Texas Bighorn Sheep Population Tops 800 Mark
Nearly a century ago, wildlife biologists estimated there were about 500 desert bighorn sheep in Texas. Half a century later there were none. Today there are more than 800 of these majestic animals in the state and counting.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists recently completed their annual desert bighorn sheep counts and report populations continue to expand and flourish after years of restoration efforts.
The desert bighorn sheep was once prominent in the remote mountains of West Texas, with populations of more than 1,500 animals in the late 1800s. Due largely to unregulated hunting, bighorn numbers dwindled to about 500, according to the survey conducted by Vernon Bailey in 1903.
Protective measures for bighorn sheep began as early as 1903 with the enactment of a hunting prohibition; however, changing land use caused numbers to decline to an estimated 35 sheep by 1945. The last reported sighting of a native bighorn sheep occurred in October 1958 on the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area. Biologists believe the last native Texas bighorns were gone by the early 1960s.
Efforts to restore bighorns in Texas began in 1954 with the development of a cooperative agreement among state and federal wildlife agencies and private conservation groups. Through landowner and Texas Bighorn Society support, remote mountains in the Trans-Pecos have been enhanced to meet the basic needs of the desert bighorn, including construction of numerous man-made water guzzlers. These capture the area's limited rainfall to provide more reliable water sources for sheep and other wildlife.
The Texas Bighorn Society offers online visitors a chance to observe these animals in the wild via a satellite Web camera and a weather monitoring system near one of these "drinkers" atop Elephant Mountain. To view bighorns in action, go to www.texasbighornsociety.org.
In addition to the conservation work by Texas Bighorn Society members, hunter funded initiatives such as the Big Time Texas Hunts, sheep permit auctions and the Sport Fish and Wildlife Restoration federal aid program have provided money for ongoing TPWD research and management efforts.
By conducting annual helicopter survey counts, TPWD biologists can ascertain not only how many animals are present, but also if there are surplus bighorn rams. The most recent survey documented 822 sheep.
This year's record sheep numbers will make possible a record 12 bighorn sheep hunting permits in Texas, well above the previous high of eight permits two seasons ago. Eight of the 12 Texas permits will be for sheep hunts on private land, illustrating how private land stewards are benefiting from the restoration effort.
"To anyone unfamiliar with the Texas bighorn sheep restoration program and big game hunting, the price tag for the right to hunt these magnificent animals may seem inflated," said Mike Berger, TPWD director of wildlife. "But it's the cause that fuels the bidding. These folks are investing in conservation."
Berger said the decision to offer the permits is based on evidence of additional surplus bighorn sheep observed during the annual aerial census surveys.
The rewards of the hunt aren't too shabby, either. Since 1988, when TPWD reinstated hunting for desert bighorns on an extremely conservative basis, more than 50 permits have been issued. More than half of the rams harvested in Texas have qualified for the Boone and Crockett Club's big game record book.