Home/Animals/Marine Corps’ Helping Bighorn Sheep in Anza-Borrego
Imagine a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter maneuvering through the rugged terrains of Anza-Borrego Desert, not for a military drill, but for a mission of compassion: saving the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.

Marine Corps’ Helping Bighorn Sheep in Anza-Borrego

Imagine a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter maneuvering through the rugged terrains of Anza-Borrego Desert, not for a military drill, but for a mission of compassion: saving the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.

Collaborative Effort for Environmental Sustenance

In a vital initiative, Marines from HMLAT-303, with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, joined forces with state and non-profit groups to replace aged water guzzlers in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This key operation aimed to replenish water sources for the drought-stricken Peninsular bighorn sheep, securing their access to water in the harsh desert conditions.

Aiding Endangered Species

Utilizing their UH-1Y Venom helicopters, the Marines embarked on a three-day mission to replace outdated water guzzlers – large water tanks that are essential for the survival of these sheep. This operation, which required precise flying and external lifting skills, was not only a testament to the Marines’ versatility but also a vital step in preserving a vulnerable species. 

Challenges in the Desert

The task was daunting. The rugged, unforgiving terrain of the Anza-Borrego Desert made the operation particularly challenging. It demanded the highest level of skill and precision from the pilots and crew, who used a 120-foot long-line for airlifting the water guzzlers – a significant deviation from their standard 15-foot pendant operations.


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)

Training with a Purpose

This operation wasn’t just about environmental conservation; it also served as an invaluable training opportunity for the Marines. The skills honed during this mission – from precision lifting to navigating challenging environments – are directly applicable to various military operations, demonstrating the dual benefit of such missions.

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Here Are Some Quick Facts

The Marine Corps, UH-1Y Venom helicopter and the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep in Anza-Borrego both represent unique aspects of their respective fields – aviation and wildlife. 

Marine Squadron HMLAT-303 Pilots

Marine Light Helicopter Attack Training Squadron 303 (HMLAT-303), known as the “Atlas,” is a United States Marine Corps helicopter squadron consisting of AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters.

    • HMLAT-303 is based at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton in California.

    • The squadron’s primary mission is to train newly designated Naval Aviators, conversion pilots, refresher pilots, and enlisted aircrew on the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom aircraft.

    • It is part of Marine Aircraft Group 39 (MAG-39) and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW).

    • The squadron provides standardized training to Marine Light Attack Helicopter (HMLA) squadrons.

    • HMLAT-303 is known for its high operational pace, conducting numerous training flights to maintain readiness.

    • They also support other units with training for forward air control, troop transport, and other specialized missions.

    • The squadron has a role in supporting conservation efforts, as seen in their operations in the Anza-Borrego Desert to aid in wildlife preservation.

    • HMLAT-303 has participated in various military operations and exercises, offering an opportunity for its pilots to gain practical experience.

    • The squadron’s history dates back to its establishment in 1982, and it has undergone various re-designations and changes in aircraft models over the years.

UH-1Y Venom Helicopter

    • Design and Upgrades: The UH-1Y Venom is a modernized version of the UH-1 design, featuring upgrades like a glass cockpit, improved avionics, safety modifications, and a modern forward-looking infrared system. Its engine power has also been significantly increased.

    • Production and Replacement: It began full rate production in 2008, replacing the UH-1Ns. U.S. domestic production of this variant continued until 2020.

    • Significant Upgrade: The UH-1Y is recognized as the most substantial upgrade to the battle-proven H-1 helicopter. It features a new four-bladed, all-composite, and ballistically tolerant rotor system.

    • Performance and Specifications: Manufactured by Bell Helicopter in the United States, the UH-1Y Venom has two General Electric T700-GE-401C Turboshaft engines, each delivering 1,800 horsepower. It can reach a maximum cruise speed of 170 knots (approximately 315 km/h).

    • Tactical Utility: The UH-1Y is known for its agility and readiness for various missions, including engaging threats, transporting personnel, and operating under challenging conditions.

Peninsular Bighorn Sheep in Anza-Borrego

    • Adaptation and Traits: The Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, known for their spiraled horns and muscular build, are highly adapted to desert environments. Their horns are essential for survival, used in mating rituals and as defense mechanisms.

    • Population and Conservation Status: There were less than 800 Peninsular Bighorn Sheep in the Anza-Borrego Desert, making them a species of majestic, endangered animals. This number was reported until 2020, with dedicated volunteers tracking their presence at watering holes.

    • Habitat Preferences: These sheep are typically found in dry, rocky low-elevation areas ranging between 300 and 3500 feet. They are prevalent in several areas of Anza-Borrego and the Santa Rosa mountains to the north.
    • Refuge and Population in the U.S.: Anza-Borrego serves as one of the last refuges for this subspecies. Out of the total population, only about 280 remain in the United States, with 200 finding refuge in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.