Category Archives: Bighorns

COVID-19 And The Wild Sheep Decline: An Interesting Parallel

The impact of COVID-19, the coronavirus on humanity, is nothing short of historic.

While the death toll has not and hopefully will not reach the levels of the Spanish flu of 1918, the potential is there, and the grip it has on government, commerce, and private citizens is unprecedented.

That’s why I can’t help but make parallels between COVID-19 and the near-catastrophic decline of wild sheep of the 1800s.

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The author photographed this bighorn at 12,000 feet in an area where grazing is restricted but these sheep don’t stay here all the time. Moving into grazing areas is a highly dangerous proposition. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

When Lewis & Clark set out on their epic expedition, there were around two million wild sheep in North America. By 1900, there were fewer than 25,000 according to some estimates.

And while it would be easy to blame it on unregulated hunting and market killing which no doubt had some impact, by far the biggest killer was pneumonia.

Coming from domestic sheep, it hit wild herds as they co-mingled in the valleys and mountains during the westward expansion of European settlement. Millions of sheep died, and if it were not for conscientious hunters and fish and game departments around the nation, there would likely be no wild sheep left today.

Listen to Chester Moore discuss this issue and give some inspiration on wild sheep conservation at his new podcast “Higher Calling”.

It’s a story few have heard outside of wild sheep hunting and biologist circles, but now is the time.

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Notice the mountains in the background of this sheep lot. Have wild sheep mingled with herds in this area? (Public Domain Photo)

The decline of wild sheep is second only to the government-sponsored bison slaughter in the depth of impact on a species in North America.

Humans are now quarantined, and in effect, bighorns are in many areas.

In 2016, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) officials killed six bighorns because backpackers saw them co-mingling with domestic sheep. The bacterial form of pneumonia can be brought back to the herd and transmitted to lambs.

“When you have the lambs dying, it’s hard to build a population,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski in The Durango Herald.

“As wildlife managers, we look at populations, not individual animals. In this case, we know an individual animal could spread the disease to the larger herd, and then we have a bigger problem.”

This is not an uncommon practice in wild sheep management.

While translocations, strict herd management, and grazing restrictions have brought sheep numbers continent-wide into the 150-175,000 range, pneumonia is still the most significant threat. Still, there are no specials on Animal Planet or Nat Geo Wild or any other mainstream media outlets. This pandemic has been going on with wild sheep for 150 years, and only the hunting community, fish and game agencies, and biologists seem to care.

The focus should now be on saving people and the economies of the world, but there is space to teach a valuable lesson on wildlife conservation. There has never been a point in recent history where this particular story of wild sheep has such a great chance to touch the hearts of millions of wildlife enthusiasts.

During the downtime from work and school, people are looking for things to occupy their time and inspired, informative media on some of the beautiful animals in North America can help fill some of that void.

That is what this post is all about. I’m doing my best to let people know that when the dust settles on COVID-19 (and me and my family are praying daily that will happen soon), sheep will still have their own pandemic to face.

Concerned conservationists have done a remarkable job building herds throughout North America, but these conservationists are aging quickly, and new blood needs to step up to the plate.

Maybe something good that can come out of this tragedy is that some young person is motivated to get involved with sheep conservation. Perhaps being isolated, afraid of mingling with others and under the potential threat of death itself because of an unseen force will inspire action.

Sheep, of course, have no way to conceptualize these things, but they don’t need to when caring conservationists are in place in fish and game departments, conservation groups, and halls of the legislature.

COVID-19 may be momentarily stealing our freedoms, but it can’t rob the wild and enduring spirit of those thoughtful enough to make a bold stand for bighorns and their thinhorn cousins.

That force is as majestic as the sheep themselves.

Chester Moore, Jr.

 

COVID-19, Wild Sheep & Chester’s New Podcast

Join The Wildlife Journalist® and award-wining conservationist Chester Moore as he discusses the connection between what we are experiencing in this pandemic setting and what nearly wiped out wild sheep in America in the 1800s.

Also hear a a heartfelt story of how Chester and his Dad bonded over hunting scrapbooks and how it pointed him toward a higher calling of wildlife conservation.

Listen below.

Wildlife Journalist Honored For Bighorn Writings

Wildlife journalist Chester Moore has been honored for his writings on bighorn sheep hunting and conservation.

He won first place for the “Outdoors Column ” category in the Texas Outdoor Writers Association Excellence in Craft awards for his bighorn sheep story entitled “New Life For New Mexico’s Bighorns”. The story appeared at Higher Calling and in the Wild Sheep Foundation’s Mountain Minutes newsletter.

Moore at home with his two “Excellence In Craft” awards.

He also received a second place award in the “Feature” category for his “Desert Homecoming” story in Sports Afield that detailed the comeback of Texas’ desert bighorn herd. 

“I’ve been doing a lot on wild sheep, trying to get the word out on their conservation needs and the absolute triumph that hunter-based conservation has been for all wild sheep in North America. It’s a real honor to be recognized for these writings.”

Moore is a staunch supporter of sheep and mountain wildlife conservation is a member of The Wild Sheep Foundation, Texas Bighorn Society and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society as well as the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance. He is also a member of The Houston Safari Club Foundation and National Wild Turkey Federation.

Additionally, in January at the National Wild Turkey Federation-Texas state convention Moore was awarded the “Advocatus Magni” award for his work as an advocate for wild turkey conservation.

Chester won the “Advocatus Magni Award” from the National Wild Turkey Federation for his work as an advocate of wild turkey conservation.

“This is such a tremendous honor,” Moore said.

“Wild turkeys are a passion of mine and I believe if we get turkey conservation right all forest species will benefit. Even wild sheep benefit from certain turkey enhancement projects like controlled burning. To get an award like this is truly inspiring.”

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.