Wildlife cameras provide close-ups of bighorn sheep

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By Elena Palacios, Women in Science Discovering Our Mojave intern

Afton Canyon is known locally as the “Grand Canyon of the Mojave”. It not only has impressive geological formations, but it is one of the few places where the Mojave River flows above ground all year. Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) are one of the wildlife species that use this area.

Women in Science Discovering Our Mojave is a pilot project helping the Bureau of Land Management provide a range of recreational access in Mojave Trails National Monument, while also ensuring the well-being and protection of wildlife and other sensitive resources. Seven wildlife cameras have been strategically placed in the canyon to capture the movement and population size of bighorn sheep.

I’m one of three interns in this program. We hike to each of the cameras every couple weeks. In the field, we record camera maintenance information, but the real work begins when we get back into the office. Each SD card collected from the cameras can potentially hold up 3,000 to 4,000 images. We are in charge of going through each photo and logging the information of ones that actually have bighorn sheep. We have some pretty amazing pictures so far!

A male sheep at camera seven. We learned how to identify male and female sheep by the shape of the horns. Males usually have bigger, thicker horns as where female’s horns are not as thick and rounded out.
There are a variety of animals in Afton Canyon. Every so often we find foxes, birds, rabbits, and bobcats. There is truly a variety in the Mojave!
In another shot from camera one, one of the sheep is close enough to see details in the fur and horns.
An action shot on an open plain. Around this camera, there is a lot of human activity as well, and it was important to take that into consideration as we conducted our research.
Here is a female sheep, also getting a close-up of one of our cameras. We actually had a lot of sheep activity in camera four and observed a lot of sheep droppings around this area. We learned how to identify their droppings in the first week.
Camera six was known as the troublemaker camera. We often had to readjust this camera in order for it to be stable. We experienced a lot of trial and error with this camera, but towards our sixth field day, were able to successfully find a good position for it. This is a rare photo with data that camera six took.

The interaction of the sheep and their behavior is well documented in these pictures. It really gives us an idea of where they move within the canyon. Some of the cameras have had little or no bighorn activity and some have more.

This has been an amazing opportunity to be part of and my appreciation for the desert has truly grown. People often imagine the desert as a place of emptiness, but behind every little rock and around every little bush there is something exciting to see!

Desert bighorn (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) are a protected species. They migrate during the different seasons, accessing areas that have food, water, and shelter. They can be found in valley floors and up in the high rocky areas of the desert. Within the canyon, they can stay up high to avoid predators or come down to drink and forage for food. They generally move in large herds.

Women in Science Discovering Our Mojave is made possible through a grant from Southern California Edison. In this unique program, the Mojave Desert Land Trust, in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, aims to engage women in the field of science.

The women tracking bighorn sheep in the Mojave