High above Simi Valley on Rocky Peak, two members of Quail Unlimited surveyed the damage to their latest project, a 1,000-gallon water tank for wildlife.
Part of the tank they installed in February was vandalized during the past week.
Most of the water dribbled into the surrounding hillside.
Mike Taylor, county chairman of the group, held the lid to the drink box, a metal container where larger animals get water, and looked down at its severed hinges.
"They just broke it off," he said. "There's just no reason. Seems like they were just doing it to be spiteful."
Quail Unlimited, a group of hunters and conservationists, has built a dozen of these ingenious drinking fountains around the county, most of them in Los Padres National Forest. This is the first time members have seen such destructive vandalism at one of their projects.
The tank is made from the same simple design that ranchers and farmers have been using for the past century. Called guzzlers, they are commonly built in dry areas to benefit wildlife.
A hole is dug, and wooden forms are placed inside to shape the sides and barrel-vaulted top. Then cement is poured in to create the underground tank. One side slants up, so animals can walk down into the tank to drink.
Providing water sources for wildlife is the top priority for Quail Unlimited, a national organization with more than 100 members in its Ventura County chapter.
As an environmental group, Quail Unlimited has rather unlikely origins. It was formed by hunters to preserve the habitat of the small birds that hunters pursue with dogs and guns. Membership--99% male in Ventura County--tends to grow in leaps and bounds after each local gun show.
Few of its members find anything incongruous about the idea of hunters building drinking fountains for wildlife. They seem drawn to Quail Unlimited largely as a way to get outside and hang out with the guys while making life a little easier for the animals.
Ventura resident Bill Ingenito has been with the group three years, though he has hunted since childhood.
"The first project I went up on, I just thought it was kind of nice to be out there doing something constructive instead of shooting the place up," he said.
New recruit Ray Pomada, also of Ventura, learned about the group at a recent gun show.
He described himself as a hunter, but not "an avid hunter." His reason for joining was simple.
"I like to take care of the birds," Pomada said with a shrug. "I do it for the birds."
Chairman Taylor has hunted only once in the past 20 years.
"I'm in this because I'm an environmentalist," Taylor said. "If you want to put something back into the environment, this is the only group around here that specializes in restoring habitat."
At monthly membership meetings, the focus is usually on guzzlers; where to put them and how to maintain existing ones. Using annual dues, grants and matching funds from the U. S. Forest Service, the group can afford to install about three guzzlers a year. They work closely with park rangers to choose locations.
George Garcia, a biologist with the Ojai Ranger District, said the group's assistance has become critical as budget cuts hit the Forest Service.
"I think it's a pretty valuable piece of labor that they provide us with," he said. "They spend their entire Saturdays sometimes helping me out. They're out to help quail, but the work they do benefits all wildlife, maybe even the bigger species more than the birds."
Guzzlers are particularly important in water-scarce Southern California, Garcia said. Since so much of Ventura County flatlands--where streams and creeks run--have been settled, the wildlife that retreats to the hills often has to look hard for water sources.
The project in Simi Valley is not within Forest Service jurisdiction, so Quail Unlimited won't get matching funds for it. Total costs for putting in a guzzler are usually about $2,000.
After ripping off the lid, someone filled the drink box with rocks, causing the water to overflow, and destroying the valve that leads to the main tank of the guzzler. Normally the valve serves as a slow stopper, allowing levels to rise slowly as animals drink from the box. Without it, all the water from the main tank drains out. The damage could cost as much as $600 to fix.
That cost includes driving in a water truck to refill the tank, which upsets both Mike Taylor and Eric Taylor, the group's unrelated conservation committee chairman. They were careful to bring the heavy truck in during February, so the grasses and plants they disturbed would have time to recover before the heat of summer.
"Now we're going to have to drive through the meadow again it'll probably be trashed for a year," Eric Taylor said.
By next year, assuming there is no drought, the tank will refill itself with rainwater.
Most of the dozen guzzlers installed by Quail Unlimited are in spots inaccessible to people. They don't like to advertise the spots for fear that people they call "slob-hunters" will come and take advantage of easy prey.
No hunting is allowed on Rocky Peak, but the Rocky Peak site is well-traveled by hikers and bikers. It was selected largely to promote gene mixing between the animals that live on either side of the Simi Valley Freeway. A tunnel under the freeway, built for sheep, allows animals to get through. A new water source on the other side should encourage healthy mixing.
But there was another reason for choosing the Simi Valley spot: so people as well as animals could enjoy it, giving residents a chance to view deer, coyotes, birds and other wildlife as they drink from the tank.
It is an experiment the group might not be able to repeat.
"If it's accessible, they'll screw it up," said Ingenito, shaking his head.
Quail Unlimited welcomes anyone interested in attending their meetings, which are held on the second Monday of each month. Meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. in the office of the Ventura County superintendent of schools, 5189 Verdugo Way, Camarillo. For information, call Mike Taylor at 482-5177.