You don’t do this in your sleep.
No, this kind of sheep counting will be done upright and awake, by wide-eyed, intrepid volunteers scattered about the sweeping San Gabriel Mountains, equipped with pen, paper, clipboard and binoculars.
Unlike those fluffy, dream-like cotton balls you may number in your mind’s eye, these sheep are wild and spectacularly unique. These very real animals are Nelson’s bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis nelsoni, a tan-colored, hooved mammal with a crown of horns adorning their heads. They eat grasses along mountain outcroppings.
Two Nelson’s bighorn sheep climb the mountain outcropping near the Sheep Wilderness area, east of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest. (photo by Steve Scauzillo/SCNG)
A bighorn sheep atop a mountain cliff in the Angeles National Forest near the “Bridge To Nowhere” near the East Fork of the San Gabriel River. This is near the Bighorn Sheep Mountain Wilderness area, on the opposite side of the forest from Islip Saddle and the Highway 39 gap. (photo by Steve Scauzillo/SCNG)
A bighorn sheep stands on the side of a rock wall on November 27, 2017, near Banff, Alberta. (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)
“These are one of the rarest hooved animals on the continent,” said Rebecca Barboza, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who has been studying these elusive creatures of the craggy San Gabriels for decades.
On Sunday, March 19, volunteers will be at the ready to conduct the 44th annual bighorn sheep ground survey in the Angeles National Forest and a western portion of the San Bernardino National Forest. That’s the day the U.S. Forest Service, in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, will be stationing people who have signed up and taken the training.
Volunteers must sign up online at https://forms.office.com/g/eGGZ3URCTu. You must take virtual training through Microsoft Teams the day before, on Saturday, March 18 at 6 p.m. Volunteers will learn where they’ll be stationed, what kind of gear to bring and what conditions to expect. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and more information.
Sheep spotters can choose between six locations. Those locations in the Angeles National Forest are: the closed part of Highway 39 at Islip Saddle about 27 miles north of Azusa and south of Highway 2; near the Bridge to Nowhere along the east fork of the San Gabriel River; at San Antonio Falls; and at Big Rock Creek near Wrightwood. In the San Bernardino National Forest, the two locations are both in the Lytle Creek area.
The volunteers will help biologists get a handle on how many bighorn sheep are in the San Gabriel Mountains. They are a fully protected species under the California Endangered Species law. Obtaining an estimated count keeps scientists aware of whether their numbers are rising, falling or staying the same, Barboza said.
“What an amazing opportunity to learn more about our local wildlife and learn about conservation,” said Dana Dierkes, spokesperson for the Angeles National Forest.
She said the volunteer slots will fill up fast so she advises anyone interested to sign up quickly.
The count used to be done with ground crews and spotters in helicopters. But in the last several years, the Forest Service did not fund the helicopter, so the bighorn estimate relies on ground counters, Barboza said.
About 417 bighorns are estimated to be living on the slopes of these rugged mountains, said Jeff Villepique, supervising biologist with CDFW on Dec. 22. There are only 5,000 bighorn sheep in all of California, he said.
Prior to the 1980s, the local population reached 740 sheep, which gave the San Gabriel Mountains the largest population of Nelson’s bighorn sheep in California. But the numbers fell in the early 1980s when vegetation grew along the rocks and sheep predators could hide more easily before making a kill, Barboza said.
Mountain lions, for example, were able to find more bighorns for food and the sheep numbers declined from over-predation, she said. The population decline fell to about 100 individual sheep, she said.
During the Grand Prix/Old Fire in 2003, the overgrown brush burned up, clearing the old vegetation and opening up the sight lines for the sheep. “They need sparse vegetation so they can view their predators,” Barboza said.
“The fire was tragic for the humans but as far as wildlife, it was greatly beneficial,” she said. “The new vegetation that grew afterward was more nutritious.”
Barboza said data collected on count day doesn’t cover the entire sheep range. Even though bighorn sheep are very rare, they are more easily spotted in the closed-in environment of the San Gabriel Mountains. A Sheep Wilderness Area has been designated in the Angeles for their habitat.
These sheep are not as endangered as their cousins, the bighorn sheep in eastern Riverside County and San Diego County, which are listed as federally endangered because they are geographically isolated. And the federally endangered bighorn in the Sierra Nevada are studied more often.
So the San Gabriel Mountains bighorn don’t get as much attention or as much study, Barboza said. And that makes the count even more important.
While the bighorn are sturdy animals, they are susceptible to strains of pneumonia carried by domestic livestock. If they run into domestic sheep they can contract the disease. This occurred in the San Gorgonio Wilderness in Riverside County, impacting the bighorn population, she said.
The Nelson’s bighorn came back in the news in December when Caltrans began a study on repairing a 4.4-mile gap in state Highway 39 made unpassable by rockslides 44 years ago. A completed highway would reconnect Highway 39 and the San Gabriel Valley floor with Highway 2, shortening the drive to ski areas and desert locations.
But the area where the road once was has become a haven for the sheep, Villepique said. It is a place where the ewes give birth to their lambs, he said. A new road would require mitigation such as a wildlife tunnel to prevent the death of even one sheep, according to state environmental law.
Knowing the numbers of bighorn and their locations is critical for their survival.
“I am trying to raise awareness. These bighorn sheep are very rare,” Barboza said.