Considered elusive but stately animals, sightings of California desert bighorn sheep in the local mountains is a rarity. Last week, on May 13, a herd was spotted just off Highway 38 at Valley of the Falls, the gateway to Forest Falls. Several local residents went to the location to photograph the rare sight.
Michelle Macri has lived in Forest Falls for almost two decades and was thrilled to be at the sighting on May 13.
“I have seen the bighorn sheep before ... many, many years ago,” said Macri. “The first time I ever saw one was at the Big Falls picnic area.”
The herd, visible on the steep terrain on Valley of the Falls last week, was mostly male sheep.
Renowned California bighorn sheep expert, Dr. Jeff Villepique, is a wildlife biologist for the California Department Fish and Wildlife and has studied the bighorn sheep extensively.
“The desert bighorn sheep are endemic (naturally occurring) in the San Bernardino Mountains, with the largest population occurring on and around Mt. San Gorgonio, including in the Mill Creek drainage below Forest Falls, where the photo was taken,” said Villepique.
Desert bighorn sheep of the San Gorgonio population are not considered endangered, however, the population suffered a severe respiratory disease event in the winter of 2018-19, resulting in the loss of over 50% of the population, previously numbering around 200 bighorn sheep, now fewer than 100, explained Villepique.
“Bighorn sheep are vulnerable to pathogens hosted by domestic sheep and goats, the likely source of the 2018-19 pneumonia outbreak,” he said.
There are reasons why the desert bighorn sheep seem elusive.
“Bighorn sheep are habitat specialists, found only in the steepest terrain, often far from roads and trails,” said Villepique. “The tan and white coloration of bighorn sheep makes for great camouflage to blend in with rocky outcroppings. One must be patient and thorough to successfully ‘glass’ a bighorn with binoculars or a spotting scope. Often a bedded bighorn sheep will look like a rock, until that rock seemingly ‘grows legs’ when the sheep stands up to move.”
Bighorn sheep are camouflaged but they are still around.
According to Villepique, bighorn sheep move seasonally from the lower elevation winter range to the peak of Mt. San Gorgonio during summer, making their summer home thousands of feet higher and many miles away from their winter range.
“They eat a variety of grasses, forbs, and even shrubs,” said Villepique. “They find the most nutritious forage after rains fuel green-up during late winter and spring, sometimes at lower elevations where humans can glimpse these majestic animals.”
Bighorn sheep weigh about 250 pounds and can live for 15 years.
The horns are the identifying feature that distinguishes males from females. The males have longer, curved horns and the females have shorter and slightly curved horns. According to Nationalgeographic.com, the males clash their horns when fighting for dominance.
“Fighting for dominance or mating rights, males face each other, rear up on their hind legs, and hurl themselves at each other in charges of some 20 miles an hour. The resounding clash of horns can be heard echoing through the mountains as the confrontation is repeated — sometimes for many hours — until one ram submits and walks away.”
The ram’s horns can weigh up to 30 pounds.
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