It is a thrill to see bighorn sheep in the rugged hills surrounding the Coachella Valley. These tough and majestic creatures have for thousands of years survived in the most inhospitable climate and terrain, bounding effortlessly up and down sheer rock faces to find morsels and escape predators. Elusive, resourceful and hardy, bighorn sheep are symbolic of untamed wilderness.
Their numbers may have been in the tens of thousands in pre-colonial times, but with settlement came rifle hunting, disease, and a steady shrinking of habitat. The wild sheep were especially susceptible to pneumonia and other diseases introduced by domestic sheep and goats. By the mid-1990s the number of once-numerous Peninsular bighorn sheep had dropped perilously close to extinction. Fewer than an estimated 300 sheep were still alive in Joshua Tree and the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, prompting the federal government to designate the Peninsular bighorn sheep an endangered species. Large tracts were set aside for the animals, domestic sheep grazing was halted, and captive breeding programs were stepped-up. In the Coachella Valley, fences were built to contain the animals and prevent them from being struck and killed by vehicular traffic.
With these and other measures, the wild sheep numbers began to slowly rebound. Several herds are now known to roam in Joshua Tree National Park, and the rugged hills SW of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta support several hundred animals. Anza Borrego State Park further south boasts a growing number of healthy bighorn sheep herds. Although drought conditions, disappearing springs and heat-stressed vegetation are challenging to the sheep, they are proving to be resourceful survivors.
Muscular male bighorn rams can weigh as much as 200 pounds. The massive curved horns of a mature ram can weigh 30 pounds and show the scars of jousting with other males for herd dominance. Ewes are somewhat smaller, weighing on average 125 pounds. Herds generally number 9-12 animals, although larger herds sometimes form in the vicinity of good forage or water. Ewes typically give birth to a single lamb in January or February. Newborn lambs are ambulatory immediately and can climb and scamper within 24 hours of birth.
The tan-to-gray coats of Peninsular bighorn sheep provide excellent camouflage in their tan-to-gray mountain surroundings. Moreover, they have excellent eyesight – said to be eight times better than that of a human being. No wonder it is hard to see or surprise these canny mountain dwellers. Whenever we hike in the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley, we are certain that they are up there watching us from secluded ledges. And on the occasions when we do happen to spot them, we feel very fortunate to see and photograph these hardy desert mountain dwellers.