counting?

Last weekend I participated as a volunteer in the annual San Gabriel Bighorn Sheep Survey.  The survey is put on jointly by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Forest, and the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn sheep.

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Saturday began with a mandatory orientation meeting at the Angeles National Forest Office in Arcadia.  There were somewhere between 50 and 100 volunteers in attendance I’d say.  I found myself feeling strangely nervous before walking into the room. I wasn’t sure what to expect of my cohort of volunteers, wondering if they were all going to be intense, rugged, mountain folk – after all this was a survey for the incredibly nimble-in-craggy-places bighorn sheep.

Fortunately, I didn’t feel out of place because the group of volunteers was quite mixed –  mixed in age, gender, and in perceived trail experience (I fully admit this was just snap judgement categorization).  The meeting included an overview of the species and its population status, an explanation of how the survey would take place, and a tutorial on how to properly identify the age and sex of the sheep.  Here are a few of the notes I jotted down in my journal:

  • Localized extinction of sheep has occurred in California since the 18th century largely due to diseases spread by domesticated livestock (i.e. sheep & goats) that are grazed in the mountains.
  • Population of the bighorn sheep herd in the San Gabriel Mountains has fluctuated from around 400 – 800 since the start of this survey (1976).
  • Bighorn sheep prefer open areas, like chaparral that are rocky, steep, and often even prefer areas that were recently hit by significant wildfires.
  • Bighorn sheep are sexually dimorphic (meaning that the females and males look different than one another) – females can reach weights around 130 pounds while males get closer to 200 pounds.  Both have “horns” but the male’s horns are notable thicker at the base and when full grown curl significantly.

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Then the different survey locations were briefly explained before we were set lose to “choose our own adventure.”  They emphasized that we should be honest about our fitness level when choosing a location.  The Snooty Hiker in me immediately felt I should choose the hike that sounded the most challenging – the one with the most significant altitude gain over a short distance + bouldering + bushwhacking.

Honestly, this part of the meeting felt so much like the Divergent Series (not that I read young adult literature…of course not) notion of choosing a faction, and I was swiftly swept up into a fiction of my own.  I wanted to be “Dauntless” and hence choose the hardest hike, but instead I somehow found myself gravitating towards the “Abnegation” group, drawn to the mellowest of the hikes.

I mostly chose an easier hike out of a fear of the weather conditions.  It was predicted to be raining (perhaps even VERY rainy) for a good portion of the survey on Sunday…winds rumored to perhaps be up to 45 mph, and at the higher elevations it could be in the 30s temperature wise.  So, I wimped out. Cold is my Achilles heal – I can be sleep deprived, hungry, hot, or thirsty and still function fine on the trail. But if I’m cold I shut down completely.  I didn’t want to be a liability, so I wimped out and chose the cautious route.  But as it turns out, I don’t regret that choice at all.

I stayed the night at the Applewhite Campground, as campsites were provided free-of-charge to volunteers.  I rolled in around 2100, right as it began to pour rain, with the wind picking up in a major way. I opted to sleep in my car rather than deal with setting up and packing up a tent in the rain.

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Sunday began in the same rain I ended Saturday with.  It was an angry rain, which I was rather enjoying, but which rendered visibility essentially futile for survey purposes useless. Typically, the hike start times are rather regimented for each location, because surveys-on-the-ground coincide with a helicopter survey above.  Due to the weather this year, however, there was going to be no survey-from-above.  So, our group leader instructed us to meet at 0730.

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Despite the rain, our group waited it out hopefully, and by 0900 the rain had entirely cleared off bringing in sunshine and mostly clear skies.

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Our group hiked from the Barrett-Stoddard trailhead to Stoddard Peak – with groups stopping at locations alone the way to conduct their surveys there.  I elected to go to the end, resulting in around a 7 mile trip (3.5 miles one-way).

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The hike is very user friendly – wide trail and gradual inclines.  The last bit to Stoddard Peak itself is a little coyote trail up a hill through bushes, and easy to miss if you haven’t been there before.  The weather ended up being fantastic for hiking – but no such luck in county any sheep.

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It was from no lack of trying, however.  I gazed on with binoculars from Stoddard Peak hopefully, and although it would have been great to have some data to record, as I was told “no data is still data,” as far as scientific surveys go.  And the scenery was so spectacular, and I was so thankful to be among mountains, that I sincerely didn’t feel disappointed hardly at all.

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Although I didn’t count any sheep, I feel rather certain they counted me.

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