Desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego State Park (Photo by Beth Pratt)In my twenty years of exploring California and the Sierra Nevada, I have never seen bighorn sheep in the state. The closest I ever came was during a hike on the Granite Divide in Yosemite where we found scat and some tracks on a ridge. Living in Yellowstone, bighorn sheep sightings were a daily occurrence—on my drives up the Gardner River Canyon to and from work, the magnificent animals usually greeted me on the ridges as they traveled to drink. Yet my desire to see a desert bighorn remained unfulfilled—until last week.

After a mere fifteen minutes upon entering Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, my friend Michelle started pointing and uttered something incomprehensible in her excitement. Finally, I made out the word “sheep” and pulled off the road as soon I could.  To our delight, a herd of ewes and young lambs leapt up the rocks and gazed back at us as we stood watching their movements. Desert bighorn are rare to spot, and although the animals were once in abundance, the population in the park has decreased to less than 300.

Climate change has taken a toll on the bighorn sheep of California. In a recent study by the University of California at Berkeley, the scientists found that 30 of 80 groups of historic populations of bighorn have disappeared in the last century, and sadly the animals may face extinction by the next century if the increases in temperature forecast for climate change prove true.