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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Annual Bighorn Sheep Count In Anza-Borrego Canceled, Ending 50-Year Tradition

 July 19, 2021 at 10:21 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The heat waves that have rippled across the Western us this summer are causing problems for wildlife researchers in the desert, outside San Diego and annual big horn sheep count is canceled. KPBS reporter Claire Trag as says the decision was made after a volunteer died. Speaker 2: 00:20 It was supposed to be the 50th anniversary of a citizen scientists tradition every year for three days in early July, volunteers hike into the desert, sit in the shade all day and count sheep. Speaker 3: 00:32 Okay, I've got the mail. The mail is going down, down, down, down to water rate. Speaker 2: 00:36 That's a video made at last year's count. Volunteers like Kelly Mac say their efforts help keep tabs on the peninsula, big horn sheep, which are endangered. Speaker 4: 00:47 You hike up there and you're all hot and sweaty and you're carrying some gear and you're saying to each other, oh, why do we do this every year? It's this is just miserable. Speaker 2: 00:57 Mac has been going to the count for 35 years and says it's worth it. Speaker 4: 01:02 But then all of a sudden you start seeing sheep coming down to, to get a drink or maybe coming into your account site and everything changes. You're just energized. It's like the sun coming up, Speaker 2: 01:14 Not this year, right before the scheduled count, a volunteer was out in the 116 degree heat stashing water for sheep counters to use. He died of heat stroke. The state parks department decided to cancel the count. Volunteers like Mac were not happy. Speaker 4: 01:33 Honestly, we felt like we'd been slapped hard in the face by state parks. They might've made some modifications. They could have gathered us all together beforehand and said, look, we don't want this to happen again. Be extra cautious. Speaker 2: 01:46 The California state parks department wouldn't do an interview about the decision, but here's part of a prerecorded statement. Spokesman. Jorge Moreno sent Speaker 3: 01:55 Well, California state parks. I appreciate the citizen science surveys. It should be noted that the data set is only one piece of the overall big horn sheep recovery. He Speaker 2: 02:03 Says the extreme heat makes the count, just not worth it. And there are other ways to count sheep, including using helicopters, cameras, and GPS collars. But researchers at Oregon state university say a combination of all methods, including first-hand observation is best. Speaker 5: 02:23 And I'm speaking quietly because we're watching a group of big horn sheep there probably not four or 500 yards. Professor Speaker 2: 02:32 Clinton, Epps monitors, big horn sheep populations by checking for parasites in their droppings. Speaker 5: 02:38 Okay. We've been here about 20 minutes and she'd our collard. You did just drop pellet. So we're going to go collect the samples and then move on and try to find a different group sheep. Speaker 2: 02:49 He says an annual census done in the same way. Every year is also important. Speaker 5: 02:55 That's a long data set. We don't have many long datasets in this business Speaker 2: 03:00 Like that. And that dataset helps researchers like him know whether conservation efforts are working. He says cameras and colors also help. As long as you have someone to review all the footage. Speaker 5: 03:12 Yeah. It's expensive and it's hard. And you know, it's one thing to put out cameras. It's another to sit there and review hundreds, maybe thousands of hours worth of videos or, you know, thousands of gigabytes for Speaker 2: 03:24 Yeah. App says in-person counting can also spot issues like disease, but that won't be happening this year. The state parks department says they'll work on safety plans. So the count may return in the future. If it doesn't volunteer, Kelly Mack says more will be lost than just a sheep census. Does. It makes Speaker 4: 03:45 More ordinary citizens aware of why for needs protection. Speaker 2: 03:52 At last count, there were less than 800 Peninsular, big horn sheep, Clare Trek, Asser KPBS news. Speaker 1: 04:01 Joining me is mark Jorgenson, former superintendent of Anza, Borrego, desert, state park, and mark. Welcome to the program. Speaker 6: 04:09 Thank you very much. Speaker 1: 04:11 And we just heard that dangerous weather conditions forced the cancellation of this year. Civilian volunteer count of big horn sheep and Anza Borrego. One volunteer actually tragically died from heat stroke. Do we know if animals are dying as well because of the heat? Speaker 6: 04:29 We do know that last September four big horn were found near one of our water rain collection devices that had gone dry. Speaker 1: 04:39 