Category Archives: Bighorns

TX Bighorn Capture Inspires

Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA)—The chuffing sound of helicopter blades sounded faintly in the distance.

As a crowd of biologists and technicians from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD), Tech Tech, and Sul Ross University, among others, looked upward, the helicopter appeared.

Flying above the 6,2000-foot peak of Elephant Mountain in this remote area of Brewster County, it looked blurry at first.

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A pair of bighorns is safely brought to the ground as the sun rises over Elephant Mountain in Brewster County, TX. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

But upon approach, details became apparent, and so did it’s cargo.

Two desert bighorn sheep blindfolded and secured in safety gear hung from the helicopter and were soon gently placed on the ground.

After detachment, the ground crew quickly moved the sheep to tables to thoroughly examine them.

They gave the sheep everything from fecal examinations to blood tests and took tiny ear clippings for DNA records.

“I can’t believe I’m getting to see all of this,” said Reannah Hollaway, a first-year wildlife student at Texas Tech.

Reannah is part of our Wild Wishes® program that grants wildlife encounters to youth struggling with critical illness or loss of a parent or sibling.

As a high school senior, Reannah’s initial wish was to encounter sea turtles. But while attending her first school of choice in 2018, she reflected on her wish experience and decided to go into the conservation field.

In fall 2019, she transferred to Texas Tech and now dreams of working on behalf of wildlife.

When TPWD”s Project Leader of Trans Pecos WMAs, Mark Garrett, approached her with a GPS collar in hand, she wasn’t quite sure what was happening.

But as officials brought in a big ram, she realized she was getting to put collar it.

“This will give us much information on its movements and allow us a better understanding of what these sheep are doing after we move them to Black Gap Wildlife WMA,” Garrett said.

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Reannah fits a radio collar on a desert bighorn ram. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

After overcoming a few understandable nerves, Hollaway enthusiastically fitted the collar and watched as the crew moved the ram into a transport trailer.

In the course of the next few hours, she took ear clippings and helped take a blood sample from several ewes.

Desert bighorn sheep restoration in Texas in many ways centers on Elephant Mountain WMA. Donated to TPWD in 1986 for sheep propagation, it has been highly productive for desert bighorns, and when the area reaches carrying capacity, TPWD officials move part of the herd to other locations that could use a population boost.

These efforts supported by groups like the Texas Bighorn Society, Wild Sheep Foundation, and Dallas Safari Club have seen bighorns reach a population of around 1,500 in the Trans Pecos.

And after years of importing sheep from states like Nevada, TPWD offcials are now able to use Texas sheep to stock available habitat.

These ewes are tagged, collared and ready for release at Black Gap WMA. (Photo by Reannah Hollaway)

“It’s exciting to see how so many people have rallied around the bighorn program, and we are always excited to be able to take sheep from one place to another to expand their range in the Trans Pecos,” said Froylan Hernandez Texas desert bighorn program leader.

While scanning the area for photo opportunities, I noticed Reannah looking into one of the transport trailers.

“He’s beautiful, and his number is 8,” she said, referring to the identifying ear tag.

“I think I’ll name him Brian. He looks like a Brian.”

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“Brian” the bighorn-aka No. 8 is trailered and ready to be released at Black Gap WMA. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

The young lady looked at the gorgeous ram in awe, and in her eyes, I could see the same wonder that has kept me enthused about wildlife since I was a little boy.

When business is slow, assignments are challenging, and real-life issues settle in, these moments are what keeps someone who works with wildlife motivated.

As me, my wife Lisa and daughter Faith made the eight-hour trek from Alpine to the Houston area to bring Reannah home; the happenings of the day dominated the conversation.

The sheep were beautiful.

The people were kind and gracious.

The helicopter operation was incredible to witness.

And Reannah getting to take part in this process was unforgettable and inspired a young lady to move forward in her studies and life with enthusiasm.

Ancient pictographs created by first nations people like the Jornada Mogollon of Texas and Fremont Culture of Utah adorn rock walls and caves in the desert Southwest.

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Bighorn images inscribed on rocks in Utah by the Fremont culture. (Photo courtesy National Park Service)

Among these rock paintings are striking images of bighorn rams.

It is not clear whether these first nations people hunted sheep, but their reverence was evident.

Today desert bighorns still inspire.

Whether it is wildlife journalists like myself, wildlife biologists, hunters, landowners, or an aspiring student like Reannah, these animals leave an imprint on the human spirit.

Their mere presences move us to make the world a better place for sheep and other wildlife.

Chester Moore, Jr.

The Wildlife Of Elephant Mountain

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.

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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.

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A desert mule deer doe showed no fear as we drove up the mountain. Be on the lookout for a special report on Texas mule deer coming soon here at Higher Calling. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)
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We saw numerous young mule deer bucks on and around the mountain. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)
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This javelina (collared peccary) was super shy but I managed to at least get this photo. These animals are one of the most unique animals in Texas and common in the Trans Pecos. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)
rams on elephant mountain
This was what the trip was all about. I managed to get numerous photos of this herd of bighorns. This herd of one big ram, a bunch of ewes and a few lambs is about half of what the entire Texas population was in 1976. Texas now has around 1,500 bighorns which is a great tribute to the hard work of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and groups like the Texas Bighorn Society and The Wild Sheep Foundation. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

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.

Subscribe by entering your email address at the top right of this page for comprehensive coverage of mountain wildlife in North America.

Chester Moore, Jr.

New Life For New Mexico’s Bighorns

If looks could kill I would have been a dead man.

The ewe fixated on me with a focused intensity.

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.

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Bighorn lambs can weigh as much as 70 pounds during their first winter. This one was climbing up to find its mother. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

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.

