From Rattlesnake Spring to Hellhole Canyon, volunteers gather to count sheep

Rattlesnake Canyon is about as pleasant as it sounds. Water has eroded this remote canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, west of the Salton Sea, but drinkable water is scarce.

The nearly 4-mile trail up the canyon leads to Rattlesnake Spring, one of the only sources of life-saving water for the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep in this area.

This is not an ideal place to hike when it’s 110 degrees. But that’s exactly what David Kennedy of San Diego and two others were doing.

They were volunteers for the recent Anza Borrego Bighorn Sheep Count. This was the 47th year of the count, which tracks the health of the endangered herd and lets park officials know where the sheep are getting water during the broiling summer.

Some 70 volunteers hiked or drove to various locations in California’s largest state park to stake out bighorn sheep.

“It’s just one of the greatest examples of citizen science, especially when you consider the elements that these people are subjecting themselves to,” said Mark Jorgenson, count organizer and former park superintendent.

The peninsular bighorn sheep known as Nelson bighorn sheep, were declared endangered in 1998, when their population dropped to 280. Predation and disease were taking their toll. And the sheep were being pushed out of their habitat by development.

Jorgenson said the endangered declaration put the development of nearly two dozen golf courses in the nearby Coachella Valley on hold.  He said now they are spotting sheep in canyons and ranges where they haven’t been seen in 20 or 30 years. The herd’s population has grown to about 900, still a couple hundred short of what would be considered a “healthy” herd, according to Jorgensen.

The small group of hikers braved the heat to reach Rattlesnake Spring, a watering hole known to be a lifeline for desert bighorns in the summer.

“And we came upon this spring and it was completely dry. Just absolutely dry. There wasn’t even mud in the bottom of it,” said Kennedy.

At a location from Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, long-time sheep count volunteer Phillip Roullard searches for any movement in the hills. Unfortunately, Roullard’s group saw no bighorn sheep during the three days of the count. (Photo: Susan Valot)

Long-established sheep trails had grown over, even though Kennedy had seen water in the spring when he visited the location in March.  Now, there were no signs of fresh sheep droppings. The spring was deserted.

When water-hungry bees started to swarm the two sweaty counters they decided to head back to tell park officials that the spring had dried up, possibly shut off by recent earthquake activity.

“Normally, 40 to 80 sheep come into that water source. We wonder where they are,” said Jorgenson.

But even not finding sheep gives park officials key information that they otherwise would not have.

The count takes place during the hottest, driest time of year, when the sheep are forced to move to water sources to stay alive. The predictable movement makes them easier to see.

The volunteers came from San Diego and Los Angeles, and from as far away as Arizona and Oregon. Many come back year after year.

“It’s very quiet. You can hear lots of birds, quail,” long-time volunteer Phillip Roullard said. “It’s the adrenaline rush when you do see sheep, at last. And you want to see more. They’re magnificent animals.”

A few miles away from where Roullard was posted, Gloria Kendall and Michele Gaffney, both of Escondido, settled in at an area known as “Coyote Creek, Second Crossing.”

“I’ve never been skunked on a sheep count,” Kendall said, speaking of her 20 or so years counting sheep here. She and Gaffney both work at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“At the Safari Park, we work with exotic, endangered animals from Africa and Asia and all over the world,” Kendall said. “This is an endangered species right in our own backyard, that I can come and have a chance of seeing and helping add to the knowledge for the state park.”

But the only sign of life was a couple of birds and a truck that drove by. Its driver asked if there was any water that crossed the road. They were looking for a swimming hole.

Finally, Gaffney noticed something. Movement. And horns.

“Sometimes, when I finally spot them, I go ‘How long have they been standing up on that hillside watching me?'” Kendall said. “They could have been there for hours. But if they’re holding still and they’re laying down, in the shade of a big boulder, you probably wouldn’t even notice them.”

The sheep stood there for nearly an hour, staring at the water like the volunteers were staring at them. They seemed hesitant. They were panting in the heat. The people who had driven past earlier seemed to be down at their watering hole.

And then the white truck tore away from the swimming hole and left.

The sheep darted behind the hills. Gone.

After three days, or 25 hours, of counting, Kendall and Gaffney tallied 10 sheep. In all, counters spotted 207 bighorns, only a fraction of the herd. That was fewer than last year’s tally of 296, but with a key site dried up, it’s unclear where those sheep went.

Collette Perry of San Bernardino County, called the count a “grand adventure.”

“You’re sitting there and the time just starts to stretch out. You get really bored. And then a sheep would appear. And there would be all this activity around this sheep,” Perry said. “It’s totally exciting.”

And it’s something she said she can’t wait to come back to do again next year.