Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Sheep Count brings out Citizen Scientists


Last updated 7/6/2015 at 3pm

Pre-census Sheep Count photo from John Peterson and Marty Key on the trail to set up camp at 1st Grove Palm Canyon.

The federal and state governments can't do it all. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California State Department of Fish and Game are all stretched thin in both money and personnel. Therefore, scientists and naturalists working inside and out of those agencies have come to rely upon everyday citizen volunteers to help provide critical census data on the natural world. A good example is the annual mid-summer census of Bighorn Sheep populations in the Anza Borrego Desert mountain region.

Over the July 4th weekend, more than seventy "I SEE EWE" sheep count volunteers hailing not only from Borrego Springs but also from around the region, the state, and the country, will join in teams of four to count sheep in the 44th annual event. For three days. Using binoculars at about 100 yards from known watering holes. Under crude tarp/cloth shelters to help beat the usually 100-degree plus temperatures. And where continual silence and stillness on the part of volunteer census takers is the rule.

Park Ranger Steve Bier and naturalist Mark Jorgensen provided an orientation to the volunteers at the park headquarters. It included a slide presentation on how to distinguish between ram and ewe, even when the animals are not posing for easy ID or when partially hidden by rocks or trees or even each other. Yearlings and lambs are also included in the census.

The hurdle for sheep counters is that even when you see one, it's not as easy as you might think to properly identify it. And to not count the same animal twice thinking it's a different one. Census takers must record a variety of physical characteristics for each individual spotted – tracking collars and ear tags, relative size, facial and other distinguishing features, horn size and shape, and especially the presence or absence of the male sex organ – to provide accurate daily data for census-taking purposes.

Desert Bighorn sheep numbered in the 1-2 million range back in the 1800s; today there are about 31,000 left spanning a range from Mexico to central California. Last year, the Anza-Borrego portion of the count of rams, ewes, yearlings and lambs was 265 from nineteen locations. The "First Grove Palm Canyon" site counted forty; the "Middle Spring-Tub Cyn" site counted forty-four. And seven sites counted none at all. For those who labored three days under a hot sun, not seeing a single sheep, and missed out on 4th of July celebrations by the pool back home, they can take solace in knowing their 'data' was valuable, too. Scientists and policy-makers want to know both where the sheep are, and also where they aren't.

One of the big issues taken into account for the census is volunteer safety. If one of the four census teams falls ill or is injured, a second stays behind and the other two go for help. The loss of even one member of the four-person team means the site is shut down. Whatever data has been accumulated for the site up to that point will be added to the totals.

Good spotting to all the volunteers. Stay safe and hydrated. The Sun will do a follow-up on the census results in the July 18th issue. Check the Sun's website over the July 4th weekend for census taker reports and photos at

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