-consumptive" users, including bird watchers, hikers, photographers and campers. "At least half the state is involved."
Roberson said game managers often will assess parcels of land and conclude that it would be good wildlife habitat, but the only commodity missing is water.
"A lot of times that's one of our major criteria," Roberson said. "We'll say `this may be good mule deer or chukkar country but we've never seen many here.'
"We'll do an inventory of all available water in an area and then find major holes where we need to put one," he said. "When we get a general idea of where we want to put it, land ownership determines."
Each guzzler, generally buried on federal or state land, consists of a tank buried in the ground and a funnel or catch basin above the ground that captures the water. A line from the funnel runs into the tank and a second line runs downhill to a trough.
The state still has to pay the costs of other materials and install the guzzlers, but officials say the tanks generally are the most costly part. The price can exceed $10,000.
"The state has saved over $400,000 by using the cases instead of buying new materials," said biologist Dean Mitchell.
In the past, the company would cut up many of the motors and send them to a landfill, said company engineer Richard Cloward, who also is vice president of the Utah Wildlife Leadership Coalition.
It was through his involvement in the coalition that Cloward learned of the need for tanks. Through his work at Hercules, he discovered that the company was spending money just to send the tanks to the landfill.
"It's crazy to spend money to cut those things up just to facilitate burying them," he said.
John Waugman, environmental engineer at Hercules, said the casings generally are made of fiberglass, graphite or Kevlar, a material used in bulletproof vests. He said usually they're stronger than steel and do not rust, another reason the tanks are so useful.
"It doesn't deteriorate," Cloward said. "It's almost impenetrable to some of those hoodlums out there."
Waugman said the tanks have been filled with inert material, and Hercules never donates tanks that have been loaded with rocket propellent. He and Cloward also said the company has run tests to ensure that nothing from the tanks gets into the water or leaches into the ground.
"It would be like putting a graphite tennis racket in the ground," Waugman said. "It will be there long after you and I are gone."
Roberson is unable to document whether the tanks have been responsible for increased populations of animals, but his general impression is that the range has more animals because there is more water.