Two Threatened Species: Desert Bighorn Sheep and California State Parks

Desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego State Park (photo by Beth Pratt)

In my twenty years of exploring California and the Sierra Nevada, I have never seen bighorn sheep in the state. The closest I ever came was during a hike on the Granite Divide in Yosemite where I discovered scat and some tracks on a sandy outcropping on a high ridge. When I lived in Yellowstone, bighorn sheep sightings were a daily occurrence—on my drives in the Gardner River Canyon to and from work, the magnificent animals usually greeted me as they traveled down the cliffs to drink. Yet my desire to see a desert bighorn remained unfulfilled—until last week.

After a mere fifteen minutes upon entering Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, my friend Michelle started pointing and uttered something incomprehensible in her excitement. Finally, I made out the word “sheep” and pulled off the road as soon I could.  To our delight, a herd of ewes and young lambs leapt up the rocks and gazed back at us as we stood watching their movements. Desert bighorn are rare to spot, and although the animals were once in abundance the population in the park has decreased to less than 300.

Climate change has taken a toll on the bighorn sheep of California. In a recent study by the University of California at Berkeley, scientists found that 30 of 80 groups of historic populations of bighorn have disappeared in the last century, and tragically the animals may face extinction by the next century if the increases in temperature forecast for climate change prove true.  Desert bighorn are a remarkable animal, surviving in some of the harshest conditions on the planet.  Do we really want to be responsible for causing this intrepid animal to go extinct because of our addiction to fossil fuels?

And sadly enough, even the very terrain the bighorn sheep in California live upon is threatened as California’s severe budget shortfall has caused the Governor to propose closing 70 of the 278 state parks—and possibly more—by 2012. Last year voters rejected Prop 21, which would have raised funds for the state parks through a vehicle registration fee, and no budget solution has been proposed since. Although Anza Borrego isn’t on the first hit list of closures, ongoing cuts in funding and staffing have made managing all state parks a challenge. Other parks on the closure list protect some of California’s unique natural treasures, like the Mono Lake Tufa Reserve or Portola Redwoods State Park. View a map of the California State Park closures here.

California is my home. This state contains a natural heritage that I cherish—and that we are in danger of squandering if we don’t act. The California desert will be a much emptier if bighorn sheep are not dancing on its rocky cliffs. And the Golden State’s landscape will indeed be bleak if people seeking the magnificent redwoods are greeted with a closed sign.

Published: May 16, 2011