Counting sheep

Published: September 7th, 2012

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Mt. Baldy’s regal Bighorn Sheep survive extinction.

Leaning up against the rocks, a Bighorn ram stands above Mt. Baldy Village looking southeast toward Mt. Baldy Road.  The ram came down the mountainside just before sundown in search of  food and water. / photo by Zachary Horton

Leaning up against the rocks, a Bighorn ram stands above Mt. Baldy Village looking southeast toward Mt. Baldy Road. The ram came down the mountainside just before sundown in search of food and water. / photo by Zachary Horton

by Alyssa Cole
photography by Zachary Horton

The road is steep; the canyons on both sides steeper. Riding in a Jeep Commander, I travel down the bumpy Cow Canyon Saddle restricted fire road. At the steering wheel is Chris Brookhart, Mt. Baldy resident and firefighter for the city of Upland plus a volunteer fireman/paramedic in the Mt. Baldy Fire Department. Chris is taking me down the canyon to meet 29-year Mt. Baldy resident Chris Walker, who will unlock the gates to restricted land his family has owned for 50 years; land that encompasses the protected heritage of the imperial Bighorn Sheep. This precious flock has more than just Walker looking out for it; it also has Department of Fish and Game protection. Walker’s land lies adjacent to the protected area–off limits to everyone, save the occasional visit from a biologist whose work is designed to help the sheep avoid extinction. “It’s always a trip to watch them walk across the side of a cliff; they are very smart,” Walker says. The mountain here is full of cliffs and loose rocks. The sheep have a tenuous relationship with this area. On this day, we would not see the elusive animals, but we know they are here. On the five-mile trip up the canyon, Brookhart stopped several times to show where the Bighorn often gather. Where the San Gabriel River meets Mt. Baldy is where the sheep live. In spite of ranches, tractors and people, the sheep are at ease with the residents of Mt. Baldy. They appear most often during evening hours. There is rare interaction between these wild creatures and the mountain’s residents; it is a peaceful co-existence.

Out of sight, not out of mind

It is believed the Bighorn, Ovis Canadensis Nelsoni, migrated from Siberia more than 10,000 years ago. The Bighorns differ from common sheep; they are majestic animals famous for their large horns that give them a sense of status and dominance in the mountains. The horns grow throughout their entire lives, and both rams and ewes have them, though the ram horns are curved and much more prominent. The sheep range through many western areas of North America, but over the years their numbers have dwindled due to various types of habitat complications. “You used to be able to see them off the cliffs on a regular basis,” says Brookhart. Their increased absence raises questions regarding their population numbers for both Mt. Baldy locals and biologists. Disease, predation and habitat have thinned their numbers to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the Bighorn as being endangered.

Disease, predators and habitat

The Journal of Wildlife Diseases hypothesizes that highly infectious lungworms in Bighorn communities increase stress and decrease fitness, which could threaten the sheep’s survival. But, after several tests, researchers found that, while the lungworm negatively affects the sheep’s respiratory track, it is not always deadly. However, when these lungworms take the life of a ewe, it disrupts reproduction in Bighorn communities, which then contributes to the Bighorn’s population decline. Another influence is a species of infectious flies that lay their eggs around the nasal openings of the Bighorn. When the larvae hatch, they migrate to the lungs and heart, causing a cyst that may shorten the lifespan of the affected sheep.

Mountain and canyon ranges host many predators of the Bighorn. Known for having short legs, a low center of gravity and a thickset build, the Bighorn have used these attributes to dominate their habitat and to survive from predators. “A lot of local mountain lions come up and have either scared them off or consumed them,” Brookhart says. Mountain lions are recognized to be robust thrashing animals, and although the bighorn could put up a good fight, most times the sheep are unable to triumph. If predators are hovering their ranges, the Bighorn may find safer quarters elsewhere. Mountain lions too are a protected species in California and have been off-limits to hunters for the last 20 years by virtue of a successful ballot measure.

Harvey Good, long-time Mt. Baldy resident and University of La Verne professor of biology emeritus, has followed the Bighorn for years. He suggests that a major turning point in their habitat occurred after the Thunder Fires. “In 2003, the Thunder Fires burned from the ski lifts down the canyon along Glendora Ridge Road,” Good says. “It burned a whole watershed that allowed grass and shrubbery to grow. After this disaster, a lot of the Bighorn’s habitat was burned off.” Bighorn Sheep are particular about where they choose to set up herd. They do not like dense growth, but prefer terrain where they can spot predators.

About 20 years ago, The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep wanted to build up the herd, and hunters supported this initiative. “They were trying to get them established out by Mt. Pinos,” Good says. “The herd had been present there once, and it was wiped out.” The Department of Fish and Game reasoned that since Bighorn have done well in conditions similar to Mt. Pinos, they could do well in that environment. They then herded them into a flock of 25, took blood samples to see how healthy they were and transferred them out near Mt. Pinos. The sheep were placed onto this hunting ground because the department wanted to establish a hunting herd. However, inadequate research into the herd’s new habitat allowed for problems with the relocation. “There were a good amount of mountain lions, and in two to three years the Bighorn were wiped out,” Good says. “I had questioned their motivation. Nevertheless, I wasn’t against them establishing the herd somewhere they were before, and I thought it would be OK, but it turned out to be really sad.”

