WORLD Mountain Ungulates Conference Shows Concerns, Hope

“What the heck is a mountain ungulate?”

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.

Bighorns released as part of the Sierra El Alamo Project. (Photo Courtesy The Wild Sheep Foundation)

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.

Markhor are highly sought after by some hunters and the cost to hunt them is high. (Public Domain Photo)

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.

(Public Domain Photo)

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.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Early Hunter-Conservationist Legacy Lives On

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 brought protected status to dozens of then-dwindling North American animals.

Among the first listings were the red wolf, black-footed ferret and ivory-billed woodpecker.

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The red wolf was one of the first animals Endangered Species Act listings. These animals were part of the captive breeding program at the Texas Zoo in Victoria. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

Had the ESA been established in 1900, the American bison would have been listed along with the wild turkey and pronghorn. All of those are game animals now hunted across multiple states with thriving populations.

“It is unprecedented to have so many species come back in such a big way and it has everything to do with the value put on those species and their habitat by hunter-conservationists like our founder Teddy Roosevelt,” said Keith Balfourd with the Boone & Crockett Club.

Since 1900 bison bounced back from 1,000 to 300,000 and wild turkeys went from 30,000 to nearly seven million.

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Bison from Yellowstone were moved onto what is now the National Bison Range. Creating sanctuaries for wildlife was a cornerstone of early hunter-conservationist actions by groups like the Boone & Crockett Club. (USFWS Photo)

Pronghorns which fell below 20,000 animals now number more than a million.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Whitetail would not have been listed as “endangered” but their population stood at only 500,000 throughout the continent. Now it’s 15,000,000.

Elk were down to 40,000 and now there are more than a million.

Contrast that with the ivory-billed woodpecker which is functionally extinct and the red wolf that exists only through a very small captive-bred introduced population in North Carolina and in various zoos and wildlife centers.

Some ESA-listed animals like the bald eagle have had huge success stories but the rise of game populations managed for hunting rarely gets mentioned in the corporate wildlife media.

One of the first actions of dedicated hunter Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club was to push for the creation of Yellowstone National Park as it was one of the last intact ecosystems with abundant game.

“Roosevelt and the early proponents of Yellowstone faced many obstacles including mining, timber and railroad interests. But they prevailed and Yellowstone’s preservation made it possible to restore dwindling species to other areas,” Balfour said.

Elk from Yellowstone were transplanted to areas where they had been eliminated and so were bison.

As newly created game laws created protection for these animals their numbers began to multiply where they had been stocked. This quickly became the template for wildlife restoration in America.

The key reason for the wild turkey’s monumental increase was bringing excess birds from areas of abundance and releasing into zones with no birds. This practice continues today and has also been a cornerstone for the restoration of everything from bighorn sheep to gray wolves.

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Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials release eastern wild turkeys into the Pineywoods region where poaching and habitat loss have impacted their numbers. (Photo Steve Lightfoot/TPWD)

What Roosevelt, the early members of the Boone & Crockett Club and other early conservationists tapped into was that wildlife needed areas of sanctuary. And once you establish this, excess animals can be taken from there to areas of need.

To some it might seem ironic.

Hunters pushed for huge areas to be shut down to hunting and then helped create licensing systems that ensured hunting as restricted and managed by the government. On top of that they added licenses and excise taxes on sporting goods to fund conservation projects.

But these hunters knew without making sacrifices the animals they pursued would have been gone forever.

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Teddy Roosevelt was the founder of the Boone & Crockett Club and one of the early hunter-conservationists that changed wildlife conservation forever.

They were visionaries and the pioneering work they did gave hope that wildlife could continue to thrive in the face of growing human population and industrialization. It is not a perfect system but it works better than anything else on the planet thus far.

Many have had a hand in wildlife conservation in North America but few have had the impact of early hunter-conservationists like Roosevelt and the Boone & Crockett Club.

Their legacy lives on-in the woods, on the mountains and across the fruited plain.

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.

Pursuing The Higher Calling Of Mountain Wildlife