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Desert Bighorn Restoration

Public/Private Partnership Success Story


article by Lorie Woodward Cantu

photo by Wyman Meinzer


Desert bighorn sheep were extirpated from their Trans-Pecos habitat by the 1950s. It would have
been a sad ending were it not for the public/private partnership between the Texas Parks and Wildlife
Department, Texas Bighorn Society and private landowners to restore the majestic sheep.

I
n the distant past, prehistoric artists etched pictographs onto the walls of caves and can-
yons throughout the Trans-Pecos documenting the presence of desert bighorn sheep in the
region. While the numbers of sheep may have never been extremely large, the sight of
majestic rams and nimble ewes navigating the rough country with ease has long captured
the human imagination.
The sheep were masters of their rugged, isolated domain until the late 1800s when settlement
in the area affected habitat, introduced livestock diseases and ushered in unregulated hunting
pressure. By the late 1950s, the desert bighorn sheep had been extirpated from the Trans-Pecos.
The story, if it ended there, would have been a sad chapter in our state’s history but, fortu-
nately, for these desert monarchs and the citizens of Texas, there is a surprising epilogue. Today,
wildlife scientists estimate there are 1,500 desert bighorns in the region, a number that by some
estimates is close to what existed at the turn of the 20th Century.
While the groundwork for restoration had been laid earlier, work on the reintroduction began
in earnest in the mid-1980s, when the Texas Bighorn Society (TBS) stepped up to support the ef-
forts of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). According to TBS President Robert
Joseph, the organization demonstrated not only political will but financial commitment by raising
$200,000 to build four, 10-acre brood pastures on TPWD’s Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management
Area (WMA) northwest of Van Horn, which consists of the most rugged lands in the Sierra
Diablo Mountains. The land was the state’s first WMA and was acquired in 1947 to conserve
sheep habitat. These brood pastures provided the launch pad for the reintroduction effort.
Joseph said, “We’ve been very lucky that the sheep have done so well in such a short period of
time. The luck, combined with good management by TPWD and support from TBS, has brought
sheep back into the Trans-Pecos. As the numbers have increased and the sheep have expanded
onto private lands, the collaboration with private landowners has been equally important.” Today,

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photo by Mike Pittman, TPWD. Lamb by Grady Allen.
With safety in numbers, bighorns are expanding into new habitat on their own, with the ewes passing on safe travel routes to the
next generation.

more sheep reside on private land than on “Trust is a valuable commodity that courage further expansion.
public land. has to be earned in West Texas,” Each year, TPWD staff members con-
Now, website designers are etching Harveson, who also chairs TPWD’s Texas duct surveys to determine the numbers of
words and photographs into the ether of Bighorn Sheep Advisory Committee, con- desert bighorn sheep. In 2002, the surveys
cyberspace documenting the presence of tinued. “Each of these entities is working noted 350 sheep. This year’s survey
bighorn sheep in the region once again. In in the best interest of the sheep, and they counted 1,144, and scientists realize that
the future, as sheep continue expanding all trust each other to keep what’s best for the surveys do not account for every ani-
through their native range, our great- the sheep as their top priority. By keeping mal. Currently, bighorns are present in the
grandchildren will access these cyber- a single goal in mind, they’ve avoided be- Baylor, Beach, Sierra Diablo, Van Horn,
records and marvel at what is destined to ing distracted by issues that have side- Eagle, Sierra Vieja and Dove mountains,
become a classic, conservation success tracked other conservation efforts.” as well as the lower canyons of the Rio
story. One of the reasons that the partner- Grande, Big Bend National Park and the
It was not wishful thinking, political ship has succeeded is an informal, but Elephant Mountain and Black Gap
will or money alone that brought the big- very clear, separation of duties. TPWD WMAs.
horns back. manages the animals on public land, es- Mike Pittman, area manager of the
“Bighorns are back because of the suc- tablishes harvest standards, sets future Trans-Pecos WMAs, said, “In the past 10
cessful, unique public-private partnership goals for the program and assesses the years, we’ve gained momentum, and that
between private landowners, the Texas animal’s expansion and potential habi- is a function of numbers. For instance,
Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas tat. TBS supports the sheep’s expansion there is safety in numbers. With the pas-
Bighorn Society and researchers,” said by soliciting monetary and in-kind do- sage of time and increasing numbers,
Dr. Louis Harveson, director of the Bor- nations and conducting annual work ewes are relaying safe travel corridors to
derlands Research Institute at Sul Ross projects. Private landowners manage the next generation. Increasing numbers
State University in Alpine. habitat to support existing herds and en- encourage animals to range farther and es-

Texas Wildlife, January 2010 - Page 24


tablish new home ranges.”
The fact that the Texas sheep are ex-
panding into new ranges is an interesting
phenomenon, Pittman said. Often, depart-
ment employees receive sheep sighting re-
ports from landowners and then follow-up
to determine if the sheep have indeed
moved into new territory.
“Traditionally, sheep don’t expand
readily on their own,” Pittman said. “Gen-
erally, if you want them to move into new
territory, you have to put them there.”
Currently, the sheep, attracted by the rug-
ged habitat of the lower canyons down
river from the Black Gap WMA, are mov-
ing farther down the Rio Grande each
year – on both sides of the river, he said.
Private companies and the Mexican
government have started their own efforts
to encourage the re-establishment of
desert bighorns. CEMEX, the large Mexi-
can concrete and building materials com-
pany, initiated sheep restoration efforts
nine years ago in the Maderas del Carmen
Mountains in northern Coahuila, and the
sheep population there now exceeds 200
animals, he said. In the near future, those
professionals will start transplanting
sheep in suitable habitat across the river
from the Black Gap WMA and Big Bend
National Park, Pittman said.
The Big Bend Ranch State Park has
been identified as TPWD’s next priority.
“We will release the next ‘surplus’
sheep from the Elephant Mountain WMA
on to the Black Gap WMA, and then we

