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Sheep Count: a Hobby for the Hardy : Volunteers Annually Brave Scorching Temperatures to Check Up on the Bighorn

May 26, 1991|BILL MANSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Manson is a free-lance writer in Coronado.

This is not for wimps. Picking spring flowers in the desert is one thing. Sitting in the desert during one of the hottest weekends of the year is quite another--especially if you are there just to count sheep.

Or, in our case last year, not to count sheep.

Each year for a few days around Independence Day--this year it's July 4-7--volunteers count sheep in the Anza-Borrego desert.

These aren't the cute sheep that help you sleep. These are the rare, endangered bighorn sheep that are counted annually by desert park rangers to see whether the population is rising or falling.

But for all we saw from our post last year, you'd think the sheep already were extinct. Not one single, solitary bighorn condescended to enter our valley to drink from our water hole.

It's hard to blame them. We were 2,500 feet up in the Anza-Borrego in temperatures up to 115 degrees, the rocks untouchably hot, the days unbearably long.

There we were, seven volunteers huddled under a 10-square-foot piece of blue plastic, worrying that rattlesnakes would assert themselves from under the surrounding rocks. Not only that but about once an hour we were hanging on for dear life trying to stop our shelter from ripping away as violent rock-roasted siroccos roared up the canyon like sea squalls without warning.

It's times like these that The Reasons for Being Here are hard to recall. Then you remember that the Peninsular Bighorn, as the sheep are formally known, number only about 700 in the whole world. The biggest concentration is in Anza-Borrego State Park, where about 400 roam.

We're here because the sheep need to be counted to tell the rangers how the herd is doing. Are they surviving? Are lambs being born? The sheep you see, or don't see, will help the data base of the rangers who are trying to bring these ancient animals back from the brink.

For the past 20 years, officials have put out the annual call for volunteers to spend three summer days in strategic places to count sheep. Volunteers bring their own gear and camp out near water holes where it is hoped the heat will force the sheep to come down to drink and be counted. (Last year, 131 sheep were counted.)

It would be much more comfortable to count in winter, of course, but that wouldn't work because there's enough vegetation to provide bighorn with the liquids they need. The assumption is that hot desert temperatures will drive each sheep to water once every three days.

When volunteers meet June 29 for orientation in the air-conditioned conference room of the Anza-Borrego Desert Park Rangers' Headquarters, the task will sound like a breeze. Then you get down to details, like the names of the locations--"Hellhole Canyon" among them--which give you an idea of what your predecessors felt about them.

The rangers will tell you to bring binoculars, a beach chair, a good book and lots of water, at least a gallon each a day. You can dehydrate and die extra quickly in these places.

Last year, I joined our team at the end of the first day. Our four-wheel-drive vehicle took us to the base of the optimistically named Sheep Canyon. After about an hour's climb, we stopped at a little recess where our team leader, Miramar College professor Rick Matthews and three of his biology students had set up a canopied shelter. If I had had more breath I would have uttered, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Instead, I flopped down and took another guzzle from the already hot water in my bag.

The chair turned out to be a mixed blessing. Hauling the thing up and down a mountain while it clanged against my ankles and caught on every rock while weighing me down, made me long for the short-term pleasure of hurling it down the canyon. Maybe the noise would frighten a bighorn out of hiding.

But when I got to the top, and laid out the chair and flopped into it, I took it all back.

Last year, about 65 people volunteered for this project, including students, teachers, grandparents, a TV weather-plane pilot, a veteran Special Forces medic--and Lysa.

Lysa attached herself to our group. She was a kind of wordly-wise flower child, as L.A. as they get. She said she took publicity stills on movie locations, rebelled from her rich movie-folk parents and often went planting giant sequoias with L.A.'s TreePeople when she was not out here.

And fit? Like a gazelle. While others--OK, me--huffed and puffed, her aerobics and dancing lessons obviously paid off. She pranced from rock to rock as though this was moon gravity with Marshall Tucker playing "Fire on the Mountain" on her Walkman. Every few rocks she'd stop, bring out a pink "Eau d'Evian" spray can and squirt her face.

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