Dances with Sheep: Counting Bighorn in the Desert
Travel along with Anne Zuparko as she spends three days in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
It’s high noon in early July in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Temperatures are soaring into the triple digits. And right now, Anne Zuparko is crouched beneath a large tarp, binoculars in hand, scanning the distant hills for a bighorn sheep.
Anne has put aside her laptop, her cubicle and her regular day job on the California marketing team to count sheep — an effort that helps direct conservation efforts to protect the sheep and their almost 400,000 acres of critical habitat along 100 miles of the peninsular ranges, spanning from north of Palm Springs to the Mexican border.
This 600,000-acre state park is named after the endangered bighorn sheep — borrego is Spanish for sheep. And for the past 40 years, an extremely dedicated group of desert-loving volunteers, as well as state park and Conservancy staff, have gathered in this punishing heat to count them all.
Why Count Sheep? And on the Hottest Days of the Year?
Bighorn sheep populations have been negatively affected by habitat fragmentation, diseases from feral cattle and predation by mountain lions. The annual census helps park staff make management decisions to overcome those threats.
“This state park’s bighorn census is the most accurate feedback on how effective the recovery efforts are for the endangered bighorn sheep,” says Dave Van Cleve, the Conservancy’s senior project manager for the region. “It’s a brutal job, counting sheep in this blistering heat, but it’s the most reliable method available.”
Park officials choose the hottest days of the year for the count knowing the bighorn will need to come to water every few days during this time, when watering holes shrink in size and number. Volunteers are stationed at watering holes throughout the park for three toasty days to tally the rams, thirsty ewes and their lambs.
“When I told my friends I was going to the desert in July to count bighorn sheep, their reactions were unanimous: You are crazy!” Zuparko laughed. “But from my point of view, passing up this opportunity would be crazier. How many people can say they’ve spent three days in the desert wilderness, watching and helping to protect the endangered bighorn sheep?”
The News Is Positive
The results of this year’s count — a total of 255 sheep were counted — make it the third highest count in the 40 years of the census, a good sign that the sheep are recovering. That said, the numbers were slightly down this year from last year’s 354.
Park ranger Steve Bier is not alarmed by the decrease and explains, “It wasn’t hot enough. It was only 110 degrees the first day, then it dropped to 102 and 103. Sheep don’t go to watering holes when it’s that cool. They won’t need to drink for days; 108–115 degrees is ideal.”
However, according to Bier, there was enough greenery this year and enough evidence that sheep had been eating that he feels very good about the numbers.
The Data at Work
These census results will help park officials determine the best strategies for keeping bighorn sheep populations healthy. For example, all the cattle were removed from the park based on research sparked by count findings, and palm and riparian oases were closed to off-road vehicles when a census showed that they were affecting the sheep population.
Today, with climate change threatening to alter the species’ habitat needs, park officials are looking to create continuous protected areas between the desert floor and higher elevations. This year’s census data could help determine which future higher-elevation land acquisitions could offer refuge for the bighorn.
The Conservancy is actively working to weave conservation lands into a connected network for wildlife like the bighorn sheep, mountain lions and other species that need large habitats. Recently the Conservancy helped the park acquire more than 4,000 additional acres of prime bighorn sheep territory and worked with California’s Fish and Game Department to acquire 7,400 acres adjacent to the park — key habitats that will contribute to a broader corridor for the park’s large mammals.
Over the 40 years of the count, sheep numbers have been steadily increasing. This is good news not only for bighorn, but for all of the park’s wildlife. The sheep are powerful indicators of the ecosystem’s health. If the sheep are healthy, the environment is healthy.