A long-lost herd of bighorn sheep, given up for dead in the towering cliff country north of Fillmore, has suddenly reappeared in seeming good health, raising hope that the animals will become a permanent fixture in Ventura County’s environment.
In a series of sightings over the last three months, hikers and a deer hunter on horseback reported seeing as many as 19 of the sure-footed animals, including rams, ewes and lambs, clambering across canyons near Sespe Hot Springs in Los Padres National Forest.
Scientists were initially skeptical--they wrote off the herd several years ago after repeated helicopter and ground surveys over 40 square miles of wilderness turned up just a few animals--until the trekkers described telltale relocation collars on the animals and produced photographs.
For scientists, the discovery is encouraging news, considering that bighorn herds are in precipitous decline from the Sierra Nevada to the San Gabriel Mountains to the Salton Sea.
“I’m just thrilled,” said Steven Torres, the wildlife biologist who heads the bighorn sheep program for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Establishing large mammals in Southern California is difficult, so to see them surviving in Ventura County is very exciting. It means the sheep have survived in that area and the population may expand.”
A few months ago, scientists were less sanguine about the 37 Nelson bighorn sheep that had been transported to Ventura County from the San Gabriel Mountains between 1985 and 1987. The relocation effort, one of many around the state at the time, was an attempt to rebuild sheep numbers in places where they once thrived but had been killed off.
Hunted for the meat, which was sold in California markets in the 19th century, and trophy horns, the bighorn sheep population plummeted. Diseases transmitted by livestock grazing in the mountains wiped out the rest. By 1914, the sheep had vanished from the mountain chain that Los Padres encompasses, said U.S. Forest Service biologist Maeton Freel.
The effort to bring them back was tenuous from the start. Much of Los Padres forest, which stretches from Carmel to Castaic, is blanketed in dense chaparral, giving coyotes and mountain lions an advantage. The Ventura County herd represented the westernmost population of bighorns, with most of the other herds living in the open, rocky slopes of the Sierra Nevada or desert ranges, Torres said.
During the relocation 15 years ago, strong winds behind Topatopa Peak hampered helicopters’ efforts, and bighorns were scattered more widely than planned. Two ewes immediately bolted 15 miles north, past Frazier Park, never to be seen again. The plan called for an additional 60 sheep to reinforce the Ventura County herd, but they never arrived because the supply in other parts of the state was dwindling, officials said.
Two of three species of bighorn sheep in California are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Only about 100 California bighorns inhabit the Sierra. In the San Gabriel Mountains, where 700 bighorns roamed in the 1980s, 35 survive today, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
Powerfully built, bighorns are bigger than goats, with muscular necks, white rumps and nimble feet. In contests for females, rams will charge each other headlong at 20 mph, and the explosive crack of horns can be heard more than a mile away.
The Ventura County sheep population stabilized at about 25 animals in 1991, before more trouble struck. A decline in deer herds led to a precipitous rise in mountain lion attacks on bighorns across California. Also, sport hunting of cougars was banned by a voter-approved ballot initiative in 1990. Freel estimated that as many as two-thirds of the sheep in the Sespe Wilderness were eaten by lions.
“You never used to see a lion in this area. Now they are so thick you see them all the time,” said Michael Vaughan of Ojai, who has hunted and camped in the Sespe Wilderness area for 30 years.
By 1992, helicopter surveys were turning up half a dozen or fewer sheep, and a spotter on the ground was having no better luck. In 1995, bighorn surveys in local mountains were halted.
“We’d pretty much given up on the animals as a lost cause,” said Department of Fish and Game biologist Jim Davis.
But that assessment now appears premature.
In early November, a hunter told a game warden he had seen 19 sheep, including rams, ewes, yearlings and lambs, near San Rafael Peak. Although that sighting was not confirmed by officials, authorities consider it credible because of descriptions of the animals, including some wearing radio collars that long ago stopped transmitting.
Lauren Ward of Ojai had a bighorn encounter in the same general area while hiking with friends on New Year’s Day.
“We were just standing there talking and I looked up at a patch of cactus and there were four of them just standing there munching,” Ward said. “I was awed. I thought they were amazing, so beautiful, so majestic.”
For now, wildlife officials plan to keep a closer eye on the sheep. Future helicopter counts seem assured, although there are no plans to transplant more bighorns to Ventura County. Officials urge people to keep away from the animals so they do not become frightened and flee to less desirable habitat.
“The population is very fragile,” Davis said. “We don’t know how many animals we have in there. These could be the only animals, or they could be the tip of the iceberg.”