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California mammoth snowstorms take toll on Sierra wildlife

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — California's mammoth snow drifts, a welcome sight following five years of harsh drought, have killed off dozens of endangered bighorn sheep, lengthened hibernation for bears and should cause some hikers to think twice before seeking high Sierra adventures, officials say.

Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program, heads out Monday for the final manual measurement of the wet season, which is expected to set a record.

"We've gone from flat-out dry conditions to just an overabundance of moisture," said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. "It shows the incredible variation of California's weather."

Nearly twice as much snow as normal blankets the 400-mile (644-kilometer) Sierra Nevada, even up from April 1, the beginning of spring when it typically starts melting off. It's a stark contrast to two years ago at the peak of drought when barely any measureable snow remained, state water managers say.

Officials are seeing the broad effects of this year's monster snowdrifts.

The iconic Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, which butt their coiled horns on rocky cliffs, have not fared well. During the drought, they migrated to lush mountain peaks of the southeastern Sierra for food.

When harsh snowstorms came, more than 100 of the 600 protected animals may have perished, he said.

"They've triggered some avalanches," said Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Others go caught in areas with no natural food."

The Sierra snowmelt crashes downhill during warm months into reservoirs and canals, which supply one-third of the water used by residents of the country's most populous state. It also irrigates crops in the nation's most productive farming state.

The snowdrifts have kept many bears in the remote wilderness tucked in their dens one month longer than normal because food is still scarce, Holley said.

People venturing into nature will find that rain and snow damaged some mountain roads leading to prized campgrounds, which may not be repaired until next year, officials in the Stanislaus National Forest reported.

Rangers at Yosemite National Park, which draws millions of visitors a year, warn of danger from icy-cold, swift-flowing rivers and waterfalls. Forecasters warned Sunday that they expect the Merced river within the park to hit flood stage at midweek, as warm weather melts the snow upstream.

Adventurers setting out with backpacks into the Sierra wilderness should be prepared for the snow to hang around longer into the season, said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, which leads thousands of backpackers a year into the wilderness, including the Sierra Nevada.

Inexperienced hikers should join those who are more seasoned, or seek an escape into coastal mountains that aren't covered in snow, she said.

"Not only is it technically difficult, it is pretty uncomfortable," Phillips said. "If you've never done it before, go with somebody who has."

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