Federal biologists to cut sheep reserves

Bighorn sheep are a protected species
BORREGO SPRINGS (CNS) State parks officials said they are "shocked" that federal biologists want to slash the amount of protected land for the sheep, which inhabit the rugged San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountain ranges about 140 miles northeast of San Diego.

Population of the sheep in San Diego and Riverside counties dropped to only 400 or so a decade ago, and pressure from grazing and other non-wilderness uses was blamed for the perilous decline. Since then, grazing was banned and the sheep population has doubled.

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed eliminating areas it considers non-essential from protected habitat, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Sunday.

"Those of us who have put the recovery plan together are totally shocked" by the federal proposal, said Anza-Borrego Desert State Park superintendent Mark Jorgensen. "These animals need high-value habitat to make it in this world."

The sheep are pressured at lower elevations by real estate developments butting up against their mountain habitat areas. Golf courses and high-end estates in La Quinta and other desert communities are endangering the animals there, biologists said.

At higher elevations, the federal government proposes removing forested areas from the critical bighorn habitat areas, because the sheep do not generally head to higher mountains.

But sheep experts say protecting the mountaintop "sky islands" is critical to protecting the sheep in lower, desert mountains.

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