Peninsular Bighorn Sheep Get Another Boost from U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK, Calif - For the third year in a row the brave men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron HMLAT303 have stepped up to provide aerial support for bold wildlife projects that strive to provide resiliency to local populations of bighorn sheep in Southern California.

This November the marines joined volunteers from the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and staff from California State Parks as well as the Department of Fish & Wildlife to replace aging, "rain-catchment" wildlife water systems (guzzlers) located deep within wilderness of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP). Thanks to a donation from the Sycuan Casino and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, brand new guzzler tanks were flown in by long line to support a local population of Peninsular bighorn sheep, a Federally Endangered species that inhabits the austere and drought prone portions of this Wilderness. This initiative aligns with the United States Fish and Wildlife Recovery Plan for bighorn sheep in the Peninsular Ranges, emphasizing the critical role of providing sustainable and monitored seasonal water sources for the Peninsular bighorn sheep. These two specific guzzler tanks that were replaced, strategically located near "Whale Peak" and "Harper Flat," are part of a larger network of backcountry water sources located within ABDSP. 

This collaborative effort involving volunteered helicopter operations and flight crews, U.S. Marines from Marine Light Attack Training Squadron 303 (HMLAT-303), using two UH-1Y helicopters from HMLAT-303, known as "Atlas," played a crucial role in removing the old water tanks and transporting the new multiple 2,500 gallon water catchment tanks, employing “long-line external lift capabilities” that were required due to the challenging terrain and remote guzzler site locations. Volunteers from BHA, CAWSF, and staff from CDFW and ABDSP hiked out to the guzzler sites in the dark to prepare for the marines, pump water between tanks and plumb the systems once the tanks were in place.

“We feel we are directly contributing to the preservation of an endangered species,” said Capt. Nico Portera, a UH-1Y Venom pilot training officer with HMLAT-303. “It also demonstrates the versatility of H-1 pilots, the capability of the UH-1Y and their ability to operate on time, on target, and professional throughout.” 

According to reporting by 2nd Lt. Madison Walls,

The pilots and crew gained experience during the wildlife support mission that translates to flight missions during military operations. The deliberate, predetermined flight windows and planned fuel legs require the same calculations used to maintain and provide continuous close air support in combat-oriented flight operations...The operation to insert new guzzlers was mutually beneficial to the Peninsular bighorn sheep and the Marines of HMLAT-303.

“Our pilots are hungry to employ their aircraft in real world missions. Staying relevant in the future fight is something we are always striving to maintain,” Portera said.

This incredible partnership was forged in part, thanks to BHA's Armed Forces Initiative and BHA members stationed at Camp Pendleton in addition to the perseverance of one dedicated individual, Scott Gibson. A Marine veteran, Secretary of the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation and a longtime hunter and bighorn sheep conservationist, Scott has had a commanding role in the planning and execution of these projects. 

“We are replacing these guzzlers to make them more reliable and updating the equipment used,” Gibson said. “New steel, new components, more corrosion resistance, hopefully giving them another 40 to 50 years of service to the population.” 

Currently estimated between 650 and 850 sheep, the Peninsular bighorn sheep population has benefited from guzzlers throughout Anza Borrego Desert State Park to provide resiliency for the species during drought years. This genetically isolated sub-population of desert bighorn sheep has dropped as low as 300 sheep in decades past. These guzzlers, located in remote sections of ABDSP, were mostly installed in the 1980s in order to provide seasonal water availability for wildlife. The guzzlers were designed to be self-filling with rain collection mats, but the tanks were old and in some cases no longer functional. 

“The military, especially my Marine Corps, has been front and center in wildlife conservation in California," said Gibson "Without the Marine Corps’ support, bighorn sheep would not be doing as well as they are."

Last year, Gibson and BHA's Western Policy & Conservation Manager, Devin O'Dea presented the Marine Corps Squadron with a commemorative plaque and ram skull to thank the Marines for their service to bighorn sheep as well as our nation. 

We are incredibly grateful to all of the Marines who donated their time to fly, camp and help coordinate this project. We are also very grateful to Scott Gibson, all of the volunteers who showed up, the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and Sycuan Casino for their partnership to support Peninsular bighorn sheep in Southern California.

Learn more about our past projects with the Marines to support Peninsular bighorn sheep. Also check out our work on the I-8 Peninsular Bighorn Sheep Crossing project as we work to remove one of CDFW's priority barriers for wildlife along Interstate 8 located South of Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

About Devin O'Dea

Devin grew up abalone diving, spearfishing, and backpacking in CA before discovering a love of bowhunting and wing shooting. He worked as a marketing manager for a carbon division of Mitsubishi, but the allure of adventure and wild places led him to BHA