bighorn sheep live on dry, rocky, low-elevation desert slopes,
canyons, and washes from Palm Springs, California south into
Baja California, Mexico. They eat primarily grasses, shrubs,
and forbs-catclaw, encelia, sweetbush, and krameria, for instance-and
are themselves eaten by mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, coyotes
and golden eagles (who occasionally prey upon lambs).
the beginning of the 19th century, bighorn
sheep in North America were estimated to number between 1.5
and 2 million; today fewer than 70,000 remain. In the late
1800's, hunting, competition from livestock grazing, and diseases
introduced by domestic livestock devastated bighorn populations.
An entire subspecies of bighorn sheep, the Audubon bighorn,
which inhabited parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota,
Wyoming, and Nebraska had been extirpated by 1925.
OF THE PENINSULAR BIGHORN
bighorn sheep have been listed under the California State
Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1971, but they have continued
their decline despite the state listing. Habitat loss for
Peninsular bighorn has occurred at an alarming rate, and in
March, 1998 the population was finally federally listed as
endangered-a shameful six years after it was originally proposed
for listing. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) determined
that Peninsular bighorn sheep were in danger of extinction
throughout a significant portion of their range due to: (1)
disease from domestic cattle; (2) insufficient lamb recruitment;
(3) habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation by urban
and commercial development; and (4) predation coinciding with
low population numbers.
from 1,200 pairs in 1971 to just 280 in 1997, the Peninsular
bighorn ranges from the San Jacinto Mountains of southern
California to the Volcan Tres Virgenes Mountains near Santa
Rosalia in Baja California. In 1997, golf courses outnumbered
bighorn in the Palm Springs area 91 to 75. Dozens of additional
golf courses and developments are even now scheduled to destroy
the bighorn's dwindling habitat.
CENTER'S CAMPAIGN TO PROTECT THE BIGHORN
December 1998, the Center for Biological Diversity and its
allies at Desert Survivors filed suit in San Diego to compel
the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate critical
habitat for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. Though
the agency is required by law to designate and protect specific
critical habitat areas for each listed species, it very rarely
does so without being sued. Because critical habitat, unlike
a species listing, requires protection of ecosystems regardless
of whether the species is currently present, it is often opposed
by private interests and conservative legislators.
August 1999, in response to a comment letter from the Center,
the City of Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs reversed its position
and agreed to require full environmental review of a huge
development in bighorn sheep habitat. A shocking total of
406 acres was slated for destruction by development of the
Mirada and adjacent Ritz Carlton resort. And in August 2000,
Rancho Mirage refused to approve the Mirada development, thereby
saving 226 acres of sheep habitat, as well as the life of
at least one bighorn.
in January 2001, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to a
legal settlement with the Center requiring protection of bighorn
sheep through maintenance of existing sheep protection closures,
hiring of more sheep ambassadors (i.e. educators) to educate
trails users, public education efforts, and voluntary closure
of specific trails during the lambing season.
the Center has won critical habitat for the bighorn in accordance
with a legal settlement with FWS. In February 2001, the Service
designated 844,897 acres of critical habitat in southern California
for the endangered sheep.