Aerial and ground surveys of Southern California’s Mount San Gorgonio desert bighorn sheep population conducted during early March have confirmed a severe decline in numbers. Biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and partner agencies counted 60 animals, approximately one-third the number counted in the last helicopter survey conducted in March 2016.
“Die-offs of bighorn sheep of this type and magnitude that have occurred in the past have almost always been triggered by contact with domestic sheep or goats,” CDFW Wildlife Biologist Dr. Jeff Villepique said.
In December 2018, multiple reports of dead or dying bighorn sheep in Whitewater Canyon and the Mission Creek drainages were confirmed by biologists working for CDFW. Tissue samples from carcasses were sent to pathologists at the California Animal Health and Food Safety laboratories. The investigation is ongoing, with 21 bighorn carcasses identified thus far.
Administering medical treatment to sick bighorn is not feasible due to many factors, including the remote location, the difficulty of capturing animals and inability to capture and treat the entire herd.
Southern California is home to approximately 4,800 bighorn sheep in 64 herd units. To date, there have been no reports of sheep in nearby herds being affected by the disease.
CDFW is one of several entities involved in managing bighorn sheep in California, and participates in the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Wild Sheep Working Group. The Group has declared respiratory disease to be “the biggest impediment to restoring and sustaining bighorn sheep populations.”
Wildlife biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are investigating what appears to be a significant mortality event associated with respiratory disease among the San Gorgonio desert bighorn sheep population in Riverside County. CDFW has confirmed that at least 20 animals have died but suspects that total mortality may be greater.
“The significance of this outbreak to the San Gorgonio desert bighorn sheep population is being investigated,” explained Heidi Calvert, an environmental program manager with CDFW’s Inland Deserts Region. “Our top priority right now is to determine the source and nature of the disease so that we can identify the right management actions to mitigate future risk.”
CDFW staff began receiving reports of sick desert bighorn sheep in December 2018 and immediately began collecting samples for lab analysis. CDFW is continuing to survey and monitor the population to gather more information on the extent and magnitude of this loss to the population. Private landowners and partner agencies are assisting with this effort.
The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Wild Sheep Working Group considers respiratory disease to be “the biggest impediment to restoring and sustaining bighorn sheep populations.” Respiratory disease in bighorn sheep is most commonly attributed to contact and/or proximity with domestic sheep and, to a lesser extent, domestic goats. Diseases that originate with domestic animals can pose a significant risk to bighorn sheep populations.
The affected desert bighorn population is located within Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunt Zone 5. The recent die-off will likely result in reducing the two hunting tags to zero in this zone for 2019.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), on behalf of the California Fish and Game Commission as Lead Agency pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, is preparing draft environmental documents that address potential impacts resulting from the implementation of elk hunting regulations and bighorn sheep hunting regulations. Pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act Guidelines, section 15082(c), public scoping sessions will be held to identify potentially significant effects on the environment that may result from the proposed regulations, as well as any feasible mitigation measures that should be addressed in the draft environmental document.
Both meetings will be held Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 at the CDFW Wildlife Branch, 1812 Ninth St. in Sacramento (95811). The scoping meeting for elk will be held from noon to 1 p.m., and the scoping meeting for bighorn sheep will be held from 1:30-2:30 p.m.
Existing law (Fish and Game Code, section 3950) designates elk (genus Cervus) and bighorn sheep (subspecies Ovis canadensis nelsoni) as game mammals in California. Fish and Game Code, section 332 provides that the Fish and Game Commission may fix the area or areas, seasons and hours, bag and possession limit, sex and total number of elk that may be taken pursuant to its regulations. Fish and Game Code, section 4902 provides that the Commission may authorize sport hunting of mature Nelson bighorn rams.
State law (Fish and Game Code, section 207) requires the Commission to review mammal hunting regulations and CDFW to present recommendations for changes to the mammal hunting regulations to the Commission at a public meeting. Mammal hunting regulations adopted by the Commission provide for hunting elk and bighorn sheep in specific areas (hunt zones) of the state (California Code of Regulations Title 14, sections 362, 364 and 364.1).
To help reduce collisions, Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife remind motorists to be on the lookout during Watch Out for Wildlife Week, which runs Sept. 16 – 22.
“With every project we build, we look for innovative ways to protect drivers and wildlife,” said Caltrans Director Laurie Berman. “That can be as simple as installing flashing warning signs or putting in specialized fencing and crossings to provide wildlife with safe passages. Drivers can make a difference too, just by staying alert.”