photo by Dave Wetzel, TBS


will concentrate on Big Bend Ranch State
Park,” Pittman said. “The state park en-
compasses more than 300,000 acres, the
southern third of which is very good
sheep habitat.”
Of course, private land is interspersed
throughout the region and sheep establish
themselves in suitable habitat, regardless Part of bighorn expansion is acquisition of travel corridors – safe routes for sheep
of who owns it. between mountain islands of habitat.
Harveson said, “There is more interest
in bighorn sheep today than any other Today, I think we probably have a resi- rugged topography, but the Gills have re-
time. Some of that may be because of eco- dent herd of 75 animals.” lied on principles developed by Allan Sa-
nomics, but the biggest part should be at- He said it is particularly gratifying to vory on African desert grasslands and es-
tributed to the land ethic. Most landown- actually see sheep in places that have poused by Holistic Resource Management
ers would love to have this majestic crea- sheep names, such as Sheep Peak on their (HRM). At Circle Ranch, livestock is the
ture on their property and are willing to family ranch. “Imagine the satisfaction of main tool used to improve the range’s
do whatever it takes to get them and keep knowing that for the first time in 50 years condition, thereby improving the ranch’s
them there.” you’re watching a big ram on Sheep wildlife habitat.
TWA Director Chris Gill, whose Peak,” he said. “Range science underlies everything
family’s Circle Ranch is located on the Topography, which cannot be created we do,” Gill said. “It is science, not
southeast border of the Sierra Diablo or modified, along with suitable vegeta- deeply held beliefs, that dictates our man-
WMA, said, “When we bought the ranch tion and accessible water, are the key agement practices. When the range is in
10 years ago, I’d get excited when I heard components of good sheep habitat. The an improving condition, it’s good for
someone else say that they’d seen sheep. Circle Ranch is blessed with appropriately desert bighorns, elk, mule deer, scaled

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photo by Grady Allen.

photo by Grady Allen.


Bighorn sheep go where there is suitable habitat, be it public or From the looks of this old ram’s face and chipped horns, he’s
private land. Interest in the sheep is as high as it’s ever been, been making his way in the tough Trans-Pecos for a number
partly because of the economics they represent, but more from of years.
private landowner enthusiasm of having such majestic animals
on their ranches.

quail, lizards and anything else you’d like effort generally involves 75 to 100 people other game animal, you have to let them
to name. If we want desert sheep to con- working in some of Texas’ highest, most grow up to reach their fullest potential.
tinue to expand, at some point, we have to rugged terrain. Building supplies, food, We have high-quality rams that make se-
address the condition of the range on a drinking water and people often have to rious hunters want to come pursue them.”
wide-scale basis.” be ferried to the work site via helicopter. At auction, permits have ranged from
In addition to managing the range for “Every year, TPWD staff members $50,000 to $105,000. If the state is auc-
optimum health, the Gills have installed identify the area of greatest need, and it tioning off the permit through non-profit
more than 200 water points throughout doesn’t matter whether it’s public or pri- organizations such as TBS or the Wild
the ranch, some of which are pipe- vate land,” Joseph said. “Then we gather Sheep Foundation, the proceeds return to
served, cistern-served and pump-served. up the money, the supplies and the people fund more sheep restoration, Pittman said.
The ranch’s biggest job is plumbing, he and move ahead. We complete the project Private landowners are entitled to keep
joked. But like good habitat manage- at no cost to the recipient. Our only re- the proceeds from any permit that they
ment, water sustains bighorn sheep quirement is that the recipient agrees to sell, but even so, many have elected to
while benefiting all the other wildlife take care of the sheep and take care of the forego the hunting opportunity to further
species, he said. habitat.” encourage the species’ re-establishment,
Bringing water to the desert is one of Landowners have responded posi- he said.
TBS’s most visible contributions to the tively. Each year, permits are issued al- Joseph said, “Even though sheep num-
bighorn restoration effort. Each year, the lowing a small number of rams to be har- bers have increased, they’re still a rare
organization sponsors a weekend work vested. Although the number of permits species that deserve special attention.
project, which usually involves building, has increased through the years, they are Sheep movements are dictated by habitat
repairing or maintaining water sources in still rare commodities, particularly since availability, not by politics. As long as we
Texas’ desert high country. Texas is becoming known as a destination humans keep focused on what’s best for
It sounds deceptively simple. The wa- for high-quality rams. the sheep, then we – humans and sheep –
ter projects cost at least $50,000 and the Joseph said, “Bighorns are like any will continue to succeed.”

Texas Wildlife, January 2010 - Page 26


photo by Mike Pittman, TPWD
photo by Dave Wetzel, TBS

Although the first bighorn restoration work was on public land – the At auction, permits to take a mature ram go from $50,000 to
Sierra Diablo WMA – there are now more animals on private land. more than $100,000. Private landowners can keep proceeds
from harvest permits they sell, although many forego hunting to
further increase the species.
photo by Grady Allen.

Back from the abyss of extinction, bighorns now number some To learn more about the Texas Bighorn Society, visit their
1,114 animals in Texas’ mountains and canyons. webpage at www.texasbighornsociety.org.

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