Last week I had the incredible privilege of visiting Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA) south of Alpine, TX.
Benny Benavidez with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) escorted me to the top of Elephant Mountain on a quest to photograph desert bighorn sheep along with mule deer and other wildlife for a series of articles.
There will be a major magazine feature coming soon specifically about the bighorns of Elephant Mountain WMA. I will provide details here upon publication. You can check out my story “Desert Homecoming” about the Texas desert bighorn restoration program in the Nov./Dec. edition of Sports Afield.
Until then enjoy the above video and a few of the photos I took on this inspirational trip.
This place embodies wildlife conservation and is the epicenter of Texas’ desert bighorn sheep restoration.
Again, I will have a major magazine feature on Elephant Mountain in the coming months and will post details here. I will also have more from this trip before year’s end.
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In March 2019 I began a quest to capture quality photographs of Rio Grande, Merriam’s, Eastern and Osceola turkeys-all within 2019.
The idea is to raise awareness to turkey conservation. I call this project Turkey Revolution!
Hunters (like myself) call this quest the Grand Slam.
And while I took a few hunts this year including bagging my first eastern in New York, this quest is to document with a camera these great birds and to share the experiences through my various media platforms like this blog, Texas Fish & Game, Newstalk AM 560 KLVI and The Wildlife Journalist®.
I happy to announce I wrapped up year one of this adventure in Colorado photographing Merriam’s turkeys.
I got photos of numerous birds there including a very special one-a cinnamon-colored bearded hen you can see a brief clip of in the video below.
Also check out this photo of another beautiful Merriam’s I found in Colorado and a shot of a distant flock I got on a return trip in October on a snow-covered mountain.
This has been a truly exciting adventure and 2020 looks to be equally as interesting as we are in touch with the top biologists, wildlife managers and hunters around the nation on the issue of turkeys.
The Sacramento River in northern California is magnificent.
With cool waters running from the Klamath Mountains in the shadow of magnificent Mount Shasta it flows over smooth, gray stones along wooded shorelines.
As I made my way up a game trail leading from the main river, a shocking scene unfolded before me.
Lying on the edge of the trail was a massive, dead blacktail buck.
With antlers that would make any hunter proud it was evident this buck had died within the last 24-36 hours.
For a moment I pondered if I might have come across a mountain lion’s kill but it was not buried and there were no marks in the neck. Upon closer examination it was evident coyotes had started eating the hind quarters but there was no sign they killed the buck.
There were also no gunshot wounds. Only a single hole with no exit wound could be found near the base of the neck and judging by the diameter it was made by the antlers of another buck.
It seems like this old buck met his match and I had been fortunate enough to get a glimpse before nature had its way and all of its parts went back into the ecosystem.
The blacktail is America’s forgotten deer.
Whitetail dominate conversations among hunters and wildlife managers and mule deer take up the slack but but blacktail barely make a blip on the radar.
Scientists believe blacktails split off the whitetails eons ago and at some point mule deer arose out of the blacktail.
There are two varieties of blacktail, the Columbia which can be found from California through Washington and the Sitka, which roams British Columbia and Alaska.
Blacktail are facing a number of issues in the Pacific Northwest ranging from an exotic louse introduced to the region in 1995 to loss of habitat and decline of quality forage in available habitat.
A 2018 report by the Mule Deer Working Group of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies features concerning observations from a majority of states and provinces in the blacktail’s range.
Oregon: Both mule deer and black-tailed deer are substantially below the long-term statewide management objectives and benchmarks.
Washington: Regional harvest trends indicate black-tailed deer in western Washington have decreased. Loss of black-tailed deer habitat due to encroaching human development continues to be a concern.
British Columbia: Predation from wolves and cougars on black-tailed deer continues to be a concern in most areas as well as the need for effective measures to conserve high quality habitat. Black-tailed deer buck harvest has dropped by approximately half since the early 1990s.
California’s population seems to be stable but habitat problems proven in other states seem to be rearing its head there. Alaska’s numbers have faced ups and downs but seem to be holding steady overall.
Things are changing quickly in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and it is my opinion that blacktail and their close cousins the mule deer are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.
What happens to them is an indicator of what is happening at a much larger level ecologically and I have committed to monitoring this issue.
Finding this massive buck inspired a deeper look at blacktails and gave me an even deeper appreciation for these majestic forest dwellers.
The blessing of have numerous media platforms is the ability to get conservation messages on mountain wildlife out to a diverse group of people.
When a Texas Fish & Game columnist was not able to turn in a column due to an emergency, I used the space to the readership informed on mountain goat conservation and the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance.
Mountain goats are truly fascinating creatures who deserve more attention from hunters and those who simply enjoy seeing wildlife.
