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

What would prevent Caltrans’ from pursuing its latest attempt to rebuild part of State Route 39 high up in the San Gabriel Mountains, washed away by Mother Nature 44 years ago?

The list of possibilities includes more rock slides, giant falling boulders, snowy weather and the cost, which could climb to $57 million or more.

But 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.

Highway 39 Reopening Project

Caltrans proposes to rehabilitate and reopen a 4.4-mile segment of SR-39 from post mile 40.0 to 44.4, within the Angeles National Forest, in Los Angeles County. The restored connection could be accessible to public highway traffic throughout the year, with seasonal closures during times of inclement weather.
Caltrans estimates it will complete an Environmental Impact Report by the fall of 2023. A final report could be issued by summer of 2024. Caltrans could then approve the project
Submit comments by email: By mail: Karl Price, Caltrans District 7 – Division of Environmental Planning, I00 South Main St., MS 16A, Los Angeles, CA 90012. All public comments must be received by Jan. 16, 2023.

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 within the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests, said Jeff Villepique, supervising biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), on Thursday, Dec. 22.

There are only about 5,000 bighorn sheep in all of California, he said. The bighorn population closest to the San Gabriel Mountain group lives in the Mojave Desert.

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.

“The bighorn sheep and how we avoid impacts will be key on this project,” said Karl Price, senior environmental planner with Caltrans District 7 during a webinar about the Route 39 project.

Caltrans announced earlier this month it is once again considering repairing a 4.4-mile closed gap in the main highway through the Angeles National Forest. 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.

The brown, checkered squiggly line is the closed portion or “gap” in Highway 39 that has been closed for 44 years. Caltrans is considering repairing the road and reopening it to once again connect with State Route 2 – Angeles Crest Highway. (map courtesy of Caltrans)

But 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. If that section reopened, motorists could easily reach ski areas and Wrightwood, as well as connections to the iconic Mt. Wilson observatory, Jackson Lake — and Devil’s Punch Bowl on the desert side of the range.

Highway 39 that connects to Highway 2 remains closed to the public in the Angeles National Forest about 27 miles north of Azusa on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011. Caltrans had cancelled the project in 2012. However, in December 2022, it is reconsidering fixing the highway and connecting it to State Route 2 – Angeles Crest Highway. The section has been closed since 1978 and Caltrans has for years promised it would reopen. (SGVN/Staff photo by Watchara Phomicinda/SVCity)

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San Gabriel Valley residents could cut their drive time to Wrightwood in half if the road was restored. 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.

But while Azusa city officials and business groups favor the project as a way to bring more business to the area and increase circulation, the road restoration faces numerous obstacles.

Besides the construction challenges presented by unstable slopes and high elevations, Caltrans faces the protected bighorns. They are found as far east as Lytle Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest and Mt. San Antonio (aka Mt. Baldy), and as far as Twin Peaks five miles west of the Highway 39 gap, said Villepique, who has studied bighorn in the San Gabriel Mountains for 21 years.

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. It has been used to rescue and evacuate people from several fires. It has also been used to maneuver firetrucks for fire suppression.

The shoulder is not open to the public and signs are posted to keep out. But the sheep use it. Video camera footage show the bighorn in the slopes near the gap, at Islip Saddle and Snow Springs. A family of 12 live and breed within a mile of the gap, according to the CDFW.

“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.”

In May 2011, a dead lamb was found on the very stretch  where the road would be rebuilt, he said. The lamb, about four weeks old, had fallen from the cliff and was impaled by a yucca plant. A necropsy revealed a mouth abscess that became infected, as well as damage to the lamb’s jaw from the fall, Villepique said.

“Now we know it is lambing habitat,” he said.

During a scoping meeting on Dec. 15, 2022, Caltrans laid out several alternative project designs, including full restoration of the public highway. About 250 people attended.

Some objected to restoring the road, saying more cars would bring traffic and air pollution into the small town of Wrightwood. Some said they didn’t want to see bighorn sheep carcasses on the road.

“My two concerns would be cost as well as the bighorn sheep,” said Richard Ferguson, during the hearing. He favored building an elevated roadway known as a viaduct, to allow the wildlife to pass under the road.

Many spoke in favor of opening a two-lane road through to Highway 2, as it was before the long ago rock slide. “Unrestricted access is the way to go,” said Geric Johnson, president of the Angeles Volunteer Association, based in Glendora.

Related links

Caltrans reconsiders an old idea: Repairing the closed section of Highway 39
Caltrans to abandon Highway 39 repair
Bighorn sheep around Lucerne may be threatened
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Azusa Mayor Robert Gonzales had been asking that the road to be restored for nearly 20 years. 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, he said.

Mark Landis, who called in to the webinar, said often those who live there have trouble returning home from the valley floor. “As a mountain resident, it is critical to have additional ingress and egress. To have one more option would increase safety, traffic increase would be extremely minimal.”

Some favored a project that would allow pedestrians and bicyclists, plus a shuttle for passengers driven by a trained operator — but not a public road. “A slow-moving shuttle bus would be an excellent way to use this money,” said James Grimm, a Wrightwood resident.

Adam Samrah, owner of Crystal Lake Cafe and Trading Post, said he’s seen bighorn sheep atop cliffs and usually they run from people and cars. He said Caltrans could build an underpass for the sheep to cross safely.

“This is a highway. It should be opened,” he said during an interview on Dec. 22.


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