Thanks to conservation efforts, there’s been some good news of late when it comes to Southern California’s population of bighorn sheep.
After years of declines, herds in Joshua Tree National Park and in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park have stabilized and even started to grow a bit, noted James Cornett, a Palm Springs-based ecologist and author who’s taught a course on bighorn sheep at the University of California Riverside. And in his own backyard, in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, Cornett said, the sheep with distinctive curved horns “are holding their own, up from less than 100 to a few hundred today.”
But in each of those areas, Cornett said, there still are fewer than 1,000 sheep left. That’s partially due to humans introducing livestock that carry diseases and fragmenting sheep habitat with highways and other development. It’s also a consequence of climate change, Cornett said, with the West’s megadrought particularly hard on small, vulnerable populations like bighorn sheep.
A new project aims to install up to 90 permanent drinking fountains, of sorts, for bighorn sheep and other wildlife in strategic locations throughout eastern San Bernardino, Riverside and Inyo counties.
The plan is being spearheaded by the Pasadena-based nonprofit Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, which works in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The nonprofit, which boasts a resident poet, got the green light Friday from the California State Lands Commission to lease state-owned land for the drinking stations.
Installing and maintaining systems to catch rainwater for bighorn sheep in remote desert areas is no easy task. Materials will need to be helicoptered in to many sites, and volunteers will need to go through training to ensure they’re not disrupting other wildlife or vegetation in the area.
The fact that wildlife groups and state authorities support such a significant effort signals agreement that this drought will not soon pass and that long-term aridification requires more permanent solutions to safeguard wildlife.
“We would anticipate that the environment, for not just bighorn sheep but all animals in the desert Southwest, is going to get more difficult,” Cornett said.
“When we put in artificial watering holes, we’re kind of playing God, of course,” he said with a chuckle. “But because the populations are so small, anything we can do to help that doesn’t cause secondary problems is a good thing.”