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Band of bighorn sheep could stop Caltrans from reopening part of Highway 39

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Caltrans' project to repair an official state highway built in 1957 by order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower is a skittish population of protected sheep known for their crowns of curled horns. The Nelson's Bighorn Sheep, Ovis canadensis nelsoni, are majestic mammals that can be seen standing tall on cliff tops, posing on rocks in the Sheep Wilderness in the eastern range, or running in the brush alongside Angeles Crest Highway.

About 417 bighorns are estimated to be living in the highest slopes of these rugged mountains. There are only about 5,000 bighorn sheep in all of California, said Jeff Villepique, supervising biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), on Thursday, Dec. 22.

Because these mountain sheep are protected, any sheep that is injured or dies as a result of construction, or operation, of the restored highway would violate state law. Caltrans may not want to take that risk.

Highway 39 takes 3 million to 4 million visitors every year to trails, campgrounds, picnic sites, river bends, Native American sites and off-road vehicle areas.

In 1978, a rock slide washed away part of the highway about 27 miles north of Azusa and just beyond Crystal Lake, and Caltrans has never repaired it.

The breach nixes the connection to Highway 2, known as Angeles Crest Highway, forcing U-turns from motorists in eastern Los Angeles County.

Instead of going east to the 15 Freeway, Highway 138 and Highway 2, or west to La Cañada Flintridge and connecting with Highway 2 for more than 60 miles, the mountains and high desert would be a straight shot of about 32 miles up Highway 39 from the forest entrance north of Azusa.

More than 10 years ago, Caltrans built a narrow shoulder on the washed out part of Highway 39 to connect to Highway 2 for use by emergency vehicles. The shoulder is not open to the public and signs are posted to keep out. But the sheep use it. “They stand around in the middle of the pavement,” Villepique said. “They feed there, drink there. It is core habitat. We have seen new lambs in that area.”

During a scoping meeting on Dec. 15, 2022, Caltrans laid out several alternative project designs, including full restoration of the public highway. Being able to drive out of the forest to the north, to Highway 2, would ease anxiety for campers, hikers and residents in San Gabriel Canyon during a wildfire, Azusa Mayor Robert Gonzales said.


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