Getting into sheep shape in La Quinta

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Peninsular bighorn sheep have lived in the craggy mountains defining the Coachella Valley since thousands of years before humans inhabited the desert. Like most species, they have evolved in astonishing ways.

  • Their hair is hollow to promote insulation, and their coloring reflects 40% of the sun's rays.
  • Bighorns can lose nearly one-third of their bodily fluids; most animals are doomed with a 10% loss.
  • In summer, they can go three days without drinking; in winter, they might not drink for months.
  • They see at 65 feet what a human sees at 8 feet.
  • Their split-hooves are concave with a spongy center that enables them to scramble up and down steeply angled rocks like a gecko on a stucco wall.

Despite the bighorns' impressively adaptive characteristics, they struggle to thrive in close proximity to humans. In 1950, the population of Palm Springs, the most well-known city in the Coachella Valley, was 7,660; today, it flirts with 50,000. The total population of the valley in the cooler months is more than half a million.

A lot of those people like to golf, and among the popular courses in the eastern end of the valley are several in La Quinta, a city of 41,000 snuggled against the toe of the Santa Rosa Mountains. In addition to stunning views and perfectly groomed facilities, golfers have thrilled to the sight of bighorn sheep wandering through the fairways and suckling at the water hazards.

"Hazards" being the operative term: Golf courses are death traps for the animals. But until Friday, La Quintans officially refused to care.

If it took millennia for bighorn sheep to live well in their natural habitat, it takes only minutes for them to drown in the canals serving the valley's residential and agricultural needs; to perish crossing the street in front of a speeding car. It takes only hours for them to succumb to the poison of an oleander meal that's so much easier to find than busting open a barrel cactus growing on a steep slope 1,000 feet above the valley floor. It takes but days for lambs to die of the respiratory diseases easily contracted from domestic animals that wouldn't know a barrel cactus from a barrel of monkeys.

In short, the quick habituation to human communities is a death sentence for animals who usually do fine when they go native.

As humans increasingly encroach into the desert, sometimes sheep must be confined to their own space to save them from extinction.

That's what Peninsular bighorns faced in 1998 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added them to the endangered species list.

In 1982, the number of Peninsular bighorn sheep numbered fewer than 1,200 in their full U.S. range from Palm Springs to Mexico. By 1996, there were only 280. Today, the population is about 800 in nine recovery regions. Three of them, in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains of the Coachella Valley, are monitored by the Bighorn Institute, a seminal nonprofit established in 1982 for sheep research and conservation. Today, according to the institute, there are 280 sheep among the three valley herds, including the one near La Quinta.

In the late 1990s, the herd near Rancho Mirage, in the middle of the valley, also was suffering from urbanization. Sheep wandered down the mountain to be slaughtered on Highway 111, and they gorged themselves on the winsomely groomed gardens of local country clubs and resorts. Residents grumbled about the unsightliness of a proposed fence to close sheep access to development, but they also got tired of their property being destroyed by hearty ungulate appetites. Within three years of the alert, a fence was constructed. Since then, residents have been happy, and exactly no sheep in this herd have died on the roads or from unsavory neighbor relations.

The city and the residents of Rancho Mirage stepped up to protect the native wildlife. The city and the residents of La Quinta ... not so much. Until last Friday.

By 2012, sheep casualties had mounted notably around the four La Quinta golf courses nearest their habitat. Two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife officially declared that there was a problem to the city and the Coachella Valley Conservation Commission (composed of representatives of the valley's nine home-ruled cities, Riverside County and three local water districts). Their letter referenced the success that Rancho Mirage had had in a similar situation, and called for a similar solution. The city and its golf-course enablers were given two years to erect a barrier to save sheep.

The deadline passed. Encouraged by the Bighorn Institute, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an intent to sue. One golf course offered a tepid response, erecting a short fence the sheep laughed at, and walked around en route to a long drink from the fountain.

The CVCC engaged agencies to commission studies and begin the plodding regulatory labor of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance. Golfers continued taking photos of ewes and lambs, and developers sat on the entitlements they possessed prior to the endangered species listing, never mind that the sheep were there first -- they lacked proper paperwork.

Since the 2014 letter mandating a fence, 21 sheep have died on or near the La Quinta golf courses.

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On Friday, five years after a barrier was mandated by the feds and the state, staffers of the CVCC and Coachella Valley Association of Governments submitted the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep Barrier Project and Final Environmental Impact Report for a vote by the 13 CVCC commissioners.

Introducing the presentation, CVAG Executive Director Tom Kirk lauded the hard work of the staff and its consultants, adding, "I wanna get to Stagecoach later, so I hope we make this really fast."

The wheels of government grind slowly, as does raising the consciousness of people whose aesthetic priorities and affluence to indulge them threaten the existence of their less fortunate neighbors. But Kirk got his wish.

An hour after the presentation and three favorable comments from the public, the commissioners were all in. A couple of them had questions about the report, and one, Susan Marie Weber, from Palm Desert, offered the confounding comment, "Humans are endangered now, and the sheep are doing whatever they want." Still, she too gave her blessing.

The vote in favor of erecting a barrier to confine bighorn sheep to their 'hood was unanimous.

Now the CVCC must generate a timeline for construction, solicit bids and find the funds for a 9-mile-plus fence that will run up and around the steep mountain looming over La Quinta's resort communities.

Stay tuned -- this could take a while. Maybe even five years.

Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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