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Endangered Bighorn Sheep Operation in San Jacinto Mountains

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 5:02 PM
by Morgan Craft
  For five years, I’ve been scouring the San Jacinto Mountains behind my Palm Springs home with high-powered binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of our famous cliff-dwelling neighbors, the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. This week, the Department of Fish and Game, which monitors the dwindling herd, brought them to me.
   The chop-chop of a helicopter here usually means the search is on for a lost hiker on the notorious Skyline trail. This one, however, was clearly ferrying a four-legged passenger. A short hike into Tacheva Canyon revealed a well-coordinated capture operation of sheep brought down from the towering cliffs above by the chopper, which are loaded into a pickup and brought to the examination site.
   Six adult bighorn sheep were captured from the helicopter, using a net-gun, and then fitted with radio-collars. They were then examined by a veterinarian, health tested, collared and released at the site, or flown back to their place of capture. The capture was part of an on-going, long-term research project and was conducted by the California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofit Bighorn Institute, whose biologists have been monitoring the bighorn sheep in the San Jacinto Mountains since 1992. (Click to read on...)

   An array of threats confronts this small herd, from predators (mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, and golden eagles), parasites and disease, drought, automobile collisions, habitat loss, and poisonous plants introduced by urbanization. Constant monitoring, by air, on foot and by radio tracking, allows the agencies charged with protecting the sheep to keep track of their movements. The sophisticated radio collars include “mortality monitoring”, which will alert their watchers if a ram or ewe has died or been killed.
   The capture operation, one of many that take place throughout the Bighorn habitat in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains National Monument, provides for the fitting of the radio collars and medical examinations by veterinarians, assisted by members of the Bighorn Institute. It’s the threat to these animals that was the impetus to create the monument in 2000. Under a shade tent in the canyon I come across a large female, its eyes covered by a green mask, being restrained by a stout volunteer. “This one’s not pregnant,” the attending veterinarian says, completing her examination. A large ram, with horns as big as my biceps, lies nearby, as its radio collar is checked.

   It’s serious and sensitive work, and these people are clearly experts, dedicated to the task.

   The Tacheva Canyon subgroup of Peninsular Bighorn Sheep numbers less than 30, which cling to life in the rocky crags above Palm Springs. They’ve been listed under the California State Endangered Species Act since 1971, and in 1998 were listed federally under the US Endangered Species Act, bringing greater resources to bear in maintaining the herd and promoting its survival. Biologist and Associate Director of the Bighorn Institute Aimee Boyd stresses that “in 2002, there were just four female bighorn here, but today there are fourteen. Intensive monitoring is critical to help the wildlife agencies properly manage this endangered species, which is why it’s necessary for us to be able to track the population.”
   And why this operation is so important. While a multitude of threats remain, the outlook for this small herd is guardedly hopeful. Though the females now number fourteen, to be removed from the endangered list there must be twenty-five in the subgroup, and this group is the smallest in the entire study area. In 2002, the Institute started focusing on captive breeding and augmentation efforts on this particular subgroup, in addition to their regular monitoring. Recovery is now underway, primarily due to the Institute’s efforts, with the goal of ultimately having the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep removed from the endangered list.

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