We will be doing more on mountain goats and other mountain wildlife through a series of expeditions as well as continual communication with the top people at the private, state, tribal and federal level of wildlife management.
Read this article in the Nov. 2019 edition of Texas Fish & Game and don’t forget to check out the podcast with Pete Muennich, founder of the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance we posted here a couple of weeks ago.
It was obvious she knew I was a stranger in her rocky domain and I suspected her to bolt at any time.
But as clacking sounded from the rocks below, she broke the stare and looked down.
Up came her baby, a gorgeous Rocky Mountain bighorn born this spring and already masterfully moving up through this gorgeous and treacherous gorge.
After the lamb came up, eight more bighorns moved up into the plains above the gorge. It was an incredible sight and is proof of New Mexico’s hard work to see its bighorn populations increase.
According to Nicole Tatman, Big Game Program Manager for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (Game & Fish), the state has populations of both Rocky Mountain and desert bighorns.
“We actively manage both herds and are always evaluating populations and areas where we can translocate sheep from abundant herds into areas that need more or that currently do not have sheep,” Tatman said.
In 2018, Game & Fish officials released 40 desert bighorns in Alamogordo and over the last decade stockings of Rocky Mountain bighorns in the Rio Grande Gorge and near Bandelier National Monument have proven successful.
The state is able to conduct translocations from its own herd and has seen significant progress in its sheep program. According to Game & Fish officials their desert bighorn herd was an estimated 170 in 2001 and now sits at over 1,000. Rocky Mountain bighorn populations edge that out and are expanding into suitable habitat.
And suitable habitat can change.
The tragic Las Conchas fire that consumed more than 150,000 acres created treeless habitat in the mountains that is perfect for bighorns.
Controlled fire is a practice that benefits sheep along with other wildlife like New Mexico’s Merriam’s turkeys, so it is interesting to see that even after something as catastrophic as that fire, hope can arise.
I plan to do more expeditions into New Mexico in search of bighorns in the next year, focusing both on the desert and Rocky Mountain herds.
Just before the sheep I found disappeared into their rocky habitat, a young ram tried to make a move on an older ewe. You could tell it wasn’t quite his time yet but the instincts are there.
And those instincts to reproduce, persevere and expand will keep hope alive for New Mexico’s bighorns in the coming years.
When discussing issues impacting bighorn sheep in the United States, three main issues dominate the conversation.
Domestic Sheep Disease Transference
And those should be the three primary concerns but there is a growing threat in the Western United States.
Originally brought over by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, feral hogs have taken a foothold in 31 states and there is no question they will eventually move into all of the Lower 48.
According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), feral hogs are a major threat to wildlife through water pollution.
“Water polluted from feral swine wallowing can be contaminated with parasites and bacteria such as giardia, salmonella, and pathogenic E. coli that could be transmitted to humans and other animals. This can happen when feral swine use an agricultural water source, such as an irrigation pond…”
They noted since hogs lack sweat glands, wallowing in mud and water is an instinctual behavior necessary for them to maintain a healthy body temperature.
“Unfortunately this behavior has cascading impacts, not only to water quality in individual streams, ponds, and wetlands, but to entire watersheds and ecosystems.”
Looking at a current distribution map, it is easy to see hogs are already established in the entirety of desert bighorn habitat in Texas and California and are also growing in numbers in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon.
In drought years in particular hogs will impact ponds, stock tanks, streams and guzzlers. These of course are crucial to bighorns and other wildlife.
Feral hogs can also carry pseudorabies.
According to USDA officials, pseudorabies is a disease of swine that can also affect cattle, dogs, cats, sheep, and goats.
“Pseudorabies virus (PRV) is a contagious herpesvirus that causes reproductive problems, (abortion, stillbirths), respiratory problems and occasional deaths in breeding and finishing hogs. Infected newborn pigs may exhibit central nervous system clinical signs.”
It is typically spread through direct contact but there are other ways transmission can occur.
“If present on inanimate objects, such as boots, clothing, feed, trucks, and equipment, the virus can also spread from herd to herd and farm to farm.”
Could hogs transfer PRV to domestic sheep that in turn transfer to bighorns?
And that’s a frightening prospect for animals already facing great challenges.
Another potential threat from hogs is predation.
According to officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, “wild hogs may prey on fawns, young lambs, and kid goats.”
There is no question hogs could prey on bighorn lambs, especially desert bighorn lambs in the early days of their life. I have found no concrete evidence of hog/wild sheep predation but it remains a possibility.
I will dig more into hog predation on other ungulates in another post but for now just consider what has been presented here.
No one thought 30 years ago feral hogs would now be hunted in New Jersey and more hogs would be killed by hunters in Texas than whitetails.
Could a growing population of hogs in the western United States put more stress on bighorn populations?
I believe it is a possibility, especially the water pollution and disease aspects.