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Counting Sheep

By Henry Chappell

Once extirpated from Texas, desert bighorn sheep numbers are slowly increasing, thanks to funding from hunters and efforts of field biologists.

I glance at Clay Brewer’s brisk steps, half expecting hooves instead of boots. We’re 200 yards from the truck, heading down a grassy slope toward the south rim of Elephant Mountain. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist glances over his shoulder, then slows a bit to wait for me. I consider myself in decent shape, but the loose rocks — perfectly sized for turning ankles — have my knees creaking like a dry windmill. The stiff, brittle-cold wind at our backs does little for my balance.

I stagger another 50 yards, then ease up to the rim. The mountain falls away 2,000 feet, an igneous mass of sheer faces, ledges and jumbled boulders. The desert floor stretches southward 14 miles to Santiago Peak and Mexico beyond.

Brewer hopes to show me a desert bighorn sheep. He hops on a fragile-looking outcrop while I fight the urge to hug a large, immovable object. He leans out, glassing the near-vertical slopes to our left and right.

“They could be right below us, and we’d never see them,” Brewer says. “We can’t lean out far enough.” At that, I move back a few feet, sit on a tuft of grass and jam my frozen hands into the pockets of my parka.

Brewer continues his search, occasionally tugging his cap down tight to keep it from blowing off. “Perfect sheep habitat,” he says. “They like the nastiest, roughest, rockiest, steepest places they can find.” I sit and think of bighorn petroglyphs and wonder how native people ever hunted wild sheep with stone-age weapons.

An hour later, we’re glassing the western slopes. We still haven’t seen a bighorn, but I’m gaining my mountain legs. The terrain seems less sheer than it did just a few minutes ago. I dangle my feet and notice the ledges that allow bighorns to scale several hundred feet in seconds. And there are handholds and footholds that might allow a hunter — one who lived in these mountains and hunted to eat — to creep within bow range.

The wind pounds my face, so cold that every breath hurts my teeth. Brewer wipes his watering eyes. “I’d hoped for an easy sighting this morning,” he says. “Looks like we might have to work at it.” He sniffs the air and points out a patch of churned ground amid the rocks, a bed scratched out by small hooves. “I smell sheep,” he says. I smell only desert grass and rock, but I believe him; for an instant, I’m tempted to drop to my hands and knees to sniff the bed.

Late morning, we’re thawing in the pickup. Brewer glasses a vast, gently rising slope to the east. He pauses. “Sheep. No question about it.” He hands me his 10-power binoculars then, using land features, guides me to a dark clump that reminds me of a tangled pile of deadwood. “See ’em? Little bunch of rams.”

“Maybe.” Surely I’m looking in the wrong place.

Brewer hands me a spotting scope, which I clamp to the passenger-side window. After some spastic adjustment, a splendid view of the clouds and a cursory study of a prickly pear 15 yards away, I get a better look at my woodpile. Something moves, and the tangle resolves into a jumble of heavy horns, thick, tawny necks and white rump patches. I tweak the focus ring. Ten rams lying in the sun. Most with full curls. At least 1,000 yards away. And they’re looking right back at me.

Bighorn sheep have lived in the desert mountains of the Southwest for at least 9,000 years. In less than 100 years, poaching, market hunting, net wire fencing and diseases introduced by domestic sheep wiped them out in Texas.

Biologists believe that in the late 1800s about 1,500 desert bighorns roamed the mountain ranges of far West Texas. In 1900, after several expeditions into the Trans-Pecos region, Vernon Bailey, chief naturalist with the U.S. Biological Survey, estimated Texas’ native bighorn population at 500. Legal hunting of bighorn sheep ended in 1903. By the mid-1940s the estimate stood at 35 animals.

Restoration efforts began in 1945, when Texas acquired Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area in Hudspeth and Culbertson counties as a sanctuary for the state’s remaining bighorn sheep. In 1954 the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Boone and Crockett Club, Wildlife Management Institute and Arizona Game and Fish Commission began cooperating to reverse the desert bighorn decline. But despite these 11th-hour efforts, the last documented sighting of a native Texas bighorn occurred in October 1958 on the Sierra Diablo. Biologists believe native bighorns were extirpated from Texas by the early 1960s.

As the native sheep population dwindled toward extinction, transplanted bighorns from other states offered the only hope for a viable population in Texas. From 1957 to 1959, TPWD stocked a 427-acre brood pasture at Black Gap WMA in Brewster County with 16 bighorns from Arizona. The herd increased to approximately 68 animals by 1970, then declined due to disease and predation. TPWD abandoned the operation at Black Gap WMA in 1978.

