I See "Ewe": A Short(ish) Diary of an Anza-Borrego Sheep Counter

By Ashley Kvitek, ABF Education Coordinator

I’m sitting in the comfort of my air-conditioned office here in “downtown” Borrego Springs, happy I’m not outside in temps that have continually hit just over 100F for the last week or so. And while sitting here, I’m thinking that I’m just a little bit sad I’m not outside counting sheep today. Sound crazy? Maybe.

During this past 4th of July weekend, I was one of about 60 fairly crazy volunteers. I say fairly crazy because we all made a conscious decision to volunteer three days of our time over the summer holiday weekend to sit outside in the middle of the desert and wait and watch for sheep. The REALLY crazy ones are the people that actually backpacked in and camped out for the three days at their count sites. That’s dedication to citizen science, right there!

For people new to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I’ll give a bit of context for this blog. This year marks the Anza-Borrego 44th Annual Sheep Count. The Sheep Count is an ongoing citizen science endeavor that uses information gathered by volunteers to monitor the populations of Desert bighorn sheep. Volunteers go through an orientation process with a park ranger and learn the nuts and bolts of sexing, counting, identifying and recording the bighorn sheep sightings along with learning the basics of staying safe while out in the heat. Then they get to go home and think about their choice, we lose a few volunteers, and then Ranger Steve and his helper Mark assign each of us to a count site. All counters must check in on Thursday afternoon and many head out to their sites that evening. Those of us that are lucky enough to come home to our air conditioners and pools typically hike in during the wee morning hours and hike back out each evening.

Let’s clear up one thing first- it wasn’t as hot as it should be for an ideal sheep count here in Anza-Borrego. Temps barely hit 100F, with my site at Lower Hellhole Canyon peaking at 102F on the last day. A good temp that will encourage sheep to head down to the watering holes and be counted is somewhere around and above 114F. The hottest recorded temperature during this year’s count was a measly 110F. We simply won’t talk about the humidity, especially what we experienced hiking in on Friday.

I (and probably you) don’t have time to get into all of the nitty-gritty details that really make for the whole story, but here’s a quick overview. What does it look like to be a sheep counter? Well, it looks like very early mornings for this girl. We were up and hiking into our site by 5:30am in order to be in place and set up with spotting scopes and binoculars by 7am each morning. It looks like 16 pounds of water hauled in on my back each day to stay safe and hydrated, along with a few creature comforts to make the sitting, waiting and watching a bit easier (aka- a butt pad). My fellow counters and I were lucky- there is a natural rock cave at our site that provides a shaded refuge throughout the entire day, so we did not have to carry in a shade structure! Phew! Dodged a bullet there. It also looks sweaty… very sweaty. And stinky. But after a while, you don’t really notice how hot and sweaty you are, because you are contributing to a long-term citizen science endeavor and that is quite frankly one of the most rewarding and fun things a human being can do. And that’s a fact, folks.

At 6:48am on the first day, before we even got to our site, I spotted a ram and a ewe on the ridge. We didn’t even have time to set up before the majestic ungulates showed their faces and parts unmentionable in public forum. I was so excited! First time Sheep Counter, Ashley Kvitek, saw the first of the sheep in Lower Hellhole Canyon (and so won a free margarita from my fellow counters)! I’m smiling like a fool just thinking about it! After scrambling to get those two counted and notes about their appearances written down, we got to see many more!  We saw 16 sheep on our first day. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I had a LOT of first sightings and first hearings of the rock falls indicative of the agile bighorn sheep. Every single time I heard a cough, heard a rockfall or saw movement, my adrenaline pumped up and my excitement went sky high! Being privileged enough to see such beautiful creatures is something not to be taken lightly… each opportunity was special. And the lambs! Oh the cute baby animals! We saw five healthy looking lambs, and it was very encouraging to see how well they were doing.

And of course, when you are sexing and noting discernible identifiers between the different sheep, especially differences between multiple rams, there are bound to be at least a couple rude comments and innuendos about their manly parts. In my group’s case, there were a LOT of comments and innuendos and even a few comparisons, and the camaraderie and good conversation really helped the time fly by between sheep sightings. I was told to bring a book with me, but I never even opened it. I’m absolutely convinced my small group at Lower Hellhole is/was the best!

And now for the results! This year, we tallied a total of 265 bighorn sheep at 19 different sites. Visit ABF’s Sheep Count Event Page to see the breakdown of how many sheep were seen at each site, and how many of those were rams, ewes, yearlings, and lambs. 

On the last day, one of my count mates asked me if I would mind articulating on film why I chose to do the sheep count. I’m one of the younger people participating, and he wanted a different perspective from his own, as he and his wife have been doing it for many years. It took a while for me to find the words, and I’m still unsure that I have it nailed down. Yes, there’s the badass factor. Only a badass can sit in the desert heat for three days- fact. But there’s so much more. When I first came to Anza-Borrego last year, I had read about the Sheep Count. Citizen Science is near and dear to my heart, and so I asked everyone about it- Rangers, people who would never do it, people who only did it once and people that have done it for 30 years. Somehow I was convinced. I was nervous and scared and terrified I would let my group down by not being able to handle the heat, but I said I would do it. I wanted to know what made people keep coming back for this crazy adventure year after year. I made that commitment and there was no going back. Luckily, Ranger Steve and Mark took pity on me and put me in Hellhole Canyon, where I could go home and cool down between the long days and talk nonsense with my fellow counters.

Citizen Science is a way for us in the general public to be connected to what’s around us in a powerful and useful way that will hopefully add to the well-being of what we study. What’s more important or rewarding than that? I had the best time at this year’s Sheep Count. Yes, the temps were much lower than anticipated, and that may be why I was able to really enjoy myself. But I went home on Sunday night with a huge smile, new friends, a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart, and another adventure in the books.

Who’s going to join me for the 45th Annual Sheep Count?