Hidden deep within the wilderness north of Los Angeles is rumored to be a lost herd of endangered bighorn sheep. Over Christmas, we captured what I believe to be the first video of them.
Before friends pulled him off death row and gave him to me, Wiley was a pound puppy, so his date of birth is a little indeterminate. The vet thinks it's around Christmas 2012 or New Year's 2013. With mandated time off over the holidays, I set about planning his 1st birthday present. It would be his first time wearing a backpack and our first time in the woods — just us two — overnight. Well, multiple nights.
For the destination, I wanted a spot that was genuinely remote, but free of snow. Someplace accessible from Los Angeles, but also genuinely wild. I'd been to the Sespe Wilderness a few times, but only as far as the much-overrated Willett Hot Springs. In that handful of trips though, I'd seen bears, mountain lions and condors. Playing around in Google, I found mention of a herd of Bighorn Sheep; re-introduced to the area three decades ago, but rarely sighted since. No pictures of them seemed to exist, at least on the Internet. Challenge accepted.
"Even people familiar with the Sespe backcountry are surprised to learn of the mountain sheep on the slopes above the creek. Truly, their presence is something of a miracle, a testament to the rejuvenative grace of wild places. Once lost, now found, sheep in the Sespe are hope on the hoof." — Bradley John Monsma,
The story of these particular sheep is a dramatic one. Like most of the American West, Sespe lost its last bighorns to diseases transmitted by domestic sheep in the early 1900s. Then, in 1985, the California Department of Fish and Game attempted to re-introduce them. The population of sheep in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains stood at a healthy 700, so the DFG set out to transplant 37 of them to the Sespe. Due to the rugged terrain — the last dirt road through the area was washed away in a flood that also killed six Boy Scouts in 1969 — the sheep had to be flown in by helicopter. But, as the armada crested the Topa Topa mountains that form Sespe's southern border, they were assaulted by an unexpected windstorm. The sheep were jettisoned across a wide area. It wasn't clear how many made it through alive and, perhaps understandably, the survivors scattered once back on terra firma. Most of the ewes were spotted fleeing north, past the next town up, never to be seen again.
"I've heard tales of sheep impaled on spearlike branches." — Bradley John Monsma
The DFG conducted official counts for the next few years, sometimes by foot and sometimes by helicopter. The numbers found each year dwindled, until only two were spotted in 1990. The radio collars fitted to the original herd had long since stopped working. The search was called off after that and conservation efforts shifted to the originating San Gabriel population, which had suddenly and inexplicably crashed from 700 plus, to just 35 sheep.
Sespe's bighorns were forgotten until, in 1999, rumors of sightings started to spread among hikers and hunters. One of the areas most frequent visitors, author Bradley John Monsma, had encountered their droppings and even spotted them from afar in the early 2000s, but found none when he joined an official count expedition a year later.
So, I packed a bag, stuffed a few days of food into Wiley's new pack, and hit the trail at Piedra Blanca first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve.
Big Horn sheep lead a tenuous existence in California. At 200 to 300lbs, their physical presence might seem imposing, but they're extremely vulnerable to diseases caught from domestic sheep, which have historically shared some of their range. The impressive racks that give them their name also made them targets for trophy hunters. That's now banned.
It's actually another conservation effort here in California that's giving them their biggest current problem though. In 1990, the state passed a bill outlawing the hunting of lions, even making it illegal for wildlife managers to kill those animals in all but the most extreme of circumstances. Pesticide regulations have also been changed to benefit the lions, which are particularly susceptible to poisons passed up the food chain from rats to coyotes and then onto the larger predators.
Anecdotally, a local farmer described to me last year the changes he's seen in the last decade: the feral pig population has boomed to virtually out of control while deer — beset by a food rivalry with the pigs on one side and predation from other species on the other — has fallen. At the same time, he's seen more coyotes than ever and now looks over his shoulder for lions.
To succeed, bighorns need an environment which isolates them from their domestic cousins and which provides both protection from lions and adequate grazing, along with access to a water source. Like the rest of Southern California, much of the Sespe is blanketed in thick chaparral — an indigenous mix of various different shrubs and trees that stands impenetrably at about head height —perfect cover for predators and therefor no good for sheep. But, the region's easternmost area is composed of hillsides and scree slopes too steep and loose for those plants to grow, while the valleys fill with lush grass following any rain. That's why the DFG tried to release the sheep there. The creek that gives Sespe its name provides adequate water, as do the various hot springs.
