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Sheep Counting In Anza-Borrego Doesn't Put Volunteers To Sleep

A lamb in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.
Phillip Roullard
A lamb in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.
Sheep Counting In Anza-Borrego Doesn't Put Volunteers To Sleep
Sheep Counting In Anza-Borrego Doesn't Put Volunteers To Sleep
Every summer a rare sight comes to the desert outside San Diego: endangered bighorn sheep gather at watering holes. And every summer, a group of volunteers count them.

It’s the middle of the day in the desert and the temperature is approaching 120 degrees with humidity. It feels exactly like a sauna.

The campground at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park about 80 miles east of San Diego is, not surprisingly, very empty. The restrooms are locked and the visitors center is closed.

But approach one of the buildings, and it sounds like a party is going on.

A group of about 50 volunteers is gathered for the bighorn sheep count, which has been held every Fourth of July weekend since 1970.

Ranger Steve Bier, the sheep count coordinator, checked them in.

"Cougar canyon is here," he said, reading the sheep count locations and assigning volunteers from a large list on a bulletin board. "Rattlesnake is … no, Jones. Waiting on Sefsik."

They will be dispatched to watering holes throughout the desert and will spend the next three days, 10 hours a day, scanning the mountains with binoculars to count sheep.

Bighorn sheep are endangered, and the count helps the California Department of Fish and Wildlife keep track of their population. Bier said the census has to be done in the hottest time of the year because that's when the sheep gather at watering holes.

"At one point, in the 1990s, our population was down to below 280 animals," he said. That's because sheep were hit by cars or killed by disease spread by livestock. Conservation efforts have allowed the population to rebound to about 1,000.

The groups of volunteers take detailed notes on the sheep they see. Some have ear tags or radio collars. The volunteers can distinguish others by specific traits — a scar or a chipped horn. Then they compare their notes to get a total count. Whichever group of volunteers sees a sheep first gets credit for it.

For example, Bier said, if one group saw a sheep at 9 a.m., but another saw the same sheep at 7 a.m., "obviously the group at 7 a.m. gets the credit for it."

"The other group, while they had a great time seeing those animals, don't get official credit for it," he said.

Bier said volunteers can get competitive.

"We get all sorts of stories on Sunday when people come in here, and they want to fight to get credit on the official document. And you've had some counters who have left here and never spoken to each other again," he said.

A ewe wearing a radio collar in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.
Phillip Roullard
A ewe wearing a radio collar in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.

One of the volunteers, Phillip Roullard of San Diego, said he doesn't care who counts the most sheep. He found out about the count years ago by talking to someone while on jury duty and has since recruited his wife, Callie Mack.

At 5 on the first morning of the count, the couple hiked the 2½ miles to their designated spot, called Lower Hellhole Canyon.

"People die in this desert almost every summer from severe dehydration and heat stroke," Mack read from a sign at the start of the trail. "Well, that’s cheerful."

They settled in with two other friends to watch the mountains. When they heard rocks falling, they leapt into action.

"Here comes another one," their friend Tracey Lawrence cried.

2016 Bighorn Sheep Count Results
The results of the 2016 bighorn sheep count in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

"There’s two!" Roullard said. "They’re moving fast."

By Sunday afternoon, they had spotted 13 sheep — some that passed by within 25 feet. Then they gathered with the other groups to debrief.

The counters saw 296 sheep in total — slightly up from the past two years.

Roullard said doing the count is addicting. It involves "being in a place where there isn't anybody when it's that hot, because no one in their right minds except us would go up there," he said.

Another volunteer, Becky Rusk of San Diego, has been doing the count for 36 years.

"And you still get that thrill when you see one at the top of the ridge and he just pokes over," she said. "Everyone goes into high alert, and out come the binoculars and the telescopes. And if you see one an hour later it's still exciting."

In other words, the opposite of what you think happens when you’re counting sheep.

A ram in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.
Phillip Roullard
A ram in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, July 2016.