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Texas Bighorn Sheep Numbers Continue to Climb
AUSTIN, Texas -The last wild desert bighorn sheep in Texas was seen in a remote area of far West Texas a half century ago, in October 1958. That might have been the last chapter for the majestic animal in the Lone Star State, but today, thanks to ongoing efforts to restore this majestic game animal in far West Texas, there are more sheep than you can shake a stick at with numbers unseen since the late 1800s.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists recently completed annual desert bighorn sheep counts and report a record 1,193 desert bighorn sheep observed, up from 991 sheep last year.
"We rocked along for years with very low numbers, and that makes it hard for a population to gain momentum," said Mike Pittman, TPWD Trans-Pecos Wildlife Management Area project leader. "You’ve heard of safety in numbers? With sheep that’s very true. With larger herd groups, there are more eyes to help avoid predators. Also, increased social activity means ewes going to lambing areas are able to produce more sheep."
By conducting annual helicopter survey counts, TPWD biologists can ascertain not only how many animals are present, but also if there are surplus bighorn rams.
The number of harvestable rams seen on the survey makes possible a record number of sheep hunting permits to be issued during the 2008-09 season. The Department will issue 15 permits, 11 of which will be given to private landowners who have been instrumental in sheep restoration through habitat management, and four permits which will be used by the department.
Of those four permits, one will be auctioned by the Wild Sheep Foundation, with proceeds returned to fund the department’s bighorn program, and the remaining three will be included in TPWD’s public hunting program.
One lucky applicant in the Big Time Texas Hunts Grand Slam category will be selected to hunt a desert bighorn ram. Entries are $9 online at tpwd.texas.gov/bigtime or for $10 at retail locations where licenses are sold or by phone at (800) 895-4248. There is no limit to the number of Big Time Texas Hunts entries an individual may purchase, and entries may be purchased as gifts for others. Purchasers must be 17 years of age or older. The deadline to apply for this year’s Big Time Texas Hunts is Oct. 15 to give the winners more time to prepare for their trips.
Two applicants in TPWD’s drawn hunts will be selected for a guided bighorn sheep hunt package. Application fee is $10 and the deadline for applying is Nov. 4. For more information, including an application, visit the public hunting section of the TPWD Web site.
The desert bighorn sheep was once prominent in the remote mountains of West Texas, with populations of more than 1,500 animals in the late 1800s. Largely because of unregulated hunting, bighorn numbers dwindled to about 500, according to the survey conducted by Vernon Bailey in 1903.
Protective measures for bighorn sheep began as early as 1903 with the enactment of a hunting prohibition; however, numbers continued to decline to an estimated 35 sheep by 1945. The last reported sighting of a native bighorn sheep in 1958 came from what would later become the first wildlife management area in Texas, the Sierra Diablo WMA. Biologists believe the last native Texas bighorns were gone by the early 1960s.
Efforts to restore bighorns in Texas began in 1954 with the development of a cooperative agreement among state and federal wildlife agencies and private conservation groups. Through landowner and Texas Bighorn Society support, remote mountains in the Trans-Pecos have been enhanced to meet the basic needs of the desert bighorn, including construction of numerous man-made water guzzlers. These capture the area’s limited rainfall to provide more reliable water sources for bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
"Although the restoration efforts to date have been a tremendous success, desert bighorn restoration in Texas is not complete," reminded Calvin Richardson, TPWD desert bighorn sheep program leader. "Our immediate focus is on Big Bend Ranch State Park and the surrounding area, which have substantial quality habitat for desert sheep, particularly when including the rugged mountain ranges in Cañon de Santa Elena Protected Area immediately to the south in Mexico."
Richardson noted that, with the help of partners in Mexico, including Cemex Corp., and Texas partners like the Texas Bighorn Society, Dallas Safari Club, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, and private landowners, TPWD will be working to address some challenges over the next few years and prepare Big Bend Ranch State Park for eventual restoration of desert bighorns to this historic range.
Other historic ranges are still unoccupied, including the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, the Chinati Mountains, and the Guadalupe Mountains.
"Natural expansion is occurring to some degree and bighorns will continue to colonize suitable habitat, provided the unoccupied mountain range is not too distant and there are few existing barriers like fences and major highways," said Richardson.
Some of those barriers can be overcome through trapping and relocation of bighorns and Richardson said the restoration tool of restocking historic range through translocation will continue to be used when suitable mountain ranges are isolated from other bighorn populations, preventing re-establishment through natural movements.
Additionally, translocations may be used to augment small populations that typically require many years to "get past" the multiple sources of mortality that threaten herd viability when bighorn numbers are few.
"Despite the dramatic success with the desert bighorn program in West Texas, particularly in recent years, TPWD and our partners must be persistent in management," said Richardson.
Among the challenges facing bighorn restoration efforts are: control of exotics, control of predators in some situations, water development and maintenance and vigilance regarding one of the greatest threats to bighorn sheep — disease.
Because bighorns are highly susceptible to some diseases, contact with domestic sheep, goats or certain exotics, like aoudads, can potentially wipe-out an entire population. From the perspective of a bighorn sheep, West Texas is a very different environment than it was 300-400 years ago, with more barriers, more disturbance, and sources of disease that historically were absent.
"And, with an increasing human population hungry for petroleum products, wind energy, and minerals hidden in the mountains, I don’t anticipate a decline in the threats to desert bighorn survival," Richardson predicted. "Regarding the desert bighorn program in Texas, we’re not done . . . and it will require a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to maintain what we’ve achieved."
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