Holl goes from monitoring bighorn sheep to watching his health

Folsom biologist honored for his work is now battling a malignant brain tumor
By: Eileen Wilson Telegraph correspondent
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Steve Holl has been counting sheep for years. Not the sweet, white and fluffy kind, but the compact, muscular and majestic kind. Holl isn’t an insomniac. He’s a biologist who has spent the last 30 plus years counting, following, baiting and befriending sheep, all in the interest of maintaining California’s little-known herds. Holl, a Folsom resident for 22 years, enjoys suburban living with his wife of 36 years, Mary. But he hasn’t always been surrounded by creature comforts. The first year of the Holls’ marriage was spent in a tent in the Sierra — him studying deer, her studying vegetation, as employees of California’s Department of Fish and Game. And now, he’s embarking on a new journey — fighting for his life against a malignant brain tumor. Steve has an adventurous streak that his wife didn’t quite understand, at first. “We were both living in dorms at UC Davis. Steve lived above me and was practicing mountain climbing by dangling from a rope outside my window one day. I thought, ‘He’s really cute, but gosh, he’s stupid,” she said. After the deer study, Steve embarked on another study for Fish and Wildlife. Bighorn sheep would define his career as a biologist. Fewer than 100 people in the world share Steve’s specialty — which recently earned him the Bicket-Landells Achievement Award and the Above and Beyond Award from the California Foundation for Wild Sheep. Few people realize that bighorn sheep herds are alive and well in California. When Fish and Wildlife hired Steve to survey animals in Southern California, specifically the San Gabriel Mountains, the once large herd of over 700 had dwindled to fewer that 150. Steve established survey protocols that are still in use today, and developed a restoration plan that has bumped the numbers back up to around 300. “What’s so interesting is that the San Gabriel Mountains sit right above 14 million people who, for the most part, have no idea what’s going on up there,” Steve said. Steve explained that when the primary food source for mountain lions (mule deer) declines, the lions look for an alternate food source, which is often bighorn sheep. Watching and counting sheep isn’t always easy. “I try to understand how sheep are distributed in the mountains; their population dynamics. I’ve described how their population has changed over 30 years,” Steve said. “Sometimes we trap them to move to different locations to expand the herd. We flew them, blindfolded, to calm them down,” he recalled. Fish and Wildlife’s goal was to grow the herd, which is only possible if humans understand optimal conditions for the sheeps’ increase. “Fires are important to the herd,” Steve explained. “When the fires come, they leave behind highly nutritious growth, resulting in increased production of lambs.” In addition to his work for Fish and Wildlife, Steve runs his own environmental consulting firm and has written or contributed to a dozen publications. “Books and papers that are buried in university stacks, that most people will never read,” Steve said. But Steve is about to embark on his most arduous scientific study to date — an experiment that is so important, his very life hangs in the balance. Ten months ago, Steve was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Two brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation have left Steve with a poor prognosis. “This is what Ted Kennedy died from,” Steve said. But you can’t separate the biologist from the man. A science guy at heart, Steve’s journey has landed him in a clinical trial at UCSF for brain tumors. “They took a part of the tumor and created a vaccine to re-inject,” Steve said. “If this works, it will make my body generate antibodies.” The doctors have removed as much of the tumor as they are able; the remaining malignant cells are too close to Steve’s motor cortex to risk removal. “About 90 percent of the tumor remains,” Steve said. The prognosis is only about 18 months from diagnosis, without the clinical trial. A picture of calm in his khakis and casual chambray button up, he is earnest as well. “I’m focusing on my brain tumor — I really want to beat this,” he said. Steve has much to live for. He has twin daughters who celebrated turning 30 by joining their dad for dinner, grandkids and an upcoming wedding for one of the girls.