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A Big Battle Over Bighorn Sheep : On a Cold, Windy Mountain, Activists Stalk the Hunters

December 15, 1987|PETE THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

BAKER, Calif. — A group of environmental activists stood shivering at one of several rendezvous points, a rocky shelter at the base of the Granite Mountains in the east Mojave Desert about 30 miles east of here.

There they spent Saturday night, preparing for another of their "actions" against hunters in the nearby Marble and Old Dad Mountains in San Bernardino County, engaged in the first legal bighorn sheep hunt in the state in 114 years.

The activists' mission? To disrupt the hunt and try to save as many sheep as possible. They had been at it since arriving eight days earlier.

Nelson bighorn sheep had been protected in California since 1873, when the animals were close to extinction, but the ban expired at the end of last year. The legislature approved a limited hunt, authorizing nine hunters to kill one sheep apiece. California's bighorn herd numbers more than 4,700, according to Dick Weaver, a bighorn specialist with the Department of Fish and Game. Of the Nelson variety, there are perhaps 250 in the Marble and Old Dad Mountains.

The money raised in an auction for the first permit and the sale of the eight other special licenses is to go into a state fund earmarked for bighorn management and research.

The DFG set the end of the special season as Dec. 20. Bob Howard, a Palm Springs rancher and director of the Bighorn Research Institute, bid and paid $70,000 for the first permit, which entitled him to begin hunting Nov. 21. He bagged an 11-year-old ram on Old Dad peak Nov. 30 without opposition.

More than 4,000 hunters applied for the eight other licenses, each worth $225. A drawing was held to determine the eight license recipients. Holders of those licenses began hunting Dec. 5.

As of Monday, seven sheep had been shot, despite the efforts of the 20 or so activists operating in the area.

Saturday, in the Old Dad Mountains, seven of the activists were cited by game wardens for disturbing the peace, one of whom, wanted on another similar charge, was held in custody.

Dr. Loren Lutz, who was acting as guide for John Moore of Vista, Calif., a permit holder attempting to fill his tag, described the confrontation:

"I went down to start a fire--everyone else (in camp) was asleep--when all of a sudden there was a rush of feet. Then a voice boomed out and there they were. I told them to leave and said, 'I don't want to talk to you,' but they said they had a right to use the lands.

"Then they started to wake everyone up, and to snoop around our camp, opening our tents and using their (video) camera. I told them again, 'Leave or you're under arrest,' and they refused.

Shortly thereafter, officers from the DFG, the Bureau of Land Management and the California Highway Patrol, converged on the area and picked up the nine protesting environmentalists.

Seven were issued citations for disturbing the peace by DFG warden Marion Henry at the request of Lutz, and one of them, Todd Meszaros of Santa Cruz, was taken to jail. According to Henry, no action was taken against the two others because Lutz couldn't be sure they had actually entered his camp.

Said Rod Coronado, one of the activists who was not cited: "It (the incident) was a clear case of the DFG and BLM catering to Lutz."

Lutz is a retired dentist from Pasadena and president of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. He has been guiding hunters since the hunt began and said that he had turned in other disrupters.

The hunters have been followed and harassed by the environmentalists, members of Earth First and other groups opposed to the "trophy hunt." The protesters have been bursting out of the bushes, blowing whistles and horns to frighten the sheep away before hunters can shoot--in Lutz's words, "perverting the hunt."

It became apparent early in the hunt that things would not go smoothly.

Three citations were issued shortly after it began--11 have been issued so far--and Coronado, a member of Earth First, said: "We don't consider the threat of (authorities) to be as serious as the possibility of losing these bighorns.

"We will be relentless and we will continue to interfere with the hunt. If they intend to kill the (remaining) sheep, they will have to kill us first."

The citations--all involving Lutz's camp--have been issued for misdemeanors ranging from interfering with lawful use of public lands to illegal use of a four-wheel drive vehicle in a restricted area.

Earth First members Lee Desseaux, Christine Bricknell and Craig Labby of Santa Cruz, Dave Labby of Ontario and Meszaros have been arrested. Desseaux, Bricknell and the Labbys said that before they were taken into official custody, they were forced to submit to a citizen's arrest by Lutz.

Earth First member Michael Robinson of Santa Cruz, acting as spokesman for the impromptu coalition, described that incident that allegedly occurred Dec. 7:

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