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April 2011 cover image Paddle On!
From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

I caught a glimpse of the bighorns over my left shoulder as we sailed into the Van Horn Mountains of West Texas. I had just gone up in the helicopter with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Mike Pittman and Game Warden A.J. Smith, who was our pilot, on an annual sheep census when the first group of bighorns scrambled out of nowhere atop a steep and seemingly insurmountable cliff face. Immediately, A.J. deftly maneuvered the helicopter back around for a closer inspection, but, alas, the sheep had already vanished into the mountain’s jagged rock formations.

“Where did they go?” I asked of Mike, a veteran sheep observer and keen student of West Texas bighorns. “We’ll find them,” he responded confidently, a sentiment I wasn’t sure I shared as I scanned across a landscape replete with vast boulder fields, rivers of scree, precipitous canyons and cliffs aplenty — ample places for bighorns hide.

But find them we did. In some of the roughest and most remote country imaginable, Mike and A.J. spotted the sheep — four or five ewes, along with several smaller males and one majestic older ram with a beautiful, well-formed curl. They were a sight to behold and the first group of maybe 50 or so bighorns we would encounter that afternoon on the survey flight. What a thrill!

The recovery of bighorn sheep in West Texas is one of our state’s most remarkable and instructive conservation success stories. Consigned to a fate of extirpation in the 1950s, bighorn sheep faced a future in Texas that was dubious at best. Fortunately, the department and an extraordinary group of partners, from local ranchers to the Texas Bighorn Society, were not content to see the sheep simply disappear forever from their historic haunts in the arid sky islands of West Texas.

Thanks to the herculean and unending dedication of those partners, desert bighorns now total nearly 1,500 in number and inhabit around eight mountain ranges in West Texas. Their population levels equal or exceed numbers found in the late 1800s. And, in some places, bighorn densities have surpassed the habitat’s available carrying capacity, thereby presenting biologists with an unexpected quandary: Do nothing and hope the sheep disperse on their own into other areas of suitable but unoccupied habitat, or proactively trap and transport them there.

As Wendee Holtcamp reports in this issue, biologists chose the latter course, and as a result, nearly 50 bighorns trapped from the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area south of Alpine are now adjusting to their new home in the Bofecillos Mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The sheep, outfitted with satellite tracking transmitters, are being monitored by researchers from Sul Ross State University’s Borderlands Research Institute and TPWD in order to track their habitat utilization, movements and survivorship. Ultimately, we expect to learn a lot about how sheep acclimate to new environs, which will undoubtedly aid the department in future restocking efforts.

I hope someday you, too, will enjoy the majestic sight of a bighorn sheep atop a West Texas peak or simply take comfort in knowing that they are there. When you do, I hope you will also reflect upon the contributions of the conservation partners who have helped make it happen, including private landowners, the Texas Bighorn Society, the Safari Club, the Wild Sheep Foundation and many others. Without them, our wild things and wild places wouldn’t be the same.

Thanks for caring about Texas’ lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks. They need you more than ever.

 

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