Horning In? | Science | Smithsonian
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Horning In?

Bighorn sheep have made a big comeback in recent years, but some developers out West think they're intruders

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Bighorn sheep have long symbolized the mountains and canyons of the American West, but they have not had an easy time of it. By the early 1900s, they were devastated by hunting, disease, habitat loss and competition for forage from livestock. Over the past couple of decades, they have been returned to many of their old haunts, but even so two groups are classified as endangered — both, as it happens, in California. One inhabits the Sierra Nevada. The other dwells in the desert around Palm Springs.

The Sierra population has plunged in recent years from 300 to about 125, due mainly to depredations by resurgent mountain lions, which not only kill sheep but drive them out of their prime habitat. Scientists are trying to stem the decline by eliminating troublesome lions. In the Palm Springs area, the main culprit is development, which displaces and degrades bighorn habitat. Although the beleaguered sheep are popular with many homeowners, such by-products of development as golf courses, landscaping, swimming pools and traffic present many threats.

Elsewhere in the West the bighorn has become a conservation success story. Whether that success can be replicated in the Sierra and around Palm Springs remains to be seen.

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