Any other source of water for these big horn sheep, if these water collectors dry up, is there any way of getting them any water? Speaker 6: 04:48 That's what we're hoping to do, uh, fairly soon is to actually fly some water in on an emergency basis by helicopter to two of the so-called guzzlers. Each of them stores 5,000 gallons of water. And we feel that if we can get about 2000 gallons into each of them, that that'll probably get the big horn through the summer or about 150 sheep altogether in that mountain complex. And we probably have about 30 or 40 sheep that are in this, uh, whale peak subpopulation. And they, they really have no alternate sources. So that is our top priority. We, we hope to put funding together and find a helicopter that is able to lift water in much like a firefighting, uh, helicopter would, would do to deliver water to a fire. What about Speaker 1: 05:40 The vegetation that the sheep eat is that still available in this drought? Speaker 6: 05:45 The vegetation is plentiful, but as you can imagine with only two inches of rain last winter, there was not a lot of good Greenup in the spring time, which would normally, um, you know, put a lot of good nutrition on and also hold some level of moisture for the big horn. Once the air temperature reaches up in the upper nineties and goes over a hundred, the big horn, uh, will need free water of some sort. During the, during the week, they can go several days without a drink of water. And during the winter, they can go six or seven months without a drink, uh, obtaining the moisture they need from the vegetation as you pointed out. But during hot times, and during droughts at vegetation is not able to just sustain them all on its own. So we, we do have to have natural water sources or, or human made water, no Speaker 1: 06:41 Other wildlife in the area must also be affected by this heat and the lack of water. What can you tell us about that? Speaker 6: 06:49 Well, many things like, like species of birds often migrate through and they're gone during the summer, a lot of desert animals avoid the HEA by living underground or in caves during the day and being nocturnal, um, animals like foxes, coyotes, jackrabbits, cottontails, uh, their numbers will fluctuate greatly during hard times. So we will see a decline in things like rabbits and coyotes and Bobcats as the food sources, uh, declined. So will those populations they're tied very closely together. So large mammals like mule deer, big horn sheep can move up and down in elevation and along mountain ranges, but can in this kind of country there, they're unable to migrate long distances. Like they might up in the Rocky mountains, mountain lions. We know from having radio telemetry and satellite collars on them, many of the mountain lions actually moved from the desert back into the Quia MCAS and Palomar mountain area for the summer. And then they'll come back down into the desert during the winter, besides Speaker 1: 08:03 The numbers of big horn sheep, what kind of information will be lost because the count won't be taking place this year, Speaker 6: 08:11 We'll end the big picture when we lose one or two years of data. It's, uh, it's not a devastating loss since we have 49 years of consistent data, we're able to analyze that. Uh, so one or two years taken out of the context of the entire cow is not, uh, a drastic loss, but what it does is, um, we have a group of people who are so dedicated, many of them have volunteered for this citizen science census 30 to four years. And so you, you know, I think we all lost a lot in, in our normal lives due to COVID and this being the 50th anniversary of the big orange sheep count, there were a lot of people really looking forward to this and to celebrating the 50th anniversary and making it a special event. Uh, I think our fear is that working within the state framework of bureaucracy, uh, we have suspicions that maybe the state of California and Anza Borrego desert state park will not be willing to accept the, the liability of putting 60 or 80 volunteers out in the desert. On the 4th of July weekend in the future, they have made a statement that they, they plan on making it better and safer, and they don't plan on canceling it in the future. And I hope that is the case. Speaker 1: 09:44 I've been speaking with mark Jorgensen, former superintendent of Anza, Borrego, desert, state park, mark. Thank you very much for your information. Speaker 6: 09:53 Thank you for your interest in big horn sheep. I appreciate it.

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The heatwaves that have rippled across the Western United States this summer are causing problems for wildlife researchers. In the desert outside San Diego, an annual bighorn sheep count was cancelled after a volunteer died of heatstroke.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments