Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Sheep Count Cancelled

Hiker Dies on Palm Canyon Trail


Last updated 7/13/2021 at 2:22pm

While the death of a volunteer bighorn sheep counter on June 19 was tragic, the event has forced cancellation of the 50th annual bighorn sheep count and prompted state park officials to close several popular hiking destinations to all entry.

The San Diego County Coroner has identified the hiker who died as Donald White, 68, a resident of Culver City.

White had gone into Palm Canyon to cache water before the annual bighorn sheep count that was scheduled for July 1 to 4.

According to sources who have asked to remain anonymous, White and a group of three others started out at 4:30 a.m., each carrying about 50 pounds of water. Two members of the party needed to be back at 9 a.m. in time to attend an orientation for volunteers participating in the count. Those two cached their water at the second grove and safely returned, while White and Tony Wilson from Fullerton continued to the third and fourth palm groves.

As they returned, both White and Wilson began to suffer from the intense midday heat, officially recorded at 117 degrees, but likely higher in the confines of the canyon.

According to the coroner’s report, another hiker passing by came upon the distressed hikers and called 911. White died on the trail, even after heroic attempts by Borrego firefighters and park rangers to administer CPR. Wilson and one firefighter who also suffered from the heat while trying to administer CPR had to be transported by helicopter to Palomar Hospital, but were released later that day.

Presumably in reaction to the death, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park issued the following announcement on June 24: “Due to extreme heat, Hellhole Canyon, the Slot and Borrego Palm Canyon will be closed until further notice.”

The Colorado Desert District of California State Parks issued the following statement: “In light of heat-related tragedies which occurred over the last few weeks and the forecast of extreme heat warnings for the coming week, California State Parks has made the decision to cancel the Anza Borrego Citizen Science Bighorn Sheep Count this year.”

“California State Parks has also initiated a review of the Anza Borrego Citizen Science Bighorn Sheep Program and training protocols in an effort to enhance safety measures for both employees and volunteers. The goal of the review is to provide an improved program with additional tools to maintain a safe environment for all. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you as we make adjustments for the future, as we know many look forward to this event each year.”

“While California State Parks appreciates the citizen science surveys, it should be noted this data set is only one piece of the overall bighorn sheep recovery plan. As the lead agency, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife provides scientific data collection including GPS monitoring of herds, radio collar tracking of ewes, field and wildlife camera counts and observations, as well as, aerial surveys which are the basis for the health of the Anza Borrego Desert Bighorn Sheep population.”

While many understand the cancellation of this year’s milestone sheep count, others are disappointed, pointing out that in the 50-year history there have been no serious injuries or heat-related incidents.

Additionally, the annual bighorn census has provided valuable information to wildlife managers, thanks to the thousands of hours of observations provided by dedicated volunteers.

Population trends, lamb births, potential disease and habitat conditions are all monitored and reported from information gathered during the count.

The annual count has always been conducted near the 4th of July, since this is often a time of extreme heat and that works to benefit the volunteer sheep counters since this encourages the sheep to make more frequent visits to the few available sources of water.

Typically, about 80 volunteers participate in the count at about 20 locations. Some of those locations are wilderness destinations, requiring participants to hike in and spend the entire time at the location. Others are close enough that counters can hike in early each morning and exit in the evenings.

Former state park superintendent Mark Jorgensen, who coordinated counts and now works as a volunteer, is unhappy with the decision to cancel the count.

“We’ve had a good safety record over the years with only a broken ankle, a separated shoulder and two or three minor heat exhaustion cases. We’ve been lucky and have always stressed human safety over counting sheep for the volunteers,” Jorgensen said. “I’m sorry we’ll miss having the 50th. Maybe it’s the end of a fine tradition, the longest continuous citizen science bighorn census in America.”

Volunteers Fred and Kathy Wollman from Valley Center expressed disappointment at cancellation of the sheep count. This would have been Fred’s third count and the first for Katy.

“It a tragedy what happened, but it’s sad that after 50 years without any significant problems that such an important event would be cancelled,” Fred Wollman said. Callie Mack, a volunteer who has been doing the sheep counts since 1985 called the cancellation an overreaction.

“First of all, shutting down the count was a total overreaction. To say that we’re pissed is a major understatement,” Mack said. “Secondly, the counters have been treated with complete disrespect on this. We’ve just been blown off. We have heard nothing since Mike Puzzo (Count Coordinator) told the counters that the count was cancelled.”

Mack was critical of the action saying it has “created a lot of bad feeling towards this park’s current management.”

“They display little regard for science, common sense and the volunteers who’ve put time, effort and money into this. We feel like we’ve all been punished because one guy either failed to take proper precautions or had a medical event outside of the actual count,” she said.

Mack went on to point out that there are several heat-related deaths in ABDSP each summer.

“It’s sad, of course, but most involve lack of preparation, water or fitness. Some are tourists or hikers, some are migrants, however, this particular death shouldn’t have necessitated the shutdown of the sheep count. It appears to have been a panicked, knee-jerk reaction by state parks,” she said.

Mack’s husband Phil Roullard, another veteran of summer sheep counts, contacted the National Park Service in Death Valley and was told they do not close trails or cancel activities when a hiker dies due to heat or accident.

Mack said they were prepared to continue with the annual count.

“There was absolutely no need for this draconian action. Neither was there any need to completely close Hellhole Canyon and Palm Canyon trails for the foreseeable future,” she said.

The economic impacts on Borrego Springs were also a concern, since there are few visitors during peak summer months.

“I’d bet 70-plus people spending money in Borrego would have been welcome, but several people have canceled their sheep-count-related reservations, and we have reduced ours by a couple of nights. But The park’s management hasn’t even considered the effect on the town,” Mack said.

But the biggest concern is the data that will not be collected that is important to manage and protect bighorn sheep.

“The Sheep Count is important for gathering sheep data up-close that can’t be seen from a copter. It’s very important to help the park decide how to protect the sheep as climate change takes off. The Sheep Count has a long history of safety that shouldn’t be marred by one outside-the-event death, however unfortunate,” Mack said.

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