Texas Bighorn Sheep Population Continues To Flourish

Steve Lightfoot, 512-389-4701, steve.lightfoot@tpwd.texas.gov

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AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists aren’t getting tired of counting sheep, desert bighorn sheep to be specific.

Testament to the state’s successful restoration of bighorns to their historic range in the rugged mountain country of far West Texas, annual population census surveys continue to climb toward levels not seen in more than 100 years. In August, biologists observed 991 bighorns along the seven Trans Pecos mountain ranges, a modern benchmark and an impressive increase of 169 animals from a year ago.

“It’s still kind of hard to believe,” said Mike Pittman, who oversees the three state wildlife management areas that form the nucleus of Texas’ bighorn sheep program. “We used to bust our tails trying to see 100 sheep in the Sierra Diablo Mountains because that meant we had what we considered a viable population.”

This year’s survey recorded more than 400 bighorn sheep in the Sierra Diablos, birthplace of the restoration effort more than 60 years ago after more than 11,000 acres were acquired by the state as a sanctuary for the last remaining bighorn.

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. Due largely to unregulated hunting, bighorn numbers dwindled to about 500, according to surveys conducted in 1903.

Protective measures for bighorn sheep began as early as 1903 with the enactment of a hunting prohibition; however, changing land use caused numbers to decline to an estimated 35 sheep by 1945. The last reported sighting of a native bighorn sheep occurred in October 1958 on the Sierra Diablo WMA. Biologists believe the last native Texas bighorns were gone by the early 1960s.

With the help of private landowners willing to protect bighorns and their habitat on their ranches, support from the Texas Bighorn Society and hunters, the desert bighorn sheep has made a comeback. Stocking of sheep obtained from other western states during the last two decades and transplanting animals into suitable habitat have nudged the natural recovery process.

“It’s been a long, slow progression,” said Pittman. “Bighorn sheep do not typically disperse as their populations grow, so expansion into new areas has taken time. But, we’re seeing a little movement.”

As herds grow, Pittman explained, the social structure evolves and populations become more stable. “There’s safety in numbers,” he noted. “It helps protect against predation and to ensure reproduction. There’s a lot of social interaction; the older ones teach the younger ones how to survive and the dominant ewes show the younger ones things like where the lambing areas are. There’s just a lot of learning dynamics that go on.”

One threat to the bighorn sheep that hasn’t gone away ironically comes from another sheep. The aoudad, or Barbary sheep, is an exotic species imported into Texas from northern Africa coincidentally about the same time the last known native bighorn sheep disappeared.

According to Pittman, aoudads aggressively compete with bighorns, and mule deer for that matter, for precious water and food supplies. They also carry diseases transmissible to bighorn sheep and will attempt to herd away bighorn ewes.

“It’s pretty hard country to live in anyway, but having to share it with an exotic ungulate like the aoudad, that makes it tough,” said Pittman.

Still, the desert bighorn has shown resilience that validates its reputation among big game species. Because they have such keen survival instincts, particularly sharp eyesight and the ability to traverse the most rugged remote areas, bighorn sheep are considered one of the toughest animals to hunt in North America.

As surplus rams are identified by wildlife biologists during population surveys, a select few hunting permits become available. “When a ram is seven to 10 years of age, we start to see changes in his behavior,” Pittman noted. “He becomes more reclusive from the herd and his physical appearance may be deteriorating. We know that he’s already contributed to the herd for several years. That’s what we consider a surplus animal.”

This year, 13 harvestable surplus rams were identified by biologists, also a new record high. Ten of the permits were issued to private landowners and three hunts will occur on TPWD managed lands.

As the Texas bighorn sheep population grows and matures, so have the quality of the harvested rams. Last January, a new state record bighorn measuring 184 points on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system was taken in the Beach Mountains.

Since 1988, when TPWD reinstated hunting for desert bighorns on an extremely conservative basis, 83 permits have been issued, of which 50 have gone to private landowners and 33 for public hunts, auctions and drawings. More than half of the rams harvested in Texas have qualified for the Boone and Crockett Club’s big game record book. Pittman explained that not all harvestable rams score well enough to make the record books; a broken horn, for example, would lead to a lower score.

“Regardless of the score, I don’t think we’ve ever had an unhappy hunter,” said Pittman. “They’re always tickled to death to harvest a Texas sheep regardless what it scores. They understand the significance of having a surplus ram available because it means the bighorns are doing well.”

The Texas Bighorn Society offers online visitors a chance to observe these animals in the wild via a satellite Web camera and a weather monitoring system near one of the watering holes constructed atop Elephant Mountain WMA.

In addition to the conservation work by Texas Bighorn Society members, hunter funded initiatives such as the Big Time Texas Hunts, sheep permit auctions, hunting license buyers, and the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration federal aid program have provided money for ongoing TPWD bighorn sheep research and management efforts.

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