December 19, 2005

Relocation project planned for bighorn sheep

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

A robust herd of desert bighorn sheep that thrives on several peaks in the Mojave National Preserve offers an opportunity to rebuild a dwindling herd 100 miles away.

California 's Department of Fish and Game has proposed relocating up to 15 bighorn ewes from Old Dad Mountain in the preserve, east of Barstow, to Eagle Crags at the China Lakes Naval Air Weapon Station near Ridgecrest.

"We have a healthy population of bighorns in the preserve, but the herd at China Lake is small and consists of only 17 rams and two ewes," said preserve spokesman James Woolsey.

Aerial surveys show the herd on Old Dad Mountain numbers close to 250. It is the largest population of bighorns in California and has been a primary source of sheep to restock other areas.

The department has attempted to restore 13 populations of mountain sheep to their historic ranges since 1970. By 1989, four herds were re-established in the Mojave Desert , according to an environmental assessment of the relocation project.

Under the department's proposal, between five and 15 ewes would be captured from Old Dad Mountain and relocated to Eagle Crags in a remote part of the air-weapons range.

Noting the imbalance between rams and ewes at Eagle Crags, officials said it is necessary to correct the skewed sex ratio and increase the reproducing potential of the herd.

"If that ratio is as low as our data now suggests, we need to reverse the trend," said Vern Bleich, fish and game's senior environmental scientist and project manager.

"If it isn't that low and more females are present, this translocation program will help us find other females."

The plan calls for sheep to be captured by net-gunning from helicopters, then moved to a base camp off Kelbaker Road in the preserve. From there they would be hauled by truck to Eagle Crags.

No schedule has been set for the removal process.

The removal program conforms with state policy, which says that mountain sheep should be managed and maintained at sound biological levels, Bleich said.

"Translocation is the only means by which mountain sheep can be restored to previously occupied ranges," he said.

The program is not a simplistic approach to conservation of the species, Bleich said, calling it a "well-thought-out conservation strategy."

By relocating bighorns, healthy herds of sheep can be preserved throughout the desert.

"Historically, Old Dad Mountain has been used as a source for repopulating herds elsewhere," Woolsey said. "With this program, we hope China Lake's population of bighorns can be restored."