State Park Volunteers Conduct Annual Bighorn Sheep Count
Last updated 7/18/2023 at 11:51am
At a time when soaring summer temperatures will keep most people away from the desert, dedicated state park volunteers will soon be trekking into remote locations to conduct the annual Anza-Borrego Desert Bighorn Sheep Count.
State Park Senior Environmental Scientist Danny McCamish has announced the 51st annual census will begin July 6 and end on July 9.
Several dozen volunteers will spend some of the hottest summer days at isolated waterholes where sheep come to drink.
Their goal is to record sheep numbers, habitat conditions and be alert to anything that might signal health concerns affecting the sheep.
This will be the second year for the full count that was scaled back during COVID and a cancellation in 2021 after the tragic death of a sheep counter during a hike to cache water two weeks prior to the event.
While not actually part of the count, the death underscored how challenging the sheep count can be, with daytime temperatures well into triple digits.
Historically, the count has drawn as many as 80 participants who monitor 20 locations where there may be water to attract the majestic bighorn. While some of the locations are relatively close to roads, some require volunteers to hike as much as 1.5 miles.
Last year, the number of counters dwindled to 30, with some calling new regulations and requirements for volunteers such as fingerprinting and background checks unreasonable.
McCamish said all volunteers will work in teams and he stressed the Park's focus on safety.
To ensure the safety of volunteers, Anza-Borrego Desert Natural Resources and Safety Staff will be hosting two informational training sessions. The first will focus on desert safety, and the second session will provide training to help volunteers determine the sex and age of sheep observed.
The event will begin with volunteers checking in at the Steele Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in the afternoon of July 6. The next two days, teams will deploy to their count locations for a full day in the field and the count will end on July 9 with teams returning by noon to submit observation data and field reports.
Typically, counters are in the field during some of the hottest summer days, and that's on purpose. As summer heat dries up waterholes, sheep will be drawn to the few places where they can still get a drink.
Some of those locations can be reached by vehicle or short hikes, allowing participants to return to lodging each night, while other locations are more remote, requiring lengthy hikes and counters spending the entire time in the field.
Sheep counters set up a distance away from the water source with a clear view that will allow them to observe bighorn activity in the area without disturbing the animals.
The annual wildlife census has shown that sheep numbers have rebounded in the park since the program began. Efforts to install remote water sources known as guzzlers has also helped with improved sheep numbers.
Guzzlers are designed to trap rainwater that is stored in large tanks with a trough that allows wildlife to drink.
In 2019, the last year of a complete count, there were 273 sheep recorded, compared to 225 in 2018. The highest number recorded was 356 in 2009.
Sheep populations are currently estimated at between 900 and 1,000 throughout their range that extends along a narrow band of the western desert edge from Mexico to San Jacinto in Riverside County.
Wildlife professionals are hopeful that more abundant food sources created by the heavy rainfall this year might improve sheep numbers.
The range of desert bighorn sheep extends from Mexico to the San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County, with most of the animals found in a narrow habitat in the rugged mountains along the western edges of the desert.
Current population numbers are estimated at between 900 and 1,000 throughout their range.