They scale mountains, sprint across rocky terrain and can withstand the Mojave Desert’s extreme heat and cold, all with horns attached to their heads that can weigh as much as 30 pounds.
Desert bighorn sheep, one of the most iconic animals of California’s vast desert, may seem like an unlikely resident of the nation’s largest marine combat training center. And yet the animal is at home in a place about building endurance.
“They can survive in one of the harshest environments we have,” said Regina Abella, desert bighorn sheep coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’re very agile.”
Desert bighorn have roamed the West for thousands of years, in large numbers before settlers arrived. Now, there are about 5,000 estimated in California, mostly in Southern California, Abella said. Since the late 1800s, the state has listed desert bighorn as a protected species, meaning they cannot be harassed, taken or possessed. Exceptions include collection for scientific research or hunting in some designated areas.
At the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, where marines headed for combat trained before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, another high-stakes mission is underway.
Base scientists and volunteers have installed water guzzlers – a type of drinking trough – to provide drink for the sheep and other wildlife who reside at the base. Protecting the sheep is part of a larger five-year natural resource plan for the Marine base, said Brent Husung, natural resource specialist for Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs at the base.
Each guzzler site has two tanks forming a system with a total of about 5,000 gallons of water. The system sustains itself through rainwater. A mat that is higher than the tanks collects the rain, and piping carries the water to each tank.
The first guzzlers were installed 20 years ago, when there were about 15 sheep. Husung estimated there are now between 35 and 40 sheep in the Bullion Mountain range, where the base is. And, he said, eyeing photos taken by a hidden camera, with their shiny coats, the sheep look healthy.
“The reason they’re moving is, we have water,” he said. Movement means migration to other areas where breeding occurs with sheep from different herds, keeping the gene pool diverse and strong.
The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep and the California Wild Sheep Foundation each have donated guzzlers to the base. Two guzzlers were added last fall, and a seventh one was installed last month. The aim is to install three more.
“If we have ten guzzlers, that will sustain those sheep for their lifetimes,” Husung said.
Birds, coyotes, bobcats and other forms of desert wildlife drink from the guzzlers, as well.
The base’s long-term plan addresses conservation work for many species of plants and wildlife at the combat center, which covers 1,100 square miles of training area. Though live-fire training exercises are part of life here, the aim is to co-exist peacefully with the area’s natural resources.
“We have to be good stewards,” Husung said. “Why does the wolf matter? Why does the bison matter? It fills a niche in the ecosystem.”
We have to be good stewards. Why does the wolf matter? Why does the bison matter? It fills a niche in the ecosystem.
Brent Husung, natural resource specialist for Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms
Desert bighorn eat cacti, grasses, plants, shrubs and some trees. If you come across one in the wild, it’s safe to observe them as long as you do not interfere with the animal, Abella said. Threats to desert bighorn sheep are disease contracted from domestic sheep, loss of habitat to development, loss of water sources, traffic and predators such as mountain lions.
Both males and females have permanent curled brown horns that continue to grow, though the males’ horns are larger. Rams can weigh up to about 220 pounds and typically live between 10 and 13 years. Ewes can weigh up to 155 pounds and live as long as 20 years, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Desert bighorn eat cacti, grasses, plants, shrubs and some trees.
American Indians have long attached special meaning to bighorn sheep, said Matthew Leivas Sr., tribal council member and farm manager for the Chemehuevi tribe in San Bernardino County. There are ceremonial songs and stories that honor the animal’s strength and tenacity.
“It is very significant and sacred to all of us,” said Leivas, whose grandfather, Henry Hanks, was a clan chief. “The Chemehuevi used to make a war bowl out of the horns. It was feared by all.”
Kurt Russo, executive director of the Native American Land Conservancy, a nonprofit in Indio, noted the animal’s quiet grace and speed.
“They can stand so still,” he said. “Then they can disappear like a ghost.”
Despite their durability, desert bighorns’ longevity is fragile, Abella said.
“Every now and then, they do need our help, and we need to step in,” she said. “This is truly where they belong.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.