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.
There’s something about being in the mountains that cleanses the soul.
No matter what kind of baggage we bring from our day to day lives, being in the mountains brings peace.
And on the flip-side, encountering wildlife in the mountains can be the most exhiirating thing a person can experience.
As I type this from the deck of a cabin I’ll use as base camp for a few days, I’m still a bit jittery (in a good way). It’s from the adrenaline-infused meeting I had with a big bull elk and my camera.
This big boy had a bunch of cows cornered in a small lake and he let a younger bull know he wasn’t getting any play.
I was told the rut was over here but you couldn’t tell by today’s action. There was bugling, attempted mating and some straight up fighting.
Seeing this from the perspective of a bowhunter, it would have been about trying to get in and make a clean, ethical shot to score on some incredible, heart-healthy venison.
But with my photographer cap on, it was about capturing the vibe of what was going on. I think I did in a couple of shots.
Elk are truly a national treasure and to see them in such numbers and to get so close was an awesome experience. I’ve seen and photographed plenty of elk in the past but there was something special about this bull.
He had attitude and capturing that with my camera was a true blessing.
I have never done drugs of any kind but today I got high here in the Rocky Mountains.
The bugle of the elk and the stunning scenery took me to a higher place that will undoubtedly beckon me to return again and again.
The tracks were so fresh I expected to see their maker appear at any second.
Nearly as wide as my two hands combined and nearly as long as my foot there was no doubt these were left by a very large black bear.
I kept my camera ready as any encounter would be up close and personal.
In a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California, I was at a stretch of river where huge boulders lined the shores, creating a rugged maze.
It was wall to wall granite with the ground being a mix of smaller rock and sand.
The tracks that ended at a huge flat outcropping led me close to the river. The view was stunning and I took time to savor the moment but my quarry remained elusive.
An hour later I found myself a few hundred yards above this location.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught slight movement.
Through the binoculars what looked at first like a bush turned out to be a black bear standing as if something had caught its attention too.
I am not sure if it was the same bear whose tracks I had followed.
Perhaps it had caught scent I left behind but one thing is for sure. The chill that ran down my spine at that moment reminded me of why I pursue wildlife and on this occasion wildlife might have very well been pursuing me.
After all, I was in this majestic animal’s domain.
Ursus americanus is the most abundant bear on the planet with an estimated 600,000 scattered throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. They are a true wildlife conservation success story but not all is well.
Parts of their historic range are devoid of bear while some others are starting to see the first sign in decades.
My home state of Texas is a prime example.
Ursula americanus eremicus, the Mexican black bear, is protected from harvest in Mexico and over the last two decades they have been spilling into Texas from the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains.
Most of the population is centered around Big Bend National Park but there are verified bear sightings and road kills near Alpine and also as far east as Kerr County.
In fact, bear sightings in the Texas Hill Country have increased dramatically in recent years. One even paid fisheries biologists at the Heart of the Hills Hatchery near Ingram a visit-an area that hasn’t regularly had bear sightings in well over 100 years.
About 10 years ago, a man by the name of Al Weaver sent me a photo of a black bear he encountered while hog hunting with dogs.
The interesting part is that he was hog hunting near Bay City, TX in Matagorda County.
Bears inhabiting the Trans Pecos region near Big Bend National Park and slipping across the border from Louisiana and Arkansas into the Pineywoods are well documented but Bay City is far from these locations.
The dogs they were hunting with scared the bear into a tree and it was left alone while the hunt continued. The photo of this bear is above and as you can see it appears to be a a youngster.
It is most likely a male as young males will often travel far to start searching out mates but (male or female) how far did this one travel?
Lets say that bear entered Texas from Louisiana right at my home town of Orange coming across the Sabine River into the Blue Elbow Swamp which sits literally at the juncture of the Pineywoods and coastal marsh. This would also allow the closest access from Louisiana.
By car this is 155 miles which if you see the blue line would have the bear going through downtown Houston. That obviously did not happen. The straight path would lead it across the fifth largest bay system in the nation. That did not happen either.
The animal would have to at some point cross Interstate 10 or enter the wider spaces of the Sabine just south of Interstate 10 in Orange and maneuver through the coastal prairies, make its way around the Galveston Bay complex and down to Bay City.
What if the bear hailed from the Trans Pecos area-say somewhere near Big Bend in the Lajitas area? That’s a 651 mile drive for us and a 472 mile straight shot by air (or bear) covering all kinds of territory along the way from cities to hunting leases to wildlife refuges to international borders perhaps.
Some might argue this was a captive bear that was released but that is very unlikely. Another possibility this is an undocumented bear that was born somewhere in the middle perhaps in the Hill Country where sightings have spiked in recent years or even in the western Pineywoods or maybe along the coast somewhere.
Did you know there were bear hunting seasons as recently as the 1980s along the Texas coast? In my personal collection I have a hunting regulation book from 1979 that had a bear season in Chambers County and have seen others from subsequent years.
Were there really still a few bears along the coast at that time? Any scientific information is scant but it is an intriguing thought.
No matter where this bear came from its origins are interesting as they defy commonly held beliefs about bears in Texas.
This should serve as a reminder that nature still has plenty of surprises left and that bears can show up unexpectedly-even where no bears are known to roam.
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The Inspirational Voice Of Mountain & Forest Wildlife Conservation