Meanwhile, from 1971 to 1978, three rams and five ewes from Black Gap were placed in an eight-acre pen on the Sierra Diablo WMA. From this nucleus, TPWD released seven sheep into the Sierra Diablo Mountains in 1973 and seven more in 1979.

TPWD’s bighorn program turned the corner in 1983, when Texas Bighorn Society members built and donated a new brood facility at Sierra Diablo WMA. Since then, more than 175 lambs have been raised and released into Texas’ mountains. In the late 1980s, wild-trapped bighorns from Utah and Nevada were released in the Van Horn and Baylor mountains.

In 1985, C.G. Johnson donated his 23,147-acre Elephant Mountain Ranch in Brewster County to the State of Texas to be used as a wildlife management area devoted to desert bighorn restoration and conservation. Elephant Mountain WMA is now home to about 130 sheep and provides the primary source of brood stock for other areas.

TPWD continues to transplant bighorns to suitable habitat. In December 2000, helicopter crews using net guns caught 45 sheep at Elephant Mountain WMA. The captured animals were blindfolded and hobbled to minimize stress, then flown to an awaiting team of biologists and veterinarians. After being examined and fitted with tracking collars, the bighorns were placed in trailers and hauled to Black Gap WMA for release. “We essentially doubled the Black Gap population,” Brewer says. “We hope this population will reach the threshold where it starts to sustain itself. Then we’ll have another source of brood stock.”

Today, about 500 wild, free-ranging desert bighorns roam seven Texas mountain ranges: the Baylor, Beach, Sierra Diablo, Sierra Vieja and Van Horn mountains and the Black Gap and Elephant Mountain wildlife management areas. A small population also has moved into some of the more remote areas of Big Bend National Park. Brewer also suspects that sheep inhabit the mountains between Black Gap and Elephant Mountain. TPWD is currently working with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to explore the possibility of restoring bighorns to the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas–New Mexico border.

About 94 percent of the land in Texas is private property. Brewer is quick to point out that landowner cooperation has been critical to the success of the desert bighorn program. “Without the support of West Texas landowners, sheep restoration would be virtually impossible,” he says.

As their name suggests, desert bighorns are perfectly adapted to the high, arid, sparsely vegetated desert mountains. The bighorn’s primary defenses against predators are keen eyesight, an unobstructed view and quick escape up steep slopes. Consequently, biologists consider the relatively brushy Davis Mountains unsuitable for sheep restoration.

Although the Trans-Pecos region has suffered drought for most of the past decade, bighorn numbers have increased while mule deer and pronghorn antelope numbers have fallen. Although evidence suggests that desert bighorns can survive without standing water, Brewer and his colleagues believe that guzzlers (artificial rainwater collection basins) help ensure that the small, isolated populations avoid severe drought-induced stress.

Bighorns are gregarious and loyal to their home ranges. Mixed bands of 15 or so rams and ewes are typical during spring and summer. During fall and winter, rams form bachelor groups while 40 or more ewes and lambs are common. In Texas, lambing usually occurs in January and February, though lambs are sometimes seen as early as November and as late as April. In the winter, lambs and ewes inhabit prime steep and rocky habitat while groups of rams use marginal habitat at lower elevations. Ewes typically give birth to one lamb, although Brewer suspects that twins occasionally occur.

In Texas, bighorns vary in color from light gray to tan with conspicuous white rump patches. Ewes tend toward lighter colors while rams grow darker with age. Adults range 30 to 39 inches at the shoulder. Rams average 160 pounds; ewes average 96 pounds. Mature rams (7 years old) have thick necks and carry massive, curled horns — sometimes fully curled and beyond; ewes have much thinner horns that rarely achieve a half curl.

How do bighorns run up nearly vertical rock slopes? In Biological Survey of Texas, Vernon Bailey’s description of the hooves of an old ram taken in the Guadalupe Mountains leaves little room for improvement:

“While the points and edges of the hoofs are of the hardest horn, the deep, rounded heels are soft and elastic — veritable rubber heels — with a semi-horny covering over a copious mass of tough, elastic, almost bloodless and nerveless tissue… It is easy to see how they would fit and cling to the smooth surface of a sloping rock where wholly hard hoofs like those of a horse would slip…”

Sheep restoration and conservation cost big money. Brewer minces no words about who pays the bill: “The bottom line is that hunters are responsible for restoring bighorn sheep in Texas.” Funding comes from four sources: the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program (Pittman-Robertson tax on sporting arms and ammunition), TPWD’s annual four-species Grand Slam hunt, donations by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) and donations by the Texas Bighorn Society.