2012 Bighorn Sheep survey results

Since 2001, annual Bighorn Sheep census surveys have been conducted by biologists and volunteers who hike into various observation locations in the San Gabriel Mountains. Additional biologist eyes take count from a helicopter. Observers found, during the count held March 3 and 4, that due to the winter drought experienced in Southern California, the Bighorn Sheep were perched on higher elevation levels than in previous observations. Nevertheless, much to the excitement of the 125 volunteers who participated, 38 Bighorn Sheep were recorded in locations ranging from Cow Canyon Saddle to Lytle Creek. In addition to ground observation, recordings, which netted an additional 64 sheep, were also taken from a helicopter that spotted sheep at higher elevations. “The population was under 100, and to bring a population back you need more than 100 of that species,” survey leader and fifth-year participant, Esmeralda Bracamonte says. “Now, we believe that they have increased in numbers because after fires you start seeing the fresh soot.” When soot interacts with soil, it nourishes plant growth. This is why Bracamonte believes the Bighorns had nice, fresh grub when they returned to the lower feeding grounds.

“An accurate population estimate cannot be calculated for 2012 because many animals were located outside standardized winter range survey polygons, at elevations characteristic of spring and summer range,” writes Jeff Villepique, environmental scientist of the California Department of Fish and Game, in his April 10, 2012, final report. In the report, he says, “There is no reason to suspect that the sheep population is weakening. Data suggest that the population is continuing to grow from the 418 sheep estimated in the 2011 survey. Survival of collared animals was very good over the past year, and the limited sample of Bighorn Sheep from this year’s survey indicate a lamb to ewe ratio of greater than 0.5, a number conducive to continued growth.” For biologists, this is great news. A lack of successful reproduction is a problem for this herd. “The ewes weren’t reproducing successfully as they once did; they were diminishing,” Bracamonte says.

The Bighorn’s population improvements suggest they are likely to continue slowly re-populating the Mt. Baldy area. With the Bighorn Sheep having a fair chance of recovering, residents of the San Gabriel Mountains may yet have the pleasure of walking out on their front porches to greet their majestic neighbors.

A Bighorn stands sentry for two other sheep. The small herd climbed down the mountainside April 9, 2012, near the Mt. Baldy Village to graze the little green grass available.  Locally known as Nelson Big Horned Sheep, the scientifically named Ovis Canadensis Nelsoni found at Mt Baldy have no problem climbing the steep rock-strewn mountain sides. / photo by Zachary Horton

A Bighorn stands sentry for two other sheep. The small herd climbed down the mountainside April 9, 2012, near the Mt. Baldy Village to graze the little green grass available. Locally known as Nelson Big Horned Sheep, the scientifically named Ovis Canadensis Nelsoni found at Mt Baldy have no problem climbing the steep rock-strewn mountain sides. / photo by Zachary Horton

“Shear” diligence

In his gray Toyota Tundra, La Verne Magazine photographer Zachary Horton persistently traveled up Mt. Baldy Road seven different times in his efforts to capture an image of the reclusive Bighorn Sheep. He walked long distances alone and waited hours in the cold for a chance to photograph the sheep. Zachary’s determination and commitment finally brought the Bighorn into his sight. On his seventh attempt, he spotted three Bighorn rams gliding on the cliff side. “When I first saw them, I thought that my mind was just playing tricks on me,” Zachary says. “I had been to the same spot time after time with no results.” He shot the pictures of the sheep above Mt. Baldy Village directly across the road from the Mt. Baldy Trout Ponds. There was a small rest area where he parked.

Statuesque and robust, the rams posed patiently as Horton framed them in his Nikon D7000 viewfinder and captured them digitally. It was as if they knew he had been looking for them. Horton was able to shoot for a full hour before the chance encounter ended. “It was a surreal feeling, I had finally gotten the opportunity to get fantastic wildlife photos that aren’t easy to get,” he says. He used a Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 AF-S lens, with a Nikon 1.7X teleconverter. “Since my camera is a 1.5X cropped sensor, I was able to achieve a maximum focal length of 510. That is a true testament to how far away the sheep are. They were on the hillside several hundred feet away.”

To get a sense of what Zachary felt, one might visit Mt. Baldy right before sunrise or during sunset. When it is cool, Bighorns will travel down for food and water. Check in at the Mt. Baldy Visitor Center and ask where a likely sighting might take place. Be sure to stay hydrated, bring binoculars, use safe trails and, most importantly, bring a good attitude. Zachary Horton can testify that consistence and persistence wins out.

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