The desert bighorn sheep of the Newberry Mountains

May 20, 2019

Like many desert bighorn sheep populations in the distant past the newberry population was large and vibrant. It was hunted by the ancient people that inhabited this land as a valued food source. Then in a process that happened throughout the Southwest the Newberry sheep were affected by disease, habitat reduction, and fragmentation as well as overhunting to the point where their population was reduced to about 25 animals. This situation persisted for perhaps fifty to a hundred years, so that by the time they were genetically tested in the year 2002, this small herd suffered from the effects of inbreeding. The outlook for this small remnant heard look pretty bleak and with their demise would also go a portion of the original genetic diversity of their species.

There were some people working on this problem, such as the people from the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep the California Department of Fish and Game also known as fish and wildlife, and the North American Wild Sheep Foundation. Also other organization and individuals that did what they could. All took an interest in conserving this population.

Presently, that is as of 2019, this population has risen to perhaps 300 and has started another population on the Twentynine Palms Marine Base of about 50 or more. As astounding as these numbers are there is another number to consider and that is through helicopter survey it was established that there was a 40:100 lamb ewe ratio. That is to say that for 100 females there were 40 surviving lambs, which indicates a healthy and fast growing population.

The Newberry herd has been studied for many years and in many ways, as was indicated above. There has been a DNA study done on it where we were able to compare the DNA of this herd and many others. The Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep ran a trail camera survey from 2009 to 2013 in which many things were learned. Department of Fish and Wildlife has also fitted some of these animals with transmitting collars that gave their whereabouts on a 24 hour basis via satellite.

Due to the amount of information we have we have a pretty good idea what happened and why, though there will be a difference of opinion as to what had the largest benefit.
Currently I believe we will get a better picture of this as the various issues play out and we collect new data.

I believe one of the first things that happened that made a difference was a new water source in the old quarry at Newberry that was not only a water source but also source of minerals, and this affected their health in a positive way. Then there were a number of water sources put on the Twentynine Palms Marine base which I believe also had minerals associated with them and thus affected their health positively. There is another component of these water sources in the Twentynine Palms base that should take into consideration and that is they connected the Newberry herd to another population of bighorn sheep in the Sheephole Mountains, thereby giving the Newberry herd greater genetic diversity. Another decisive factor was that the cattle in this area was reduced from somewhere around 300 to about 25 or 30. While there is no doubt this is beneficial as far as feed is concerned I think the greater impact was the fact that there were no more new cows and bulls being introduced into this area, and thereby lowering the possibility of introducing diseases.

It seems like with regards to the population of desert bighorn sheep in the Newberry Mountains we’re poised to take on the problems brought about by success. And I believe that we do have to face these problems head on and with resources and imagination. We must decide whether we will maintain this situation and learn from it. Most of the time when one talks about environmental situations it is just one piece of bad news after another in this case it is something very different. Not only is it good news about the Newberry herd but there are valuable lessons that we can apply throughout the Southwest.