The distant signals coming from radio collars around the necks of the Bighorn sheep changed to a steady ''mortality beep'' in late August. Something drastic had happened to these wild animals living in the remote mountains of the new Mojave National Preserve.
When volunteers from the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep finally hiked into the remote area , they found several dozen drowned sheep in and near a collapsed water-collection tank placed there years ago by Bighorn advocates.
Behind this tragic incident lies an angry dispute over what federal agency should manage the 1.4 million acres of the Mojave National Preserve, home to some 300 Bighorn sheep.
When President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, creating the preserve and two national parks, jurisdiction of the Mojave Preserve shifted from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to the National Park Service (NPS).
The signing of the act was to have ended a decade of wrangling between environmentalists and multiple-use advocates of the Mojave, and among several federal and state agencies over California's vast desert lands.
But the sheep incident, and changes the NPS has made limiting access to former camping sites and roads over the last few months, brought an angry Congressman Jerry Lewis (R) of California back into the fray.
Long an opponent of the desert act because of its impact on his district, he blames the death of the sheep on the NPS. A scheduled helicopter flight by the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep to check on the animals was blocked by the NPS in compliance with the new wilderness regulations.
Representative Lewis now wants to reverse part of the Desert Protection Act. ''Take the new Mojave National Preserve out of the hands of the National Park Service,'' he says , ''and give it back to the Bureau of Land Management.'' He also wants the sheep incident investigated by the US Department of the Interior.
Lewis and landowners next to the preserve say only a small portion of the preserve deserves park status. The rest is ''everyday desert,'' Lewis says. He wants grazing, mining, and recreational uses (four-wheel-drive vehicles) to continue with minimal restrictions. And he wants new ''No Trespassing'' signs removed.
Lewis, part of the Republican thrust in Congress to cut budget items across the board, arranged for a Senate-House conference committee to delete funds for the preserve from the National Park Service budget in the appropriations bill.
In two slaps at NPS, the committee and Lewis also provided only $1 for the park to operate the preserve, and an inadequate $100,000 was allocated to the Park Service to develop a management plan.
''We're operating on funds reprogrammed from other sources until all this sorts itself out,'' says Marvin Jensen, superintendent of the Mojave Preserve.
As the largest federal land-protection measure ever enacted, the Desert Protection Act also expanded and designated Death Valley and Joshua Tree Monument as new national parks covering some 3.5 million acres. Another 4 million acres were designated as wilderness on BLM lands.
The BLM is charged with providing multiple use of the land, for activities such as hunting, off-road vehicles, mining, and camping. The Mojave was designated a preserve, not a national park, so multiple use was assured even though reduced.
Conversely, the long-standing National Park mandate is to monitor and protect the ebb and flow of nature in a park with primarily a ''hands off'' policy on the land and its wildlife.
''Lots of interagency cooperation was under way,'' says Jay Watson, California/Nevada regional director for The Wilderness Society.
''This was to be a preserve for the next century with a cooperatively managed ecosystem,'' he says. ''Support was building. The largest rancher in the area had endorsed the preserve. So had the chambers of commerce in Barstow and Baker. Then Lewis worked behind closed doors to undermine the preserve.''
Until the Joint Appropriations Committee of Congress decides on a budget, the preserve is in a holding pattern, but open to the public with new park restrictions.
''Obviously there will be some closings, some changes,'' says Ed Rothfuss, the former superintendent of Death Valley National Park. ''But there are hundreds of miles of roads and trails through this magnificent Mojave area,'' he adds. ''Some people will never say die, but as people work together they will see the benefits of having park management.''
As for the Bighorn sheep, Mr. Jensen says their mountain home is now designated a wilderness area. ''To approve flying and landing in there, we needed to do an environmental assessment and public review as stated in the Wilderness Act of 1964,'' he says of the first request in mid-May to fly in, ''and we didn't have time to do that before they were going to start the project. They made no mention of monitoring the [water tanks] at all. The project was specifically for collaring sheep.''
Because the ''mortality beep'' from the sheep didn't come until late August, Jensen says, ''it seems to us to be a very far stretch to make the connection [that the Park Service] is responsible.''
Glenn Sudmeier, a director of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep in Los Angeles, says his organization had regularly flown into the area when it was under BLM jurisdiction.
'THE park was standing by the new policies for the preserve,'' he says. ''And I can't blame them for that. But when we fly these ranges we always survey the water sources. Had we been able to do that we would have discovered that [the sheep] were probably already dying at that point.''
Historically, park wildlife policy leans toward mobilized action only when extinction of a wildlife species is threatened, or in some cases to curtail an introduced species. Otherwise, letting nature take its course is appropriate, say park officials. Bighorn sheep are not endangered or threatened, but conservationists and hunters believe their habitat is being increasingly threatened.
''The ecosystem is not intact enough for [Bighorn] to act on their own and prosper,'' Mr. Sudmeier says. ''We've manipulated [the ecosystem] so much to man's advantage; we have stolen the animals' space, food, and water over the last century.''
To a great degree this same argument is applied by environmentalists to protect the fragile desert from man. Population pressures on the fragile desert lands led to the Desert Protection Act.
The desolate beauty of Mojave Preserve boils in the summer. Winter brings 80-degree days and scattered rains. The land is a mixture of tawny flatlands, ancient Joshua trees, and craggy mountains spreading over huge distances. Cima Dome is here, a perfectly rounded 75-mile square dome of rock covered by a dense forest of Joshua trees.
Even Lewis agrees that near Victorville, dirt bikes and off-road vehicles have been used ''in a fashion that is in violation of the law.'' But he and long-time residents of the area insist the Park Service is too restrictive. ''Hunting and grazing in the preserve area have been common for generations without doing serious harm to anyone,'' Lewis says. Park officials at the preserve say they have already issued permits for grazing and mining, as well as a work-cooperative agreement with right-of-way companies like Southern California Gas and Southern California Edison.
''These [arrangements] don't present problems, from our perspective,'' Jensen says. ''And even if the BLM takes over, it would have to manage the preserve according to the Desert Protection Act because legislation on funding does not change any provision of the act. The language is very specific.''