Desert sheep aren't exactly thriving

  • Desert bighorn

    Cary Hull Photography

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The discovery 300 years ago of a pile of over 100,000 horns at a native village in what is now Arizona suggests that the four subspecies of wild sheep collectively known as desert bighorns were once as numerous as their alpine relatives.

Desert sheep, which live in the arid open country of the Southwest, are smaller and paler in color than their Rocky Mountain relatives. They also have longer ears and shorter coats. (An intermediate race known as the California bighorn, which lives in canyons and low mountains east of the Cascades from northeastern California to British Columbia, is often grouped with them.)

The numbers of desert sheep had diminished alarmingly by the early part of this century. Their main problems were diseases and competition from livestock, subsistence hunting during the Depression, and loss of scarce water supplies to mining operations. They have also had to compete with feral burros.

An aggressive trapping and transplanting program in several states has succeeded in repopulating some historic desert bighorn habitat, although the U.S. population of one subspecies, the peninsular bighorn, was listed as threatened in 1992. Few of the herds have more than 100 animals, however.

According to Rick Brigham, head of the technical staff of the Desert Bighorn Council, a group of biologists, managers, and lay people interested in bighorns, "In most of the ranges we have, water is the limiting factor." Disease, he says, is the other major problem.

There are now almost 6,000 California bighorns, and the desert bighorns number around 16,000. Brigham, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Carson City, Nev., is hopeful about the animals in his area. "In 1981, in my BLM district, we didn't have any sheep at all," he says, "and now we have between 600 and 700 on nine different mountain ranges."

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