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West Texas Icons

The loss of three colleagues leaves a void in a critical bighorn restoration team.

Froylan Hernandez got a call August 8 that the helicopter conducting bighorn sheep surveys was late for refueling. He was worried, but he wasn’t too worried. There were lots of reasons the crew could be delayed.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department crew was on a morning survey flight, the first of the day at Black Gap Wildlife Management Area east of Big Bend National Park. They were due to wrap up work at Black Gap later that day before moving on to the next mountain range to continue the annual aerial survey of bighorn sheep populations in West Texas.

When wildlife biologist Cody McEntire, who was stationed at the Black Gap refueling trailer, saw a plume of smoke, Hernandez thought that could be explained, too. He didn’t want to let himself believe the worst.

 Courtesy Charles Post

Froylan Hernandez is the bighorn sheep program leader.

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

A bighorn sheep is released at Big Bend Ranch State park.

The state of bighorns

The restoration of desert bighorn sheep has been one of the landmark wildlife achievements of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s crucial conservation work, with far-reaching effects that branch out to multiple wildlife species in West Texas.

In the 1800s, as many as 3,000 bighorns roamed 15-16 mountain ranges in West Texas. By the 1940s, their numbers had dwindled to a few dozen, devastated by introduced diseases, habitat changes and unregulated hunting. By the 1960s, they were gone from Texas.

With their prominent curled horns, muscular bodies and surefooted hooves, bighorn sheep are an iconic species of the desert Southwest, and their absence left a void in the Texas mountains.

“It’s a big, majestic animal,” says Mark Garrett, project leader for the Trans-Pecos wildlife management areas. “But they’re also really delicate. We saw that in the extirpation of the species in the state of Texas.”

Recovery efforts carried out in the past few decades have restored the regal animals to Texas mountains.

“Currently we have 11 distinct mountain ranges occupied by bighorns and 1,500 animals in the state,” says Hernandez, TPWD’s bighorn sheep program leader. “We are halfway there. Our goal is to have 3,000 animals in all the appropriate habitat.”

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

Bighorn workers and volunteers work with a ram during a capture-and-release.

Running late

Hernandez knew that a helicopter being late from a survey was not always a reason to be alarmed.

“When I got the call, I went through the whole process,” says Hernandez, who was at the Alpine airport, an hour and a half drive from Black Gap. “Are they late? It’s not that big a deal.”

The people aboard the helicopter — a contract pilot, wildlife biologist Dewey Stockbridge, wildlife technician Brandon White and veterinarian Dr. Bob Dittmar — were not just surveying bighorns but also taking tissue samples from invasive aoudad sheep to monitor for diseases they might transmit to bighorns.

“If you come upon a group of aoudad, and you set down and take samples, that can take 30-40 minutes,” Hernandez says. “When I got the call, they were about 45 minutes too long. OK, they’re late.”

The plume of smoke seen by McEntire added to the weight of his worry. But he knew there could be reasons for that, too.

“We’re on the border,” he says. “My hope was that maybe just somebody that morning came through and they lit a fire and it got out of control and it was burning.”

 Courtesy Charles Post

Dewey Stockbridge (left) wrangles a bighorn ram during a relocation effort.

 Courtesy Charles Post

Brandon White and Dr. Bob Dittmar (center and right) take measurements and samples from a bighorn.

Bighorn restoration

Desert bighorn sheep have been one of the primary drivers of land acquisition and habitat restoration in West Texas. The three wildlife management areas in the Trans-Pecos, consisting of almost 138,000 acres, were all acquired for the purpose of bighorn sheep recovery.

“Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area was acquired in 1945, the first WMA acquired in the state,” Garrett says. “It was acquired as a sanctuary for the last remaining free-ranging native desert bighorn sheep. Black Gap was acquired in 1948 — the second and largest WMA in the state. It was acquired for the specific purpose of desert bighorn sheep restoration.”

Elephant Mountain, the third West Texas WMA, was donated in 1985 for desert bighorn sheep recovery. It has become the primary source of bighorns used in recent restoration and translocation efforts.

If you do good things for bighorns, you’ll benefit other native species as well.

“They are part of a healthy ecosystem,” Hernandez says. “If they’re doing well, it’s a good sign that the ecosystem is doing well.”

Attempts at bighorn restoration began in the 1950s. Early efforts met with little success. TPWD built propagation pens at Sierra Diablo and a 400-acre enclosure at Black Gap and brought in bighorns from states such as Arizona, Utah and Nevada. TPWD conducted several bighorn releases, but the populations never really took hold.

