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Conservationists Review Efforts To Restore California's Bighorn Sheep


If you ever count sheep late at night, where are they? Are they ever huddled around watering holes in a desert? That's what some conservationists in the West are looking for at this point in the year - the endangered big horn sheep of Southern California. These huddles of sheep can say a lot about how the population is doing. Claire Trageser of member station KPBS has the story.

CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It's 5:00 a.m., and Callie Mack and her husband, Phillip Roullard, are hiking to Hellhole Canyon.


CALLIE MACK: People die in this desert almost every summer from severe dehydration heat stroke. That's cheerful.

TRAGESER: Later today it'll reach 120 degrees with high humidity. They settle in to watch the mountains. When they hear rocks falling, they leap into action.


PHILLIP ROULLARD: Now I see them super clearly.

MACK: Oh, there he is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here comes another one.

MACK: OK, I was looking too hard.

ROULLARD: There's two.

TRAGESER: Some sheep are so far away they're barely visible.

ROULLARD: Oh, I see them left and up for sure.

MACK: They're moving.

STEVE BIER: Yeah, they're moving.

ROULLARD: They're moving fast.

BIER: Really fast.

MACK: Oh, wow.

ROULLARD: Isn't he beautiful?

MACK: He is.

TRAGESER: After three days, 10 hours a day, the couple spotted 13 sheep.

BIER: At one point in the 1990s, our population was down to below 280 animals.

TRAGESER: Ranger Steve Bier is the sheep count coordinator. He says they were hit by cars or killed by disease from livestock. Conservation has grown the population to about 1,000. Volunteers take detailed notes on the sheep they see. Bier says for example...

BIER: While you saw her in that group at 9 o'clock, we saw her in that group at 7 o'clock in the morning. So obviously the group at 7 o'clock gets the credit for it.

TRAGESER: Bier says volunteers can get pretty competitive.

BIER: We've had some counters who have gone away and never spoken to each other again.

TRAGESER: Volunteer Becky Rusk knows the joke about counting sheep and falling asleep but says this experience has the opposite effect.

BECKY RUSK: You still get that thrill when you see one at the top of the ridge and he just pokes over.

TRAGESER: She's been sheep-spotting almost since these counts started in 1970.

RUSK: Everybody goes into high alert. And out comes the binoculars and the telescopes, and it's that same excitement.

TRAGESER: This year the counter's saw 296 total, slightly up from recent years. For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claire Trageser