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Chances are this young ram won’t be contributing his genetic this year but he sure showed an interest in this ewe. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.

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.

Chester Moore, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden Bighorn Threat?

When discussing issues impacting bighorn sheep in the United States, three main issues dominate the conversation.

  1. Domestic Sheep Disease Transference
  2. Predation
  3. Habitat Loss/Degradation

And those should be the three primary concerns but there is a growing threat in the Western United States.

Feral hogs.

Hogs polluted all water sources they use to some level. (Public Domain Photo)

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?

Maybe.

And that’s a frightening prospect for animals already facing great challenges.

Desert bighorns in particular could be subject to issues with feral hogs during droughts when all water sources in their range are incredibly valuable. Polluted waterholes could be the source of problem for sheep. (Public Domain Photo)

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.

I’ll let you know more as soon as I do.

Chester Moore, Jr.

License For Bighorns

The desert bighorn sheep is now officially a celebrity in Texas.

A new conservation license plate features a stunning bighorn image and those who purchase them for $30 get the satisfaction of knowing $22 goes directly to sheep conservation efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).

The new plate design is a first for TPWD.

“Our longtime plate artist, Clemente Guzman, retired, so we decided to use a photograph of a majestic Bighorn Sheep proudly looking into the desert—and perhaps its future,” said Janis Johnson with the TPWD Conservation License Plate program.

“We conducted an online survey with thousands of hunters and conservationists and had them rank several designs for a Bighorn Sheep plate and a Pronghorn plate. The Bighorn Sheep was the overwhelming favorite.”

Diehard hunters and wildlife enthusiasts know bighorns are native to Texas. The mainstream of those user groups however have no idea about Texas rich bighorn legacy and the amazing conservation efforts it took to get them back on the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.

Wild sheep have been a source of interest to me since I clipped out a statistics chart from a TPWD magazine during my childhood and put it in my dream hunt scrapbook.

I did so to serve as a reminder that we should always put in more than we take.

The author's scrapbook page from a 1976 Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine shows a stunning difference in game populations over a good portion of the 20th Century. Bighorns have made a massive comeback since then due to diligent conservation efforts.
The author’s scrapbook page from a 1976 Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine shows a stunning difference in game populations over a good portion of the 20th Century. Bighorns have made a massive comeback since then due to diligent conservation efforts.

That graph showed 100 bighorns in Texas in 1928 and 40 in 1976, just a few years before I made this clipping.

For a six year old who was already knew about the Grand Slam of sheep this was frightening.

Now according to TPWD Desert Bighorn Program Leader Froylan Hernandez there are around, 1,500 which is at historical highs.

Desert bighorn sheep in Texas (Photo Courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)

TPWD’s leadership along with the vision of the Texas Bighorn Society and help from the Wild Sheep Foundation have helped make this a modern-day conservation success story of epic proportions.

But the future is uncertain.

It will take a broader awareness of their presence in the arid Trans Pecos to support things like proper domestic sheep grazing practices so their diseases do not impact the easily infected bighorns.

This license plate along with the media blitz that has introduced it will go a long way and creating a path for bighorns to find their way into the mainstream Texas wildlife consciousness.

New generations must learn of these great animals and be inspired to help them.

Through our Kingdom Zoo Wildlife Center me and my wife Lisa work with children in the foster system and those with terminal illness and who have lost a parent or sibling. We give them the wildlife encounter of their dreams through our Wild Wishes program.

The license plate has given me a chance to integrate wild sheep conservation awareness into our programs.

When I showed a group of kids at foster children’s home e a monster set Gobi argali horns I asked them what type of animal they came from.

The author teaches children at a foster home about wild sheep conservation.

A couple said deer, while one said antelope.

Most of the others said it was a ram.

When told that a ram is a male of a particular kind of animal none of them knew it was a sheep.

Several expectedly thought rams were male goats. (This seems to be a common belief-even among adults.)

When I told them we had wild rams in Texas in the form of the desert bighorn sheep they lit up. And they thought it was even cooler that we will have a special conservation license plate to help them.

That’s just a tiny example of the kind of conversations the new license plate will generate.

Impactful conservation takes awareness, money and creativity and all of those are present in this project.

In the long run the bighorns of Texas will benefit greatly from this small step toward the mainstream.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Wild Sheep foundation-Gray Thornton (PodCAST)

Did you know bighorn sheep are slowly moving back into Oklahoma?

Yep, Oklahoma.

How cool is that?

Have you ever heard of Asia’s Marco Polo Sheep-a massive mountain dweller that lives exclusively in elevations of 12-15,000 feet?

Oh and by the way , the rams sport horns upwards of 60 inches in length.

Learn about this and much, much more in the podcast of my radio program “Moore Outdoors” (May 25 edition) as I interview Gray Thornton, President & CEO of The Wild Sheep Foundation.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Wild sheep have a deep personal meaning in my life dating back to early childhood when I would sit with my Dad and cut out photos of wildlife from Sports Afield, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life and place them in a scrapbook.

Wild sheep and wild turkeys were my favorites.

This photo of a Stone sheep is one of many wild sheep photos in the author’s recently rediscovered childhood scrapbook. Since he cant this photo out of a Sports Afield Stone sheep have been his favorite wild sheep.

Dad passed away of natural causes on a hunting trip with me five years ago but the memories of sitting in his lap and clipping out those photos will never fade.

A recent discovery of one of these scrapbooks in a storage vault brought back a flood of emotions and reminded me that a love of wild sheep has been with me my whole life. Check out the podcast which is from one of the best radio broadcasts in “Moore Outdoors” 20 year history.

Listen to learn about wild sheep of the world and to be inspired by their amazing conservation story.

Chester Moore, Jr.