Bighorn Sheep Permit Nets $102,000

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Amidst a sagging economy and tightening budgets, a wildlife restoration project in West Texas just got a raise. The Texas Bighorn Society auctioned off a Desert Bighorn Sheep permit for $102,000 last weekend to Glenn Thurman from Mesquite, Texas during its annual fundraiser. The bid is the most ever for a Texas sheep, and 100 percent of the record sum will go toward bighorn sheep restoration in Texas.

This is the society's first time to auction a permit donated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Previous permits auctioned by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, a private conservation organization, went for as much as $85,000. Ninety percent of the revenue generated through FNAWS auctions went toward bighorn restoration efforts in Texas.

Although bighorn sheep numbers have slowly increased to about 500 today, the battle to return this majestic game animal to its historic range in far West Texas is not yet over.

"We are presently shooting for late-1800s era population estimates of about 1,500 animals," said Clay Brewer, bighorn program leader for TPWD.

It's a wildlife success story. The sheep were once gone from the Trans-Pecos Mountains, relics of a time before western civilization. Like much of the wildlife across America, in the early 1900s, bighorn sheep began to succumb to unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

A hunting prohibition in 1903 slowed the decline, but changing land use continued to bring the population down. Bighorn sheep numbers decreased to 500 in the early 1900s. In 1945, there were around 35 left, and in 1958 came the last documented sighting of a native Texas bighorn in the Sierra Diablo Mountains. By the 1960s, they were gone.

But state and federal wildlife agencies teamed up with private conservation groups, particularly the Texas Bighorn Society, to successfully reintroduce bighorn sheep. Other conservation efforts such as habitat improvements, restoring and maintaining open travel corridors, intensive monitoring and studies to improve management strategies have proved helpful.

"Numbers are continuing to climb," Brewer said.

TPWD biologists determine how many permits are available each year based on the number of harvestable rams observed during annual helicopter surveys. Six were available for the 2002-03 hunting season, tying the record set during the previous season. With the recent addition of more than $100,000 for restoration and management, it looks like TPWD might be a little closer to helping bighorn sheep make a complete return.

In addition, Clay Brewer and Mike Pittman of the Wildlife Division were awarded the Texas Bighorn Society President's Award at their recent banquet and fund-raiser. This is the first time any TPWD employee has won the award.