The program found its footing in the 1980s with successful releases at Sierra Diablo and the Van Horn and Baylor mountains, helped by private landowners and the tireless efforts of the Texas Bighorn Society.

In 2002, when the first aerial surveys took place, about 350 wild bighorn sheep roamed across seven mountain ranges. Sustainable populations were starting to be established.

2010 marked the start of a more active phase of relocations. Forty-six bighorns were captured at Elephant Mountain and moved to the Bofecillos Mountains of Big Bend Ranch State Park to re-establish a population there.

“Since 2010, we’ve been able to establish bighorns in areas that had been void of sheep for 60 years — three distinct ranges,” Hernandez says. “Every year since 2010 we’ve done some kind of capture, whether for relocation purposes, restoration purposes or disease monitoring.”

Desert bighorn sheep are a conservation success story, but one with stops and starts, unending challenges and a tremendous number of obstacles.

“Those challenges present back then are still with us today,” he says. “They will continue to be present in the future. It is a success story, but we can’t let our guard down. If we do, we’ll go back a few steps.”

 Courtesy Charles Post

A bighorn ram is loaded into a trailer to be released elsewhere.

 Courtesy Charles Post

High-country bighorn habitat in West Texas.

Taking action

At the Alpine airport, Hernandez was fueling up a trailer for the helicopter surveys coming in the next few days. His growing worries finally prompted him to take action. He saw Cade Woodward, a pilot who has partnered with TPWD in desert big game management for several years, returning in his helicopter.

“When he flew in, I explained the situation and asked him if he would take me up in the air and go search, just a quick search,” Hernandez says. “He agreed.”

They quickly flew the 85 miles to Black Gap.

“Once we were there, I looked in the direction where they should have been flying, and I saw just a plume of smoke,” Hernandez says. “It didn’t look like anything major. When we got closer, I couldn’t see anything. My heart lifted a little. I saw a burn patch, but it appeared to be nothing serious. Then Cade said he saw a tail boom. When I saw the tail boom and nothing else, my heart sank. It was a gut punch. It was a gut punch, for sure.”

Surveys from the air

TPWD’s aerial bighorn surveys take place each year during August. For those who work with bighorn sheep, it’s a highlight of the job.

“Essentially, it’s a monthlong effort,” Hernandez says. “It’s all helicopter work. Most of the time we have two observers, sometimes three. We begin at the bottom third of the mountain, systematically contour up, back and forth, till we get to the top, making note of all the animals, all bighorns that we see. We’ll document ewes, lambs and rams. With rams, we have an additional step, categorizing them based on age and horn growth.”

Observers have a GPS-equipped tablet for entering data. They typically do three flights a day: early morning, midmorning and early afternoon, with refueling stops in between. The flights take place over a 21- to 25-day period and cover the 11 mountain ranges where the bighorns live.

For the observers, it’s not just a chance to see wild bighorns and appreciate the results of their hard work, but also an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the animals and their habitat.

“It is one of the highlights of my year, getting up in the air and looking at sheep,” Hernandez says. “Not just looking at bighorns but looking at the landscape and other animals as well, how everything is connected. When you look at the landscape at ground level, it means one thing. Once you start hiking into the mountains and canyons, you’re able to connect another dot. When you get up in the air and look at it from a bird’s-eye view, you get to connect all the dots together. You’re able to appreciate it better.”

 Chase Fountain | TPWD

Bighorns scamper away after being released.

 Courtesy Charles Post

A bighorn skull and horns.

The main focus of the flights is counting sheep, but staff also use the flights for management of exotic species, mainly aoudads, and for disease monitoring. Aoudads, a Barbary sheep imported from North Africa, compete against native bighorns for food, water and territory in the desert landscape.

The timing of the flights in August has a basis in biology. That’s when the bighorns form their biggest herds, and it’s a lot easier to spot bighorns in big herds than individually.

“Numbers help, tremendously, and movement helps,” Garrett says. “They are deceptively good at camouflage.”

Lambs are born in spring and summer, so herds are at their peak in August.

“Everything that’s going to be born is born by July,” Hernandez says. “It’s also the beginning of the rut. That’s when rams are looking for ewes. The rams are moving around, going through ewe herds. In August everything comes together.”

Circling the scene

As Hernandez and Woodward flew over the crash site, Hernandez noticed a big boulder about 15 yards away.

“I could see somebody behind the boulder,” Hernandez says. “Immediately my heart shot up again. There’s somebody. I got excited because I saw somebody. I was fully expecting to see three other people behind the boulder. There was only one. When I found that there was only one, that’s when it really hit me. We’ve got guys missing.”

Stockbridge, White and Dittmar perished in the crash. The pilot survived but sustained multiple injuries.