Watch Out for Wildlife Week coincides with the season when California’s deer and elk migrate and look for mates, and California’s roadways often cut through these animals’ migration routes. It’s vital that drivers be especially alert now through December to avoid collisions with wildlife. These crashes not only harm wildlife, but collisions with large animals can damage vehicles and cause injury and death to drivers and passengers.
“In the fall, wildlife exhibit natural behaviors that can lead them to more unpredictable movements, and nearer to humans and roadways,” said Vicky Monroe, CDFW Statewide Conflict Programs Coordinator. “Deer, bears and other wildlife are most likely to be killed or injured by vehicle collisions between September and December. Bucks fight for mates during breeding season, does travel more with their fawns, and many deer herds migrate to their winter ranges. Black bears travel farther for food as they enter a period of excessive eating and drinking to fatten up for hibernation.”
According to the California Highway Patrol, 12 people died and 383 people were injured in 2,134 collisions with wildlife on state, county, and local roadways throughout California in 2017.
Wildlife experts offer the following tips for motorists:
Be extra alert when driving near areas wildlife frequent, such as streams and rivers, and reduce your speed so you can react safely.
Pay extra attention driving during the morning and evening when wildlife are often most active.
If you see an animal on or near the road, know that another may be following.
Don’t litter. Trash odors can attract animals to roadways.
Pay attention to road shoulders. Look for movement or reflecting eyes. Slow down and honk your horn if you see an animal on or near the road.
The Watch Out for Wildlife campaign is supported by Caltrans, CDFW, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis.
Here are a few examples of what Caltrans, CDFW, and their partners are doing to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, improve awareness of key issues, and improve ecological sustainability:
Highway 395, Improving Wildlife Connectivity in Lassen County
Caltrans is modifying existing undercrossings that were installed on U.S. Highway 395 in Lassen County near the California-Nevada border more than 25 years ago. To improve the area for wildlife, Caltrans will remove deer gates, install escape ramps for mule deer, and extend fencing to guide animals to existing undercrossings. The project area will be monitored with wildlife cameras.
Highway 101, Liberty Canyon Undercrossing in Los Angeles County
The completed environmental document for the famous U.S. Highway 101 Liberty Canyon Project was signed in September 2017. Until a large overpass can be constructed, Caltrans has managed several short-term improvements in the Liberty Canyon area to entice mountain lions to cross safely underneath US-101. New fencing is designed to prevent animals from trying to cross the highway, and a former streambed south of Agoura Road has new vegetation to guide animals safely under the highway.
Highway 101, Wildlife Monitoring Cameras in Sonoma County
Caltrans is monitoring wildlife movement on U.S. Highway 101 north of Santa Rosa. Cameras have been installed on culverts that cross under the highway, and Caltrans regularly downloads images from the cameras to understand more about wildlife in the project area. Mountain lions are just one species that have been observed checking out the culverts along US-101. Camera data will be used to determine potential future improvements that will allow animals to safely cross US-101.
Highway 74, Bighorn Sheep Warning Signs in Riverside County
Efforts are underway to decrease vehicle collisions with Peninsular bighorn sheep, a federally endangered species, on a windy portion of State Route 74 above Palm Desert. In June 2018, Caltrans installed four bighorn sheep warning signs with two flashing beacons to alert drivers that sheep may be in the area. This was a coordinated effort with the Bighorn Institute, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and CDFW.
Big game hunters throughout California are eagerly anticipating the 2018 general hunting seasons. While deer are by far the most frequently hunted big game species in California, many hunters also enjoy fair chase of bear, elk and bighorn. Some of the seasons for these species are already underway, but the majority will open over the next month. The upcoming general season opening and closing dates vary by zone and can be found by following the links below.
Hunting for wild pigs is growing in popularity and can be done year-round. Most seasons for pronghorn, another California big game species, concluded in August.
Californians enjoy some of the widest ranges of habitat and hunting conditions in the nation. While California has its fair share of privately owned land, there are vast swaths of national forest, timber lands, state wildlife areas and other lands accessible to the public that provide excellent hunting opportunities. CDFW administers public hunts on private lands through its SHARE Program. Other opportunities for access to private lands are available through the Private Lands Management Program.
A valid California hunting license and appropriate tag(s) for each zone and/or species pursued must be obtained before entering the field. There are still many deer tags available for purchase. Hunting license and tags can be purchased online or through a CDFW office or license sales agent.
California hunters are required to complete a hunter education training course, pass a comprehensive equivalency test, or provide a valid hunter’s safety certificate before purchasing a hunting license for the first time in California. Each year approximately 30,000 students complete the state’s hunter education course.