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TPWD, Partners Expanding Bighorn Sheep Restoration Efforts
AUSTIN, Texas — Expanded conservation efforts are in the offing for the desert bighorn sheep, an iconic symbol of wilderness in West Texas, with plans to extend bighorn restocking efforts into Big Bend Ranch State Park and elsewhere in the region as part of a comprehensive Desert Bighorn Sheep Restoration Plan.
One benefit of the broad-based initiative to restore the native ecology in key areas of the Trans Pecos region is that, by providing suitable habitat and travel corridors for desert bighorn sheep, many other native wildlife species will also benefit.
Bighorn sheep vanished from Texas more than 50 years ago due to habitat loss, disease and competition from exotic animals like aoudad sheep and unregulated hunting. But, thanks to broad support, desert bighorns have recovered to population levels unseen since the late 1800s.
Although the restoration efforts to date have been a tremendous success with viable populations totaling nearly 1,200 animals along seven mountain ranges in the Trans Pecos, desert bighorn restoration in Texas is not complete.
A bi-national effort between the United States and Mexico outlined in a comprehensive Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Desert Bighorn Sheep Restoration Plan will now focus on expanding the restoration of desert bighorns on suitable habitat at a landscape level, encompassing another West Texas icon — Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Based on archaeological evidence, desert bighorn sheep once occupied most of the rugged Chihuahuan Desert. This region, which includes Big Bend Ranch State Park, includes suitable habitat within the bighorn’s historic range.
"Our immediate focus is on Big Bend Ranch State Park," said Calvin Richardson, bighorn sheep program leader at TPWD. "Big Bend Ranch State Park and the surrounding area have substantial quality habitat for desert sheep, particularly when including the rugged mountain ranges in Canon de Santa Elena Protected Area immediately to the south in Mexico."
As with recovery at other sites, the reintroduction of bighorns here won’t be easy and will not occur overnight.
With the help of partners in Mexico, including Cemex Corp., and Texas partners like the Texas Bighorn Society, Wild Sheep Foundation, Dallas Safari Club, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, and private landowners; the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will be working to address some challenges over the next few years and prepare Big Bend Ranch State Park and surrounding areas for eventual restoration of desert bighorns.
The objective for Big Bend Ranch State Park, identified in TPWD’s Bighorn Sheep Restoration Plan, is for a population of 100 bighorns by 2025. A population of that size is considered to be the minimum for long-term survival.
"Bringing back bighorn sheep is a great idea and we support the concept," said James King, chairman of the Big Bend Ranch State Park Advisory Committee and former West Texas regional director with the Nature Conservancy of Texas. "It is a missing component of the Chihuahuan Desert and there is plenty of suitable habitat available."
Before bighorn sheep can flourish on Big Bend Ranch State Park, department officials say steps must be taken to pave the way. Outlined in the bighorn restoration plan are a suite of strategies in advance of and during reintroduction efforts, including:
- Reduce numbers of exotic and feral animals in the park that threaten establishment of bighorns because of potential disease, social dominance and competition for forage and water. Remove exotic aoudad sheep as one first step.
- Limit bighorn losses to predation.
- Develop accessible and properly located water sources for bighorns.
- Provide education and information to park users and other stakeholders about bighorn relocation.
- Identify bighorn surpluses for translocation and possible augmentation.
- Maximize bighorn translocation effectiveness by creating a "soft release" enclosure at the park.
- Minimize disturbance to the establishing bighorn sheep population by coordinating user group activities at the park.
- Manage establishing bighorn at the park cooperatively with adjacent private landowners and partners in Mexico.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of the bighorn restoration at the park through monitoring.
"Our first priority is to restore the native ecology," said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. "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 and vigilant regarding one of the greatest threats to bighorn sheep — disease."
Because bighorns are highly susceptible to some diseases, contact with domestic sheep or 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 were historically absent. More information is online about Big Bend Ranch State Park and the bighorn restoration effort.
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