Elk NetworkRestoring Elk Country – Wildlife Guzzlers Partnership, South Dakota

Conservation , Restoring Elk Country | May 5, 2021

Prohibition Ends for Wildlife in Deadwood

The Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota, boasts the remains of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane—a permanent reminder of Deadwood’s rip-roaring Wild West youth. Back in 1876, when Hickok was shot in the back of the head, lower Main Street was lined with so many saloons and brothels it was known as the “Bad Lands.”

In the less-distant past, bighorn sheep, not gunslingers, crossed city streets in search of a drink. Now there’s a new place for bighorns to get one on Sunrise Mountain, in the hills northeast of the town thanks in part to RMEF Gold Country Chapter volunteers. They helped build a new wildlife water tank on the Black Hills National Forest in 2018.

The project was funded by partners including RMEF, along with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) and the U.S. Forest Service. It created drinking water for the fledgling herd of just under 20 bighorn sheep reintroduced to the area in 2015.

The goal was to help keep the sheep from traveling through the city, where lambs have even clambered onto tourists’ cars in the parking lot of a casino. However, other wildlife species including elk also benefit from a good source of drinking water, as there is no natural water source on Sunrise Mountain.

The new wildlife water tank was finished in September. The 8×16-foot, 2,000-gallon storage tank lies on public land in the heart of yearlong elk habitat, serving parts of GFP elk hunt units 1, 2 and 7. Unit 2 has the highest archery success rate of any of the Black Hills units, which support a total of 6,000 elk.

The biggest challenge for this particular tank was making it tough enough to withstand bighorn sheep. Bighorns are compact and strong. They like to climb on everything. Each ram is 250 pounds of potential destruction. 

“We had to do something way above normal operations for the sunrise tank,” says 75-year-old Larry Karns, RMEF volunteer who coordinated the effort. 

Karns is the last active member of the original 24 founders of the Gold Country Chapter, which was launched in 1994. The chapter has steadily refurbished old tanks on the Northern Hills Ranger District placed by the Forest Service in the 1980s. The volunteers clean and maintain all 50 water tanks in the area. 

Volunteer Ray Ames has been an RMEF sponsor member for 20 years. He helped with the design and layout of the Sunrise Mountain water tank and oversaw its construction.

Ames used his elk country connections to get extra-tough decking material donated from Ainsworth-Benning Construction company. 

“The president of the company actually is a past chairman of an Elk Foundation chapter, so he was all for it,” says Ames. “He said have at it.” 

Ames is an avid hunter and conservationist and gets a lot of satisfaction out of completing a project for wildlife.

“You get a project done and you go back later and see that it’s working and there’s a tank full of water that wildlife can go to and drink out of,” he says. “It’s kind of cool to see all that.”

Volunteers will have an extra opportunity to see their work in action on this new guzzler. Trail cameras are set up to record pictures of the animals that stop by for a refreshing drink.

As the Gold Country Chapter celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2019, it is on track to notch its millionth dollar netted for elk country. Reasons to celebrate indeed for a hard-charging chapter as legendary as the town it
calls home.

—Heather Fraley