Volunteers Brave Extremes to Count Bighorn Sheep in the Desert

Volunteer sheep counter Gloria Kendall uses a scope to look for identifying marks on three rams about a half-mile away in Anza-Borrego's Coyote Canyon. (Susan Valot/KQED)

The rising sun cast a golden glow upon the rocky mountains that rise above Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

We bounced along in a four-wheel drive SUV down Coyote Canyon Road, bumping over rocks and, at one point, trying to figure out what winter rains did with the dirt road. The SUV was stuffed with volunteer sheep counters and what they need to survive extreme heat: shade structures, food and loads of water.

We made our way up to “second crossing.” This is where Coyote Creek crosses the road for the second time. The first crossing was bone-dry. Second crossing is where we would camp out for 2½ days to count sheep for the 47th year of the Anza-Borrego Bighorn Sheep Count, which attracted counters from as far as Arizona and Oregon and from as near as San Diego and Los Angeles.

The second crossing of Coyote Creek is one of the watering holes for peninsular bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Shortly beyond this, a gate closes the area during the summer so bighorn sheep are not bothered as they try to seek out water in extreme heat. (Susan Valot/KQED)

This road up a canyon wash is pretty much the same route explorer Juan Bautista de Anza took on his trek from Mexico to establish the first non-native settlement at San Francisco Bay. Somewhere out here is a marker commemorating that.

But on this adventure, we weren't here to look for a marker. We were here to look for peninsular bighorn sheep, also known as Nelson bighorn sheep, as extreme heat forces them down to known watering holes. The movement allows volunteers to see the sheep and count them, determining how many lambs have survived since they were born, and scope out the health of the herd.

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Through other programs, some sheep are tagged. Others wear radio collars. It all contributes to knowledge about the subspecies that was declared endangered in 1998 after its local population dropped to 280 sheep.

At one point, former park superintendent Mark Jorgensen, one of this year’s volunteer count organizers, said developers had 21 golf courses planned inside bighorn sheep habitat in nearby Coachella Valley. The combination of development, predation and disease was taking its toll. The endangered declaration stopped the proposed development.

Jorgensen estimated that some 900 sheep now live in the park, which stretches down to the Mexican border. He said they’ve seen bighorn sheep expanding back into their historic range, into canyons and ranges where they haven’t been seen in 20 or 30 years.

A desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
A desert bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. (Wikimedia Commons)

The count helps to keep tabs on the sheep in the summer, when sheep researchers are gone. Jorgensen said the annual event is the longest continuous volunteer survey of bighorn sheep anywhere in the country.

“It’s just one of the greatest examples of citizen science, especially when you consider the elements that these people are subjecting themselves to,” Jorgensen said.

It was already starting to heat up as we made our 25-minute drive down Coyote Canyon. We arrived at a sandy spot along the road, pulled over to the side and set up shade shelters.

Then we waited. And waited. And drank water. And waited. Tried to identify a nearby bird. And waited. Had a snack. And waited.

A hot desert wind toyed with the shade tarp as the temperature reached 109 degrees. The sand on the ground became super-heated to more than 150 degrees, radiating heat upward. It was like sitting in an oven. The volunteers used binoculars and scopes to scan the rocky hillside for bighorn sheep.

The sand-colored animals with horns that look like something out of “Star Wars” are stealthy. In this landscape, they look like rocks. Volunteer Gloria Kendall, who works at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, said you have to scan for their white butts or a glimpse of their curved horns.

“Sometimes, when I finally spot 'em, I go, ‘How long have they been standing up on that hillside watching me?’ " she said. “They could have been there for hours. But if they're holding still and they're laying down, in the shade of a big boulder, you probably wouldn't even notice 'em.”

As the day wore on, Kendall joked that she was snacking on munchies and salted cucumbers just to stay awake. The desert heat zaps your energy.

And it can take more than that. On average, more than a dozen people die in this park each year from heat stroke and lack of water. This includes migrants, who make their way illegally across the border from Mexico and into the unforgiving Colorado Desert. Over the Fourth of July weekend count, three volunteers dealt with heat exhaustion.

Kendall said it is worth suffering in the heat to get a glimpse of the endangered bighorn.

Volunteer Michele Gaffney of Escondido scans the horizon for endangered peninsular bighorn sheep in Anza-Borrego's Coyote Canyon. Gaffney has been volunteering for the annual bighorn sheep count for about 20 years. (Susan Valot/KQED)

“This is an endangered species right in our own backyard, an hour and 45 minutes away from my house, that I can come and have a chance of seeing and helping add to the knowledge for the state park,” Kendall said.

So far, she said she has never been “skunked,” meaning she has seen at least one bighorn sheep at each of the 20 or so counts she’s come out to. That even includes the year a dust devil, sounding like a jet plane, came through their count site, snapping their shade structures and even pulling a camera off someone’s lap.

Retiree Phillip Roullard of San Diego has also had some adventures at the sheep count. At his first one in 1980, a sheep counter in a nearby canyon started a wildfire by following the Sierra Club protocol at the time and burning his toilet paper. Part of that count was canceled, including Roullard’s site, so firefighters could battle the fire.

But it’s not always that exciting. At a sheep count site at Borrego Palm Campground this year, Roullard called it tranquil.

“It's nice to be out in someplace where there is no noise. It's very quiet. You can hear lots of birds, quail,” Roullard said. “It's the adrenaline rush when you do see sheep, at last, and you want to see more after that. They're magnificent animals.”

Back at Coyote Creek second crossing, we were having no luck. But after about 7½ hours, fellow spotter Michele Gaffney noticed something in her binoculars. At first, she wasn’t sure. She sat for a little bit, staring quietly with her binoculars at a spot in the rocks about a half-mile away.

“I'm sitting here looking at him going, ‘It looks like a mass of horns,’ ” Gaffney said. “And I said, ‘That's weird.’ And I finally had to wait for one of them to move their head and I went, ‘OK, that's a sheep.’ ”

We finally saw our first bighorn sheep of the trip, as three rams almost magically appeared, scoping out their watering hole on Coyote Creek. But the sheep did not move. They looked. They waited.

The counters assumed that a group in a truck that had passed the count site earlier had stopped to play in the water. The sheep seemed hesitant. Hesitant, but hot, as they visibly panted in the heat.

The rams hung out for nearly an hour. We joked that they must be a bachelor party and “What happens in Borrego, stays in Borrego.” But then, the truck left the watering hole.

On the last day of the 47th Anza-Borrego Bighorn Sheep Count, volunteers at neighboring count sites compare notes to make sure they don't have any duplicate sheep counts. (Susan Valot/KQED)

“Fantastic,” Kendall exclaimed, until she noticed the sheep were not going toward the life-saving water. “Oh, the sheep are running! To the left! The sheep are running away from 'em.”

The three peninsular bighorn rams had not come back by an hour and a half later, when the count ended for the day. This year's volunteers counted 207 sheep. That is fewer than last year's 296, but one of the most popular watering holes dried up this year, and it's unclear where those sheep have gone.

Many of the volunteers said they would come back to count them again next year.

“Even if I fail, I really enjoy a good challenge,” volunteer Collette Perry of San Bernardino County said, as she sat at a count site that saw zero sheep this year. She was also wiped out by heat exhaustion the first day. “Even though this happened, that’s fine. Life goes on. I can’t wait to come back next year and do it again.”

Some volunteers at the final gathering to tally the total count joked that they've got an entire year to block out memories of the extreme heat, and remember how cool it is to spot an endangered desert bighorn sheep in California's largest state park.