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DFW overseeing yet another dieoff of iconic desert bighorn sheep


Since at least December, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has been “monitoring” what had -- had -- been one of the healthiest desert bighorn sheep herds in the state, the San Gorgonio population of desert sheep. Since December, over 20 sheep have died from respiratory disease, and the agency is looking into the root cause that leads to the respiratory problems. The disease outbreak could kill up to 80 percent of the herd initially, according to scientific studies done on these sheep dieoffs across the West over the past decade or more.

The problem is likely a bacterium called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae – or Movi for short. The bacteria are carried by domestic sheep and goats with no ill effect to the domestic animals. In wild sheep populations, with no immunity to the disease, it frequently results in the death of many of the animals in the herd, usually though pneumonia. But the initial disease dieoff is just the beginning of the problem. Each year, the surviving wild sheep lose 80 to 90 percent of their lambs within weeks of weaning and their own immune system can’t handle the disease. This can go on for years. Throughout the West, this disease has hammered wild sheep herds.

The solution to the problem is to prevent the wild sheep from interacting with domestic sheep or goats. The disease was likely introduced to the San Gorgonio wild sheep by a goat owner who let his goats graze illegally on federal land. Those goats likely came into contact with the sheep. While there continues to be speculation that cattle can also pass the disease to sheep (there have been feral and domestic cattle grazing in the San Gorgonio area for over 100 years without any disease issues in the wild sheep), the DFW did a study in the 1990s that showed this was not happening – at least in the study area.

A recent dieoff in the Old Dad/Kelso complex of mountains on the Mojave National Preserve was attributed on a single wild goat that was stupidly released in the sheep range and associated with the animals before being removed.

The DFW and land management agencies don’t give livestock or hobby owners of sheep and goats information about the lethal impact wild sheep face when they come in contact with domestic sheep and goats. They frequently don’t remove sheep or goats from area where they might come into catch with wild sheep. They also don’t put the costs of the sheep deaths on those who violate the grazing laws. When an auction hunting tag can sell for $250,000 or more, the wild sheep are a pretty valuable commodity, and the DFW could and should levy some hefty fines.

But the DFW has a weak track record in this regard. When it comes to actually bringing down the hammer when water agencies or municipalities violate laws and kill wild sheep through their actions, the agency is spineless. Why would the agency be hard on sheep and goat owners?

La Quinta continues to allow desert sheep to graze on golf courses and other manicured lawns where they contract a disease similar to Movi and die. The DFW continues to let the city get away killing sheep annually with no penalties.

There are canals throughout the Imperial Valley with unfenced sections where desert sheep go and try to drink but drown instead, unable to get out of the canals. No fines or penalties from the DFW.

The Mojave National Preserve management refused to let the DFW and volunteers go in and repair a damaged sheep drinker, and the animals collapsed the water tank, falling in and drowning, and poisoning the water supply. Much of the herd perished in that incident. Of course, nothing came of the poor management decision by the NPS.

It has continued to be a case of two steps forward and one or two steps back in the recovery of desert sheep – and the blame rests with the government agencies tasked with the protection of desert sheep.

Back in the 1970s when I first starting writing about Southern California sheep herds, there was a fledgling organization called the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (the Sheep Society in short). They coined a slogan, “10,000 by 2000.” They wanted the state to again have 10,000 wild sheep by the year 2000. They started restoring or creating man-made desert water sources throughout historic sheep ranges, and worked with the DFW to relocate sheep back into those areas. The Old Dad/Kelso Mountains complex in the Preserve had only occasional wandering male sheep until several man-made water sources were installed. Over a relatively short period of time, it became one of the biggest desert sheep herds in the state – numbering over 300 animals – and a frequent source of animals for other relocation projects. The Sheep Society volunteers continue this important work today, and their original slogan looked like an attainable goal: 10,000 by 2000.

But because of state and federal agency bumbling and bungling, we still haven’t reached that goal. The most recent estimate I could find was about 6,000 or 7,000 statewide or all subspecies.

The San Gorgonio herd is the latest casualty.


To read a news story on the San Gorgonio bighorn sheep dieoff, you can go to a story in the Desert Sun at this link.

Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

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