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.
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.
The unmistakable silhouette of a bull bison (Bison bison) caught my attention.
Enshrouded in a rainy mist, the curving horns, broad shoulders and massive hump were a perfect picture of nature’s strength.
Seeing bison, here in Yellowstone National Park was not surprising. After all it is the epicenter of their remaining wild range.
Seeing one near a mountain’s peak at nearly 10,000 feet elevation however was not expected.
I ventured on this particular range in search of bighorn sheep and instead found bison and in this case a rather large one.
The story of the bison in North America is a well-documented example of tragedy and triumph.
A government-subsidized push to slaughter them to remove the lifeblood of the plain’s tribes pushed through the 1800s like a freight train.
With deadly proficiency they decimated the herd from 30 million to an estimated 325.
My generation’s view of bison and their habitat mainly comes from the iconic film Dances with Wolves.
Besides introducing the Lakota word for bison”Tatanka” into the vernacular it also gave us the idea that American buffalo are a creature of the flat lands.
The Academy award-winning movie was filmed on plains in South Dakota and Wyoming.
After my Yellowstone encounter, I began looking at locations of wild bison herds and found many are in mountainous areas.
There is the Yellowstone herd that ventures into the high country and bison in the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs in Utah and other adjoining ranges.
Native Americans used to drive the animals off of cliffs to kill them for food and other provision. Historians call these areas “buffalo jumps”.
The highest known site is at 11,000 feet in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.
I never did find a bighorn on the trip but I had an incredible time seeing bison on the mountain and also in the valley below.
Before my time at Yellowstone was up, I saw a large herd of bison in the Lamar Valley. They were 3/4 of a mile away but I decided to shoot photos with my 400 mm lens anyway.
After a few shots, i decided to take out my Leupold 10X 42 binoculars and count the herd.
I counted 386.
That was more bison than existed in the United States at one point in the 1800s.
It was an emotional moment as it hit me we almost lost these great animals and that visionary hunter-conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club helped save Yellowstone by making it a national park and the bison contained within.
I am grateful we now have as many as 500,000 bison throughout North America and am inspired by plans to put wild herds back into their former range.
Thank God for the bison on the plains and on the mountains.
Chester Moore, Jr.
(NOTE: I will be attending Bison On the Edge, a conference in Santa Fe, NM Oct. 28-Nov. 2. It is hosted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Pueblo of Pojoaque and will focus on bison restoration among other topics. Be on the lookout for reports from the event here at Higher Calling.)
An Instagram follower asked this after me posting about attending the 7th World Mountain Ungulates Conference in Bozeman, Mont.
And it is a good question.
Ungulate, after all, is sort of a strange word.
The quick explanation is an ungulate is an animal with hooves and a “mountain ungulate” is any of the variety of sheep, goats, deer and antelope that inhabit the hills and highlands of the world.
And Sept. 10-13 The Wild Sheep Foundation along with partners like Safari Club International Foundation brought together researchers from throughout North America and around the world to report on the latest findings and ponder questions of mountain ungulate management.
Researchers and managers from Mexico spoke of forward-thinking and effective desert bighorn sheep restoration in the state of Sonora. The Sierra El Alamo project spearheaded by landowner Javier Artee and family and The Wild Sheep Foundation has seen nearly 100 bighorns restored in a former hotbed for the species.
Tayler Lasharr from the University of Wyoming detailed a study on the issue on whether current harvest practices for bighorns are evolutionarily sustainable.
It was a hot topic of the event and was touched on in several presentations.
This particular study concluded that “…While harvest regimes are an important consideration, horn growth of harvested male mountain sheep has remained largely stable, indicating that evolutionary changes are an unlikely consequence of harvest in most of North America.”
Manzoor Qureshi of Gilgit, Pakistant presented “Trophy Hunting As Sustainable Use And Conservation Tool” and dealt specifically with markhor which are highly prized by hunters around the world.
It was noted hunters have paid upwards of $100,000 for markhor there and the country was also looking to build non-consumptive wildlife-based tourism from the presence of snow leopards and other wildlife.
The hunter’s claim that money from hunting goes back into local communities was questioned by some of the presenters during Q&A sessions.
And while no definitive answers were given, as to actual percentages that stay in villages and rural communities, anecdotally most conceded that hunter dollars were a boon to conservation and a barrier between wildlife and poachers.
Questions on equitable dispensation of hunter dollars remained.
Not all presenters dealt with hunting-centric issues.
Tal Halevy of Ben Gurion University of the Negeve in Israel for example spoke on Nubian ibex moving into cities and villages and becoming accustomed to people.
It was surprising to hear that more than half of the Nubian ibex population dwells in Israel and that these typically shy cliff-dwellers were showing an ability to adapt to populated areas.
Predation was a hot topic with an opening address focusing on changing behavior in North American wolves and their impact on wildlife and presentations addressing cougar and snow leopard predation on ungulates.
As would be expected, opinions in the room differed on predators but tempers never flared, although they might have sparkled a time or two.
Recapping the whole conference would be a foolish endeavor as it was simply too detailed and in-depth to give justice here.
My mission is to give my perspective as a wildlife journalist who is equally be at home with a rifle (or bow) in my hands as he is reporting on mountain ungulate management.
The following are my takeaways:
*Mountain sheep hunters in particular are serious about getting management right. They have no problem questioning management from a scientific level and are willing to adjust if necessary.
*On the same token, mountain sheep (and goat) hunters and related conservation organizations are the ones funding the vast majority of management of these species. There is little money in North American fish and wildlife departments to fund these initiatives, much less in poorer Asian countries. The current global hunting system is not perfect, but if it falls because of political pressure, mountain ungulate populations will suffer in many areas-greatly.
*Predator management in relation to ungulates will likely be the single greatest challenge facing the North American wildlife community. With the scandal that came with the “Cecil The Lion” story and a genuine ignorance on predators by the American public, dealing with increasing wolf numbers and cougars in particular will be a monumental challenge going forward.
*Genetics is opening a new level of understanding of these magnificent creatures. And it may very well be a key to saving them. An attempt in Washington to create a strain of domestic sheep free from diseases communicable to bighorns could help ease some conflicts between federal land grazers and wild sheep managers.
The 7th World Mountain Ungulates Conference was a remarkable event that brought together scientists, wildlife managers, landowners, conservationists, hunters and non-hunters.
It was a gathering that shows while there are many differences when it comes to wildlife of the highlands, there are talented people doing great things to us conserve them.
Seeing that long was worth the trip from Texas to Montana but of course seeing a grizzly sow with cubs in Yellowstone before the conference began wasn’t bad either.
Both inspired me to report more on the creatures that live in and around the mountains of the world.