ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK, Calif. --
U.S. Marines with Marine Light Attack Training Squadron 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, provided aerial support to a multiagency operation to preserve the life of the desert bighorn sheep in southern California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Nov. 5, 2023.
In a testament to the versatility of the U.S. Marine Corps, HMLAT-303 “Atlas” teamed up with federal, state and non-governmental agencies to respond to extreme drought threatening the lives of the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep that reside in the Anza-Borrego desert. The diverse project group came together for the third year since 2021 for a three-day mission to replace water guzzlers providing critical habitat resilience for the bighorn sheep.
The multi-agency response included representatives from the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Armed Forces Initiative and the Sycuan Casino.
“Any entity can put a stop to it at any moment... but everyone is donating their time and their money to make this happen,” said Marine veteran Dennis Scott Gibson, a volunteer and secretary of the California Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation board of directors. Gibson says the foundation is dedicated to restoring the bighorn sheep population and giving them a better chance of survival in their natural habitat.
The operation involved 32 flight hours between two UH-1Y helicopters, transporting new, 2,500-gallon water guzzlers to remote parts of the desert to replace the aging water guzzlers. The replacement allows Peninsular bighorn sheep to access water following another dry summer in the southern California desert.
A U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom with Marine Light Helicopter Attack Training Squadron (HMLAT) 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, carries a replacement water guzzler to Harper Canyon located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California, Nov. 5, 2023.
Photo by Chief Warrant Officer Trent Randolph
A U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom with Marine Light Helicopter Attack Training Squadron (HMLAT) 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, carries a replacement water guzzler to Harper Canyon located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California, Nov. 5, 2023. HMLAT-303 supported state, federal, and private agencies utilizing long-line external lift capabilities of the UH-1Y to replace water guzzlers throughout the park. Guzzlers are self-filling, constructed watering facilities that collect, store, and make water available for wildlife. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Trent Randolph)
Due to the rugged terrain, the long-line external lift capabilities of the UH-1Y Venom were vital to the replacing water guzzlers at Whale Peak and Harper Canyon.
“The precision required to put our helicopter support team Marines in some of these zones creates a high demand on the flying pilot as well as a heavy demand on our crew chiefs in back,” said Capt. Nico Portera, a UH-1Y Venom pilot training officer with HMLAT-303. “The team is working at maximum efficiency and precision without sacrificing safety.”
“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,” Capt. Nico Portera, a UH-1Y Venom pilot training officer with HMLAT-303.
The operation presented a valuable real-world training opportunity with combat application for the Marines of HMLAT-303. The Marines used a 120-foot long-line to insert heavy equipment into the remote park sites. They externally rigged the water guzzlers and executed flight maneuvers needed to safely lower them into the desired positions. UH-1Y Venom air crews and pilots are trained in an array of helicopter insert and extract operations, but typically use a 15-foot pendant, making the long-line method a nonstandard and challenging operation.
“It takes the whole team and some aircrew ingenuity to find the best method to pick and drop external loads in a desert mountainous environment,” Portera said.
HMLAT-303 Supports California Wildlife
Photo by Courtesy Asset
Peninsular bighorn sheep drink water out of a trough filled by a water guzzler at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California, Nov. 5, 2023. U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom helicopters with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron 303, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, supported state, federal, and private agencies utilizing long-line external lift capabilities of the UH-1Y to replace water guzzlers throughout the park. Guzzlers are self-filling, constructed watering facilities that collect, store, and make water available for wildlife. (Courtesy Photo)
In the unforgiving mountain terrain, the operation demanded the aircrew to skillfully handle the helicopter at its upper operational limits while providing a minimal ground footprint to the environment and maintaining the safety of the crew and volunteers. Communication and precision were essential to a successful operation with minimal impact on personnel, supplies and the environment.
The Marines also assisted in retrieving the tracking collars from deceased bighorn sheep in areas too dangerous to reach on foot. This required Marines to locate the collar, conduct an insert, retrieve the collar, and assess the carcass before returning to the aircraft.
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.
“We feel we are directly contributing to the preservation of an endangered species,” Portera said. “It also demonstrates the versatility of H-1 pilots, the capability of the UH-1Y and their ability to operate on time, on target, professional throughout.”
A large population of bighorn sheep exist on Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twenty-nine Palms, Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, all in the rugged deserts of southern California. This is possible with the continued assistance of the military and the dedication to wildlife conservation in the region.
“The military, especially my Marine Corps, has been front and center in wildlife conservation in California... without the Marine Corps’ support, bighorn sheep would not be doing as well as they are,” Gibson said.
Peninsular bighorn sheep are a federally listed endangered population segment of the desert bighorn sheep subspecies that live in the Peninsular Ranges in southern California. This specific population is genetically and geographically isolated in the desert and have a range-wide population estimate of 650-850.
The water guzzlers were built in the 1980s to be self-filling sources that do not enhance or take away from the “wilderness character” of the region, but in 2020 and 2021, the southern California desert region faced its driest period since 1928 and these water systems are still facing the aftermath.
“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.”
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.