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California and the West

Desert Bighorns to Get U.S. Protection

Wildlife: About 280 of the sheep remain in the area. Endangered status may slow developers near Palm Springs.

March 13, 1998|MARLA CONE and DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bighorn sheep that inhabit Southern California's desert mountains and foothills, including prime real estate in the Palm Springs area, will be declared endangered early next week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.

The decision culminates more than a decade of research that points toward a swift and steep decline of the reclusive mammals, which have been dying off because of a combination of factors, particularly development of their habitat, disease and predation by mountain lions.

About 280 peninsular bighorn sheep existed in the wild in Southern California last year, down from about 1,200 in 1971 and about 600 in 1991, according to annual counts by state wildlife officials. The peninsular bighorns are one of several subspecies of bighorn sheep, an animal that ranges across the deserts and mountains of the West and Mexico. Other sheep populations are not affected by Thursday's announcement.

"This may be the only large mammal that has been listed in Southern California," said Pete Sorensen, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's division chief for the California desert. "Until now, most have been small birds or small mammals. This one is pretty spectacular, when you see the rams with big, curling sets of horns and the cute, cuddly little lambs."

The decision to invoke the Endangered Species Act to protect the desert sheep, which live in Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties, could change the pace of development around Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage.

The creatures are a beloved icon of the California desert, and country clubs and villas there bear the bighorn name. But the issue of whether to declare the species endangered has been hotly debated in the desert cities.

At least 17 proposals to build golf courses and country clubs--including, ironically, one named Canyons at Bighorn--could be delayed or altered by the decision. If a protected species is found on land scheduled for development, it doesn't necessarily halt a project. But the landowners must first consult with federal wildlife biologists in a conservation process that often takes years.

"It's unclear how this will effect us," said Lenny Zilz, general manager of the Ritz Carlton at Rancho Mirage, which plans to build an 18-hole golf course. "We're definitely going to forge ahead."

About 25% of the land inhabited by the sheep is privately owned; the rest is owned by the state or federal government.

Peninsular bighorn sheep bear their lambs on rocky, steep mountain inclines, but to survive they also need the water and desert shrubs found on the treeless slopes of the foothills. Those areas are prime areas for construction of desert golf courses and housing tracts.

Environmentalists were thrilled with Thursday's announcement. But they worry that the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision, which came in response to a 1995 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, may be coming too late to save the creatures from extinction.

"This is going to be an enormous relief. The [Sierra] Club was out there alone, holding the line against developers," said Joan Taylor, who heads the bighorn sheep program for the Sierra Club's San Gorgonio chapter, which has sued local governments five times to stop development of bighorn habitat.

Yet, she said, "it's certainly no guarantee" that the troubled species will survive.

"The sheep are on a steep decline to extinction," Taylor said. "I've heard the bulldozers out there even today. There are so many projects rushing things through, and the Sierra Club couldn't sue on everything."

Rancho Mirage City Council member Marilyn Glassman said she was pleased by the listing but also concerned about the economic impacts on proposed golf courses, hotels and housing areas.

"The sheep are the symbol of Rancho Mirage. That's our logo, the bighorn. . . . I'm happy about this, but I hope it won't have too many impacts on ongoing projects. I have to think about the ramifications," she said.

Peninsular bighorns are found from the San Jacinto Mountains near Palm Springs south to Baja California. Eight separate groups of ewes exist, with the rams roaming among them to breed. Only the rams, which weigh up to 200 pounds, have massive coiled horns; the ewes have smaller, straight horns.

In the late 1970s, disease ravaged the herds. Lambs died with symptoms of pneumonia. While that disease has mostly disappeared, parasites and predators remain threats, Sorensen said. But for the sheep in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains, development is the primary threat, he said.

The species has been a candidate for endangered status since 1985 and the agency first proposed to list it in 1992.

"It's deplorable it took so long," Taylor said, "but we're very grateful."

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