TPWD issues sheep-hunting permits based on annual helicopter surveys of bighorn populations. Six permits were issued for the 2002-2003 hunting season. Four were state permits — two $10 permits awarded by drawing through TPWD’s Public Hunting Program, one awarded to FNAWS to be auctioned and another assigned to the Grand Slam Hunt. Two additional permits were awarded to landowners whose properties held sufficient bighorn populations.

As of February 2003, seven FNAWS auction permits have generated approximately $481,000 for the Texas desert bighorn program; serious sheep hunters routinely bid $40,000 or more for the coveted permits. Seven Grand Slam hunts have yielded another $585,000.

Texas bighorns gained their most ardent supporters in the early 1980s when a group of dedicated big game hunters formed the Texas Chapter of FNAWS and the Foundation for the Texas Bighorn Society. In 1985, the two groups merged to become the Texas Bighorn Society (TBS). Since its inception, the TBS has donated more than $1 million to the desert bighorn recovery effort. TBS members do more than open their checkbooks. Through annual work projects, members help build and maintain water guzzlers and other facilities, set up Web cams and assist with sheep transplants. Typically, materials, equipment and personnel must be flown by helicopter to remote work sites. The group also provides solar-powered telemetry collars and other research equipment.

“The Texas Bighorn Society is made up of all volunteers,” says the organization’s president, Kathy Boone. “We don’t have a single paid person.” On June 7, 2003, the TBS will auction its first desert bighorn hunting permit to raise money for bighorn restoration in Texas. “Twenty years ago when I started in the program, I never thought bighorn sheep would be hunted in Texas in my lifetime,” Boone says. "Now, to think that we’ve started hunting them and TPWD thinks highly enough of our organization to donate a permit — that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Clay Brewer stresses that Texas’ bighorn hunting isn’t just for those who can afford to bid on permits. “One of our goals is to make sure that the average hunter has a chance to draw a permit,” he says. “Of the four state permits we received this past year, three were for hunters who paid 10 bucks to enter a drawing. That’s important.”

Think the odds of winning aren’t worth the trouble? “I’m proof that anyone can get drawn,” says Mychal Murray. The Texas A&M graduate student won the 2002 drawing for a sheep hunt at Sierra Diablo. Just before Thanksgiving, he found himself clambering up steep slopes with TPWD biologists who served as guides. “It was incredible,” he says. “The guides are truly amazing. I was in good shape, but I was amazed at how hard those guys went all day long, day after day.”

Murray saw numerous sheep, but it took a tortuous, last-minute stalk on the third day of the hunt to get within range of a mature ram. Exhausted and out of breath, Murray took his trophy with a 200-yard shot. “It’s a good thing we found him when we did. He was in the gnarliest stuff we’d seen all week. I don’t think I could’ve gone another day.”

His advice to prospective sheep hunters? “I encourage everyone to apply. I send in my check and then I don’t worry about it. I don’t expect to get drawn, and that’s okay because I know the money goes toward conservation.”

Early afternoon, about halfway down the mountain, Brewer takes a rough road into a brushy draw. As he points out good sheep habitat, I spot five rams just above us. Brewer hits the brakes, and the sheep trot down the slope, heads high, sun glinting on their massive horns. They pass 60 yards from the truck, white rumps bobbing in the brush.

While Brewer sizes up their headgear, I think of his earlier comment: “Our job is to put sheep on the mountain.”

The rams stop for a moment to look back at us, then disappear into the desert scrub.

Plano writer Henry Chappell recovered from his Elephant Mountain expedition in about a week.

For More Information:

Texas Bighorn Society: <www.texasbighornsociety.org>

Foundation for North American Wild Sheep: <www.fnaws.org>

Boone and Crockett Club: <www.boone-crockett.org>

Sierra Diablo WMA is closed to the public except during scheduled hunts. Desert bighorn sheep can often be seen from the driving tour route on Elephant Mountain WMA. The Texas Bighorn Society Web page contains a link to a Web cam focused on a watering area on Elephant Mountain used by sheep. For further details, contact TPWD, (800) 792-1112, <www.tpwd.state.tx.us>.

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