Peninsular bighorn sheep live on dry, rocky, low-elevation desert slopes, canyons, and washes from Palm Springs, California south into Baja California, Mexico. They eat primarily grasses, shrubs, and forbs-catclaw, encelia, sweetbush, and krameria, for instance-and are themselves eaten by mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles (who occasionally prey upon lambs).

At the beginning of the 19th century, bighorn sheep in North America were estimated to number between 1.5 and 2 million; today fewer than 70,000 remain. In the late 1800's, hunting, competition from livestock grazing, and diseases introduced by domestic livestock devastated bighorn populations. An entire subspecies of bighorn sheep, the Audubon bighorn, which inhabited parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska had been extirpated by 1925.


Peninsular bighorn sheep have been listed under the California State Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1971, but they have continued their decline despite the state listing. Habitat loss for Peninsular bighorn has occurred at an alarming rate, and in March, 1998 the population was finally federally listed as endangered-a shameful six years after it was originally proposed for listing. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that Peninsular bighorn sheep were in danger of extinction throughout a significant portion of their range due to: (1) disease from domestic cattle; (2) insufficient lamb recruitment; (3) habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation by urban and commercial development; and (4) predation coinciding with low population numbers.

Reduced from 1,200 pairs in 1971 to just 280 in 1997, the Peninsular bighorn ranges from the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California to the Volcan Tres Virgenes Mountains near Santa Rosalia in Baja California. In 1997, golf courses outnumbered bighorn in the Palm Springs area 91 to 75. Dozens of additional golf courses and developments are even now scheduled to destroy the bighorn's dwindling habitat.


In December 1998, the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies at Desert Survivors filed suit in San Diego to compel the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate critical habitat for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. Though the agency is required by law to designate and protect specific critical habitat areas for each listed species, it very rarely does so without being sued. Because critical habitat, unlike a species listing, requires protection of ecosystems regardless of whether the species is currently present, it is often opposed by private interests and conservative legislators.

In August 1999, in response to a comment letter from the Center, the City of Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs reversed its position and agreed to require full environmental review of a huge development in bighorn sheep habitat. A shocking total of 406 acres was slated for destruction by development of the Mirada and adjacent Ritz Carlton resort. And in August 2000, Rancho Mirage refused to approve the Mirada development, thereby saving 226 acres of sheep habitat, as well as the life of at least one bighorn.

Meanwhile, in January 2001, the Bureau of Land Management agreed to a legal settlement with the Center requiring protection of bighorn sheep through maintenance of existing sheep protection closures, hiring of more sheep ambassadors (i.e. educators) to educate trails users, public education efforts, and voluntary closure of specific trails during the lambing season.

Additionally, the Center has won critical habitat for the bighorn in accordance with a legal settlement with FWS. In February 2001, the Service designated 844,897 acres of critical habitat in southern California for the endangered sheep.


graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
May 21, 2003
Go back