One thing about being in the Coachella Valley is the in-your-face juxtaposition of desert and not-desert. I’m not sure what to call the not-desert, because it’s completely man-made: manicured lawns, bright flowering shrubs, citrus trees, and the ubiquitous royal palms that look uptight and fussy against the sandy, scrubby, gray-brown Mojave. I experienced this jarring contrast when I hiked the Cove-to-Lake trail, a six-mile jaunt over a ridge of the Santa Rosa Mountains.
The trail starts at La Quinta Cove, a large open area with several trailheads at the southern end of the community of La Quinta, itself the southernmost of the four towns that make up the greater Palm Springs area and the last sizable town before the Salton Sea, 40 miles further south. The Cove, which Sunset magazine named one of the top hikes in the West, is about 10 minutes from the conference hotel where Mr. Adventure was spending his days in air-conditioned ballrooms. The promise of desert hiking without a long drive intrigued me.
Most of all, I’d read that peninsular desert bighorns, a population of sheep that live at low elevations in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, were sometimes spotted along Cove trails. Sign me up!
The trail starts on what looks like a broad plain leading to the mountains in the distance. It goes past a vaguely dystopian abandoned recycling dump in the first half-mile or so, then narrows into a more typical trail.
A mile in, I ascended a ridge separating the Cove from Lake Cahuilla. By this time I’d lost most of the morning dog-walkers and runners and was enjoying the quiet solitude. Descending the other side, I started down the canyon wash toward the lake.
As I walked down the wash, signs started to appear: “Private Property: Stay on Trail.” And then, on the horizon, was that a horse? Oddly, yes. For reasons that are opaque to me, someone apparently thought a sculpture of a rearing horse would make an attractive focal point from the golf course that came into view below the trail. I climbed up to see if there was a marker or any interpretation, but nope, just a horse — an animal that is not, needless to say, native to these parts.
The last part of the trail followed the slope above the golf course, the trimmed green discordant in the canyon. A progressively louder buzz, created by groundskeepers wielding weedwhackers, lawnmowers, and blowers, replaced the silence. I’m not a golfer, and maybe I just don’t get it, but the green looked so wrong against the spare beauty of the desert, like a garish throw rug in the entry of an ancient temple.
The trail ends at the entrance to Lake Cahuilla County Park, and I didn’t linger. I’d seen enough. As the resort and lake faded into the distance behind me, I started scanning the ridgetops for bighorns, not really expecting to see any, because the peninsular desert bighorns that inhabit these mountains are rare. Disease, low reproduction rates, loss of habitat, and hungry mountain lions brought the population to a low of perhaps 400 animals in the mid-1990s, and they were federally listed as an endangered species in 1998 (the state of California has listed them as endangered since 1971). The population has increased to about 950 sheep since the implementation of a recovery plan in 2000.
I was about halfway back when I glanced up and saw a bighorn ewe skylining. That’s the “look at me, I’m a gorgeous bighorn sheep” pose they sometimes strike, and it’s the easiest way to actually spot the animals, because the slopes camouflage them perfectly. Whipping out the low-power binoculars we’d brought along (I’ll suck it up and carry better spotters next time), I focused on three ewes. These were definitely peninsular bighorn sheep! I stood there watching for about 30 minutes, glimpsing a ram so fleetingly I wasn’t entirely convinced I’d actually seen him.
Unlike the bighorns, though, I haven’t evolved to stand under a hot sun in the desert for hours on end, so I reluctantly packed up and headed back. Downing an iced tea in a La Quinta coffee shop about an hour later, I mentioned to the server that I’d seen some bighorn. “Really?!” she said. “I’ve never seen one, but my friend has, a bunch of times. They come down to the golf courses and drink the water.”
It’s true. “Golf courses are like smorgasbords,” according to a scientist with the Bighorn Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to sheep conservation. The sheep come down for water, citrus fruit, and other tasty nibbles. And that’s where they get into trouble. Chemicals used to fertilize golf courses leach into the water the sheep drink, causing respiratory illnesses and deaths. Over two weeks in May 2016, five bighorn lambs died at two golf courses in La Quinta.
Some sheep have been hit by cars. Others have drowned in canals. Flocks of sheep from time to time wander down the multi-lane, high-speed roads near the golf courses, and alert motorists have slowed down, put on their hazard lights, and used their cars to “haze” the animals back to the mountains.
Obviously, this is bad news for a recovering endangered animal. Proximity to humans is precisely what the sheep don’t need.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution: fencing. Federal and state wildlife agencies have ordered 8-foot-high fences to be installed around five golf courses, including The Quarry that I hiked past, to deter the sheep. The problem is, three of the courses are privately owned and would prefer not to pay their portion of the $3.5 million it will cost to construct 9.5 miles of sheep-proofing fence. The city of La Quinta has argued that there’s no point in building a fence around its publicly-owned golf course if the others don’t comply with the order, because the sheep will simply move to where they can get easier access.
About 15 years ago, the city of Rancho Mirage experienced a similar sheep problem and built a 4.5-mile-long fence. Problem solved. The fence in La Quinta needs to be longer and will cost more. But while the city, private golf course owners, and residents argue about who should pay for the fence and where to build it, endangered peninsular bighorns are dying. The number-one cause of death, according to the Bighorn Institute, is urbanization, which changes sheep habitat and negatively affects their behavior and diet.
Transforming the desert to non-desert makes it dangerously attractive to its natural denizens. We can argue whether golf courses belong in the desert, but there’s no question that bighorns don’t belong on the golf courses. Desert bighorns need to live far from human landscapes. If the bighorns are to survive, the course owners in La Quinta must do the right thing to keep sheep and golf courses separate.
In Mojave break, part four: Death Valley and tent camping in a desert windstorm.