Conservation is essentially protecting and managing natural resources to ensure their availability for future generations. With an ever-increasing human population, there are sure to be inadvertent impacts on natural resources. Conservation will always require “give and take.” Every species plays a role in its ecosystem and if you remove one it will likely affect the entire system. Bighorn sheep are an “umbrella species,” which means that they are at the heart of the ecosystem and many plants and animals will benefit if the sheep are protected.
Bighorn Institute’s mission is to conserve the world’s wild sheep through research and education. Since its inception in 1982, we have been dedicated to keeping bighorn sheep in the mountains. It started with bringing in sick lambs in the early 80s from the northern Santa Rosa Mountains (NSRM)
near Rancho Mirage. Nobody thought a sick bighorn could be saved, but thankfully, we had an incredible group of veterinarians and physicians working with us and we were able to successfully rehabilitate 33 of 39. During this time, we discovered that 4 viruses were playing a role in the bacterial pneumonia claiming the lives of the lambs. This was an important disease breakthrough and our disease research continues today as part of our conservation work.
An unexpected conservation effort grew out of the successful rehabilitation of sick lambs. Many of the rehabilitated lambs were returned to the wild, but
some of them were kept as breed stock and we initiated a captive breeding and wild population augmentation program to help replenish the wild population. Since 1985, we have released over 125 captive-reared bighorn into the wild keeping 2 local herds from disappearing near Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage/Palm Desert. The Palm Springs herd surely would have blinked out because it was down to just 4 ewes when we started releasing sheep there. Today, there are nearly 30 ewes in the San Jacinto’s. This is certainly one of our most important and successful conservation efforts.
While disease played a role in the NSRM herd, urbanization was impacting bighorn in this herd as well. A number of bighorn were hit and killed by cars or poisoned by ingesting oleander. We conducted mortality studies of adult bighorn and lambs and found that urbanization accounted for 34% of the adult deaths and 43% of lamb deaths so we recommended a fence be built to keep the sheep out of the urban areas. The City of Rancho Mirage stepped forward and built a 4.5 mile, 8 feet high chain-link fence with the help of the community and the wildlife agencies. The fence was finished in 2002 and has been an incredible conservation tool as it completely eliminated urban-related bighorn deaths in the Rancho Mirage area. The same urban issues are now happening in La Quinta and a similar fence has been recommended to conserve the bighorn.
Our tremendous Board of Directors and members have helped accomplish great things for the conservation of this species. Our ultimate goal is to get these magnificent animals off of the endangered species list. With the community’s help, we believe we can do it, together.