Get on the Lookout for Bighorns, SoCal

Lace up your hiking shoes for local bighorn sheep, SoCal. Three agencies are working together to survey the population in the San Gabriel Mountains and they are looking for volunteers to assist biologists in the annual bighorn sheep count on March 1 -2.

No survey experience is necessary but vols (ages 16 and older) are asked to attend a mandatory orientation on March 1 to learn the basics of sheep peeping and meet fellow wildlife lovers and organizations responsible for the count: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS). The actual hiking and counting takes place on Sunday March 2.

All in all, the survey has been conducted since 1979 with citizens tackling the terrain in numerous locations – some easily accessible, others requiring more hard-core hikers, boulder hoppers and bush whackers.

Overall, “the herd seems to be in good shape with no indications of any man-made or biological threats,” says Andrew Hughan of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife about the big horn sheep that has prime views of Azusa, Rancho Cucamonga, Duarte and other eastern San Gabriel suburbs.

At one time, sheep numbers in the San Gabriels were estimated about 740 in the 1980, but a big crash happened between 1986-1993 which brought the herd to a mere 100 or so. One explanation for the decline was since vegetation was so thick in the mountains, the sheep had a hard time moving around let alone reproduce and care for young. The fire of 2003 cleared much of that vegetation and with that new growth, higher numbers of sheep.

So, far the bighorn population has increased every year and has been holding steady at about 400+ sheep.

Different herds roam the SoCal landscape, explains Norm Lopez of the SCBS. “Herds tend to stay in one general area,” he says rattling off other locations of bighorns: San Jacinto Mountains, Anza Borrega, the deserts you drive to on the way to Las Vegas.

There is always a concern domesticated sheep infecting wild sheep which can decimate a herd. Last summer, bighorns were dying in the Mojave Desert from pneumonia – it’s believed the sheep caught the disease when a feral angora goat came in contact with the herd. “People just dump animals off in the wild thinking they will be OK,” says Lopez. “They don’t realize the harm that domesticated animal can do.”

The SCBS assists the sheep in the hot summer months by refilling big game drinkers (think of them as man-made watering holes) which benefits not just the bighorns but numerous other thirsty critters, says Lopez. “I have seen a golden eagle drink from one of these systems,” he says. “It takes your breath away.”

To sign up to participate in this year’s Big Horn Sheep Survey, click here.