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Texas Desert Bighorn Sheep Restoration Hits New Milestone
Big Bend Ranch State Park Release Is Next Step in Species Comeback
ALPINE – About 40 desert bighorn sheep will be captured at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area using a helicopter and moved by trailer to Big Bend Ranch State Park the week of Dec. 20. It’s the latest phase of a multi-partner wildlife restoration project begun in 1954, and the first bighorn reintroduction at a Texas state park.
The wild mountain sheep have become a keystone species helping to drive cross-border wildlife conservation in Northern Mexico and Far West Texas, but their future wasn’t always so bright.
In the late 1800s there were perhaps up to 1,500 sheep in the rugged mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas. However, due mainly to unregulated hunting and diseases from domestic and exotic livestock, Texas bighorn numbers dwindled to about 500 in 1903 and by the 1960s they were gone.
Today bighorns are coming back, thanks to decades of work by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, wildlife conservation groups, private landowners and others. TPWD biologists this September observed 1,115 sheep in Texas, up from 822 in 2006 and 352 in 2002. This steady climb back from the brink is due in part to relocation of wild sheep into areas where bighorns had once been extirpated.
The Bofecillos Mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park are next on the list of priority areas of historic bighorn range in Texas where sheep have not yet been restored. Establishing sheep in the park will increase numbers and diversity of the bighorn population in Texas, help restore the park’s native wildlife ecology and provide an outstanding new visitor wildlife viewing opportunity. In years to come, public hunting in the park may also be possible, although that is not the primary restoration goal.
“This puts an animal in its rightful place,” said Ruben Cantu, TPWD Wildlife Division regional director in San Angelo. “Its home is mountain ranges in West Texas. This is a desert mountain icon, an important component of the ecosystem.”
Big Bend Ranch bighorn restoration is a collaborative effort between TPWD’s Wildlife and State Parks Divisions.
“It’s huge; this is a bellwether species,” said Mike Hill, TPWD state parks regional director in Fort Davis, who said bighorn restoration at the park has been years in the making. “More and more people are discovering Big Bend Ranch State Park as an adventure travel destination, but this shows how state parks have an important conservation mission too.”
A coalition of partners is helping. In fact, bighorn sheep are the focus of a recently signed binational agreement between TPWD, Texas Bighorn Society, Wild Sheep Foundation and the Mexican-based global cement company CEMEX, which is conducting habitat and wildlife restoration supported by scientific research across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
“The parties to this agreement recognize that the Big Bend region of Texas and northern Coahuila and Chihuahua, Mexico, form an important zone of biological diversity that transcends political boundaries,” reads the conservation agreement. It goes on to say the region “is at risk because of potential adverse impacts by humans,” and that “binational restoration and management of desert bighorn sheep will provide a flagship species initiative that will benefit natural communities and help restore and conserve the region’s biological diversity.”
Across the river from Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, several Mexican federal protected areas form a vast land area under varying degrees of conservation management. These areas are not regulated like U.S. parks, and include small towns and ranches. But within one of them, the Maderas Del Carmen protected area, is CEMEX’s El Carmen conservation project.
CEMEX has under direct ownership and through agreements with landowners close to 400,000 acres of desert and mountains dedicated to wildlife habitat conservation. This includes an 11,000-acre bighorn breeding facility protected by a high, predator-proof fence. Into this criadero, CEMEX has brought bighorns from Sonora and in recent years has begun to move sheep out of the criadero into the wild. In December, biologists estimated more than 200 bighorns in the criadero, and more than 40 in the wild.
At Big Bend Ranch State Park, the department and its partners are taking various steps to prepare for the reintroduction of bighorn sheep, including control of exotic species and construction of “water guzzlers” to catch rainwater for sheep to drink.
Water guzzler construction, captive rearing facilities and other Texas efforts have been paid for or built with volunteer labor donated by the Texas Bighorn Society. Since its founding in the early 1980s, the group has provided materials, volunteer labor and funds for bighorn restoration worth several million dollars.
“Our mission is to restore bighorn sheep to all of their native range in Texas,” said Robert Joseph of Lubbock, Texas Bighorn Society president. “Why do we care? They’re a magnificent species. If they’re viable in a habitat, it seems for the most part every other animal there is doing well too. Some biologists call them a keystone species. If you’ve got the proper habitat for sheep, you’ve got the snakes and the horny toads and javelinas and everything all the way to the top of the mountain in good shape.”
Hunting provides most of the money to restore bighorns and their habitat. Every year the Wild Sheep Foundation and Dallas Safari Club auction permits to hunt wild bighorn sheep in Texas, which sell for $70,000 to $115,000 per permit. Money raised goes to support research and habitat management for Texas bighorn restoration.
The last two years Texas has issued 16 sheep hunting permits annually. Permits depend on annual population surveys and are issued for state and private lands where harvestable rams are observed. A harvestable ram is an older, 7-to-12 year old male that has “done his thing” and is deemed surplus to the population. Through this system, TPWD typically receives 20-to-25 percent of sheep permits for public hunts on the Black Gap, Elephant Mt. and Sierra Diablo WMAs, with private landowners receiving the remaining permits.
TPWD also offers a chance for anyone to hunt bighorns through the Texas Grand Slam in the agency’s Big Time Texas Hunts program, which sells $10 entries for random drawings to award “dream hunts.” The grand slam winner gets guided hunts for all four of the state’s top big game animals, including bighorn sheep.
Besides its importance for natural and cultural resource conservation, Big Bend Ranch State Park is a premier adventure travel destination. In recent years, the park has opened more than 200 miles of new or newly accessible jeep roads and hike and bike trails, plus 50 new backcountry campsites in remote scenic areas, opening up large new areas of the 360,000-acre park that visitors could not access easily before. Among other attractions, Texas’s largest state park is becoming international known for mountain biking.
In October, the International Mountain Biking Association designated the Fresno-Sauceda Loop Trail at Big Bend Ranch an “Epic” ride. IMBA has designated fewer than 50 Epic rides in the U.S. and Canada. The Big Bend Ranch ride is the only mountain-bike ride designated as Epic in Texas, and one of only two in the southwestern U.S.
Big Bend Ranch has an array of brochures, web pages and YouTube videos covering mountain biking, camping, backcountry driving and more. Downloadable brochures include “Big Bend Ranch Biking Guide — The Other Side of Nowhere” and “Roads to Nowhere — A guide to unmaintained 4x4 high clearance roads in Big Bend Ranch State Park.” The new video “Mountain Biking Big Bend Ranch State Park” on TPWD’s official YouTube channel follows an Austin newspaper reporter experiencing part of the “Epic ride” trail. The park’s downloadable “El Solitario” quarterly newsletter offers detailed articles, photos and practical tips for enjoying the park.
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