I was setting up camp at Willett — about halfway — on our first night when Wiley met his first mountain lion. He'd spent the late afternoon exploring that valley, sniffing out frogs and exploring the cold fires of old campsites for forgotten treats while I'd gathered wood and started dinner. As dark was finally becoming total, Wiley came sprinting back into camp, tail tucked firmly between legs. Before I could tell him off for being a wimp, I looked up and spotted what he was running from. The lion held its ground while I charged it, holding on late enough that I became genuinely worried it was going to try and fight me, but turned tail at the last second.
I put Wiley on his leash and clipped it to my belt, figuring that was the end of it, but after a dinner of hamburger and veggies cooked in the coals, heard something big moving through the dry leaves behind us. Now armed with a very large stick, I ran the lion off again, only to have to do so a third time half an hour later as he tried to cross the stream surrounding three sides of the campsite. That little peninsula made life that night a lot more bearable. Neither the wet rocks thrown in the campfire and their subsequent explosions, nor the beam from my powerful flashlight had any effect beyond chasing the lion away for 30 or 45 minutes. Shouting at the top of my lungs and Wiley's barks had similarly little effect. But, it couldn't get close without splashing the water or crunching the leaves, so we were always prepared. A stick, a scared puppy and a handful of rocks do not make a fun way to face down a predator like that. It disappeared an hour or so before sunrise, leaving us to pack up camp and move on.
The last-minute nature of this trip meant I hadn't been able to procure a trail map of the area, so I found the hot springs by following the Sespe Creek until I found a tributary joining it from the north. A mile or so up it, you enter a narrow valley with loose, rocky hills on both sides. I knew it was the right one because the water grew from chilly to the same temperature as the air to warm as we moved along.
Since it was Christmas day, the best campsite — sheltered from the sun under a grove of palm trees — was empty, as was the rest of the area. We'd only seen one couple on the two-day hike in, heading home for the holiday after camping at the same spot the night before. They actually spotted the sheep the day before I did and showed me pictures of them on their camera as we chatted.
"Watch out for the mountain lion," Jay told me. No shit.
As we were setting up camp, the sound of rocks falling came echoing down the valley and I spotted movement a half mile away. I put Wiley on his leash and began moving in that direction. We crawled our way over a low hill and popped our heads up not 20 feet from the sheep. Wiley started squealing, which scared the sheep into running up the mountainside a little bit, which is when I shot this video. I believe it's the first of this population on the Internet.
We spent an hour or so with the sheep, all within 100 yards or so of them and totaled the herd at 31, then killed the rest of the day soaking in the hot springs — the hottest in California and utterly odor-free.
Worryingly, 31 is nowhere near a healthy population for the long term survival of the herd.
"…all herds of fewer than fifty animals become extinct within seventy years, while all herds with more than 100 individuals persisted for more than seventy years," writes Monsma of bighorn sheep populations.
A couple months later, I'd drop my phone into a toilet on an island off the coast of Morocco, losing the pictures I shot. The ones you see here were taken in February by Steven and Marta Bakos, who kindly agreed to share. I obviously took the ones that include Wiley.
The day after finding the sheep, we were hiking out when Wiley and I suddenly encountered an old man with a beard down to his belly button and denim short shorts that stopped before the pockets did. He liked the dog, so we sat down in the shade and split the last of my whiskey. Turns out he'd moved into these mountains — no fixed address — a decade or so ago when it was time to retire from his job working the docks in Ventura. He hadn't paid into social security, so didn't expect anyone else to take care of him and now survives largely off his own wits. Wits that involve sneaking into the occasional illegal grow for some medical marijuana, but more often stealing from campers. He showed me his new hatchet, an expensive-looking REI rain jacket, then told me I should bring girls with me next time. I agreed and, in return, I showed him pictures of the sheep. He was floored.
"Sheep, you say?" He grumbled, before standing up, shouldering his really nice backpack and hitting the trail towards them. Guess finding them really is that rare.
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