Sad news for endangered bighorn sheep will be announced soon from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The San Diego Union Tribune reports that the protected habitat for bighorns in California will be cut by 55%. In 1998, the U.S. population of bighorn sheep was down to only 280. Their numbers have rebounded since then to over 800 today, thanks in part to captive breeding programs and a USFWS Recovery Plan created in 2000.
The habitat cuts would maintain most of the critical habitat, but reduce corridors that conservationists believe are crucial to maintaining movement and genetic diversity of the population. In February, I saw a presentation by Esther Rubin of the Conservation Biology Institute at the San Diego Zoo’s annual State of Endangered Species event. Ms. Rubin gave a very informative presentation about the current state of Peninsular bighorns, including maps showing their current distribution and the proposed cuts. Populations are spread over Riverside, Imperial, and San Diego counties and continue south of the border into Baja. According to Ms. Rubin, one of the greatest areas of bighorn mortality is the Highway 78 passage through the mountains east of San Diego county near Anza Borrego State Park, where the animals are hit while trying to cross the road. She also suggested that the sheep populations may be susceptible to disease transmitted from domestic sheep populations, such as bluetongue.
On a more personal note, I was lucky enough to see a pair of bighorn sheep on a recent camping trip in Anza Borrego. A lamb and her mother passed just a few feet in front of us on the hiking trail. They’re amazing, beautiful animals, and it’s sad to see USFWS possibly compromising their recovery for the sake of politics and special interests. My boyfriend got a couple of photos with his camera: