The San Jacinto Mountains (SJM) near Palm Springs are the steepest escarpment in North America rising to nearly 11,000 feet in 7.5 miles. Bighorn were once numerous in the SJM and summer water hole counts in the mid 1970s estimated that there were almost 300 Peninsular bighorn there. In 1979, the range-wide estimate, from Palm Springs to the Mexican border, was nearly 1,200 Peninsular bighorn, but by 1996, the population plummeted to just 280. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed bighorn in the Peninsular Ranges as federally endangered in 1998. By 2002, extirpation seemed immenent for bighorn in the SJM with just 4 females remaining in the herd. It was then that Bighorn Institute began augmenting the herd with captive-reared bighorn with the Recovery Team’s blessing.
Augmentation proved easier said than done. The treacherous terrain posed major stumbling blocks for augmentation efforts. The Institute felt that the sheep needed to be released near water, but also in the heart of the herd to increase their chances of hooking up with other bighorn. Water wasn’t always available in each canyon at the time of release and herd movement was closely monitored. Ultimately, between 2002 – 2011, some of the 24 released sheep were flown in by helicopter and some were driven to release sites, each year had different needs and concerns.
Today, there are nearly 50 adult bighorn in the SJM with 25 females; more than 90% of this herd is either directly released or offspring from captive-reared sheep at the Institute. Outside experts have recognized that without intervention and augmentation, there would not be sheep in the SJM today. The herd is on its way to recovery and the Institute is proud to have played a part in this conservation effort.