An annual count of bighorn sheep scheduled for this weekend in a Southern California desert was canceled after a volunteer died while preparing for the excursion amid scorching heat, according to a newspaper report Sunday.
The tally in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park dates back 50 years and is one of the longest-running citizen-science projects in the country, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
It typically draws dozens of volunteers who spend three days collecting information for scientists monitoring the health of bighorn sheep, which have been on the federal endangered species list since the late 1990s.
Don White, a 68-year-old nature enthusiast from Culver City, had participated in the past and this year was assigned a spot in Borrego Palm Canyon that requires a 4-mile (6.4-kilometer) hike in over and around boulders. An experienced backpacker, White had counted there before.
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Two weeks ago, White and a colleague decided to hike in with bottled water and leave it there for the count.
Coming back from the canyon just after noon on June 19, not far from the trailhead, White collapsed and died, the Union-Tribune reported. His colleague was hospitalized briefly, as was a firefighter who came to assist them.
The cause of death is under investigation by the county medical examiner, but it seems likely overheating played a role, the newspaper said. It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.6 Celsius) in Anza-Borrego that day.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation canceled the bighorn count and initiated a review of its safety protocols. The goal is to make improvements and provide “additional tools to maintain a safe environment for all,” the department said in a written statement.
After last year’s count was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 tally scheduled for this weekend drew so much interest there was a waiting list, the newspaper said. Ninety volunteers were going to be split into small groups assigned to watch about 20 places in the park where thirsty rams, ewes and lambs typically come for scarce water at this time of year.