When the helicopter touched down, Hernandez ran to the injured pilot, giving him water. As the fire got closer, he beat back the encroaching flames with branches. Soon, a Department of Public Safety helicopter arrived along with other help.

 Earl Nottingham | TPWD

Wildlife biologist Dewey Stockbridge

 Courtesy Charles Post

Wildlife technician Brandon White

 Courtesy John & Vicky Jefferson

Veterinarian Dr. Bob Dittmar.

Fallen heroes

“I don’t think you ever make sense of it,” Garrett says. “It doesn’t make sense. And never will. It’s a horrible tragedy. It took three amazing men away from their families, first and foremost. And it left a void in the agency that we’ll never be able to fill.”

Stockbridge and White worked together at Elephant Mountain WMA, outside Alpine, and Dittmar was TPWD’s staff veterinarian, based in Kerrville. They were all public servants, doing the work of the people of Texas for the benefit of the wildlife of Texas.

“No words can begin to express the depth of sadness we feel for the loss of our colleagues in this tragic accident,” said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director. “Wildlife conservation in Texas lost three of its finest as they so honorably and dutifully carried out their calling to help survey, monitor and protect the bighorns of their beloved West Texas mountains. We will miss Dewey, Brandon and Dr. Bob deeply and dearly.”

For Dittmar, 64, the morning flight was scheduled to be his last of the day, and maybe his career. He was retiring later that month. He had extended his stay in West Texas, savoring the last days of a productive and satisfying life’s work.

“Bob loved coming out here, loved working with bighorn sheep,” Garrett says. “Anytime we were doing big game work, when we were putting hands on animals, he was out here.”

Originally from Harper, “Dr. Bob” began work at TPWD in 2014 as the agency’s first wildlife veterinarian. He was responsible for developing and managing all aspects of the state’s wildlife health program, from nongame to big game species, including bighorn sheep, pronghorns and white-tailed deer. Dittmar made a difference that will positively impact the future of wildlife health, the veterinarians who will follow and the public’s enjoyment of wildlife. Dr. Bob and wife Bernadine were married nearly 41 years.

“Bob was not only one of the finest veterinarians you could have administer to your family pets, he was an even better person,” says friend Mark Lampson. “He will be sorely missed.”

White, 52, was an avid outdoorsman who began his career with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2016. Originally from Spur, White moved to Alpine to attend college. He fell in love with the desert and decided to stay. With a wide range of vocational skills and experiences, he brought with him a high level of craftsmanship and an unmatched work ethic.

“Brandon could literally do anything — plumbing to heavy equipment to carpentry to construction,” Garrett says. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore. You didn’t see Brandon without a smile on his face, no matter what he was doing.”

White also assisted with surveys and translocations for bighorn sheep and pronghorn. He leaves behind his wife Leticia and children.

McEntire had known White for years and encouraged him to work at TPWD.

“He had a passion for what he was doing out there,” McEntire says. “When he was hired on, after about a week, I asked him what he thought. He said, ‘I’m having a great time. When does the work start?’ He maintained that attitude through his time at Parks and Wildlife.”

Stockbridge, 36, was originally from Mason, and started working for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2005. He was an avid outdoorsman, hunting and fishing with friends and family. He and wife Shannon were raising two young children.

Stockbridge started as a wildlife tech at Black Gap and worked his way up to lead biologist at Elephant Mountain.

“I still remember when we hired Dewey,” Hernandez says. “I liked him immediately. He and I became real tight friends. I saw a lot of potential in him, and I took him under my wing. It’s hard to believe he’s not here. I still hear his voice and his laughter.”

When Hernandez took the job as bighorn leader, Stockbridge took Hernandez’s old job at Elephant Mountain.

“I’m proud to say he took what I had done at Elephant and took it several levels higher,” he says. “He started doing a lot more projects, more research projects, more habitat work. He took it where I had it and took it several notches above that.”

Dittmar, Stockbridge and White brought love and passion to all aspects of their work.

“They were doing something they loved. It just so happened that it was work,” Hernandez says. “They would have done it regardless of whether it was work. It was something they loved.”

Their deaths prompted an outpouring of grief and support across West Texas and the whole state and even the country.

“You can really see the impact these guys had,” Garrett says. “I got calls, cards from people I don’t know, from hunters who were out here recently or years ago. They definitely had an impact on people as well as on wildlife.

“When you encountered these guys, you remembered them. It could have been a $150,000 auction hunt for desert bighorn sheep or a free mule deer youth hunt, and they brought the same enthusiasm and passion for both. I think that’s why they had such an impact.”

Russell Roe is the managing editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.

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