Bighorn Barrier Progress in La Quinta - Spring 2017

In February 2014, as part of a multiple-species habitat conservation plan requirement, the state and federal wildlife agencies mandated that a barrier (i.e., a fence or functional equivalent) be built around three golf courses in La Quinta (SilverRock, PGA West and The Quarry) because bighorn sheep have been utilizing them as an artificial food and water source since 2007. The barrier was to be built within two years, but has been tied up with environmental review and resistance. Unfortunately, the sheep have suffered with the lack of protection from the urban areas in La Quinta and 2016 was a tough year.

In May 2016, five lambs died from upper respiratory disease at SilverRock and PGA West. This was the second year in a row that this group of sheep had lambs die due to illness. Bighorn congregate in abnormally large groups in these urban settings facilitating disease transmission so when one lamb gets sick, they usually all get sick. Necropsy results found that these lambs had pneumonia as well as copper deficiencies (likely from their ingestion of chemicals on the golf courses), which can lead to a lack of fitness and make them susceptible to illness. Sadly, we are starting to see sick lambs again this year.

Sick lambs haven’t been the only issue with the sheep in La Quinta this past year. Sheep strayed into the streets multiple times going as far as three miles away from the nearest mountain, as recently as this past March. Law enforcement has been necessary many times to keep motorists safe. Another bighorn hazard is the Coachella Canal (pictured) that runs along PGA West. At least three bighorn fell into the canal over the past year, two of which were lambs just this March. Fortunately, all of the animals were rescued or made it out safely. Since 2012, there have been 12 known bighorn deaths on or near the La Quinta golf courses. Four have drowned in the Coachella Canal, one ate oleander, one was hit by a car and six died from upper respiratory disease.

In mid-January 2017, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments (CVAG) released the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the La Quinta Peninsular Bighorn Sheep Barrier Project and public comments were accepted through the end of February. The Barrier Project proposes an 8 feet high fence around the three previously mentioned golf courses as well as Tradition. It has several build options ranging from following the toe-of-slope along the mountain to cutting off the entire peninsula of land where 3 of the 4 golf courses are located. The Institute fully supports the toe-of-slope option for the fence as it minimizes further habitat loss to the sheep, however, it requires private landowner permission from the affected golf courses. The other fence build options remove between 420 and 2400 acres of important lambing habitat. The Final EIR for the Barrier Project will be released later this year and will select a “preferred alternative” for the fence alignment.

In the meantime, there has finally been some progress on the fence, albeit due to legal pressure by the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity. In March 2017, the City of La Quinta installed a bighorn exclusion fence along the toe-of-slope at SilverRock Resort to keep the bighorn sheep off of their golf course.

SilverRock had previous mitigation requirements to build a fence. We are relieved to have this section of fence completed since many of the previously mentioned urban-bighorn incidents took place on or near SilverRock, particularly sheep wandering onto the busy adjacent streets causing human safety hazards. Our hope is that PGA West, Tradition, and The Quarry will now allow a fence to be built at the toe-of-slope along their properties to keep the bighorn in their native habitat. We appreciate the City of La Quinta building this fence and will keep tracking this herd to see how they fare.

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